Theatre and colonialism: the show goes on

The cover image of Colonialism and slavery in performance: theatre and the eighteenth-century French Caribbean shows a black and white detail from a wonderful color map of Le Cap, from the collection of the John Carter Brown Library, which can be viewed in exquisitely high detail here. I encourage strolling through the city! The theatre, pictured on the cover of the volume, occupies a rectangular corner lot below the government complex gardens, with its shorter face spilling onto the Place de la Fontaine Montarcher, and its longer face allowing for dramatic arrivals along the end of the broad cours of the Rue Espagnole. Theatre was literally at the heart of the Saint-Domingue’s cultural capital, a haven of spectacle that, as the essays in our collection show in so many ways, was adopted and adapted in the Caribbean slave colonies, to lasting effect.

Place et Fontaine Montarcher. (Manioc – Bibliothèque numérique caraïbe)

As editors of this volume, Karine Benac-Giroux and I are delighted to share this collection of essays with scholarly communities around the world. We feel that this is a particularly opportune time to look back at how popular entertainment shaped perceptions and identities in the transatlantic French empire, and the ways in which the legacy of these eighteenth-century cultural practices has continued to inform the artistic production and historical understanding of the modern Francophone Caribbean. By presenting these essays in English, we also hope that they can help to extend the growing body of research around slavery and culture across early modern European colonial empires.

Over the course of the time that this volume was in preparation the world has been rocked by a number of epoch-defining events. The international wave of protests set off by the killing of George Floyd in 2020 has shone a bright light on the continued structural disadvantages imposed on descendants of African slaves in America and abroad. These events unfolded during a worldwide public-health crisis that has, amongst other depredations, forced the closing of almost all live performance venues. While we join the world in our outrage and mourning over these trials, we also recognize the rare timeliness of essays on eighteenth-century studies and theatre, to reflect on the cultural and representational apparatus of a slave-labor driven political empire that was an important contributor to the mentalities and practices that continue to shape the lives of Black people around the world. Performance, in the eighteenth century as today, retains a unique ability to reflect and mold our social perception; each of these essays confirms this power, offering a range of critical tools and past examples to underscore the long history that led up to this point, and how we might seize on these same representational tools to forge a more equitable future.

Map of Saint-Domingue (Hispaniola), by Nicolas de Fer (1646-1720). (John Carter Brown Library)

Here is a quick summary of the volume’s contents. The volume is divided into three parts. The first looks at the cultures of performance in France’s most profitable eighteenth-century colony, Saint-Domingue. Before the Haitian revolution made this colony into the New World’s first Black Republic, Saint-Domingue’s economy was driven by slave labor at the island’s sugar plantations. Life in Saint-Domingue may have lacked much of the refinement of life in Paris, but in addition to importing unspeakably brutal labor practices, the colonists also brought a semblance of French theatrical life to the Caribbean. Travelling companies from Europe could profitably tour the colony with popular works from France, where the reigning théâtromanie made playhouses an important site for the negotiation of national values, tastes, and identity, all functions that theatre at once retained and modified in colonial Saint-Domingue. Logan Connors’ exploration of military-themed entertainment played in the colony reflects the increasing importance of an armed presence necessary for the commercial success of the slave-driven plantation economy, just as Julia Prest’s close reading of blackface performance illuminates the ways in which theatre helped to metabolize the conflicting moral valence of the racialized other under the ancien régime. In her exploration of the changes made to a successful pantomime spectacle when it was brought to Saint-Domingue by a traveling company of actors from France, Béatrice Ferrier’s research shines a light on the preferences of local audiences, while Bernard Camier details the emergence of a Creole theatrical culture articulated around the sophisticated use of the island’s homegrown idiom, notably in the works of the author and composer Clément, whose adaptation of Rousseau’s smash hit Le Devin du village provides a compelling case study for the emergence of a new identity – not French, but in dialogue with France – in Saint-Domingue.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Le Devin du village.

