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The Colonial Machine: French Science and Colonization in the Ancien Régime

Abstract : Although France's colonies were small in number and in size in the eighteenth century, their economic importance made France a major colonial power in the period. The central govemment, notably the Ministère de la Marine et des Colo­nies, systematically engaged the elaborate scientific infrastructure of Ancien­Régime France in its colonizing efforts, and French savants provided an essential expertise. This paper examines this bureaucratized scientific arm of France's con­temporary "colonial machine" that included the Académie Royale des Sciences, the Académie Royale de Marine, the Observatoire Royal, the Jardin du Roi, the Société Royale de Médecine, the Société Royale d'Agriculture, and the Compagnie des Indes. These institutions and the individuals associated with them undertook coordinated efforts to support and extend contemporary French colonization. Their activities deal with tropical medicine, taxonomie and economic botany, cartog­raphy, and a host of related matters. With Paris and Versailles as the hub, by the end of the century an intricate web of institutions and expertise spanned the French colonial world from the Americas to the East Indies. Informai and unofficial colo­nial networks complemented the official administrative apparatus. The Revolu­tionary and Napoleonic periods witnessed the destruction of Ancien-Régime colo­nial structures-scientific and otherwise-yet, the lesson of the utility of science for the creation and maintenance of colonies was not lost on imperial planners who followed.
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James Mcclellan, Francois Regourd. The Colonial Machine: French Science and Colonization in the Ancien Régime. Osiris, University of Chicago Press, 2001, Nature and Empire : Science and the Colonial Enterprise, 15 (31-50). ⟨hal-01656913⟩

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