Science and the “Civilizing Mission”: France and the Colonial Enterprise

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Science and the “Civilizing Mission”:

France and the Colonial Enterprise
Patrick Petitjean

REHSEIS (CNRS & Université Paris 7)


September 1994: ORSTOM celebrated its fiftieth birthday with a conference "20th Century Sciences: Beyond the Metropolis".1 ORSTOM (Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer) is the name given in 1953 to the former "Office de la Recherche Scientifique Coloniale," founded in 1943.2 This conference showed an evident acceptance of the colonial heritage in science and technology. Such continuities raise questions about the part played by science in the so-called second wave of European expansion of the late nineteenth century, which led to the partitioning of the world by European powers.3

The aim of this essay is to outline the part played by science in the French mission of civilisation, this “civilizing mission” and to describe how it occupied such a central part in colonial ideology and policy from the 1880s. In this period, the interests of science were combined with those of national prestige.4 Colonization was undertaken in the name of science. To civilize, in official French colonial ideology, was to bring the benefits of science, just as for other countries, it was to bring the benefits of religion or free trade. The “civilizing mission” thus managed to combine elements of Eurocentrism and scientism. It represented a cultural consensus from the 1880s until the 1930s, and conditioned many generations of French scientists in their training, in their scientific practices, and in their mentalities.
Lewis Pyenson has argued that the “civilizing mission” can be understood within the frame of cultural imperialism, insofar as the exact sciences are concerned.5 However, it is necessary to have a less restrictive vision of the “civilizing mission”, when in fact, science was an organic part of the colonial enterprise. In the nineteenth century, it was inseparable from imperialism. Science and the philosophy of scientism formed a core of the French “civilizing mission”, with repercussions for colonial ideology as well as for colonial values. As such, science claimed to give a "rational" basis for hierarchies between civilizations, and, in fact, promoted contempt for non-European cultures. Western science was not spread from Europe into a scientific vacuum abroad: the context mattered. Colonial science was much more than a matter of gathering, exploring and developing. Moreover, its role cannot be reduced solely to the pursuit of European scientific activities in the colonies themselves.

This perspective converges more with the analyses of Joseph Needham and Michael Adas than with George Basalla.6 Daniel Headrick has produced a fruitful analysis of science and technology for imperialism, but science and technology were not only tools for conquest, control and development. To understand “civilizing mission”, it is necessary to describe the status of science, as constructed in the nineteenth century, and to describe the role that the ideology of science played in France, particularly during the Third Republic. This paper thus examines the combination of Eurocentrism and scientism: how science, with the help of racialist theory, became incorporated into colonial ideology. It highlights the intellectual and political debates about science and the “civilizing mission” in the metropolis and suggests that the marriage of science and imperialism did not disappear with decolonization.

Science and Eurocentrism in the Nineteenth Century
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Western science included three features fundamental to the colonial enterprise: a universal and neutral model of science; the grand partage (the "big divide" between science and beliefs, between scientific and empirical or popular knowledge, between universal science and local knowledge); and a belief in science as the ultimate value to measure civilizations and their place in a hierarchical system.7 According to this model, the achievements of modern science are based on its internal features: rationality, objectivity (science as a mirror-like reflection of reality and of its order), experimental method, and the mathematization of Nature's laws. The modern sciences are to be understood as unique, and this unity reflects the laws and the unity of Nature.
The universality of science proceeded from a movement that found universality (of humankind, of political systems, of moral values) in Nature and Reason, and not in religion. At the same time, this universality was dominated by hierarchies of power (typically white, European, bourgeois and male). In this fashion, science also claimed to represent a qualitative rupture with the beliefs and practices of non-Western peoples, which were rejected as superstitions. Given this conception of modern science, indigenous cultures could not contribute to different representations of nature, and the historiography of science would not have recognized them as precursors. The results of research, it was argued, were not culturally situated. Institutions and practices could provisionally delay or even forbid the progress of science, but they were unable to shape it. They were inessential to science. There were many traditional sciences, but only one modern science. This model is still largely dominant, though it has shown internal limits as well as an incapacity to represent the historical process.8

