Science and colonies in 18th century France

Colbert presenting the members of the Royal Academy of Sciences to Louis XIV in 1667. Henri Testelin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I recently attended a lecture about science and colonial development in 18th century France (when France was a monarchy, referred to as “the Old Regime”). I kind of landed there by chance, partly because I thought the title of the talk was interesting, partly because I did not quite read the description of the lecture carefully.

As the event was organized by the New York Academy of Sciences (or so I thought), I was expecting a lecture in the style of the previous lectures I had attended at the Academy: a big room, a reasonably large audience , and a lecture/discussion targeting an audience with some degree of scientific education or interest.

Not at all. After finally finding my way in one of the buildings of New York University, I ended up on the doorstep of what looked like a seminar room that could not hold more than about 30 people. At that time, some 15 minutes before the beginning of the lecture, there were only 8-10 people in the room, sitting around a large table. A quick survey look was enough to realize that these people were very likely scholars well versed in the subject of the talk and that I did not quite fit in (imagine a few men in suit-tweed-grayish hair and a few women in dress suit-scarf-ponytail neatly tied up, and me, on the doorstep, in jeans-sweater-hair ruffled by the wind; I know it sounds like a stereotype, but I realized then that if these stereotypes existed, there was a reason for it).

My first reaction was to draw back. Not too far though, the seminar room was only separated from the elevator area by a small lobby. I hovered there for several minutes, hesitating, but in the end my curiosity carried the day and I chose to attend the conference – after all, it was as good an opportunity as another to learn something new.

By the time I got back in the room (this time actually entering it and taking a seat at the back), there were a few more people (and more variety in clothes as well as in age, with what I can only imagine were graduate students lowering the median age of the room). I should perhaps conclude from this sequence of events that I happen to have the punctuality of old academics, but let’s move on.

I am used to attending scientific lectures (biomedicine), and in general they consist of researchers presenting lots of data in a short time, showing slide after slide of graphs and pictures (results of experiments). So I was at first a bit disconcerted by the form and content of the present lecture. It seemed to be about introducing a model (the “colonial machine”), the historical context in which this model was to be understood, and discussing the views of the two lecturers about this aspect of French science and colonies. Of course, when I saw that the book recently published by the two speakers was being passed around, I realized that 1) most people in the room had probably already read that book, and 2) the lecture was to introduce the main themes of the book and if I wanted to know more, well, I could read the book.

I nevertheless did leave the conference with a few notes that I will now pass on here, for anyone who is interested. I thus learned that the case of France and its colonial development in the 18th century was of particular interest for scholars interested in the history of science for several reasons:

  • France was a major colonial power in the 1780’s (for example, France then controlled Saint Domingue – now Haiti – and thus one of the world’s largest production of coffee and sugar)
  • France was then a leading scientific power
  • France had then established a massive bureaucratic infrastructure, centralized around the King, that controlled not only the development of the colonies but also the scientific advances that enabled this development and stemmed from it.

This “colonial machine” was started in the 17th century, under Louis XIV, with his minister Colbert managing to establish control of the colonies by the royal administration and, at the same time, with the creation of several royal institutions framing scientific pursuits (for example the founding of the Royal Academy of Sciences in 1666 – now only the Academy of Sciences). Interactions between scientific advances and colonial development were thus facilitated and controlled by a massive bureaucracy that comprised political powers and scientific institutions (to cite a few: the King, The Royal Administration, The Minister of the Navy and the Colonies, the Maison du Roi, the Academy of Sciences, the Jardin du Roi, the Observatoire, the Médecins et Botanistes du Roi, etc).

The interactions between science and colonial development can be divided in three main areas:

  • cartography: necessary for navigation, the conquest and control of new territories, and using knowledge from advanced astronomy
  • medicine: colonies were situated in tropical areas where new diseases were encountered by the colonists; besides the knowledge derived from understanding these new diseases, there was a strategic interest for the political power to ensure that sailors, colonists and slaves remained in good health, as the development of the colonies and of their economic value depended upon it
  • botany and agronomy: colonies were full of new plant species to catalogue and domesticate, not to mention the economic worth of new plant species grown in the colonies (tobacco, sugar cane, cacao, indigo, cinnamon, etc).

The lecture ended with a short discussion of the limits of this “colonial machine”, heavily centralized and concentrating the political as well as scientific powers in a few hands. However I was a bit disappointed that the speakers did not bring up the question of how such a “colonial machine”, mingling political powers and scientific institutions, had impacted the development of science and research institutions in France over the next centuries, and their ties to political power.

For those interested, here are the references of the book published by the two lecturers: James E. McClellan III and François Regourd. The Colonial Machine : French Science and Overseas Expansion in the Old Regime. (De Diversis Artibus, number 87) Turnhout, Belgium : Brepols. 2011. ISBN: 978-2-503-53260-8

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