Traditionally, we think about European power being built with ships and swords. However, new scholarship uncovers a more nuanced and complex picture. Today, 15 Minute history is joined by Mélanie Lamotte, a historian of the French Empire whose work demonstrates the role that sex, race and labor played in the global expansion of French power during the 17th and 18th centuries.
- Mélanie LamotteAssistant Professor of History and French at the University of Texas at Austin
- Benjamin WrightResearcher and Writer within the UT community
[00:00:00] Benjamin Wright: This is 15 Minute History, a podcast for educators, students, and anyone interested in history, featuring the minds and voices of the University of Texas at Austin.
we thought about European empires beginning at the tip of a sword, but while military might was undoubtedly a major factor in empire building, our guest today shows us how there are many, often surprising, ways empire is made. I’m joined today by Professor Mélanie Lamotte, a historian of the French Empire.
Her new book, tentatively titled, Making the French Empire, Sex, Race and Labour in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, will be published in the spring by Harvard University Press. Each of those words is very deliberately chosen. And today, Mel will talk us through how, in the 17th and 18th centuries, France built a global empire spanning the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, not only with swords and ships, but with sex, with race, and with labour.
In doing so, Mélanie brings new voices and new details into French history, something she takes pride in, and as a French person, something that has helped her renew a sense of pride in her nation and national history. We’ll end our discussion about how such an approach could benefit American history.
And indeed, American pride in its past. Mel, welcome to 50 Minute History. Thank you. So your new project focuses on the French Empire. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
[00:01:35] Mélanie Lamotte: Absolutely. So my book is basically the first pan imperial study of the French Empire in the English language, basically encompassing All of the French Empire in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.
And it focuses mostly on the ways people of non European ancestry contributed to the making of the French Empire. Because there is this assumption in the historiography that the French Empire was mostly built from the top by the French administration and French officials.
[00:02:03] Benjamin Wright: So I’m curious, when does your
[00:02:04] Mélanie Lamotte: story start?
So the story starts in 1608, in New France, when the French established a colony of Quebec. The first French colony established in the Indian Ocean was Fort Dauphin in Madagascar, and it was in the 1640s.
[00:02:20] Benjamin Wright: And the French motivation for expanding? Is there sort of power games with other European powers? Is there an economic incentive?
[00:02:27] Mélanie Lamotte: So there are lots of incentives. One of them is basically that the French were jealous of, especially the Spaniards and the Portuguese and the Dutch, who had already created vast empires. And especially when it comes to the Indian Ocean, they were jealous of the Portuguese and the Dutch because they were making a lot of money out of the spices and the textiles that they were already trading in South Asia for a while.
[00:02:51] Benjamin Wright: Now, This period in French history, you’ve got the Thirtieth War, you’ve got the Foreign Rebellion. Do you have sort of economic refugees from France factoring into how empire is growing?
[00:03:03] Mélanie Lamotte: Yes, absolutely. So there were different programs where they were trying to take orphans, prostitutes, prisoners, basically the rejects of French society to take them to the colonies.
The most famous one took place in the early 18th century when those people were taken to Louisiana, which was very. poorly populated.
[00:03:24] Benjamin Wright: Right. So just to get a sense of the length and breadth of this empire, your book title mentions both oceans. So this is a huge expanse geographically.
[00:03:33] Mélanie Lamotte: It was a huge empire actually.
So first there were the North American colonies. So basically the French, when they claimed French Louisiana, they basically claimed One third of the United States today. So all of the Mississippi basin from the Gulf of Mexico up to the French colony of New France in Canada. And in addition to that, they colonized several Caribbean islands, including Saint Domingue, but not only.
A lot of tiny island in the Lesser Antilles as well, including Guadeloupe where I’m from and Martinique. They also had trading outposts.
So it’s a huge
[00:04:16] Benjamin Wright: empire, but it must be quite a precarious one and quite a lonely one as well.
[00:04:20] Mélanie Lamotte: Yes, this is a very good point. So there’s actually a lot of scholars, including, for example, Kenneth Banks or James Pritchard, who’ve claimed that there was no French empire in this period because the French Marine was extremely weak.
There were very few. few French ships traveling across the empire. And they are claimed that as a result, the French crown could not exercise its power across such a disconnected empire and across its colonies. But I’m showing in the introduction of my book that actually the French empire was increasingly connected, especially from the late 17th century by the French trading companies.
Especially from the early 18th century by the French company of the Indies, which had lots of vessels, which completed approximately 2, 500 voyages in the early modern period across the empire. So this is sort
[00:05:11] Benjamin Wright: of a French version of the East India Company, would that be a fair
[00:05:13] Mélanie Lamotte: comparison? Except that that company performed more voyages than the British East India Company actually.
