The situation at the end of the Ancien Régime
At the end of the Ancien Régime, the governors and intendants of the King of France governed significant possessions in the West Indies (Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Marie-Galante, la Désirade, les Saintes, part of Saint-Martin, Saint Lucia and Tobago), in South America (Guyana) in North America (Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon), on the African coast (Saint-Louis du Sénégal), in the Indian Ocean (Île de France -Mauritius-, Île Bourbon -Réunion from 1793-, Seychelles) and in India, with five trading posts (Pondicherry, Karikal, Mahé, Yanaon and Chandernagor).
These positions were respectable but far below the territorial holdings of other European powers such as Spain (70% of the total world colonial domain), Portugal and England. France did, however, have a few gems, the most important of which was Saint-Domingue, which produced almost a third of the world’s sugar cane.
The colonies and the French Revolution
With the French Revolution, the resumption of hostilities between France and England (1793), the colonists’ desire for independence, the revolts and subsequent emancipation of slaves, the decision of certain states to ban the slave trade (Britain, Denmark, etc.) and a relentless maritime war disrupted a system that had contributed to the wealth of the European seafaring nations. The British captured some French, Dutch and Spanish colonies.
Napoleon’s policy during the Consulate
Napoleon was convinced that foreign trade was one of the main keys to French prosperity and from the moment of his accession undertook to take control of the French colonial empire, which was in revolt in some places and occupied by the British in others.
This project took shape with a bloody reconquest of the West Indies, which, though favoured briefly by the Peace of Amiens, ended in defeat in Saint-Domingue and ferocious repression in Guadeloupe. Elsewhere, a French contingent under the command of General Decaen was sent to India in March 1803. Arriving in Pondicherry in July, it came up against the British who refused to return the five trading posts, despite the terms of the Amiens peace treaty. Decaen took to the sea again and withdrew to Île de France (Mauritius) where he was stationed for several years. At the end of the Consulate, despite the voluntarism and military means deployed, France had fewer colonies than at the end of 1799 and had returned to the ranks of the ordinary slave-owning nations with the re-establishment of slavery in 1802.
The failure of the Empire’s colonial policy
Napoleon prolonged this ‘world war’, but without success. Within a few years, the French colonial empire was swallowed up. Petite Terre (February 1808), Désirade and Marie-Galante, thirty kilometres from Guadeloupe (March 1809) were taken by the British. Attacked by the Portuguese, Guyana was forced to capitulate in January 1809. On 24 February 1809, it was Martinique’s turn. On 15 July of the same year, the French adventure also ended in the Spanish part of Santo Domingo. On 4 February 1810, Guadeloupe was taken in turn by British troops supported by a powerful guerrilla group of blacks and Métis who had not forgotten the massacres of 1803.
The French failure in the Indian Ocean was similarly stark. Reunion surrendered on 9 July 1810 and Mauritius the following December. The British took control of the Tamatave trading post on the island of Madagascar in February 1811 and the Seychelles five months later, while the Dutch colonies in what is now Indonesia fell in turn. In Africa, Saint-Louis of Senegal had capitulated on 13 July 1809.
Consequences after the fall of Napoleon
The colonial failure of the Empire was total. The French representatives at the Congress of Vienna had to fight hard to recover a few islands or trading posts. In the long term, this defeat led to major geopolitical upheavals. First of all, there was a lasting British domination of world trade and a French backwardness that was only partially compensated for in the following decades. In the longer term, the absence of France and Spain from the American and, in particular, the Caribbean theatre benefited the United States, an emerging power on an upward trajectory that has remained unchanged to this day.
10 December 2020 (Eng. trans 14 April 2021)
See other episodes of “Napoleon, the dark side”:
► The human cost of the Napoleonic wars (< 3 min. read)
► Napoleon and the colonies (< 3 min. read)
► Napoleon’s re-establishement of slavery (< 2 min. read)
► Napoleon and Santo Domingo (Haïti and Santo Domingo) (< 4 min. read)
► Napoleon and Guadeloupe (< 2 min. read)
► Did Napoleon enact “genocide” in the French colonies? (< 3 min. read)
► Napoleon and women (< 4 min. read)