D'Alembert, Condorcet and most Enlightenment philosophers viewed the human history as a succession of steps towards a future ideal society.9 Civilizations were ranked in hierarchies according to their position on these steps. "Progress" was the word used to qualify the advancement towards a scientific and moral society. But, unlike the standard account, Enlightenment savants fully recognized the non-European origins of classical and modern science. Science developed by integrating knowledge from different origins. Europeans travellers acknowledged natives for their participation in the scientific enterprise, and sometimes recognized their own dependency upon local "informers." For tropical diseases, "cures" would have been found in the Tropics and be known to natives. Europeans had no hesitation in integrating non-European learning.10 European naturalists, visiting the tropic, for instance brought back not only specimens, collections of animals and plants, but also explanatory systems and nomenclatures.11

According to Roshdi Rashed, the progress of science in Europe was contingent, not essentialist.12 At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, this conception was affected by a complete change of nature and meaning: the "occidentality" of science became based upon anthropological considerations. The origins of classical science, it was argued, were to be found in ancient Greece, and only in Greece. Thus, one referred to the "Greek miracle", which was followed by a scientific vacuum until the European "Renaissance".13 This occidentality gave a higher status to science.14
The consequences of this social reconstruction were profound. The integration of non-European knowledge into science was masked by a process of disqualification: the part played by local informers was forgotten -- to be rediscovered only recently.15 A qualitative difference of status emerged between European science and other knowledge systems, which became suspect. Beliefs and local knowledge were considered as static systems, unable to progress.16 European scientists mainly studied problems determined by colonization, but inversely, some other problems were considered to be irrelevant to Western expansion and were ignored by Western science. Local knowledge systems were destroyed: the progress of science in a colonial context produced new knowledge but also acculturation and ignorance.
This nineteenth century divide between universal modern science and local knowledge reflected a wider division between societies viewed as an object for history, and societies viewed as an object for ethnography; between societies that make their own history, and "passive"societies to which history simply "arrives"; between progressive societies and static societies.17 Colonization deepened this asymmetry, and deprived conquered people of their history. This asymmetry included science, and the history of science in the French colonies became the history of colonial science and of colonial scientists, written by colonial historians.
Whether essentialist or contingent, these conceptions of science, its status and function, showed a common faith in the white man's superiority, and implied that European civilization was the model for all humankind. From the mid-nineteenth century, science became the measure of all progress. The progress of knowledge, as well as technical and social progress were directly assimilated to the progress of science.18 Whether for cultural or physical reasons, Europeans were presumed to have scientific minds and inquisitiveness, even without scientific training. That is why they practiced science when travelling abroad.19
In the Third Republic, scientisme, promoting the superiority of an "objective" view of Nature and Reason, became the dominant ideology among French elites.20 This idea was particularly developed by positivists, among whom were Ernest Renan, who spoke about the need "to scientifically organize humankind;"21 and Auguste Comte, who conceived a theory for the European “civilizing mission” under French leadership. Comte even proposed a "Occidental positive committee," where the contributions of the various European countries were strictly ordered according to a precise hierarchy. Eventually, this committee would be opened to white women, then to colonial members, and "finally to delegates of various backward peoples. Each country would have to undertake a final regeneration which only the Occident could initiate, under French Presidency".22 Comte ordered the list of these "backward peoples" to include:

other white men; Moslem, Turkish and Persian monotheists; and Indian polytheists. Latterly, the committee might be enlarged to representatives of yellow and black races: from now onwards, the Occident will carry on this wise and generous intervention towards our backward brothers, and thus open the most noble field to a dignified social Art rooted in real science.

