Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cover story: "Wine, Sugar, and the Making of Modern France"

Elizabeth Heath is an Assistant Professor of History at Baruch College, City University of New York, having taught previously at Florida International University. She received her PhD from the Department of History at the University of Chicago. She is a former Harper–Schmidt Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago and the holder of a number of fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Newberry Library, the Getty Research Institute, and the Wolfsonian Museum. Her research focuses on modern France and the French empire, and she is particularly interested in the way that colonialism shaped the fundamental features of modern French life, whether citizenship and welfare, or consumer habits, hygiene, and economic tools. She is currently at work on a new book-length project on French colonial commodities entitled Everyday Colonialism: Commodities of Empire and the Making of Modern France.

Heath's new book is Wine, Sugar, and the Making of Modern France: Global Economic Crisis and the Racialization of French Citizenship, 1870-1910.

Here she explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
It may be the case that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but it can be hoped that the cover offers key insights into the story contained inside. When I first saw the image that now adorns my book I could not believe my good fortune: it was an attractive, colorful, and beautifully stylized image of Guadeloupe originally produced as a schoolbook cover during the French Third Republic. Sugar cane, field workers, tropical vistas, colonial officers, naval ships all joined together to create an image of a tropical paradise that was, simultaneously beguiling and transparent about the racial inequalities that defined French imperialism.

As I studied it more closely, I realized that the image actually encapsulates one of the central claims I make in Wine, Sugar, and the Making of Modern France. The book began with two fundamental questions: why did colonial citizens in Guadeloupe, who began the Third Republic with rights equal to rural citizens in metropolitan France, acquire the status of second-class citizens by 1910? How did these two different and unequal forms of citizenship emerge? The answer, I argue, has to do with the way that the French state attempted to mitigate the political and social effects of global economic crisis in the late nineteenth century. In an era of declining prices and profits, growing protectionism, and heightened imperialism, the French state encouraged French businesses to seek investment opportunities in the empire. Guadeloupe, which had been waylaid by the global sugar crisis, was not one of the places that French investors sought out. However, metropolitan banks and businesses had extended loans to Guadeloupean sugar factories earlier in the Third Republic in order to keep the industry—and the colony—afloat. Sugar producers deflected much of the costs of these loans onto sugar industry workers. When beleaguered worker-citizens of color protested their growing immiseration and went on strike in the early twentieth century, the French Third Republic intervened to preserve the Guadeloupean sugar industry—and by extension the empire—as a “safe” space for investment. Far from preserving the rights and wellbeing of colonial citizens, the Third Republic crushed the worker movement and undercut the workers’ political rights, thereby creating the foundation for new, and unequal form of colonial citizenship.

The cover illustrates the position of Guadeloupe in 1910 beautifully. Though in theory a colony of citizens, Guadeloupe has been hemmed in by the economic imperatives of the empire at large. In the center, Guadeloupean workers toil in the cane fields, recalling an earlier period of slavery. A colonial official and naval officer stand on guard to preserve the new imperial order and, like in 1910, to step in to quell any form of labor unrest. Once touted as symbols of France’s policy of assimilation, the Guadeloupean workers have been drawn into, and constrained, by the logic of an empire based association and new forms of inequality.

The cover conveys all this, but also operates at yet another level. In many ways it replicates the work it would have done in its earlier manifestation as a schoolbook cover. The image places the reader in the position of a metropolitan school child and invites him or her to fantasize about distant lands and adventures. By helping the reader see Guadeloupe and the French empire from this perspective, it prepares the reader to figure out how and why this image, with its clearly demarcated racial hierarchy and power relations would have been so unremarkable and natural in the eyes of a metropolitan school child living in 1910.
Learn more about Wine, Sugar, and the Making of Modern France at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue