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A French Imperial Meridian, 1814–1870*

  1. David Todd
  1. King’s College London

I

The period stretching from the restoration of Louis XVIII in 1814 until the fall of Napoleon III in 1870 remains the terra incognita of the history of French global ambitions. Even the volume of L’Aventure coloniale de la France, covering the years 1789–1870, stresses that the French ‘cautiously withdrew into themselves’ after the collapse of the first Napoleonic Empire.1 Such a view, this article argues, relies on an extraordinary neglect for the resilience of French formal and, above all, informal power between the fall of the Bourbon monarchy’s Atlantic empire and the rise of the Third Republic’s African and Indochinese empire: France in the intervening years remained a military, economic, scientific, and cultural super-power, who deployed her influence on a global scale, and not always unsuccessfully. It is therefore possible to recast the years 1814 to 1870 as a French ‘imperial meridian’, in the sense of an historiographical chasm between two classical periods of imperial expansion.

The British imperial meridian identified by Christopher Bayly referred to a phase of authoritarian rule combined with the forceful imposition of modern economic institutions on Britain’s imperial possessions between 1780 and 1830 — a policy facilitated by the contemporary crises of the Ottoman, Persian and Mughal empires. His analysis entailed a radical revision of earlier interpretations of the transition from Britain’s first ‘predatory’ empire in the Americas to a second ‘developmental’ empire in Asia and Africa.2 The French imperial meridian does not have the same ideological coherence as Bayly’s. As befits an age of ‘flux and hiatus’ in global history, French imperial policies were often hesitant.3 But a reappraisal of French global ambitions during this period offers new insights on French imperialism from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries and its relation to European overseas expansionism in the nineteenth century. …

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