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French Colonies - Third Republic Expansion

The war of 1870 seemed to be a stroke of good luck for those competitors who feared in distant lands the victorious rivalry of the French. What prospect was there that a land thus defeated, dismembered, impoverished, would persevere in its external expansion? Who would ever have imagined that even by 1875 France would have a colonial policy to which, in spite of many hesitations and vicissitudes, it remained consistently faithful? New colonies would help compensate for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, as well as offset French "decadence" following Sedan and the Paris Commune, enabling the Third Republic to engage in a politics of grandeur.

The movement of colonial expansion meant that France, while giving up the immediate hope of reconquering the lost provinces, had become again a self-confident, aggressive nation. In twenty years an immense empire was added to the scanty oversea dominions of the Republic. Tunis was conquered in 1881, Tonquin in 1885, Madagascar in 1885 and 1895, the Ivory Coast and Dahomey in 1887, and in 1898 Brazza won for his adopted country a vast share of the Congo basin. The old colony of Senegal was extended as far as the Niger. The mysterious city of Timbuctoo passed under the tricolour, and the Sahara became mainly "a French desert." With Lake Tchad as a point of junction, all the Western African possessions of France formed a solid whole.

By the 1870s, the human and financial costs of conquering tropical territories had diminished significantly, thanks to technological advances such as the discovery of the medicinal properties of quinine and vastly improved weapons. At the same time, interest in new colonial expansion began to revive among the republican elite in Paris. For the commonplace and parsimonious conquests of the Monarchy of July and of the Second Empire the Republic substituted a system of annexation on a large scale; and, in less than twenty years, it took Tunis to defend Algeria, Tonking to keep Cochin China, and Madagascar to guard the routes in the Indian Ocean.

Paul Leroy-Beaulieu's classic plea for new colonies, De la colonisation chez les peuples modernes — first published in 1874, then reissued five times over the next thirty-four years, found an ever more receptive audience. This French colonial policy, planned by Gambetta, and of which Jules Ferry was the most illustrious exponent, was not, as some people have maintained, the result of chance and hasard. On the contrary, to those who looked a little more closely, it seemed a continuous policy, methodical and in conformity with a general scheme which complex events and interruptions for the moment have sometimes concealed, but which existed none the less.

Ferry, addressing Parliament in the early 1880’:s, defended France's seizure of Tonkin and war with China in terms of a special French mission: "We must believe that if Providence deigned to confer upon us a mission by making us masters of the earth, this mission consists not of attempting an impossible fusion of the races but of simply spreading or awakening among the other races the superior notions of which we are the guardians." Two years later, in 1884, he added that ”the superior races have a right vis-a-vis the inferior races . . . they have a right to civilizethem."

Both economic and political reasons took France at the same time to Asia and to Africa; in Asia, to reach the heart of the rich and mysterious provinces of Central China by ascending the two great rivers of the Indo-Chinese peninsula; in Africa, to join together on the shores of Lake Chad the possessions of Northern Africa and those of the mouth of the Niger, and, still later, the Congo Colony—thus forming, in accordance with the ambitious plan of Crampel, a vast French African Empire that stretches without interruption from Cape Blanco to the great outlet of the Congo.

The transition from the Second Empire to the Third Republic did not slow French advances in Indo-China. The 1873 storming of the citadel of Hanoi, led by French naval officer Francis Garnier, had the desired effect of forcing Tu Duc to sign a treaty with France in March 1874 that recognized France's "full and entire sovereignty" over Cochinchina, and opened the Red River to commerce.

The colonial policy of the Third Republic was inaugurated by Jules Ferry in 1881. Ferry, the minister of public instruction, was identified with the awakening of new imperialistic ambitions in France. He believed in colonial expansion as a means of restoring national prestige; and although this under policy involved France in controversies with other states, it gave her finally an overseas empire second only to that of Great Britain.

The Colonial expansion of France, though advocated by a patriot, was encouraged by Bismarck. The Prussian statesman saw in it a diversion from the thoughts of Revanche, and hoped that the African ambitions of France would alienate Italy from her. The Republicans only went to Tunis, the Tonkin, and Madagascar, later on to the Soudan, Congo, and Morocco, to avoid going back to Strasbourg.

