Les hommes de l'empire
By Steven Martinovich
There is little debate these days: colonialism was a malevolent influence on its subjugated peoples and the men who created and maintained empires were brutal bureaucrat-cum-tyrants. Given popular history and the condition of many former colonies, it's an easy conclusion to reach. History, however, is usually more nuanced then is typically portrayed by ideologues. While no one would argue that colonialism was a positive development for many nations, to describe it purely in negative terms is to ignore what really occurred.
Barnett Singer of Brock University and John Langdon of Le Moyne College take a revisionist stand with Cultured Force: Makers and Defenders of the French Colonial Empire. In it they argue there were positive aspects to French colonialism and that the men behind the French empire were often sensitive and cultured men who deeply appreciated and admired those they conquered. While they were capable of harsh measures to control unruly territories and peoples, they looked at themselves -- and often acted -- as their defenders as well.
To make their case Singer and Langdon profile several of what they refer to as the French empire's 'proconsuls': Thomas Bugeaud, Louis Faidherbe, Joseph Gallieni, Louis-Hubert-Gonzalve Lyautey and Marcel Bigeard, the last still alive and well in France. These men, and a host of other lesser characters also covered, defined French colonialism from the mid-1800s right up until the late 1950s. Often painted as brutal men only interested in imperial stability and willing to use as much force as necessary to attain it, Cultured Force paints a different picture, arguing that they were more than simply military figures.
France was a colonial power that very nearly wasn't. Although they were among the first to colonize North America, disastrous wars there and elsewhere and political instability eventually forced France from its promising territories. Focusing its attention on Southeast Asia and Africa, France managed to build a new second colonial empire with crown jewels like Algeria and Vietnam. As Singer and Langdon show, empires determined to survive need personnel equipped with a wide variety of skills. Although martial ability is a primary skill, France's proconsuls also needed to be diplomats and scholars.
The greatest of her proconsuls may have been Lyautey -- a student of Gallieni, whose service in Vietnam, Madagascar, Algeria and Morocco showed a unique blend of aristocratic conservatism with tolerance and flexibility. Like many colonial administrators, he was a Frenchmen who felt more comfortable outside of France. Although colonialists are often painted as arrogant and aloof, Lyautey closely studied local cultures and learned their languages. He took pride in pacifying dangerous areas, allowing native farmers to cultivate their fields -- in some cases for the first time in decades -- without worrying about brigands coming in to rape and pillage.
With Cultured Force Singer and Langdon argue that for all the ills that France brought her colonies, they also brought a great deal of good. Colonial administrators worked hard to eliminate locally produced ills like corruption and slavery and brought with them health care, infrastructure building and education. And doubtless perturbing to those who seek to blame Europe for all of the third world's difficulties, Singer and Langdon ask how long the former colonial powers can be blamed for the present difficulties many of their former colonies are facing. Colonialism was ultimately a double-edged sword, bringing negatives and positives to both the mother country and the colony.
It could be argued that Cultured Force takes too kind a line on French colonialism though in their defence Singer and Langdon announce early on that it was necessary to add some balance to the debate. Regardless, Cultured Force is a fascinating series of balanced and illuminating sketches of some very remarkable men and only the most dogmatic are unlikely to be convinced that both sides of the story features real human beings. It forces the reader to question many of their assumptions on the subject of colonialism by showing that history isn't quite as one-sided as many choose to portray it.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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