In turn, Sean Anderson turns his focus on the dance performances of enslaved people, detailing how increasing colonial efforts at regulating this cultural expression were nevertheless unable to suppress this vital embodied expression of community and identity among slaves. Laurence Marie rounds out this section, and provides a transition into the next part of the book, with an attentive reading of the theatrical notices in the Saint-Domingue newspaper, Les Affiches américaines, analyzing how this publication reflected and promoted the unique theatrical culture in the Atlantic colonies, both within the Caribbean space and before the curious public in continental France.

The second part of the book turns its focus to how Atlantic slavery was represented on Europe’s stages, beginning with Catherine Ramond’s review of the theme of slavery in eighteenth-century French theatre, where the topic received largely comic treatment until the early days of the revolution. My own article, on the representation of slaves in Revolution-era theatre focuses on linguistic caricature (the infamous ‘baragouin’ of Black characters on the French stage), is followed by Pierre Saint-Amand’s penetrating analysis of an explicitly abolitionist play, La Liberté générale, written following the declaration of universal emancipation by the Convention nationale in 1794, a scathing denunciation of the machinations of the colonial planter class in Paris.

La Liberté générale. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The view then moves to a larger European stage, with Fredrik Thomasson’s chronicle of slave-plays in Stockholm, triggered by the Swedish crown’s takeover of the slave island of Saint-Barthélémy, ceded by France in 1784, making Sweden a slave-holding colonial power for the first time in its history. While the Haitian Revolution is now recognized as a signal realization of the French Revolution’s ostensible goals of liberty and equality, it was nevertheless experienced as a deep trauma for the French nation, a trauma that Pascale Pellerin situates in the cultural context surrounding Napoleon’s Egypt expedition through her reading of two plays written by Népomucène Lemercier during this campaign, whose focus on North African slavery comes to stand in for the anxieties of a diminished France following the loss of Saint-Domingue.

The final section pivots to look at the inheritance of this eighteenth-century theatrical culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Laurent Dubois and Kaiama Glover’s collaborative contribution probes the porous borders of history and fiction through the intellectual relationship between Jean Fouchard, the pioneering mid-century historian of Saint-Domingue’s eighteenth-century theatre culture, and Marie Vieux-Chauvet, whose novel La Danse sur le volcan (1957) draws on Fouchard’s research to fill in the story of the mixed-race performer Minette, the colony’s most celebrated actress. Following this, Emily Sahakian turns her attention to two contemporary Guadeloupian artists, LénaBlou and Gilbert Laumord, whose respective artistic practice enters into dialogue with the experience of the enslaved people – their ancestors – whose voices are muted in eighteenth-century stage culture, but whose testimony lives on through the Caribbean dance and music traditions that form the basis of these artists’ work.

Colonialism and slavery in performance, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, March 2021.

The final two essays look at contemporary creations in Martinique, beginning with Karine Bénac-Giroux’s reflections on Histoires de valets, her Creole-feminist adaptation of Louis de Boissy’s La Surprise de la haine, performed by Martinican college students in Schoelcher in 2017, in which she stages a literal confrontation between eighteenth-century theatre and the lives of contemporary French citizens, descendants of slaves, who live in France’s overseas departments. Nadia Chonville closes our collection with an analysis of gender construction in a Daniely Francisque’s 2018 play Ladjablès, illustrating how the stage remains as important a site for exploring the contours of a French-Caribbean identity that is forever marked by the legacy of ancien régime slavery.

Jeffrey M. Leichman, Louisiana State University

Jeffrey M. Leichman and Karine Bénac-Giroux are co-editors of the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Colonialism and slavery in performance: theatre and the eighteenth-century French Caribbean.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog, March 2021.

Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow

“Combining profound linguistic sophistication with enviable literary style, Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman, two of today’s most esteemed scholars of Russian literature, have produced the definitive translation of Radishchev’s classic revolutionary cri de cœur.” – Douglas Smith, author of Rasputin: faith, power, and the twilight of the Romanovs

‘Each person is born into this world the equal of any other.’

Alexander Radishchev, Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow

Alexander Radishchev, Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790).

