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  • Introduction:Writing Colonial Histories
  • Alice L. Conklin (bio) and Julia Clancy-Smith (bio)

In 1941 the Vichy government commissioned Jeu de l'Empire Français, a double-sided, brightly colored board game for children, each side with a slightly different "course de l'Empire français," played on a lavishly illustrated world map (fig. 1). The rules stated that "the Marshal offers a voyage around the world to two French youths, passing through the colonies of the empire and using French maritime and aviation lines." The players left from Marseille in a race across the empire. The object was to reach the metropole first after completing a "tour du monde" that was also a "course de l'empire." How fortunate the player whose token landed on square number 72, adorned with a photo of Pétain. For on this space "la Francisque et le Maréchal vont faire au voyageur un bond gigantesque, qui l'amène directement au but"—square number 84, Le Havre, and victory. Similar colonial games were produced in France from the late nineteenth century on: embossed, cut-out paper soldiers—"nos soldats en relief, les goumiers marocains"—toys with movable parts, and diverse game boards. All celebrated conquests of foreign lands in the form of mass-produced playthings for French children, whether at home or abroad. Intertwined with the imperial messages was a blatant commercialism, since the toys often contained advertisements for foods, or even alcoholic beverages. Also at work was spiritual advertising to encourage young men and women to join religious orders and the faithful to make pious donations. The game Le Tipoye du Gabon, printed in 1925, shows a nun on [End Page 497] a litter being carried by four Africans, noting that the game's documentation was provided by "la Congrégation des Soeurs de l'Immaculée Conception, Castres, Tarn."

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Figure 1.

One side of a double-sided game board titled "Jeu l'Empire Français: Course de l'Empire français," by Raoul Auger, published by Editions Centre d'Information et de Renseignements in Vichy (1941). Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (910031)

These games and toys raise questions about the place of the colonial past in the writing of France's history. The insertion of empire ideologically, commercially, and pedagogically into all realms of French daily life, from children's games and juvenile literature to religious activities, mass entertainment, leisure, tourism, advertising, legal categories, language, and so on, and the state's vigorous role in promoting empire contrasts with the relative inattention to colonial questions in mainstream historical scholarship in France until the past decade or so.1 As the original French Historical Studies call for papers for this issue observed, "The earlier marginal status of French colonial history, combined with the convention of training scholars in only one national [End Page 498] history, has left the contours of this emerging field ambiguous." This ambiguity arose in large part from the fact that colonial history was always marginal to the historical profession in France, and virtually disappeared immediately after decolonization.2 Until the recent upsurge in colonial studies, non-French scholars tended to carry the flag of colonial history, although this situation is rapidly changing.3

While the present issue does not primarily aim to explain the disinterest of French historians in their own colonial legacy and history (that would be a somewhat different undertaking), it raises that issue indirectly. As formulated, "writing French colonial histories" privileges the realm of conceptualizations and approaches. It is concerned less with the convergence of different disciplines (the subject of the French Historical Studies 2003 special issue "Visualizing French History") than with the convergence of subfields or strands of history. In other words, the issue's contributors grappled with the problems associated with bringing together three hitherto distinct historical narratives. Until recently, historians of France remained safely within the borders of the nation-state, while scholars in the French Colonial Historical Society went their own way. Researchers whose primary historical training focused on the peoples and cultures colonized by France were assumed to have little to say about the metropole or even about European...