- In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670-1730
James Pritchard's In Search of Empire follows the publication in 2002 of his former student Kenneth Banks's Chasing Empire. The search and the chase intersect among France's vieilles colonies on the far side of the world, but they arrive there following very different itineraries. In contrast to Banks's volume, with its tight focus on communication and communications theory, In Search of Empire is a sprawling book of over five hundred pages that knows no boundaries within its subject and tends to the empirical rather than the theoretical. That said, the author does have a thesis that is the leitmotiv of every chapter: that while the colonies of Ancien Régime [End Page 260] France were indeed possessions, together they and the metropolis that possessed them did not exhibit the structural cohesion that would justify our calling them an empire.
Part 1 of this book, 'Colonies Formed,' is divided into five chapters on 'Colonial Populations,' 'Settlements and Societies,' 'Production,' 'Trade and Exchange,' and 'Government and Politics.' This analysis covers all the Atlantic colonies from Canada to Cayenne. These chapters tell the story of the surprisingly small number of Frenchmen who established themselves in colonies in spite of a populationist government only rarely roused from apathy to mistrust. They built their own societies and economies. In this they were as much hampered as aided by a state that subordinated their interests to those of metropolitans and viewed all wealth generation through the anxious eyes of the tax collector. Colonial economic activity was not contained by the sieve of empire, but ran out in streams to New York, Philadelphia, and Amsterdam and other centres. A dearth of French shipping, the poor French market for colonial products, the bad servicing of colonial markets, and uncompetitive French prices in different times and colonies explain this movement. The will of the crown was flouted, not least by many of the officials sent to the colonies to implement it. Finally, the societies that evolved in Canada, Acadia, Île Royale, St Domingue, Martinique and Guadeloupe, and Cayenne were as different from one another as they could have been.
The Bourbon monarchy consigned the colonies to the navy and the navy to near oblivion. After the heady days of Colbert's stewardship, as often as not, the navy saw its ships rot or it leased them out to private parties. In his earlier work on the French navy under Louis xv (1987) and on the failed d'Anville expedition of 1746 (1995), Pritchard gained an unparalleled understanding of a set of institutions within which family and patronage were as important as the implementation of policy and within which corruption was rife and vision rare. It is easy to understand how, from this perspective, the empire seems to have been a flimsy thing in want of attention, in want of good policy, and in want of implementation.
The second section of the book, 'Colonies Defended,' provides (often quite literally) a blow-by-blow description of the wars from 1672 to 1713 that involved France's colonies and those of the Dutch and the English/British. These are stories that have to be told in terms of individuals: heroic naval officers executing deeds of derring-do and others seeing their visits to colonies primarily as opportunities for trade, venal officials and others doing their duty with determination and talent. What always seemed to be missing were a unified concept of empire and any rational naval strategy.
And yet, there was a metropolis and there were colonies. There were governmental structures that connected them and social commonalities that they shared. Episodically, the French entertained notions of greater imperial integration or of deriving direct political benefit from their [End Page 261] colonies. Mostly they were interested in trade and taxes, and colonies generated a good deal of both. The Ancien Régime idea of empire was not ours, confirming L.P. Hartley's celebrated dictum about the foreignness and difference of the past...