- The French Encounter with Africans: White Responses to Blacks, 1530–1880
This paperback edition of an important study linking French and African history is a welcome appearance. It provides the best available review of French thinking about race and slavery as it developed from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, and surveys the application of French ideas in West Africa and the West Indies.
This edition was published shortly after the death of the author in 2002. Cohen spent his entire academic career at the University of Indiana, and served as chair of the Department of History for part of that time. His first two books addressed the French colonial service in twentieth-century Africa. Then he turned to the study of earlier times, which led to the publication of this volume in 1980. The new foreword by James Le Sueur gives an appreciation of Cohen as scholar and colleague and a useful narrative of the reception of the book.
As Le Sueur notes, the initial response of French scholars was critical: they accused Cohen of unfairly stigmatizing French intellectuals as racist and of neglecting the French national tradition of tolerance and revolutionary heritage of fraternity. If Cohen's work seemed harsh on the French at the time it came out, at present it appears prescient in its identification of the stages in racial thinking. Work on the history of race and racism has confirmed the worldwide expansion of scientific racism; Cohen's strength is to identify the stages through which that expansion went for France.
The French Encounter with Africans is parallel to Philip Curtin's 1964 study of British views of Africa (The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850, Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1964). [End Page 172] These two studies are remarkable intellectual histories that combine intimate knowledge of European ideas and African realities to show the background for the full-scale European conquest and colonization of Africa. Cohen's study, less detailed than that of Curtin, has the advantage of a longer time frame and has the particular strength of revealing the debates and evolution of French thinking on race. Cohen shows that Abbé Raynal's Histoire des deux Indes, a multivolume Enlightenment critique of Old Regime colonial policy, was unable to express clear opposition to slavery. At the same time, Cohen shows the sensitivity of the Eurafrican Abbé Boilat's observations on Senegal and their connection to traditions of tolerance in France.
Most useful in Cohen's work is his portrayal of the debate and sharing of opinions about race and slavery among French literary stylists, political philosophers, and scientific writers. Recent discoveries on the genetic unity of humankind have led to re-evaluation of the eighteenth-century work of biological classifiers and the nineteenth-century work of physical anthropologists. Those studies replaced earlier and religiously based beliefs in monogenesis with new beliefs in racial hierarchies that provided ideological underpinning for racism and colonialism. Cohen's study of French thinking, now made conveniently available, remains one of the strongest and most accessible treatments of this important topic.