Irrespective of their military garrisons, the colonies of France were further strengthened, in many cases, by naval flotillas. These were not part of the fleets organized with a view of showing the French flag in distant waters, and if need arises, of acting on the offensive. Like England, France had her fleets in the Mediterranean, in the East Indies, in China, the Pacific, and elsewhere. Rather, these were the flotillas placed at the disposal of Colonial Governors for Colonial purposes. By 1886 the naval services thus rendered entailed the employment of forty-nine craft of various sizes, and over four thousand men.

Off St. Pierre, and Miquelon, vessels were needed for the superintendence and protection of the fishing interests. The Resident at Tunis required coasting craft, to warn the corsair-bred seamen of Barbary that their power for evil had for ever departed. The rivers of Senegal, of Gaboon, of Tonkin, and Cochin-China, need constant patrolling. Reunion, Obock, and Tahiti, wanted means of communication with neighbouring states. Guiana and New Caledonia, required constant blockading, in order to keep in check the convicts who daily seek means of escape.

With the fever for colonial expansion came the recollections of what the colonies did for France in the great wars waged between her and England ; how they were made the bases of operations in many a successful expedition against English colonies, and how their harbors gave shelter to fleets that gallantly fought the French, and to corsairs that swept French commerce from the seas. Dreams of the revival of a Colonial France very naturally brought with them dreams of the destruction of English trade.

The colonial question in France had for some years possessed an importance second to no other. There was strong opposition to the large expenditure of men and money which had been incurred in endeavors to establish and foster French colonies. It was argued that nation which had no footing outside of her territorial boundaries will be surpassed in wealth and influence by the powers whose commerce and population find openings in prosperous colonies or important foreign dependencies. The position of Germany in Europe was a commanding one, yet the German government made every effort to plant the German flag beyond the limits of the fatherland. Italy was a new government, but her rulers were already seeking to establish outlets for Italian growth outside of the Peninsula.

In 1881 France entered upon an active colonial policy by undertaking a military expedition to Tunis and establishing a protectorate over the country. In 1883 France enforced a claim of certain rights over the northwestern part of Madagascar by taking possession of several ports. Rapidly extending its influence in spite of considerable reverses, it succeeded in establishing a protectorate over the island in 1885.

In April 1882, a French force again stormed the citadel of Hanoi, under the leadership of naval officer Henri Riviere. Riviere and part of his forces were wiped out in a battle with a Vietnamese-Black Flag army, a reminder of Garnier's fate a decade earlier. While Garnier's defeat had led to a partial French withdrawal from Tonkin, Riviere's loss strengthened the resolve of the French government to establish a protectorate by military force. Accordingly, additional funds were appropriated by the French Parliament to support further military operations, and Hue fell to the French in August 1883, following the death of Tu Duc the previous month. A Treaty of Protectorate, signed at the August 1883 Harmand Convention, established a French protectorate over North and Central Vietnam and formally ended Vietnam's independence. In June 1884, Vietnamese scholar-officials were forced to sign the Treaty of Hue, which confirmed the Harmand Convention agreement. By the end of 1884, there were 16,500 French troops in Vietnam. Resistance to French control, however, continued. The advance of France in Indo-China led to war with China in 1883-85, which resulted in the establishment of a French protectorate over Annam and Tongking.

But this sudden development was for a time checked by the French reverse in 1885 at Langson in Indo-China. Jules Ferry was driven from office (April, 1885), M. de Braza, the famous French explorer, fell into disgrace, and the momentary failure of the forward policy added to the many causes of discontent which rendered Boulangism possible, hostility to England popular, and a Russian Alliance inevitable.

From 1893 to 1896 was a period of colonial expansion for France. The Kingdom of Dahomey in Africa was proclaimed a French protectorate, and in 1895 the Province of Hiang-Hung was ceded by China. In 1896 Madagascar was reduced to the rank of a French possession.

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Page last modified: 14-05-2017 18:33:50 ZULU