[00:05:20] Benjamin Wright: So with such a diffuse empire, it’s hard to exercise central control. How do things operate? How do
[00:05:28] Mélanie Lamotte: things get done? Yes. So there was the issue of connections and so relying on privateers, relying on the trading companies was a solution to connect. colonies together. But what I’m showing is that there was also a disconnect between French policies, how they wanted to build an empire, and how the empire actually built itself on the ground.
So the French at first in the 17th century, they wanted to create an empire by using assimilation policies, basically by promoting evangelization, the Frenchification of indigenous people in Madagascar and New France. And by promoting interracial marriages between indigenous people in New France, Madagascar, and other French colonies in the French.
In the end, people didn’t actually get married so much in the Catholic Church, but they still intermingled. A lot of people converted to Catholicism, especially in the Southwest Indian Ocean. on the Isle of Madagascar. And those populations, they helped the French to populate their empire, those like mixed population born to those interracial marriages.
And kind of like, one of my arguments is that through those interracial relationships, they created like the people who were born from those relationships labored. For the French, they became the plantation owners of the Southwest Indian Ocean. It’s also something that you see in the Caribbean, especially in Saint Domingue and Martinique, and that’s how they basically managed to populate an empire.
[00:06:57] Benjamin Wright: this seems a radically different approach from the English empire in the Atlantic.
[00:07:01] Mélanie Lamotte: So a big difference between the French and the British empire is that the French sent much fewer settlers to the North American colonies than the French did. When La Salle claimed Louisiana for France, it was just, there were just a few dozen French people across all of Louisiana.
And so, yes, it made a difference in comparison to the British colonies. But for example, that policy of assimilation that I was talking about, it’s something that you also see in other empires, including in New Spain. At the very beginning, they were trying to evangelize those people, but also to promote intermarriages and de Hispanization of the people.
[00:07:41] Benjamin Wright: there’s still a sort of European cultural chauvinism. Oh, yes, absolutely. Surprise, surprise. How is slavery operating in the French Empire?
[00:07:50] Mélanie Lamotte: So slavery. existed in the French empire from the very beginning. So first there was Native American slavery in the colony of New France, which was the first French colony was founded in 1608.
Native American slavery existed before the French came. to the French empire. And there is this historian called Brett Rushforth who showed how the French managed to form alliances that allowed them to build an empire in North America through this trade in slave captives. And then African slaves. were taken to the French Americas from the early 17th century.
And so there was this black slavery, this African slavery in the Atlantic. But something that I also discuss in my book is that slavery also existed in the Indian Ocean, but it was a different form of slavery because the slaves who were taken to Isle of France and Isle of France, which is now called Mauritius, and Isle Bourbon, which is now La Réunion.
They came from South Asia, they came from East Africa, and some of them came from West Africa as well. And a lot of them, the majority of them actually came from Madagascar. So the mix of culture was very different in the Indian Ocean, but slavery also existed
[00:09:03] Benjamin Wright: there. It would seem from the title of your book, you’re saying that sex, race, and labor are ways that you make empire.
They’re essential to the construction of an empire. And this seems very different from the traditional view is that it takes, you know, gun germs and steel, or that empire is made at the end of a bayonet. How does sex, race, and labor factor into how empire is made?
[00:09:22] Mélanie Lamotte: Yeah, so that’s a very good question. So my point in this book is basically that sex was the primary maker of vampires and specifically interracial unions and relationships inside and outside of wedlock.
So when it comes to sex, sex contributed to the making of vampire in different ways. For example, It allowed the French to form alliances with indigenous people, not only in North America, we already know about that, but also in West Africa and in the Southwest Indian Ocean, especially in Madagascar and in French India.
It also allowed the French to advance evangelization. As I discussed earlier, in terms of like the assimilation projects, really big part of the French imperial plan, not just in Illinois, in the Illinois country, we already knew about that, but also in Madagascar. And most importantly, those interracial relationships, they allowed the French to populate their empire.
And. Nowhere was it more true than on the southwestern isle of Bourbon in the Indian Ocean. Eventually, the children born to those mixed relationships, they were assimilated into the white population and they were actually classified as white. So that’s for sex. And then for race, I show in my book that there was a rigidification of imperial policies.
And that the French began to issue intermarriage bans and banning intersexual relationships and also trying to prevent the social economic ascendancy of the people of non European ancestry around the turn of the beginning of the 18th century as a result of different factors. One of them was the massive expansion of black slavery across the empire and that those racial policies had.
different consequences. One of them was to dissuade a lot of white males to marry women of color, and instead to have relationships with them outside of marriage. And the consequence of that is that these women didn’t have the financial security that they would have had in a regular form of marriage, you know, through inheritance, for example.
[00:11:32] Benjamin Wright: married becomes a form of patriarchy. Exactly.
