Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Roots of French Imperialism in East Asia

Book Cover

Book Title

The Roots of French Imperialism in East Asia. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1954


Cady, John F.


Cady’s interest lies in the revival of French imperialist tradition in East Asia in the two-decade period between 1840 and 1860 under the leadership of Louis Philippe and Louis Napoleon. On the foundations of genuine religious zeal as well as a renewed desire for the recovery of national prestige, the French pursued an expansionist policy in Annam, China and Siam through a series of alliances and wars. Diving headfirst into intricate detail, Cady describes the French’s interactions with both indigenous authorities as well as European rivals, most significantly the Portuguese, Dutch and British. It is clear from his narration that the French were by no means the principle agent in East or Southeast Asia, and were often forced to react to unexpected political circumstances or momentous decisions made by other parties. Cady also places great emphasis on happenings in Europe and in France itself; according to him, developments at home had a strong causal effect on French policies in East Asia.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Cady’s period of interest is the twenty-year span between 1840 and 1860, but he provides context by giving a brief overview of French activities in East Asia and Indochina from 1662 to 1830—the French Company was established in 1664. He claims that French imperialist policy dates back to the time of Louis XIV, an era of French dominance in Europe. Geographically, Cady focuses on China, Annam and Siam, but also uses happenings in France and in Europe as reference points on the timeline. He also makes frequent references to other regional players such as Russia and Japan. His account is primarily narrative and is shot through with detail. He describes single diplomatic missions and treaties through the perspectives of individual agents not limited to the French.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Cady’s overarching argument is that the roots of French imperialism lay in national pride, which in itself encompassed many facets. It was the desperation for the recovery of national prestige during the time of Louis Philippe that spurred renewed interest in imperial endeavors. The expansion of the French empire was also intended to bolster dynamic popularity, and increasingly, to avoid decadence. Importantly, this was a shift away from the focus on missionary efforts that dominated the pre-1840 era of expansion. Catholic missions were replaced by more political and economic concerns: the French wanted both to tap on overseas markets and to establish a geopolitical stronghold in East Asia so as to maintain their relevance in the European arena. These aims were inextricably bound with their bitter rivalry with Britain, whom the French refused to leave unchallenged. Indeed, competition from other colonizing or regional powers figures prominently in Cady’s narration; the decisions of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and even the Russians and Japanese deeply affected French policy. Thus whereas pre-1840 colonizing efforts had been spun in heavily clerical terms, by 1860 the religious desire for Catholic proselytization had been replaced as a driving factor by a national desire for wealth and pride vis-à-vis other European powers. On that note, Cady is careful to point out that France’s motive cannot be described in purely economic terms: the taproot of French imperialism was ultimately political and nationalist.

It is also clear that Cady sees domestic developments as a key factor in French imperial policy. The second chapter of the book is dedicated to establishing contextual knowledge of the political environment in France before 1840; he uses European events such as the ascension of Willliam and Mary in 1689 and the War of the Austrian Succession from 1740 to 1748 to put the East Asian narration into wider perspective. In his conclusion, he notes that political confusion in France, in the form of military defeat by Prussia and civil war with the Paris Commune, distracted the country from the imperialist attitudes they had developed between 1840 and 1860.  The Church also had some effect on French fortunes: Rome’s prohibition of Confucian practices in the Church, for instance, adversely affected France’s attempts to penetrate China.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip