The best books on France and Its eighteenth-century colonial empire

Pernille Røge Author Of Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire: France in the Americas and Africa, C.1750-1802
By Pernille Røge

Who am I?

I have been interested in the study of the early modern French colonial empire since my undergraduate years in Paris. As a Dane studying history in the French capital, I was struck by the strong presence of both Caribbean and African cultures in my local neighborhood, but I also noted the fraught colonial legacies that continued to condition the lives of many of its inhabitants. My book is an effort to grapple with a particularly transformative moment in the history of France’s imperial past and to reflect on the ways in which it conditioned later periods. The five books I recommended here brought home to me important aspects of this history in ways that insist on the reciprocal influences among France and its former colonies.

I wrote...

Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire: France in the Americas and Africa, C.1750-1802

By Pernille Røge,

Book cover of Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire: France in the Americas and Africa, C.1750-1802

What is my book about?

Exploring the myriad efforts to strengthen colonial empire that unfolded in response to France's imperial crisis in the second half of the eighteenth century, Pernille Røge examines how political economists, colonial administrators, planters, and entrepreneurs shaped the recalibration of empire in the Americas and in Africa alongside the intensification of the French Caribbean plantation complex.

The result is a novel perspective on the struggles to reinvent the colonial empire in the final decades of the Ancien Régime and its influences on the French Revolution and beyond.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The French Sugar Business in the Eighteenth Century

Why did I love this book?

This book offers a lucid and very accessible study of the nuts and bolts of the eighteenth-century French sugar business. Readers get a clear understanding of the key aspects of the enterprise that made France the main sugar exporter in the world – from how it was financed, to how it relied on African slave labor, to its cultivation in the Caribbean sugar plantations. It also offers one of the best discussions of the local French domestic industries involved in the sugar business.

By Robert Louis Stein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The French Sugar Business in the Eighteenth Century as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Book by Stein, Robert Louis

Book cover of There Are No Slaves in France: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime

Why did I love this book?

Sue Peabody’s “There Are No Slaves in France” examines the politics and culture of race and slavery in eighteenth-century France. In the early modern period, France prided itself on the notion that slavery was unlawful on French soil – the so-called “freedom principle”. Any slave who touched French territory would immediately be free. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of Africans worked as enslaved laborers in the French colonies. Within France, one could count numerous enslaved people at any given time. Exploring court cases brought by enslaved people in France against their owners, the book reveals with impressive clarity, the place of slavery and race within eighteenth-century France down to the French Revolution.

By Sue Peabody,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked There Are No Slaves in France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There Are No Slaves in France examines the paradoxical emergence of political antislavery and institutional racism in the century prior to the French Revolution. Sue Peabody shows how the political culture of late Bourbon France created ample opportunities for contestation over the meaning of freedom. Based on various archival sources, this work will be of interest not only to historians of slavery and France, but to scholars interested in the emergence of
modern culture in the Atlantic world.

Book cover of Chasing Empire Across the Sea: Communications and the State in the French Atlantic, 1713-1763

Why did I love this book?

Chasing Empire Across the Sea is a multi-sited study of French colonial empire-building in the Atlantic World. Focusing on the colonial administrations in Quebec, New Orleans, and Martinique, the book’s emphasis on the fragility of colonial-metropolitan communication and the challenges this posed to French imperial sovereignty reminds readers of the vulnerability of early modern European empires. It also allows for a better understanding of the political structures and geographies that conditioned the French colonial enterprise.

By Kenneth J. Banks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chasing Empire Across the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Banks defines and applies the concept of communications in a far broader context than previous historical studies of communication, encompassing a range of human activity from sailing routes, to mapping, to presses, to building roads and bridges. He employs a comparative analysis of early modern French imperialism, integrating three types of overseas possessions usually considered separately - the settlement colony (New France), the tropical monoculture colony (the French Windward Islands), and the early Enlightenment planned colony (Louisiana) - offering a work of synthesis that unites the historiographies and insights from three formerly separate historical literatures. Banks challenges the very notion…

Book cover of Cul de Sac: Patrimony, Capitalism, and Slavery in French Saint-Domingue

Why did I love this book?

Cul de Sac is an enticing micro-historical study of the economic trajectory of the old-regime French plantation complex in Saint-Domingue. Through deft mining of the archives of a noble family from Brittany and their correspondence with the overseer of their sugar plantation in the Cul-de-Sac plain, Cheney argues in this book that growing tensions between nascent capitalism and old-regime political and social structures pushed the model of the plantation complex in Saint-Domingue toward a dead-end even prior to the French and Haitian Revolutions.

By Paul Cheney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cul de Sac as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the eighteenth century, the Cul de Sac plain in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, was a vast open-air workhouse of sugar plantations. This microhistory of one plantation owned by the Ferron de la Ferronnayses, a family of Breton nobles, draws on remarkable archival finds to show that despite the wealth such plantations produced, they operated in a context of social, political, and environmental fragility that left them weak and crisis prone.

Focusing on correspondence between the Ferronnayses and their plantation managers, Cul de Sac proposes that the Caribbean plantation system, with its reliance on factory-like production processes and highly integrated markets,…

Book cover of Archipelago of Justice: Law in France's Early Modern Empire

Why did I love this book?

Archipelago of Justice is a compelling study of the role of law in building a legal infrastructure for the early modern French colonial empire. Paying attention to the colonial councils in the Atlantic colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe and the colonies of Île de France (today Mauritius) and Île Bourbon (today Réunion) in the Indian Ocean, Wood posits the centrality of French law in connecting scattered French colonial possessions into a unified imperial whole. Global in focus, it is one of the few books that have decidedly surpassed the tendency to write French colonial histories within a single oceanic framework. 

By Laurie M. Wood,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Archipelago of Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An examination of France's Atlantic and Indian Ocean empires through the stories of the little-known people who built it

This book is a groundbreaking evaluation of the interwoven trajectories of the people, such as itinerant ship-workers and colonial magistrates, who built France's first empire between 1680 and 1780 in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. These imperial subjects sought political and legal influence via law courts, with strategies that reflected local and regional priorities, particularly regarding slavery, war, and trade. Through court records and legal documents, Wood reveals how courts became liaisons between France and new colonial possessions.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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