This line opens a speech in the court trial of a family of serfs who killed their master in self-defence. This line and other statements about inequality, human rights, and social justice, are of crucial importance in Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790). These ideas make this travelogue both a work ahead of its time in Russia, published seventy years before the Great Reforms of the 1860s, and a work that is completely contemporary to its time because the ideals expressed by Radishchev’s narrators are consistent with progressive movements of the 1790s. An experienced civil servant, Radishchev could have written out his positions on agrarian reform and serfdom in a treatise or a formal report. Instead he chose to cast his radical critique in the form of a journey. He published this work on a hand-press with dire personal consequences, facing first arrest and then exile. What may have been explosive then – and what is most relevant now – was not Radishchev’s policies on serfdom (he offered none in this work) but rather the arguments for human rights he espouses.

Title page of the first edition (Library of Congress, Washington DC)

Title page of the first edition (Library of Congress, Washington DC).

The eighteenth century was a great age of journeys, real and fictional. Fictional journeys provided defamiliarized perspectives on beliefs, attitudes, and customs as socially constructed. While the Enlightenment generally promoted moral universals, it also relativized social practices, and by experiencing reality first-hand, travellers commented anthropologically on variations of ways of life near and far; dietary practices, marriage arrangements, sexual taboos, and human rights were thrown in the spotlight, indications of local customs that showed differences and consistencies in the application of universal human tendencies. The pioneering work in travel as comparative social science was Montesquieu’s Persian letters (Lettres persanes, 1721), and many later journeys dressed up philosophical enquiry as adventure. The Supplement to the Journey of Bougainville (Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, 1796), a masterpiece by Denis Diderot, considers the state of nature in which eighteenth-century Tahitians lived as a society. Polygamous family structures were naturally communist in property sharing, while colonization by outsiders wrought disease and poverty on the native population. Captain James Cook may have been a hero as an explorer, but from another standpoint his settlers had brought destruction. Similar in its use of travel as a vehicle for social critique was Guillaume Thomas Raynal’s A Philosophical and political history of the Two Indies (Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, 1770). A tale of travels full of tirades against colonial exploitation, unfair trade practices, and slave rebellions in the East Indies, South America, and elsewhere, the book was banned in France in 1779 and burned by France’s public executioner. Raynal escaped arrest by going first to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia and then to St Petersburg where Catherine the Great offered him a warm reception. Raynal’s book was one that Radishchev had in his library and from which he quoted.

Fictional journeys provided defamiliarized perspectives on beliefs, attitudes, and customs as socially constructed

Alexander Radishchev

Alexander Radishchev (unknown painter).

In his travelogue Radishchev followed the example of other distinguished European writers in representing the societal ills and governance issues besetting his country; he uses a mixed form that combines novelistic stories, treatise-like speeches, and allegories in a way that is both specific and universal, realistic and abstract, targeting troubles that existed in one place but could happen in any society. This is the tradition in which Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg should be read. His journey follows a real postal route, with grumpy stationmasters and insufficient postal horses lending verisimilitude. His hero offers an outsider’s perspective on local practices and, like Diderot’s naturalist in Tahiti, he is particularly fascinated by the treatment of women, arranged marriages, sexual exploitation, and the ravages of venereal disease. And in the manner of Laurence Sterne (as well as of Nikolai Karamzin, whose work Radishchev may have read), Radishchev’s hero is brimming with virtue and tears. A readiness to weep may look quaint now, but in eighteenth-century literary symbolism, weeping was proof of a human capacity for empathy. Empathy, for the most important social theorists of the period such as Lord Kames and Adam Smith, is the bedrock of natural justice that societies must try to encode in law if they are to prevent discord and rebellion fomented by colonial and internal exploitation.

Yet what was Radishchev’s motivation to write this work? Russia had undergone multiple reforms during Catherine the Great’s long reign. In 1790, however, Catherine was seen, rightly or wrongly, as aged and more vulnerable to court factions and intrigues. Furthermore, there had been no progress on the question of serfdom just as the French Revolution inspired popular movements on a massive scale across Europe and the globe. Under some individual landholders, the plight of the serfs had improved. But for the vast majority of serfs (and we are talking about more than 90 per cent of the Russian Empire’s population), economic hardship was constant and unalleviated, exacerbated by other societal woes such as forced conscription and sexual exploitation – all topics that come up in this work.

