French History @ the IHR

French History @ IHR: David Andress on Globalizing French History in the Age of Revolutions

Date & Place: Monday 16 May, in the Wolfson Room NB02, IHR Basement, North block, Senate House

Speakers: Professor David Andress (Portsmouth)

Paper Title: Globalizing French History in the Age of Revolutions: necessary step, or step too far? (1763-1848)

Chair: Professor Colin Jones (QMUL)


The nation remains one of the most adaptable, creative, and dangerous appeals in political rhetoric. In its definition, we see the reflection of overlapping networks of power relationships and recognition, yet in moving beyond it we face overwhelming challenges: across groaning shelves of historical writing the ‘falseness’ of national identity has not sapped it of its power, nor undermined the effort with which its definition has been anxiously sought. In this fascinating paper, Professor David Andress offered insights from his current work in progress, in which he is wrestling with global history and the spectre of the nation in the Age of Revolutions. Andress discussed the ways in which he hoped to move beyond the French national framework, whilst also highlighting where it crept back into his study as a useful cipher for broader political and social developments.

One of the central problems which Andress posed was how to interrogate European domination in this period without unconsciously endorsing its own internal narrative, or setting it aside in favour of narratives of liberation. In contemporary studies of the French Revolution, for example, the Haitian Revolution has increasingly been addressed as an important historical hinge point in its own right; yet to render it as something wholly ‘of itself’ risks misunderstanding the complex and ferocious ways in which French power and French identities shaped the former slaves’ struggles. The global cannot, however, be placed as a backdrop to an ‘essential’ national narrative, which remains, and requires analysis as, a master-fiction. As a tonic, Andress proposed that some use might be found in what James C. Scott called ‘seeing like a state’ (whilst remaining aware of the inherent power relationships this represents), to set the nation as one aspect of a much wider global process. This could help explain French attempts to create a national image through its empire during the Age of Revolutions, and to see history on a global scale through broader (and more enduring) nationalist projects. France, in the Age of Revolution, was not bound by the ‘telos of the Hexagon’, and its imperial projects represented attempts to establish and perform Frenchness on a global scale. By focussing on the evolution of the project, and specifically by developing in-depth studies outside of the Métropole, opportunities arise to chart connections, networks and relationships which intersect only partially with the national framework.

In pursuing this, Andress looked in detail at two different colonial enterprises, and how the attempts to settle overseas territories defined French national identity at the far-flung peripheries of the European state. The first was the Kourou scheme, and the attempt to establish a ‘European’ settlement in French Guiana from the 1760s, and the second was the settling of Algeria from the 1840s. In both instances, settler populations were seen as emissaries of moral strength, underlying the racial focus of nationalism that was coded into the imperial project. Yet he also demonstrated the suppleness of national identity within these projects: in Guiana, other European settlers (for example Hungarians) were conjured into ‘Frenchness’ for the purposes of settling the colony. As around 9,000 settlers died, and all the 3,000 survivors were shipped back to France, the project was a disaster. Yet it was certainly not the last. Andress further pointed to the ongoing project to settle Algeria as another demonstration of this imperial and nationalist entanglement on the global stage. There were some 42,000 French citizens settled in Algeria by the 1840s, but around 70,000 non-French Europeans. Yet all of these settlers were cast as envoys of an integrative French national identity, drawing from the periphery of the state, and far beyond, to project centralized national values. Empire provided a means of defining the national project, yet it also provided a way of co-opting citizens into an ennobling service that could satisfy ambitions. National identity, performed far from the metropolitan centre, could write over political factionalism and blur the boundaries between any stripe of royalist or liberal belief. Instead, imperial projects provided a proving ground for military action and the performative practice of development.  The projects were both examples of the ways in which the state used imperial projects to define national identity in a global context.

Between these two imperial projects lay the French Revolution, the course of which battered the idea of the nation into a more solid form, and eroded much particularism at the edges of the state (see particularly, Andress’ recent Oxford handbook of the French Revolution). If the Revolution had been a conflictual process of debate led from above to define the ‘Great Nation’, then the state’s project thereafter became to expand territory and project that nation (now defined) outwards. This offered a means of describing the transition from Atlantic adventures into Napoleon’s ‘colonial mania’ and beyond into the era of global expansion. Andress stressed that during what David Todd has called the ‘French Imperial Meridian’, between the decline of the Bourbon Atlantic Empire and the explosive growth of the Third Republic’s African and Indochinese Empire, the ongoing pageantry of nationalism continued to flow into the global imaginary of the imperial state. By looking at the farthest reaches of the imperial state, Andress described how the ‘imagined community’ of the French persisted through dramatic changes of regime, speaking the language of national glory as it celebrated the creeping advances of the state’s imperialist schemes. At the same time, drawing on the work of Emma Rothschild, he showed that the shadiest corners of la France profonde were tied to imperialist commerce and colonialism by direct personal links, and that global perceptions and local networks never ceased overlapping and interacting.

The globalized history of this Age of Revolutions offered an insight into both the remarkable persistence of hierarchies of race, culture, and language within national projects, and the ideologically transformative role of the state as an agent within a global context.


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