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  • Preface
  • Micheline Lessard

To be found in the pages of this edition of French Colonial History are four articles that examine and analyze the complexities of the French colonial world as well as the difficulties of categorization of this world. Barbara Traver’s article provides insight into the ways in which the Eurafricans of Gorée who migrated to French Guiana were confronted there with a colonial structure and society quite different from that they had known in Africa. The presence of Goréens in French Guiana resulted in conflicts as to how they should be classified or categorized within a particular, constructed racial hierarchy. Debates over the racial identity and the work capacities of the Goréens revealed deep-seated colonial fears of the “taint” of Africans, as well as fears of revolts and the potential destruction of French Guiana’s colonial order—an order that rested upon a fiction of white superiority and that was maintained through the construction of a rigid racial hierarchy.

The exigencies of a colonial economy, the end of the slave trade, and Franco-British relations, as Virginie Chaillou-Atrous’s article illustrates, prompted some colons of Réunion to call for African immigration to meet the labor needs of their plantations. The end of the migration to Réunion of Indian laborers in 1882 forced its colons to reconsider their previous policies pertaining to African immigration and to formulate justifications for bringing back African workers to the island. To that end, colons couched their arguments in racialized terms, referring to Bengali laborers as weak, lazy, demanding, and whiny. Africans, they maintained, were more docile and robust, and their immigration to Réunion, their employment on the plantations [End Page v] could be taken as a philanthropic gesture, as part of the French mission civilisatrice. The African engagés who made their way to Réunion in the late nineteenth century, particularly those who were Portuguese subjects, as the author states, did so under different conditions than they had in the first decades of that century, and their expectations were considerably higher, once again challenging colonial categorizations.

The concept of the Imperial Project, as Jean-François Klein’s article reminds us, is a fluid construction. Challenging existing hypotheses with respect to the architects and the motivations for French colonization of Indochina, Klein highlights the small, yet powerful networks of those he refers to as the “Soyeux.” These men, Klein demonstrates, constituted a small, influential, liberal local elite with ties and affinities with the French republican state. Their reach was beyond that of Lyon as they managed to mobilize funds and support in favor of a world market, of colonial and imperial enterprise.

Sally Low’s article on the Residential Courts in Cambodia also reveals that colonial governance was conducted through various lenses and for different motives. She points out that legal systems and legal jurisdictions tended to both legitimize and promote the maintenance of colonial rule. The administration of law in Indochina depended also, for practical reasons, on the preexisting legal codes and traditions of each pays. In Cambodia in particular, the complexity of the law manifested itself in the Residential Courts presided over by Résidents who wielded considerable power given that they could engage in inquiries, adjudicate civil and commercial matters, as well as investigate and adjudicate criminal matters. French colons and administrators disagreed about the maintenance of the Residential Courts, highlighting tensions between those who feared that these jurisdictions undermined the prestige of French justice and those who believed the Résidents, in spite of the vast power they wielded and in spite of their poor training, provided more effective judicial power given the complexity of social and ethnic interactions in Cambodia. [End Page vi]



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