Pondichéry as an imperial city in the Mughal state system
Benjamin Steiner

This chapter examines the French station and later colonial centre in the Indian Ocean trade region of Pondichéry. It gives an account of the city’s building history since its founding by a director of the East India Company, a short interludium of Dutch occupation, and the city’s flourishing under the governor-general Dupleix. Compared to the Antilles, the colonial architecture in Pondichéry was much more impressive and lavishly styled. The main structure in the city, Fort Louis, was, however, a construction site over many years until it achieved its intended ideal form in the Vauban fashion. The chief engineers had a large Indian workforce at their disposal that had to be paid to the customs of the land. Therefore expertise for masonry, brickworks, carpentry, etc. was available through the mediation of local contractors who organized the logistics, supply for materials, and most of the work at the construction site. Under Dupleix the most elaborate French architectures emerged, like the government palace, that were supposed to awe the Indian princes of the neighbouring kingdoms. The intention for forming an imperial standing by visual and material means was directed not to Europe, but to the subcontinent itself with its complicated system of states that was loosely bound together by the rule of the Mughal. Thus Dupleix’s ambition to empire was to be recognized by the Indian emperor and not by another European power.

in Building the French empire, 1600–1800
Colonialism and material culture

This study explores the shared history of the French empire from a perspective of material culture in order to re-evaluate the participation of colonial, Creole, and indigenous agency in the construction of imperial spaces. The decentred approach to a global history of the French colonial realm allows a new understanding of power relations in different locales. Traditional binary models that assume the centralization of imperial power and control in an imperial centre often overlook the variegated nature of agency in the empire. In a selection of case studies in the Caribbean, Canada, Africa, and India, several building projects show the mixed group of planners, experts, and workers, the composite nature of building materials, and elements of different ‘glocal’ styles that give the empire its concrete manifestation. Thus the study proposes to view the French overseas empire in the early modern period not as a consequence or an outgrowth of Eurocentric state building, but rather as the result of a globally interconnected process of empire building.

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Fortification and castles on the Lesser Antilles
Benjamin Steiner

This chapter focuses on the French military engineer and architect François Blondel, known for the construction of several monumental structures in metropolitan France. Blondel devised several plans and accounts on the feasibility of developing existing strongholds in modern fortresses or choosing completely new sites for a rayon of fortified towns, forts, and batteries. Blondel’s maps represented the islands as seemingly homogenous entities, where local differences between French and Carib settlements were blurred. This spatial construction of the islands of French territory on representations such as maps or plans was preceded by the so-called seigneurial period on the islands, including next to Guadeloupe and Martinique also Saint-Christophe (Saint-Kitts and Nevis) and Tortuga Island. It was then that French feudal proprietors tried to enclose land with a combination of manorial economy with a kind of baroque representation practice resulting in the creation of several more or less magnificent ‘castles’ on the islands. It is important to consider this ‘feudal’ period in order to understand how it prefigured the effort in the later seventeenth and in the eighteenth century to form a territory from only a few individual and scattered settlements and strongholds that could be regarded as a coherent empire.

in Building the French empire, 1600–1800
An ‘ideal’ colonial city in Atlantic Canada
Benjamin Steiner

The example of the fortified port city of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island (formerly Île Royale) gives a different outlook on large building practices and the community it fostered. Thanks to more available resources in Canada large structures of the city that were destroyed in the Seven Years’ War are not only being reconstructed as a national lieu de mémoire, but also much more thoroughly researched. The towers of this Atlantic coastal town were a landmark that were reputed for not only representing French power in the region against other nations, but also representing the enormous costs figuring in the budgets of the Versailles government. Louisbourg was indeed exceptional to the other colonies in the sense that workers employed at the construction site were predominantly of European origin. The Mi’kmaq, the indigenous nation of the Île Royale, were neither included in the construction of the town nor were they part of its community. The exclusive confinement of Louisbourg, however, can be seen as a spatial practice typical for French expansion in the Canadian Upper Country, where they pursued the establishment of a series of fortresses as a claim to empire in North America. Thus the building practice in Louisbourg was segregationist in nature and did only produce a space that served few French settlers as the condition for forming their French identity.

in Building the French empire, 1600–1800
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The empire as a material construct
Benjamin Steiner

Departing from an intervention by a colonial official from Martinique at the end of the eighteenth century on the issue of the Exclusif, the French protective trade restrictions in the colonies, emphasis is laid on the ‘right’ earned by individuals and groups in participating in the material construction of empire. As the argument continues the claim is brought forward that those who have built the empire earn a right of its possession, not only morally, but also materially and existentially. The emotional binding of individual, groups, and whole societies to their built environment gives an important insight into how empires become actually stable without having a strong dependence to the centre. The French empire, therefore, is a global construct that is connected by certain similar practices, emotional ties that stretch over the distance of oceans, and finds its best expression in the large buildings and complexes that not only the French had built, but many other people that earned a right of the possession of ‘their’ empire. But the only revolutionary outcome this earned right provoked was on Saint-Domingue, when the newly formed republic appropriated the material culture of the former colony in order to stabilize the new nation of Haiti.

