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  • Culture as ColonizerRaynal’s “colonialisme éclairé” in the Histoire des deux Indes
  • Monica Michaud

The Histoire philosophique et politique des établissemens et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes first appeared in 1770 and soon caused a great deal of controversy. With successive editions, the collaborative text took on an increasingly combative tone due, it is believed, to the sizeable contributions of Diderot. In fact, Hans Wolpe famously referred to Raynal’s work as a “machine de guerre”1 for its strong influence in the years preceding the French Revolution. The Histoire was eventually ordered to be burned before the Parliament of Paris in 1781, as a work “impie, blasphématoire, séditieux, tendant à soulever les peuples contre l’autorité souveraine et à renverser les principes fondamentaux de l’ordre civil.”2

The very complicated question of the nature and extent of Diderot’s contributions to the Histoire is one that has already been meticulously researched, most notably by Duchet, Wolpe, Dieckmann, Lüsebrink, and Feugère. In keeping with the growing trend of a more global approach to French literary history,3 an increasing amount of scholarship has come to recognize the Histoire as a valuable document that encapsulates the major historical, political, philosophical, and economic questions of the eighteenth-century colonial world, as viewed from France.

Along with Diderot, Raynal’s anti-colonial sentiments have typically garnered much more attention than his positive recommendations for a more humane colonization. This is perhaps due to the lingering of a popularized reductive reading of the eighteenth century according to which the Enlightenment principle of reason and its accompanying right to freedom did not allow for nuance, whereas in reality not all philosophes were strictly anti-colonial.4 In more recent scholarship, the Histoire has begun to gain consideration as a text containing speculative plans for constructing a more [End Page 17] unifying global project.5 Alongside the wealth of scholarship on Raynal’s anti-colonial and anti-slavery discourses, I propose that his interest in fostering a new kind of enlightened colonialism merits equal consideration. Focusing on Raynal’s criticism of Spanish colonization and his analysis of French intervention in Madagascar, I intend to show how his presentation of cultural presumptions bearing on customs, practices, and laws both supports and betrays his endorsement of colonial expansion. Like his contemporary, Rousseau, Raynal was keenly aware of both the positive and negative potentialities of civilization, a theoretical consideration underlying the contradictions observable in his discourse on colonization. By highlighting Raynal’s preoccupation with the power of cultural signifiers to shape power relations both within social groups and in intercultural exchanges, I wish to emphasize the epistemological significance of the Histoire. Raynal’s work exceeds an assembling of historical and political information; it is an experiment in early anthropological methodology that draws upon descriptive and analytical portraits of Non-European peoples in order to elaborate a plan for a more humane colonization.

In distinction to Diderot, who objects to the very principle of colonization,6 Raynal adopts a more pragmatic approach. Given the fact that the colonies do exist, Raynal is therefore asking the question, “What past mistakes in European commerce with colonized peoples must be avoided in the future, and how can these intercultural exchanges be optimally reconfigured so as to yield a more harmonious and fruitful association?”

At the heart of Raynal’s work, as evidenced by the prominent position it occupies in the title, is commerce. Certainly, the commerce with which Raynal is concerned is not limited to material goods. In order to evaluate Raynal’s discourse on colonization, it is helpful to consider colonization as a system of global commerce, one whose exchanges deal not only in money but equally, and perhaps even more significantly, in cultural currency.7 Along with Anthony Strugnell, I propose that the Histoire presents a vision of an enlightened colonialism that is a sort of metaphorical equivalent of “fair trade” commerce. However, the reading of Raynal that I will put forth in this article distinguishes itself by focusing on the pivotal role of culture within colonial encounters. Within this perspective, I argue that Raynal’s analysis of cultural signs and their relationship...


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pp. 17-32
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