This talk explores three key themes of early French global empire with a focus on the colony of Fort Dauphin in southeast Madagascar, France’s first of the Indian Ocean. The legal frameworks of French colonization about the early modern Atlantic and Indian Oceans were flexible and related, issuing from an interplay of royal and company policy. The basic regulations governing the operation of companies and the legal status of colonists were set out in charters issued by the French king and elaborated by company policy and practice from Paris to the colonies. For Madagascar, these were similar to policies the court had earlier and simultanteously applied to company colonization in Canada and the Caribbean, granting these territories to private entrepreneurs and allowing for the children of French men who married baptized native women to become French citizens with rights of inheritance and residence in France. How marriage and cohabitation with native women was actually practiced and regulated in Madagascar set precedents for later colonization in the Mascarenes and South Asia. Food was another matter. The colony of Fort Dauphin was conceived as early as 1642 as the French East India Company’s Batavia, but it quickly developed to become a kind of French precursor and warning for the Dutch East India Company’s Cape Colony established a decade later: a place to provision colonists and passing ships, each with a voracious appetite for beef. In the 32 years of the French colony’s existence, French colonists acquired more than 300,000 cattle in Madagascar, mostly by raiding rather than trade, and left much destruction in their wake. The chronic violence associated with food acquisition doomed the colony, but its legacies in sex and law lived on in France’s empire.
Pier M. Larson is Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University, United States. Trained as an historian of Africa, he has written extensively on the history of Madagascar and Malagasy diasporas of the western Indian Ocean. He is currently working on French Empire in the Western Indian Ocean between 1642 and 1850, and the economy and society of the Mascarenes through several generations of a mixed-race, Franco-Malagasy family with origins in Lorient and Fort Dauphin.