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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 197-198

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Book Review

The French in Central America:
Culture and Commerce, 1820-1930

The French in Central America: Culture and Commerce, 1820-1930. By THOMAS D. SCHOONOVER. Latin American Silhouettes. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2000. Notes. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. xxv, 244 pp. Cloth, $55.00.

The French in Central America provides a multiarchival and multilingual analysis of the role of a Great Power in a "peripheral" area affected more than most other regions of Latin America by foreign intervention and imperial conflict. Like the author's previous work on German and U.S. influence in the isthmus, this book masterfully dissects the interplay between commercial and political interests and the rivalry among France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States. And just like his other books, Schoonover's analysis uses dependency and world systems theory to explain how foreign diplomats and entrepreneurs conspired in the exploitation of Central America. Unlike his previous work, however, this book addresses the issue of cultural imperialism along with European efforts to obtain economic and political influence in Central America.

The book is organized chronologically in seven chapters. Covering the period 1820-1848, chapter 1 discusses the erosion of French influence by political instability and two revolutions. After 1850 , as chapter 2 demonstrates, Napoleon III attempted to build an empire in Middle America, but the failure of the French intervention in Mexico and the stagnation of the French economy foiled these [End Page 197] efforts. As chapters 3 and 4 reveal, the Third Republic fared better than Napoleon in asserting French influence. Schoonover demonstrates that from 1880 to 1903 , French bankers and financiers were the largest foreign investors in Central America. Nonetheless, the failure of the Ferdinand de Lesseps's Interoceanic Canal Company to complete a transisthmian waterway overshadowed these successes. As chapters 5 and 6 show, the year 1903 , when the U.S. government procured the rights to the Panama Canal, proved a watershed in French-Central American relations. After that date, as the conflict with Germany approached, the French reluctantly gave up plans for expansion in favor of cooperation with the United States. Between 1903 and 1920 , U.S. financiers overtook their French rivals, and U.S. opposition prevented French attempts to make major new loans in the area. Finally, chapter 7 addresses French influence in Central America during the 1920 s, in Schoonover's words a "modest revival" that could not escape the fact that the United States had risen to regional dominance during World War I.

The French in Central America demonstrates that French entrepreneurs and their government had relatively limited resources at their disposal compared to their rivals from Great Britain and the United States. The French population hardly grew in size during the latter half of the nineteenth century, limiting the growth potential of the economy and overseas immigration. Moreover, the commercial success of the nearby United States, and, to some extent, that of Germany, overshadowed French economic influence in Central America. In part to make up for these shortcomings, and in part reflecting a specific approach to empire building, France displayed a government-sponsored commitment to assert its intellectual and cultural influence in Central America in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

It is in the area of culture that the diplomatic sources utilized by Schoonover reveal their shortcomings. While the author adroitly explores the political and commercial connections between French diplomats and investors and their Central American partners, his methodology cannot assess the impact of French cultural expansion on elite, or much less popular, mentalité. If the French presence in Central America can be subtitled "culture and commerce," it remains unclear how the Central Americans came to terms with French culture, and to what extent they adopted French behavior, cuisine, dress, and ways of thinking. Nevertheless, this book fills an important gap in the historical literature and contributes much to our understanding of imperial rivalries in the Western Hemisphere.


Jürgen Buchenau
University of North Carolina, Charlotte



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pp. 197-198
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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