Discovering Empire: France and the Atlantic World from the Age of Columbus to the Rise of Napoleon

Collaborative Group

Dr. Brett Rushforth, Dr. Christopher G. Hodson




Based on original research in more than thirty archives in France, Canada, the Caribbean, and the United States, Discovering Empire explores the interconnected histories of France, Africa, and the Americas from the fifteenth century through Haitian independence in 1804. By the mid-eighteenth century, France claimed nearly a third of North America, ruled over the Caribbean’s most profitable plantations, and controlled a substantial proportion of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the late eighteenth century, Saint-Domingue produced more wealth than any colony on earth, becoming, like Potosí in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a symbol of the grand possibilities—and great human costs—of colonialism. Encompassing the full scope of the pre-Napoleonic French empire for the first time since the eighteenth century, Discovering Empire offers a wide-ranging reinterpretation of early modern French colonialism and reintegrates France into an Atlantic historiography currently dominated by British and Iberian perspectives.

The collaborators’ distinct areas of expertise mirror the dialogue between indigenous and state perspectives that characterized early modern French colonialism. Rushforth has primarily published on the history of French relations with indigenous peoples in North America and the Caribbean, focusing on the seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century histories of Indian and African slavery in the French Atlantic. Hodson specializes in the later eighteenth century, having published widely on the history of the French imperial state and its relationship with colonial populations all around the Atlantic and in France itself. The outcome of the collaboration will be the publication of a jointly authored historical monograph, under contract with Basic Books with an estimated publication date of 2012.

Award period: January 1, 2011 – December 31, 2011