After 1870, such racialist theories gained prominence in France,23 and by the 1880s, scientism and Eurocentrism embodied elements of the contemporary model of science: the negation of non-European contributions to science; the idea that the mastery of nature is the basis for social progress; and the idea that European "scientific" civilization was a model to be followed by others, the goal to be reached. Both became involved in the claim for a "vertical" universality, rooted in nature.24 The "civilizing mission" became a joint product, in which Eurocentrism and scientism reinforced each other.
Science, the “Civilizing Mission” and Colonial Ideology
This powerful mixture of scientism and Eurocentrism conferred a central role to science in the French colonial enterprise. During the first half of the nineteenth century, cultural hierarchies based upon the model of scientific progress were replaced by new hierachies founded upon racialist theories. These presented no contradiction with the Enlightenment,25 although they were not the only possible development. The concept of the "civilizing mission" had a long history. In Spain and Portugal before the eighteenth century, it was based upon religion. In nineteenth century France, science replaced religion as the motive for colonization, with a mission to conduct humankind to a higher stage of evolution. Along with economic aims,26 the mission civilisatrice, with science at its core, became not only a powerful motive for imperialism and the ideology of colonization, but also a radically new way of looking at the world and organizing human society.27 The “civilizing mission” became part of a new social order that spread - and, in a way, is still spreading - throughout the world.
Racism may be defined as the generalized, systematic and permanent valorization of real or imaginary differences among peoples. Colonialism gave a global dimension to racism, by transforming it into a collective attitude directed against societies whose conquest was to be legitimated.28 Few disputed the classification of humankind into groups, according to "races", even if group definitions varies. The French naturalist Virey published a natural history of humankind (1801), in which he developed a theory of moral and physical differences. For him, such differences were not redued to "superficial varieties" between human species. Although Virey was against slavery, he defended European colonization. Virey used the "facial line" as a classification factor: The smaller the facial angle, he reasoned, the more the brain is compressed and hindered in its development. This theory considered differences as insuperable by essence, whether physical or related to intellectual and moral capacities. In this, Virey represented a break from the Enlightenment idea of the perfectibility of all societies.
In the mid-nineteenth century, two major innovations further widened this separation. First, race was transformed into a permanent explanation for the evolution of human societies: the superiority of the white race was scientifically asserted as the "most achieved form of humankind." Second, the superiority of the white "race" was not a cultural question, but rather a scientific question, to be demonstrated by measurements of the volume of the brain-pan and facial angles.29
Two opposed perspectives arose from this view. The first considered the inferiority of non-white races to be inalterable. Only some secondary aspects could be modified. This tenet had its origins in polygenism. Within colonial policy, it was generally linked with the policy of "associationism". The second tenet originated in monogenism, and viewed race inferiority to be contingent. "Backward" races could be guided towards civilization. Within colonial policy, it was generally linked with “assimilation”: through education, natives could be guided and transformed into French citizens.30 A.P. Thornton has explained that, with colonization, France followed her ideal, universalism, according to which black men could successfully be transformed into French citizens in a relatively short time. The aim of assimilation was to achieve French fraternity. But equality is more than fraternity and, in the 1920s, France had in Africa millions of subjects, and only dozens of citizens.31

The different colonial ideologies and "civilizing missions" had a common value system, based upon the devaluation of other societies. The words themselves implied a denial of other civilizations.32 The function of science was, in effect, to give a foundation to anthropological racism, whether physical or cultural. Without the help of science, racism would not have aquired such strength and persistency, either called upon the name of fixed differences between humans, or upon the name of progress, perfectibility and unity.