A prohibited book, the Journey’s radicalism was seen as implicitly revolutionary

Catherine II by Alexander Roslin

Catherine II by Alexander Roslin
(1776-77, Hermitage).

A prohibited book, the Journey’s radicalism was seen as implicitly revolutionary. But this is contestable. Instead, the Journey’s radicalism might be better understood again in the context of its time. Unlike Captain Cook or Josiah Banks, for example, Radishchev did not write about scientific or exploratory journeys. (His letters from Siberia, however, show how observant he was about local flora and fauna.) His work places him closer to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Raynal’s Philosophical and political history in taking a human rights-based perspective, and how Russian serfs are presented as equal members of society is one of the most striking positions adopted in the Journey. Peasants’ lives matter not just out of economic efficiency but because of natural justice, an argument made in the speech of a nobleman who justifies acts of violence as self-defence in the aforementioned trial of the two serfs.

In these lines, at a time when questions of economic equality and race are making headlines across the United States and around the world, one can see the relevance of Radishchev’s work to our present moment, especially in translation. The speech below uses a familiar vocabulary, one that reflects the Enlightenment values enshrined in other contemporary documents such as the American Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights:

“Man considered, therefore, outside society is a being dependent on nobody else for his own deeds. But he puts a limit on these, consents not to subordinate himself to his own will alone, and becomes obedient to the commands of other human beings, in a word becomes a citizen. For the sake of what cause does he restrain his desires? For what purpose does he set a power over himself? Unlimited in the exercise of his willpower, why does he limit it through obedience? – For his own sake, – says reason. – For his own sake, – says an inner voice. – For his own sake, – says wise legislation. It follows that where it is not in his interest to be a citizen there is no citizen. It follows, therefore, that whoever wants to deprive him of the advantage of being a citizen is his enemy. He seeks in the law defense and retribution against his enemy. If the law either does not have the power to defend him or does not wish to do so, or lacks the power to help him immediately in his present woe, then the citizen uses his natural right of defense, preservation, welfare. For the citizen, insofar as he has become a citizen, does not cease to be a person whose first duty, stemming from his organism, is preservation, defense, welfare.”

– Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman

The text of this contribution first appeared in the Columbia University Press blog in September 2020.

Itinéraire d’un savant au XVIIIe siècle: Jean-Baptiste d’Anville

Les hésitations professionnelles des jeunes adultes, la difficulté à vivre de son art pour un savant ou un artiste, la nécessité de multiplier les activités rémunérées, autant de problématiques qui paraissent indéniablement contemporaines. Et pourtant, elles s’appliquent avec une acuité non moins grande au siècle des Lumières, malgré un contexte bien évidemment différent.

La mobilité professionnelle d’Ancien régime fait parfois l’objet de généralités: le fils de savetier sera savetier, le fils de boulanger sera lui-même boulanger, conservant ainsi les avantages d’une communauté de métier dans la famille. Dès lors, le choix d’un état ne semble guère poser question, il serait bien souvent dynastique. Cependant, l’héritage de la carrière paternelle était loin d’être une pratique systématique, comme le prouve la lecture des biographies d’académiciens publiées à leur mort sous la forme d’éloge.

Ainsi, Jean-Baptiste d’Anville, géographe français de premier plan au siècle des Lumières, est fils d’un tailleur d’habit parisien, Hubert Bourguignon. Aucun de ses deux autres fils ne suit la voie paternelle: l’un devient graveur, l’autre choisit la finance. Ces hommes ont donc choisi leur métier, ou comme on dit alors « un état ». La question de l’orientation professionnelle se pose donc.

Cependant, selon les conventions des éloges académiques, toute carrière scientifique a caractère d’évidence, d’où l’emprunt au vocabulaire religieux: les futurs savants, invariablement précoces, ne se destinent pas à une carrière, mais s’abandonnent à leur ‘vocation’. Et de même que leur voie s’impose aux académiciens, de même leur parcours ne paraît jamais rencontrer aucun obstacle matériel à en croire ces mêmes éloges, comme si le talent et le travail menaient sans faillir au succès.

