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Reviewed by:
  • France and the American Tropics to 1700: Tropics of Discontent?
  • James E. Mcclellan III
France and the American Tropics to 1700: Tropics of Discontent? By Philip P. Boucher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 392 pp. $55.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

In this volume, Philip Boucher, Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, provides a comprehensive survey of French colonization in the tropical regions of the New World to 1700. His analytical starting point is that the French tropics of the era are little known, even to otherwise expert historians, in large measure because they are uncritically thought of as simply a prelude to the classic plantation model and the better-known regimes of slavery and monoculture that followed in the eighteenth century. Aiming his book at upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and general readers, including other experts, Boucher rectifies this misperception, presenting the period and the players in their own terms and comparing them not to later eighteenth-century developments, but to other contemporary settlements on the Atlantic rim. [End Page 512]

A chronological narrative carries readers from the initial encounters of the French with tropical America in the sixteenth century to the "take off" of the plantation economy after 1700. Here and elsewhere raw statistics and the undigested detail of this or that trading company or colonial skirmish can be overwhelming. Certainly, the author is in command, and no one need ever rework this material.

Interspersed with the narrative are more analytical chapters devoted primarily to what Boucher labels the frontier era (1620–1660) and the "pre-plantation complex era" (1660–1700). He emphasizes diversity in the development of various French colonial outposts, notably St. Christophe (St. Kitts), Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Domingue (modern Haiti), and Cayenne (which he includes in the incongruously capitalized American Tropics). He offers separate chapters on elites and nonelites at various stages of their development across the seventeenth century. His treatments of slavery and coerced labor are rooted in the values and realities of the times, an approach that allows the author, while registering his repugnance of slavery, to make nuanced comparisons to contemporary peasant life and to the latter horrors of the unbridled slave system of the eighteenth century. His presentation of the changing lot of indentured servants is especially informative.

As he himself notes (p. 304), Boucher has labored "almost forty years" on the subject of the French in the tropical regions of the New World, and he is careful about sources and what generalizations can be and have been made, rightly or wrongly. A master of the factual high ground, Boucher writes with what seems like a historiographical chip on his shoulder in correcting the record at so many points, and (e.g., pp. 118, 153, 227, 306–307) he is uncompromising in pointing out the slips, errors, and superficial or wrongheaded interpretations of sociologists, economists, and other historians uncritical of their sources who have touched on his subject in one way or another, notably historians of New France. Full disclosure is in order here: As evidence of inadequate attention paid to the French in the tropics in the seventeenth century, Boucher singles out a number of errors in a volume of mine on Saint Domingue in the Old Regime, including my risible and widely noted confusion of the spelling of Father Labat's name with that of the homonymous Canadian brewery! My mistakes make his point, but by a strange karma, he misspells my name throughout!

Embedded in the details of Boucher's account are several notable arguments. The first, again, is that the seventeenth-century French experience in the tropics needs to be considered on its own terms and not as foreshadowing developments in the following century. Another, supported by a wealth of detail, is that the French state was probably [End Page 513] less important than generally recognized in the growth of French colonies overseas, certainly before and to an extent after Colbert and Louis XIV began to take a more direct hand in colonial affairs in the 1660s. That the Franco-American tropics in the seventeenth century were a healthier, less brutal place than what came later is also doubtlessly...


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