in Building the French empire, 1600–1800
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Fort Royal as a perennial construction site on Martinique
Benjamin Steiner

The chapter illustrates that building a fortress (in this case Fort Royal on Martinique) took a considerable amount of time; engineers had to fight the constant lack of sufficient resources, workforce, and the financial funds to keep the construction site running. In detail, the chapter lays out the difficulty the responsible engineers had in receiving funds from the central administration, which most of the time relegated that problem to the local administration. The chapter examines how much materials and workers cost, differentiating between European free and indentured skilled and unskilled workers as well as free and enslaved African skilled and unskilled workers. Also, the body of engineers sent from France to the colonies is addressed here. They performed not only the task of their metier, sketching plans, maps, and drawings for the building projects, but also the more profane duties as managers of the construction site, budget oversight, as well as negotiation with superiors, other officials, and contractors. Concerning the individual careers of these engineers, who were also officers of the French navy, a sojourn in the colonies was considered by most of them more a duty than a privilege.

in Building the French empire, 1600–1800
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Building the French empire
Benjamin Steiner

Starting with an example that shows the surprising loyalty of the revolting slaves on Saint-Domingue, the later nation-state of Haiti, to the French king, the Introduction develops the theme of empire building in the French colonial realm in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. First, it underlines the importance of historical actors that play a major role in this book despite its focus on material culture. This is explained by the slight difference to the mainstream in the studies of material cultures that tends to emphasize the consumption of things rather than the conditions under which these were produced. In this revived concept of materialism the study of colonial building projects fits perfectly, since the sources available for the process of construction reveal precisely the people, material, and aesthetic concepts involved. Overviewing previous literature on colonial building projects in other empires in general and on the French empire in particular, it becomes apparent that only few newer publications have discovered the importance such undertakings had for implementing cultural, political, and social identities within a largely fragmented and culturally diverse society. The Introduction concludes with an analysis of the book’s structure, a reflection on used written and material sources, as well as a note on currencies and measures.

in Building the French empire, 1600–1800
‘French’ style in Saint-Louis and on Gorée Island
Benjamin Steiner

The constellation the French encountered at the coast of Senegambia was already one of a mixed society formed over centuries after the arrival of Portuguese traders in the region. But following the founding of the Senegal Company, French directors and the Company’s agents pursued a more ambitious building programme that included larger fortresses on Gorée Island and on Saint-Louis Island in the estuaries of the Senegal River. The style of colonial buildings in Saint Louis and on Gorée Island did not develop in the same manner as it did in the Antilles, Pondichéry or, for that matter, in Canada. Government buildings, trade houses, and residences were, for example, largely influenced by the ornamental style of the Toucouleur, an ethnic group of Muslim faith that settled in the area of today’s Mali. It was only in the later period of territorial colonization of West Africa that the colonial style superseded the local Creole style.

in Building the French empire, 1600–1800
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Affective buildings and emotional communities on Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti
Benjamin Steiner

This chapter examines the effects large buildings had on people building and living with them. In describing the formation of such a landscape of affective buildings the material evidence is to speak for itself, that is, written accounts of impressions these buildings may have had on an observer are only briefly mentioned. By doing this, the material approach to history is taken to its necessary end to sometimes let things speak only through themselves and not by their representation. Showing the success and the limits of this active production of spaces for an emotional community of settlers and slaves on the island, I conclude with an outlook on the Haitian Revolution that did not destroy the landmarks created under colonial rule, but appropriated buildings, monuments, and also, perhaps most importantly, the ambition from the French to create a coherent national identity by continuing the effort to pursue large building projects. Thus the early modern practice of empire building continued in the form of nation building in this first republic of freed slaves in the nineteenth century.

in Building the French empire, 1600–1800
The builders of the Caribbean empire
Benjamin Steiner

Africans and Europeans were not the only ones involved in the construction of the large buildings on the islands. The indigenous populations, the Caribs, whom the Europeans encountered when they landed on these islands, mastered several building techniques, disposed over knowledge about the local materials, different sorts of woods, stones, corals, and how to handle, use, and apply them for construction works. This chapter describes the multicultural constellation of the population in the Antilles at the beginning of European colonization efforts. A close look on materials used in the large buildings reveals the sort of assemblage that the actor–network theory proposes to be an essential image of the interconnection between things and people. In the Antilles bricks, stones, and lime, including sea corals and shells, were used in many buildings; sometimes French engineers imported bricks, tiles, steel, and even stones from Europe making the walls of the large buildings thus perfect examples of assemblages of Atlantic materials.

in Building the French empire, 1600–1800