Portrait de Jean-Baptiste d’Anville par Pierre Simon Benjamin Duvivier

Portrait de Jean-Baptiste d’Anville par Pierre Simon Benjamin Duvivier (1834); frontispice gravé dans Louis Charles Joseph de Manne, Œuvres de d’Anville publiées par M. de Manne, 2 vol. (Paris, 1834), t.1. Bibliothèque nationale de France, CPL, RES Ge FF 9378.

Dans l’ouvrage Une Carrière de géographe au siècle des Lumières, Jean-Baptiste d’Anville, les contributeurs se sont appliqués à dépasser les apparences et à saisir les conditions intellectuelles, mais aussi matérielles de la vie savante au XVIIIe siècle.

À travers les archives, la carrière de d’Anville apparaît infiniment plus précaire que ne le laisse deviner le parcours fulgurant dessiné par les éloges académiques. Les titres honorifiques se révèlent peu rémunérateurs; les prestigieuses positions à la cour s’avèrent temporaires; certaines relations utiles mais potentiellement embarrassantes sont soigneusement camouflées. L’apprenti savant, avant d’espérer vivre de son art, accepte de nombreux menus travaux, qui n’ont parfois même rien à voir avec la géographie: il copie des dessins d’uniformes militaires, se fait acheteur de cartes pour le compte du roi du Portugal. Avec le temps, il dispense des leçons, vend ses premières cartes, répond à des commandes et reçoit la dot de sa femme tous les trimestres, laquelle se révèle être une précieuse pension pour un jeune ménage. Le savant vit d’une mosaïque d’activités et de revenus.

Jean-Baptiste d’Anville, Considérations générales sur l’étude et les connoissances que demande la composition des ouvrages de géographie (Paris, Lambert, 1777), page de titre. Bibliothèque nationale de France, CPL, RES Ge FF 9394.

Mais ce ne sont que des expédients. Plus encore que par les pensions académiques, qui ne viendront d’ailleurs qu’assez tardivement dans le cas de d’Anville, l’équilibre économique n’est souvent garanti au XVIIIe siècle que par le mécénat, celui des ducs d’Orléans pour le géographe parisien. Évidemment, celui-ci a l’inconvénient de jeter le soupçon sur le travail du savant: exactitude scientifique et protection d’un mécène ne vont pas toujours aisément de pair. Mais sans le mécénat, le géographe n’aurait eu ni moyens de subsistance suffisants, ni le temps et l’argent nécessaires à la création de cartes de haute qualité.

Ainsi, au rebours de ce que laissent entendre les éloges académiques, rien n’est évident dans une carrière savante. Avant d’atteindre la reconnaissance et la sécurité matérielle, leurs moyens d’existence sont souvent instables et certains meurent dans la misère. Les parents du XVIIIe siècle ne sont d’ailleurs pas dupes, et les éloges laissent entendre qu’une carrière scientifique n’était pas forcément vue d’un très bon œil par les pères soucieux de l’avenir de leur progéniture. L’aspirant mathématicien du siècle des Lumières suscitait le même genre de frayeurs que l’apprenti poète du XIXe siècle. Les ressorts de la carrière artistique comme de la carrière savante sont d’ailleurs similaires: dans les deux cas, le soutien des académies et mécènes est bien souvent indispensables. Ils sont d’ailleurs, les uns comme les autres, logés dans la Grande galerie du Louvre, lorsqu’ils ont obtenu ce privilège.

Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, Collège des Quatre-nations et la galerie du Louvre (dix-huitième siècle); dessin.

Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, Collège des Quatre-nations et la galerie du Louvre (dix-huitième siècle); dessin. Bibliothèque nationale de France, EST, RES. VE-53 (D).

Pour se faire connaître comme géographe, toutes les techniques sont permises. Jean-Baptiste d’Anville saisit l’essor des journaux pour faire paraître dès ses dix-sept ans ses premiers résultats de recherche dans le Mercure de France, ou pour participer aux controverses scientifiques en vogue pour se faire un nom. Ce nom, bientôt, devient une marque de fabrique, garante de la qualité des cartes qui en sont signées. Il fait d’ailleurs l’objet de contrefaçons.

