Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Tricouleur: The French Overseas Empire

Book Cover

Book Title

Tricouleur: The French Overseas Empire. London; New York: Gordon & Cremonesi, 1978


Betts, Raymond F.


The book provides an introductory study that briefly spans the history of modern French empire and is meant to concentrate on the important problems with regard to French imperialism and their aims in garnering colonies. Betts set the context by referring to the period where a shift in locus of French interest occurred from the New World to older worlds, those of Africa and Asia. The colonial system was seen as hypothetical since even at the end of the nineteenth century there were still no effective colonial administration, and the reality of imperialism was in the singular person of the Frenchman who "happened to be there".

Betts espouses that the French empire was created without a nation-wide inspiration, for it was the military who largely acted as agents of imperialism and the then-existent French colonial world remained crudely defined by the military. Imperialism was thus the end-products of the passion of a small number of dedicated nationalists, ambitious soldiers and as the nineteenth century came to a close, a few ministers of state. The French perspective influenced largely their forms of colonial practice, for the 'assimilation' process was largely driven by the French colonizers, who saw the people they ruled over as the children that they have to control and 'nurture', for only the French was equipped with the know-how to guide and educate the 'natives'. In this framework, decolonization became defined as modification, rather than total abolition of the colonial system.

Ultimately, the focus remains largely on the theories of the French empire, how it came about and who drove it forward. This provides a good introduction book for the empire-reader.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book adopts a largely theoretical approach, since the different facets of French imperial thought and the modes of governing are examined in great detail. Other than merely examining the French context before the 'High Imperialism' period, Betts makes the connections between ideas of economic and political dependence of the present-day Third World. Particularly, according to the argument of neo-imperialism replacing formal colonization, the underlying purpose of imperialism persisted since present-day Third World countries are still largely economically and sometimes politically dependent on their former imperial powers.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

France's loss of formal empire in Canada and Louisiana becomes the starting point for a qualitative change in the form of French empire. Betts attempt to identify patterns of colonial rule, particularly the reasons for its evolution. Border incident was seen as a frequent provocation for the extension of colonial rule, as witness the British in Punjab: raiding tribes that fought against defending colonial troops became a reason to elicit the support of the British home government.

The roots of the French empire in Indochina was also seen to have been largely been instigated by Frenchmen, but was not deemed a conscious national effort. The governor of Cochinchina had personally sent an explorer on an expedition to open Tonkin to French trade and to establish French influence with the court of the Emperor of Annam through military means.

Betts argued that "imperial thinking , in the new age of technology, was global thinking". And yet, global thinking most often followed well-established patterns of nineteenth century nationalist patterns - especially after defeat to Germany in 1870-71 - French nationalists became imperialists. Thus, a qualitative shift of the form of colonies and changing perceptions of imperialism as tied to national prestige becomes a reality in the nineteenth century. Yet, Betts acknowledges the difficulty of making a critical analysis of the causes of empire at the time, for it is tainted by the idea that the colonial empire was a fact of life rather than a historical development.

Annotated by Michelle Djong