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  • The Colonial Machine: French Science and Overseas Expansion in the Old Regime by James E. McClellan III and François Regourd
  • Barbara Traver
The Colonial Machine: French Science and Overseas Expansion in the Old Regime. By James E. McClellan III and François Regourd. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011. 696 pp. $102.00 (cloth).

In the same years that world history emerged as a field, the history of science took what Londa Schiebinger has termed a “colonial turn,” exploring the relationship between science and the growth of European empires.1 The Colonial Machine: French Science and Overseas Expansion in the Old Regime, by James E. McClelland III and François Regourd, makes a major contribution to this literature by detailing the exact mechanisms through which science and European colonial expansion worked together, reinforcing and aiding one another, [End Page 701] in the eighteenth-century French Empire. McClelland and Regourd argue that France “represents the perfect case” (p. 481) for examining the interactions between science and colonialism in this period because it was a leading, if not the leading, European colonial power in the eighteenth century and because of its “institutionalized and state-subsidized” science (p. 14). More than other contemporary European powers, France represented the “marriage” of political power and state authority with the “intellectual and moral authority of science and natural philosophy” (p. 13).

The authors have dubbed the individuals and institutions that created this partnership “the Colonial Machine,” which they define as “a coordinated whole of organized and institutionalized French science and medicine […] turned toward colonial ends” (p. 15). They caution, however, that the Colonial Machine was never an “abstract entity,” but a “collective unity” that “existed only in action” (p. 21). Not only were science and colonial efforts “deeply intertwined,” as has long been recognized, but also “they depended on one another for their mutual success” (p. 482). The state gained tools to expand and consolidate its reach, while at the same time science and the men who pursued knowledge gained access to a wider world and to careers. The Colonial Machine, however, did not constitute a partnership of equals. The disastrous attempt to found a European settler colony at Kourou in French Guiana, a case in which political authorities refused to follow abundant expert advice, illustrates that political power was always preeminent.

The first section of the book describes the parts of the Colonial Machine and how they functioned together. The sponsoring “bureaucratic core” consisted primarily of divisions of the royal government, notably the Ministry of the Navy. The cogs of the machine, where knowledge and expertise were institutionalized, included the Royal Navy; the royal academies, such as the Académie Royale des Sciences, and more specialized institutions, such as the Jardin du Roi; provincial academies; and even personnel of the Compagnie des Indes and missionaries. These all functioned together through overlapping membership, collective projects, and bureaucratic interconnections. In the second part of the book, the authors trace the Colonial Machine in action and the successes it achieved in three areas: conquering space, combating disease, and transferring plants around the globe. Through cartography, better navigation techniques, and advances in sailing and shipbuilding, France and French scientists gained “unparalleled access to the world abroad” (p. 243). The desire to fight disease and to promote better health among sailors, the enslaved, and colonists [End Page 702] encouraged efforts to find solutions to medical problems. Finally, in what was probably its “major sphere of action” (p. 303), the Colonial Machine built an “unprecedented set of botanical infrastructures” that allowed the “reshuffling of plants and animals” throughout the French Empire and beyond (p. 483). The Colonial Machine was far from universally successful, however, and the final section of the book concentrates on the factors such as disease, shipwreck, time, distance, insects, war, bureaucratic egos and infighting, and tensions between central and local authority that limited what the Colonial Machine could accomplish.

Most of these themes have appeared in earlier works by McClellan and Regourd, but are presented here with an unprecedented breadth of example and depth of detail.2 The coauthors have conducted extensive exploration in municipal, communal, departmental, and national archives in France as well as in the...


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pp. 701-704
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