Jules Ferry, one of the most prominent French Prime Ministers of the 1880s, was the first leading politician to bring the phrase -- the “civilizing mission” -- into public debate in 1885, although the Saint-Simonian engineers had used it long before.33 The identification of science with progress gave the connection social weight, and permitted a new and enlarged consensus on colonial values, which many scientists shared. Through the “civilizing mission”, altruism became the ostensible moral basis for colonization.34 Economic exploitation was excused by altruism. This idea reached a larger public after the First World War, where the part played by colonized peoples was widely acknowledged. Albert Sarraut noted:
who is speaking of civilization, actually means altruism (...). Originally, colonization was nothing but an undertaking for private profit; a selfish and unilateral enterprise carried out by the stronger against the weaker (...). Today, only one conception has the right to be maintained in this confrontation, facing the world of Law and remote undertakings. Its formula is: colonization, a charitable enterprise for human solidarity.35
According to him, colonization was a moral obligation among nations, and was undertaken for the benefit of all humankind:
Higher than all other rights, stands the total right for humankind to spend a better life on this planet, owing to a more plentiful use of material goods and spiritual wealth likely to be supplied to all the living beings.36
It is the nature of science to be altruistic, according to Yves Goudineau.37 Colonial science showed kindness as much as rationality: “methodically, with the closeness of a mobilization plan, the big science crusade got organized." For the good of all humankind, for the good of the colonized, Europeans had to colonize "backward" societies and to exploit their natural resources, which the natives were unable to do. The argument was built upon universalism ("the sun in the Indies does not only shine for the Indies"38) and racism (natives are lazy people: the colonial world is "inhabited by sleepy and languid peoples, or by tribes who are incoherent, devoid of any sense of progress, and unable to exploit the regions where destiny placed them").39 Science being the highest form of altruism, one may understand why scientists and intellectuals were seduced by the "civilizing mission" to the extent of taking an important part in the French Colonial Party.
Unfortunately, whether common or elaborated, whether violent or paternalist, racism always took precedence over humanism: not only because of economic interests and chauvinistic nationalism; but because colonization was by itself rooted in violence, subordination and the contempt of other civilizations. The consequences of colonialism could not be represented by a so-called altruistic science. Notwithstanding its claims, the trilogy - science + altruism + the “civilizing mission” - did not change the aims or the methods of the colonial enterprise.
Aimé Césaire, a major poet and leading politician in Martinique, left the French Communist Party in 1956. He made then a radical critique of this “progressive” imperialism, for which he invented the word fraternalisme:
"for it is actually a brother, an elder brother, who, steeped in his superiority, and certain of his experience, takes your hand (a sometimes stiff hand, alas !) to guide you on the road where he knows you shall meet Reason and Progress".
Césaire strongly opposed such an attitude:
"Now, it is exactly what we do not want, what we do not want anymore. We want our societies to reach an upper degree of development, but by themselves, with their internal growth , with a necessity from the inside, with an organic progress, without any outsider intervention to warp this growth, to modify or even jeopardize it".40

These words were directed towards reformist and communist politicians who did not oppose independence on principle, but who delayed the process indefinitely, until such time as “elder brothers” (Europeans) could assist “backward peoples” to achieve maturity and wisdom.41 Frantz Fanon and many other intellectuals denied the claim that European civilization is the universal model. For them, the "civilizing mission" had been no more than another definition of Eurocentrism, colonialism and exploitation.

