De-centering the Early Modern French Empire – Décentrer l’histoire de l’empire colonial français à l’époque moderne

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the international conference “De-centering the Early Modern French Empire – Décentrer l’histoire de l’empire colonial français à l’époque moderne”. This event will take place at the German Historical Institute in Paris from April 15th to April 16th 2019. We have talked to the conveners, Dorit Brixius, Benjamin Steiner and Damien Tricoire, about the upcoming event.

Please find more information on the conference here.

In the conference announcement you state that you aim to re-evaluate different decentralizing approaches in colonial history in relation to the early modern French colonial realm. Why do you think a reassessment is necessary?

For quite a while, French colonial history has remained the “poorer cousin” of its British or Iberian counterparts. While studies in the latter contexts have shown that “empire” has lost its value as an analytical tool, only slowly did new approaches enter historiography concerned with French colonies prior to 1800. It was at the biannual conference of early modernists in Germany in Wolfenbüttel in 2017 (12. Arbeitstagung der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Frühe Neuzeit im Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands) where we met in a panel on polycentric approaches to the early modern Spanish and Portuguese colonies. After that, we began to think about our own work on early modern colonial France. Here, the idea for this conference was born.

In your opinion, what is the advantage of concentrating on different types of spaces instead of on the interplay between an imperial center and its periphery?

The potential of these approaches lies in identifying different types of space and connections between these spaces instead of relying on the assumption of a strong interplay between an imperial center and its periphery. Focusing on micro-histories, connected approaches to empire can help to better understand what “empire” meant at a local level. In doing so, studies have shown the weakness of national narratives and have deconstructed the presumed superiority of colonizers . We hope that combining connected approaches of the French colonies can make up for the fragility of histories that centre on institutions, progress, and success. Moreover, we seek to understand the colonial past from different angles that might help to overcome the focus on national narratives more broadly.

Which approaches and focusses will the participants be looking at during the conference?

Case studies on French colonies in the Indo-Pacific and the Atlantic will examine the plurality of geographical and cultural spaces in order to reconstruct the entanglements between world regions and their mutual perceptions. We have invited contributions that discuss decentralization of colonial administration, commerce, religion, cross-cultural interaction, and knowledge production in the context of early modern French colonial attempts. The individual papers cover local and global approaches to distinct regions, ranging from Pondicherry to Louisiana, from Mauritius to Gorée, from Madagascar to the Mediterranean, and beyond.

Questions: Charlotte Jahnz


About the Conveners

Dorit Brixius is a postdoc-fellow at the Max Weber Foundation’s German Historical Institute Paris. She holds a PhD in History from the European University Institute. Following a socio-cultural approach to the history of science, her research interests include global history and the history of knowledge and healing with a special focus on France and its Indian Ocean colonies (17th and 18th century). She has recently co-edited a special issue of the British Journal for the History of Science (2018) on “Science and Islands in the Indo-Pacific worlds“.

Benjamin Steiner is a historian working at the University of Munich. He received his PhD from this university and habilitated in Frankfurt am Main. His research is dedicated to the history of the French relations in early modern Africa. In this context he published a book on the colonial administration under Louis XIV entitled “Colberts Afrika. Eine Wissens- und Begegnungsgeschichte in Afrika im Zeitalter Ludwigs XIV.” (2015). Forthcoming is a book on different locales of the French empire with the title “Building the French empire, 1600-1800: Locality, colonialism and material culture”.

Damien Tricoire is a lecturer at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. Among others, he has published a monograph criticizing narratives making the Enlightenment the origins of modernity (“Falsche Freunde“), another exploring the French-Malagasy encounters and the production of knowledge in the Enlightenment era (“Der koloniale Traum“), and he has edited a volume about Enlightenment colonialism (“Enlightened Colonialism“).


Citation: Dorit Brixius, Benjamin Steiner and Damien Tricoire, De-centering the Early Modern French Empire – Décentrer l’histoire de l’empire colonial français à l’époque moderne, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.03.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18040.


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