D’Anville, sous des dehors conservateurs, a vite compris l’intérêt de jouer de cette nouveauté, l’opinion publique, en se construisant un personnage: celui du travailleur solitaire et acharné qui redessine le monde sans avoir quitté Paris. Il en découle un ultime paradoxe dont on trouverait sans mal des équivalents actuels: d’Anville a assis sa légitimité et sa carrière savante en créant sa propre légende.

– Lucile Haguet

Qui est Jean-Baptiste d’Anville, géographe français des Lumières?

Jean-Baptiste d’Anville, savant parisien du XVIIIe siècle, est l’un des plus grands géographes du siècle des Lumières. Pour ses contemporains, ses cartes modernes sont incontournables. Bougainville, l’explorateur, salue ses cartes des Moluques et de l’Asie dont l’exactitude lui a été d’une aide précieuse au bout du monde. Le jeune Bonaparte, sur le point de se lancer à la conquête de l’Égypte, emporte avec lui une carte de d’Anville qu’il a pris soin de faire entoiler avant son départ. Ses cartes du monde ancien demeurent des références jusque loin dans le XIXe siècle pour les érudits de l’antiquité. Le jeune Champollion dans son Égypte sous les Pharaons (1814) s’en remet presque à chaque page au géographe parisien. Au XVIIIe, comme au XIXe siècle, lorsqu’il faut définir les frontières du Brésil, ce sont encore les cartes de d’Anville qui sont incontournables pour les diplomates. Enfin, sa notoriété excède les milieux autorisés. Encore au début du XIXe siècle, quand les journalistes de Paris, mais aussi les écrivains, comme Chateaubriand ou Balzac, doivent citer un géographe célèbre, c’est d’Anville qu’ils mentionnent.

Jean-Baptiste d’Anville

Jean-Baptiste d’Anville. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Aujourd’hui pourtant, malgré une renommée de près de deux siècles, rares sont ceux qui connaissent son nom, tant il est profondément tombé dans l’oubli. Si l’on prend l’expression au pied de la lettre, c’est le type même de l’illustre inconnu.

Pour tout historien du XVIIIe siècle cependant, d’Anville est incontestablement une figure majeure. Cette anecdote personnelle en témoigne: vers 2006, j’avais demandé conseil à Frank Lestringant, professeur de littérature à Paris-IV Sorbonne, également spécialiste reconnu de l’histoire de la cartographie, sur un passage de mon doctorat consacré à la cartographie occidentale de l’Égypte. Les cartes d’Égypte de d’Anville étant parmi les plus remarquables de mon corpus de recherche, Frank Lestringant s’était étonné de la quasi absence de références consacrées au grand géographe parisien. Du point de vue d’un spécialiste de l’histoire de la cartographie aguerri, il semblait inconcevable qu’aucun ouvrage n’ait été dédié à d’Anville. Et pourtant, à cette date, seuls quelques rares articles avaient été consacrés au grand géographe des Lumières.

Depuis la fin des années 2000, cependant, d’Anville fait l’objet d’un regain d’intérêt auprès de la communauté scientifique internationale. Des chercheurs sud-américains, américains, canadiens et belges ont commencé à publier des articles relatifs à d’Anville et à ses cartes. Cet intérêt mondial s’explique: d’Anville a cartographié toute la Terre, et nombre de ses cartes semblent avoir eu des conséquences diplomatiques et politiques importantes dans de nombreuses régions.

Jean-Baptiste d’Anville, ‘Amérique septentrionale’, détail.

Jean-Baptiste d’Anville, ‘Amérique septentrionale’ (1746 [i.e. vers 1755]); détail. Bibliothèque nationale de France, CPL, Ge AA 1380.

En 2008, la bibliothèque nationale de France a lancé de son côté un appel à chercheur associé sur Jean-Baptiste d’Anville, puis lui a consacré un programme triennal de recherches de 2010 à 2012. L’intérêt de la BnF pour d’Anville était naturel: le département des Cartes et plans y conserve depuis 1924 la quasi-intégralité de la collection cartographique de Jean-Baptiste d’Anville, complétée de manuscrits textuels et cartographiques réunis patiemment aux XIXe et XXe siècles et conservés à la fois au département des Manuscrits et à celui des Cartes et plans. L’entreprise colossale de catalogage et de numérisation de la collection d’Anville (près de 10 000 cartes) ne pouvait se concevoir sans y adosser des recherches scientifiques.