[00:11:34] Mélanie Lamotte: Yes. So
[00:11:36] Benjamin Wright: there’s a change of racial attitudes throughout the period you’re studying. And this is caused by the lucrative nature of the expanding slavery
[00:11:46] Mélanie Lamotte: industry. It is one of the main reasons. Yes. There are other factors. It’s a complicated history, but for example, one of them is the fact that indigenous people in Madagascar and New France reacted poorly to the French assimilation system and then basically French observers.
started saying, Oh, well, they cannot convert to Catholicism. We cannot make French. It’s biological. We cannot change them. And that also played a part into this idea that, uh, because you know, race is like this idea that certain traits are rigid and can be transmitted through the generations. so that those people were dangerous and that the French couldn’t associate with them.
[00:12:25] Benjamin Wright: seems to be coming later in that sort of first, there are more flexible, looser attitudes. That’s incredible. So let’s finish with labor. What was labor’s role? So
[00:12:36] Mélanie Lamotte: it might sound a little bit cliche to talk about labor. The reason why I decided to work on labor is because there is this historiography in France, looking at the impact of colonial changes.
a colonial trade on France, on the culture of France, on the economy of France. And scholars in France have argued that basically colonial trade had no impact on the French economy, that it did not, that French did not benefit from colonial trade. And obviously, you know, this goes against a very long.
tradition of scholars such as Du Bois, uh, even if we think about the slave trade and slavery, we think about Eric Williams. And so what I wanted to do was to shift the focus from the numbers and the big figures to daily life of people and how they actually built the empire. So I’m focusing, for example, on infrastructures.
I’m focusing on, obviously, the production of crops and different like service professions. I’m looking at slaves, but also at free people and at their contribution.
[00:13:38] Benjamin Wright: So your story ends with the Seven Years War. Why did you choose to end your project there?
[00:13:42] Mélanie Lamotte: That’s a good question. So a lot of things changed after the Seven Years War.
So basically the French Empire exploded completely. And France lost some of its major colonies, including Canada, New France, and Louisiana. And then there was a complete reconfiguration after the war where France really decided to focus more on its smaller colonies and not to expand too much. The whole policy shifted.
But something that I’m showing in the epilogue of my book is that there was continuity with what happened next. For example, this assimilation project of basically, I call it the whitening practice, where white males will have sex with women of color, and then the children would be assimilated to the white population.
There were programs, for example, there was a program in where they would willingly try to have women of color from West Africa and wealthy women of color, free women of color, have relationship with poor white men to create what they called a colony of white colonists through their children. And so this is just one of the continuities, but there are many of them.
[00:14:52] Benjamin Wright: Now, Mel, this project has a personal resonance with you. Can you talk us through that a little bit?
[00:14:57] Mélanie Lamotte: Yeah. So the reason why I started working on this like bottom up approach of the French empire was because back in France, we didn’t have black people. In the nineties, when I grew up in France in the nineties and early year two thousands, they were not in history books.
They were not in school curricula. They were not in the public discourse. And it was really hard for me to grow up without, uh, role models, inspiring figures. even though there were plenty of them. And so by writing this book from the bottom up and really trying to tell the story of Black people, their labor, their daily lives, I just wanted to find those people and to tell their stories, to make them appear finally in history books.
And the second reason why I decided to work on French colonialism, uh, more generally speaking is because I started conducting some research about my family history back in Guadeloupe. And I discovered that my ancestor was actually a slave who worked on the sugarcane plantation on the Isle of Guadeloupe in the late 18th century.
And then I started. Like researching the history of this kid, Kiddy, who actually lived a hundred years. So he was quite famous on the island. And then, yes, I created a genealogical tree and discovered that there were only seven years separating me from my slave ancestor. So it’s, uh, it’s for me, it’s also a very vivid and, uh, history.
And yes, just looking at my family, I also see the ramification. And so just memory, it’s also something that we experience in the present, right? The consequences of, of slavery and this past.
[00:16:32] Benjamin Wright: Well, we’re here in Texas, there’s incredible historical resources in Austin, and slavery is such a big part of the story.
What would your advice be for scholars of Texas history as they approach sources and try to find the voice of those who have been left out of the story? So my
[00:16:52] Mélanie Lamotte: answer to your question would be that they shouldn’t be discouraged by some of the political discourse that’s going on here in Texas about, you know, all of that history coming from a very different place as a foreigner.
I was kind of shocked by the climate here. Like this is a country that extremely, it is extremely divided and Some politicians think that talking about this part of our history will make people ashamed of being American. And so my answer to them is that on the contrary, addressing this complicated history in a way that honor African American people and Native American people will make American people proud of being American.
And as you say, the resources here to write about this history are huge. And unlike the French, Texas has plenty of slave narratives. And so you have a lot of material to write this kind of history.
[00:17:45] Benjamin Wright: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us. Merci beaucoup.
[00:17:49] Mélanie Lamotte: Thank you so much.
[00:17:52] Benjamin Wright: 15 Minute History is produced at the University of Texas at Austin in partnership with Not Even Past and Hemispheres in the College of Liberal Arts.
It is recorded at the Leitz Development Studio. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, follow us on social media, and visit our website for more information and resources. See y’all next week.