Expeditions, Learned Societies and the Colonial Party
The European acquisition of new knowledge has long been linked with overseas travel. Expeditions to collect data and specimens strongly developed in the eighteenth century, undertaken individually or by small groups and directly organized by scientific institutions or academies. Native knowledge was transformed into science by European travellers when they returned home.42 Centralized networks of exchanges were activated from metropolitan centers. These networks played an essential part in creating a fundamental asymmetry between Europe and other cultures. Another kind of travel arose when travelling scientists became interested in studying flora and fauna "in situ", in studying settings. The history of geobotany is typical of this process, which was opened at the turn of the nineteenth century by Alexander von Humboldt, its most representative figure.43
In France, the State played a decisive role in promoting science, through the joint participation of science and the military.44 Expeditions fostered the direct inclusion of science in colonial enterprise. To know a territory is to possess it, it is said, but this can not be achieved without military help. Within such a frame, four French expeditions were especially important: Egypt (1798-1801), Morea (present Peloponesia, 1829-1831), Algeria (1839-1842),45 and Mexico (1864-1867). Although undertaken in different political contexts, these expeditions shared State direct control, a combination between science and the military, a global perspective of colonization that implied the scientific study of nature and society, and the pursuit of scientific aims previously defined by academic institutions.
These expeditions showed some continuity with Humboldt, as they relied on the necessity of long stays to study territories, and as they borrowed from the Enlightenment the conception of science as a tool for liberation of native peoples from ignorance and absolutism.
In Egypt, the French expedition claimed to be an enlightened mission with scientific goals, where the Army had only a supporting role. Actually, it was a military and colonial expedition, with specific political tasks - to open the road to India and to capture for Napoleon the heritage of ancient civilizations. The French expeditions to Morea and Algeria were similar in nature. Bory de Saint-Vincent, who spread botanical geography in France, was the head of both. In Morea, most of the military mission left before the scientists arrived, but in Algeria, the military occupation was at the center of the expedition. In Mexico, a scientific commission was supposed to support a military intervention whose aim was to instal and to crown Maximilian of Habsburg as Emperor. The political intervention (1864-1867) was a complete failure, but the French-Mexican scientific commission continued its studies regardless.
With the second wave of French military expansion in the nineteenth century, a new period opened for scientific expansion. The pursuit of science abroad gained a new political impulse given by the conquest and control of new territories. It was no longer possible to distinguish between science and empire. After 1870, an "exploratory" phase cannot be distinguished from a "colonial" phase of scientific expansion.46 A strong coupling between science and colonial enterprises is the common feature during this period. The various channels for the spread of Western science took a new direction and meaning from this coupling.
With this new function of science, the learned societies -- the sociétés savantes47 --acquired a new role. Some were directly linked with colonial expansion, in such fields as natural sciences, medicine and ethnology. They assisted explorers to travel over lands already colonized or soon to be colonized. Geographical, botanical, zoological, geological, meteorological, sociological, ethnological and anthropological societies published travel narratives and organized public conferences; they showed the Western public the usefulness of overseas countries, seized the interest of politicians, and promoted colonial expansion. They published instructions for overseas travellers, now within the frame of racialist theories.48 Geographical, zoological and anthropological societies became committed to the colonial enterprise.
A particularly significant part was played by the geographical societies.49 Founded in December 1821, the Société Géographique de Paris began as a "society of minds," with its origins in the Enlightenment. It supported travel for discovery, without explicit relation to colonization. However, in 1864, Chasseloup-Laubat, a former Minister of Navy and Colonies, was elected President, and the Société put geography at the service of colonization. The Société developed rapidly and became an influential lobby for French expansion overseas.50 The French geographical societies had 9,500 members in 1881 and 18,700 in 1894. A similar phenomenon occurred in other Western countries. The Société was active in supporting explorers, but acted also as a scientific and political adviser to the Ministry of Colonies and participated in the choice of colonial projects. Its aims were clear:
Abstract science is not enough for humankind. Science is only fruitful when it serves progress and production. It is not only the inquisitiveness of mind which raised up explorations and geographical discoveries. The discovery of America, the steadfast explorations in the interior of Africa, the quest for a passage to the North pole, had, besides their scientific goals, political and mercantilist ends.51
The Société published travel narratives in which the political aims became explicit, and military exploits abundantly reported. Its journal was transformed into a justification of colonization: geographers prepared the advance of the colonial army and administration. They helped to master colonized territories. In that, geographers were proud to be at the head of the “civilizing mission”.
The Société Zoologique d'Acclimatation was founded in 1854 in the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle and also played an important part in colonization, mainly in Algeria.52 The Algerian branch was the largest acclimatization society outside Paris (135 members) and was distinguished by having the highest proportion of civil and military servants. The Société Zoologique established in Paris a permanent commission (with 19 members in 1860) to advice the Government of the Second Empire on agricultural matters in Algeria. The Société collaborated sometimes with the Muséum. But it managed to influence the colonization policy far more than the Muséum. The Société was also active in political debates about the necessity and the aims of colonization. As Michael Osbornehas described elsewhere in this volume, the Société headed scientific missions and inspections in Algeria, developed agronomical experiments (such as attempts to acclimate the silk-worm), and supported agricultural co-operatives. It promoted new scientific institutions, including meteorological services and experimental gardens. For the Société, the acclimatization of men, plants and animals was the basis for colonization.