La mise en œuvre de ces programmes a donné lieu à de nombreux travaux: un recensement des sources et ressources sur d’Anville, une analyse plus fine de ses cartes manuscrites, la construction d’un carnet de recherche électronique pérenne (blog) qui diffuse un nombre très important de documents inédits relatifs à d’Anville, la tenue d’un colloque international en septembre 2012, organisé par la BnF et parrainé par l’Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres.

Aujourd’hui, la monographie consacrée à Jean-Baptiste d’Anville par la Voltaire Foundation vient concrétiser plusieurs années d’efforts. Elle vient combler une lacune de la bibliographie sur un géographe de premier plan avec ce volume au contenu entièrement inédit par les archives qu’il exploite, comme par l’originalité des problématiques qu’il met en œuvre.

– Lucile Haguet


Journey to the end of the river, with La Condamine

It is now official: according to an article recently published in Le Figaro, the highest point on Earth is… Mount Chimborazo, in Ecuador. Although there are dozens – if not hundreds – of peaks that are considerably taller than Chimborazo when measured as elevations above sea level, the top of the Ecuadorian volcano is the point furthest away from the centre of the Earth (outranking Mount Everest by some 1,800 metres) due to the fact that our planet is not a perfect sphere: rotation has slightly flattened it at the poles and made it bulge at the Equator.

Although the exact measurement of Chimborazo (‘to the nearest centimetre’, says Le Figaro) was only made possible by state-of-the-art technology, the fact that our terrestrial globe is flatter at the extremities and plumper in the middle did not exactly come as news. Newton had figured it out mathematically long ago, and the experimental evidence was provided by the twin expeditions of Maupertuis in Lapland and of La Condamine in modern-day Ecuador (then Peru) from the mid-1730s to the mid-1740s.

Reading the story about Mount Chimborazo, and with one thing leading to another, I felt compelled to look up works by Charles Marie de La Condamine on the Internet, and I started reading his Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale […] lue à l’assemblée publique de l’Académie des Sciences le 28 avril 1745 on For, as well as measuring his arc of meridian in Ecuador in order to settle the question of the shape of the Earth once and for all, La Condamine was also the first scientist to explore, describe and map the Amazon basin and its intricate network of tributaries in detail. His Relation abrégée was published in 1745, the same year he came back to Paris (via Amsterdam, as he sailed back to Europe from the Dutch colony of Suriname), having left the port of La Rochelle bound for the Americas ten years before, in 1735.


‘Carte du cours du Maragnon ou de la Grande Rivière des Amazones’, in Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale, by Charles Marie de La Condamine (Paris, chez la veuve Pissot, 1745). Image gallica/BnF.

The sense of immediacy afforded by La Condamine’s account of his journey, committed to the page so soon after its completion, is enhanced by the quality of the reading experience one gets thanks to the remarkable clarity of the scans of the first edition of the book (Paris, Chez la veuve Pissot, 1745) on Perusing the original edition, the reader feels transported back in time and space into a new world, huge swathes of which were then still largely unknown to Europeans, a world where the existence of a tribe of real-life Amazons could not be entirely dismissed (even though La Condamine himself was highly sceptical) and where echoes of stories about a land of gold – El Dorado – still resonated.

The book contains descriptions of many strange and mysterious animals – including the coati and the manatee – as well as what is quite possibly the first description of rubber by a European (La Condamine introduced the substance to Europe): ‘la résine appelée Cahuchu (prononcez Cahout-chou) […] est aussi fort commune sur les bords du Marañon […] Quand elle est fraîche, on lui donne avec des moules la forme qu’on veut; elle est impénétrable à la pluie, mais ce qui la rend plus remarquable, c’est sa grande élasticité. On en fait des bouteilles qui ne sont pas fragiles, des bottes […]’ (p.78-79).

La Condamine’s account of the character of the native Americans he encountered would undoubtedly make it quite difficult for him to find a publisher were he to submit his manuscript today, and would probably get him expelled from most universities’ Anthropology departments: ‘j’ai cru reconnaître dans tous [les Indiens Américains] un même fond de caractère. L’insensibilité en fait la base. […] Elle naît sans doute du petit nombre de leurs idées […] pusillanimes et poltrons à l’excès si l’ivresse ne les transporte pas […] ennemis du travail […] incapables de prévoyance et de réflexion […] ils passent leur vie sans penser, et ils vieillissent sans sortir de l’enfance dont ils conservent tous les défauts’ (p.52-53).

Charles Marie de La Condamine, by Charles Nicolas Cochin (artist) and Pierre Philippe Choffard (engraver), 1768. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Marie de La Condamine, by Charles Nicolas Cochin (artist) and Pierre Philippe Choffard (engraver), 1768. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Having said that, he is not unaware of his own biases as an external observer: describing how Indians inhale a crushed plant’s powder as snuff through a Y-shaped reed that they insert into their nostrils, he writes ‘cette opération […] leur fait faire une grimace fort ridicule aux yeux d’un Européen, qui veut tout rapporter à ses usages’ (p.73-74).

And his own commentary on what he perceives as the unenviable condition of native American women (offered as a theory concerning the possible origin of the Amazons) reveals his humane and compassionate side: ‘Je me contenterais de faire remarquer qui si jamais il y a pu avoir des Amazones dans le monde, c’est en Amérique, où la vie errante des femmes qui suivent souvent leurs maris à la guerre, et qui n’en sont pas plus heureuses dans leur domestique, a dû leur faire naître l’idée et leur fournir des occasions fréquentes de se dérober au joug de leurs tyrans, en cherchant à se faire un établisssement où elles pussent vivre dans l’indépendance, et du moins n’être pas réduites à la condition d’esclaves et de bêtes de somme. Une pareille résolution prise et exécutée n’aurait rien de plus extraordinaire ni de plus difficile que tout ce qui arrive tous les jours dans toutes les colonies européennes d’Amérique, où il n’est que trop ordinaire que des esclaves maltraités ou mécontents fuient par troupes dans les bois, et quelquefois seuls’ (p.110-111).

Although a bit dry (ironically) when describing the drainage basin of the Amazon river, the sheer variety of the observations and reflections contained in this slim volume and the author’s superb style make it a compelling and rejuvenating read, a first-hand account of an endlessly fascinating world, full of mysteries and wonders, by one of the great explorers and scientists of his time.

– Georges Pilard


East meets west in the global eighteenth century

Adam Smith, one of the eighteenth century’s most perceptive minds, claimed in The Wealth of nations that the ‘discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events in the history of mankind’. His observation illuminates one of the key issues affecting major European powers in the late eighteenth century: where to expand on the world stage?


Britain, for example, was experiencing contrasting fortunes. Having defeated the French in the Seven Years War in what is often regarded as the first global conflict, the British were subsequently defeated in the American War of Independence. Attention was increasingly directed to opportunities offered by the east, as the celebrated voyages of Cook and Bougainville to the Pacific Ocean were opening up new territorial and cultural challenges.

It was, however, the Indian sub-continent with its promise of new commercial opportunities and wealth that proved most attractive to European powers. As history has proved, the Indian sub-continent became fertile ground for colonial expansion and the transformation of the global order.


But the relations between east and west were more complicated and nuanced than a simple binary opposition would suggest, as contributors to India and Europe in the global eighteenth century uncover. European rivalries in India produced unanticipated repercussions back in the Old World, expansionist agendas were questioned and enhanced knowledge of ancient Indian civilisations and belief systems challenged the hegemony of Greco-Roman antiquity. India was, in a sense, expanding west and making a mark politically, commercially and culturally in Europe as an essential part of an increasingly interconnected global world.

–Simon Davies

See also Céline Spector’s blog on Civilisation et empire au siècle des Lumières (October 2013).


Frontispiece and title-page of La Cabaña Indiana y El Café de Surate (Valencia, José Ferrer de Orga, 1811).


Disparate de bestia, Goya.