In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section France and Empire

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Data Sources
  • Medieval Origins
  • Early French Encounters in Africa and the Americas
  • France and Native Americans
  • France, Slavery, and Race
  • Government, Political Culture, and Empire under the Bourbon Kings
  • Consolidation and Conflict in the French Empire
  • France and the Age of Atlantic Revolutions
  • The Age of Napoleon and Beyond

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Atlantic History France and Empire
Christopher Hodson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0041


At its apex, the early modern French Empire laid claim to nearly a third of North America, ruled over the Caribbean’s most profitable plantations, and controlled a substantial proportion of the transatlantic slave trade. Several hundred thousand French-speaking settlers lived permanently in the colonies, and many more were tied to overseas interests through trade, investment, or family relationships. In the late 18th century, Saint-Domingue produced more wealth than any place on earth, becoming, like Potosí in the 16th and 17th centuries, a symbol of the grand possibilities of colonialism. Until recently, however, scholarship on France’s first empire has been characterized by neglect and fragmentation. In the United States, many historians of colonial North America viewed the French presence as a mere sideshow; French historians paid relatively little attention to an empire that did not endure; and in Canada, French West Africa, and the French Caribbean, scholars tended to focus on proto-national or regional studies. With the rise of Atlantic history, however, new scholarship has begun to conceive of an integrated sphere of French influence encompassing several distant colonial regions as well as the metropolis. Tension persists, however, between those who envision the French Atlantic as a loose grouping of colonial and indigenous societies and those who see the structures of empire as useful tools for gauging the interplay of French designs and native agency.

General Overviews

These entries reflect the still-fractured state of the field as well as the possibilities and pressures created by the turn to Atlantic history. Collins 2009 (cited under Government, Political Culture, and Empire under the Bourbon Kings) takes pains to integrate Atlantic matters into an important revisionist study of the early modern French state, while Meyer, et al. 1990 and Pluchon 1991 offer imperial histories rooted in the operations of that state in the Atlantic world. Butel 2002 and Havard and Vidal 2003 provide nuanced, regional portraits of imperialism in North America and the Caribbean, while Eccles 1998 and Pritchard 2004 argue that the French Atlantic developed almost exclusively in the absence of strong imperial government. Dubois 2009 gives a short, sensible overview of recent scholarly trends.

  • Butel, Paul. Histoire des Antilles françaises, XVIIe–XXe siècle. Paris: Perrin, 2002.

    The best French-language overview of the island colonies of the French Caribbean, from their foundation through the creation of the overseas départements of Martinique and Guadeloupe after World War II.

  • Dubois, Laurent. “The French Atlantic.” In Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal. Edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan, 137–162. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Useful, brief overview of the field within a volume addressing multiple approaches to Atlantic history. Privileges the Caribbean, reflecting both the author’s own research specialty and a more general trend in scholarship.

  • Eccles, W. J. The French in North America, 1500–1763. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998.

    Dated but still useful survey of French activities in North America from the earliest moments of exploration through the end of the American Revolution. Notable for an exceptionally thorough and entertaining bibliographical essay rich in primary sources and commentary on older scholarship.

  • Havard, Gilles, and Cécile Vidal. Histoire de l’Amérique française. Paris: Flammarion, 2003.

    The most complete, nuanced statement on the early modern French Empire in North America in any language. Authors promote the idea of French imperialism as the result of complex, unstable negotiations among agents of the monarchy, French colonists, and powerful Native American societies.

  • Meyer, Jean, Jean Tarrade, Annie Rey-Goldzeiguer, and Jacques Thobie. Histoire de la France coloniale: Dès origines á 1914. 2 vols. Paris: Armand Colin, 1990.

    Encyclopedic account of French colonial history through World War I; focused on the “apogee” of French imperialism between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the 1930s, but relatively useful for the early modern period as well.

  • Pluchon, Pierre. Histoire de la colonisation française. Vol. 1, Le premier empire colonial, des origines á la Restauration. Paris: Fayard, 1991.

    Broad survey that explicitly uses an imperial framework to analyze early modern France and its colonies. Author laments the demise of this first French Empire, concentrating on diplomatic blunders and administrative shortsightedness during the final years of the ancien régime.

  • Pritchard, James. In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670–1730. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511808555

    The most complete, aggressive defense of the idea that early modern France had no Atlantic empire, only a series of disconnected colonial societies with tenuous relationships to one another and the mother country.

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