Another society, the Société d'Anthropologie de Paris, was founded by Paul Broca in 1859. It attracted any physicians and biologists, but only a few social scientists. With his Manuel opératoire de la raciologie, Broca tried to organize anthropological work in the field as rigorously as in a laboratory. The planet was the space of anthropology, and the Société published, in addition to the Manuel, instruction leaflets for travellers to many countries. Constructing a new profession, these instructions were qualitatively different from the Muséum's traditional ones. They bore the stigma of racism by giving priority to physical and anatomical criteria, unlike the Société Géographique de Paris whose more paternalist instructions gave priority to intellectual and moral qualities. Broca's instructions institutionalized the more radical racist approach, propagated racialist theories, and organized professional norms according to these theories.53
A racist perspective was the main contribution of the Société Anthropologique de Paris to the imperial enterprise. But European expansion was a chance for scientific study, and not the opposite. Instructions were published for scientists travelling to Senegal (1860), Mexico (1862), Algeria (1864), Cochin China (1872) as well as to Brazil (1860), Canada (1860), Sicily (1864) and the Rocky Mountains of the United States (1872). They remained used by explorers far into the twentieth century. The Société thus both prepared and accompanied the colonial expansion.
Learned societies kept a leading position in promoting science for colonization, far more than did the universities and academies in Paris. The Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle had a long colonial tradition which contributed to its scientific fame. But, in the second half of the nineteenth century, it had to face the development of the Faculté des Sciences and other institutions.54 To reclaim its lost position, the Muséum had to find a new strategy. Without being solicited by colonial groups, but responding to its own internal needs, the Muséum chose to renew its colonial functions,55 and thereby to reinforce its institutional position in Paris. The Muséum established classes for the training of explorers (up to 200 people followed these lessons), a colonial garden in Nogent (a suburb of Paris) in 1893, and a colonial laboratory (1900), which became famous under the direction of Auguste Chevalier. The Muséum also joined in producing colonial propaganda.56 It participated in colonial exhibitions and published edifying narratives of colonial travels in its journals extolling the benefits of colonization for humankind.
Through their learned societies and overseas missions, scientists emerged as chief actors for colonization,57 and gained important institutional positions (including election to the Académie des Sciences) after the First World War. In France, a "colonial party" developed after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) as a lobby for colonial expansion,58 especially in the Parliament. This immediately included members of the learned societies. Of the 200 principal colonial personalities, 108 were members of the Societé géographique de Paris. Though their interests might differ, traders, bankers, businessman, military men, M.P.s from all political parties, colonial civil servants, geographers, naturalists, technicians, were found side by side within this nebula.
By the 1920s, the colonial party had an active scientific wing. The Académie des Sciences Coloniales was established in 1922 and in January 1925, prominent scientists from the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (Achalme, Chevalier, Perrot) and from the Institut Pasteur (Calmette) constituted a new Association Colonies-Sciences (ACS).59 Auguste Chevalier was elected General Secretary and remained the leading scientist of ACS until the War. 60 Colonial scientists formed the great majority of ACS members. Some colonial administrators also joined ACS, among whom a Senator, General Messimy, a former Ministry of Colonies, was elected President. For fifteen years, ACS fought for the coordination, funding, and organisation of colonial sciences. It also fought for the professional recognition and training of colonial scientists. The issues of science and colonization were broadly discussed in the ACS journal (Actes et Comptes Rendus de l’ACS), published monthly until 1940. To promote colonial agronomy, ACS published a more scientific journal, the Revue de Botanique Appliquée et d’Agriculture Coloniale, edited by Auguste Chevalier.61 The ACS also organized two influential colonial scientific congresses in Paris in 1931 and in 1937. 62 A new generation of young colonial scientists participated in the second of these, which directly preceded the establishment of ORSC (later renamed ORSTOM) and was supported by such leading French scientists as Jean Perrin, Henri Laugier, Frédéric Joliot, and Paul Rivet. This heritage remains.
Yves Goudineau has argued that "France had a state and national policy for scientific cooperation, when most big industrialized nations are satisfied by funding specialized agencies, specific projects, or grants."63 In this, he sees continuity with the idea of a “civilizing mission” rooted in science and with the constitution of the "universal duty of scientific solidarity" as a national mission. For him, science is a paradigm of French colonialism. This perception is shared by the Canadian historian Edwige Lefebvre in her studies of Tiers-Mondisme in France,64 and of the Health Department of ORSTOM.65 She shows that, in its Marxist as in its revolutionary Christian components, French Tiers-Mondisme developed just after independence, in the 1960s and in the 1970s, when the international vocation of France was reaffirmed ‘to surmount the traumatism of decolonization’ and to ‘perpetuate the memory of the “civilizing mission”.’ This time, the specificities of Third-World countries were respected in partnerships for development. The Ministry of Colonies was transformed into a Ministry for Cooperation, still acting in the same geographical zone. Cooperation became the logical continuation of colonization. Tiers-Mondistes scientists, almost all anticolonialist, gently and massively joined ORSTOM, the former colonial institution, in the 1980s.
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