Book Review: Architecture and Urbanism in the French Atlantic Empire
In this superbly researched and handsome book, Gauvin Alexander Bailey presents a groundbreaking assessment of three and one-half centuries of rampant French colonialism, as well as its physical impact on cultures scattered around the Atlantic Ocean. Although academic studies have thoroughly covered British, Spanish and Portuguese political, military and economic ambitions, there is a less profound understanding of the French old Atlantic Empire, which spanned the 16th to mid-19th centuries and developed into one of the largest political entities in the Western Hemisphere.
The richness of the historical context is fascinating. The French Atlantic world—which included West Africa, the greater Caribbean region, and the continental Americas—covered vast territories, and enslaved and dispossessed many Indigenous peoples. By the late 17th century, French architecture and urbanism dominated Europe, as its high-minded urban ideals were parachuted into remote and hostile environments. Bailey very thoughtfully unpacks this historic development, while maintaining a nuanced understanding of colonial dynamics and vernacular culture.
Driven by the Crown and the Church and fueled by rapacious economic expansion, the French Empire was massive and influential, but also “poorly organized, hopelessly unrealistic, plagued by mad utopian schemes, underfunded and underpinned by a brutal and volatile institution of agricultural slave labour that proved to be one of the main sources of its undoing,” as Bailey writes. Over time, the physical reminders of the French Empire have faded, suffering badly from natural disasters and human destruction. Bailey reconstructs the broader context of what once existed, with remarkable archival documentation collected from a rich variety of sources. The book’s beautifully reproduced plans—for buildings, urban centres, formal palaces, churches, gardens and fortifications—reveal inventive and aggressive responses to the indigenous cultures and local environments it sought to subjugate. As we struggle with the resounding impacts of colonial legacies, this is a most timely and welcome work.
Architecture and Urbanism in the French Atlantic Empire: State, Church and Society, 1604-1830, by Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Mcgill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.
Donald Luxton is a heritage and cultural resource management consultant based in Vancouver.