Empire's Children: Race, Filiation, and Citizenship in the French Colonies

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Europe’s imperial projects were often predicated on a series of legal and scientific distinctions that were frequently challenged by the reality of social and sexual interactions between the colonized and the colonizers.When Emmanuelle Saada discovered a 1928 decree defining the status of persons of mixed parentage born in French Indochina—the métis—she found not only a remarkable artifact of colonial rule, but a legal bombshell that introduced race into French law for the first time. The decree was the culmination of a decades-long effort to resolve the “métis question”: the educational, social, and civil issues surrounding the mixed population. Operating at the intersection of history, anthropology, and law, Empire’s Children reveals the unacknowledged but central role of race in the definition of French nationality.

Through extensive archival work in both France and Vietnam, and a close reading of primary and secondary material from the Pacific islands and sub-Saharan and North Africa, Saada has created in Empire’s Children an original and compelling perspective on colonialism, law, race, and culture from the end of the nineteenth century until decolonization.

 Emmanuelle Saada is associate professor of French at Columbia University. Arthur Goldhammer is an award-winning translator who has translated books by Georges Duby, Jacques Le Goff, and Jean Starobinski.



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Editorial Reviews

Johns Hopkins University - Todd Shepard

Empire's Children is one of the finest recent examples of history à la française—its research deep, its arguments rigorous, and its erudition impressive. It is a must-read for anyone interested in how colonialism shaped modern Europe and racial thinking.”
Harvard University - Mary Dewhurst Lewis

"Empire's Children is a brilliant and deeply researched exploration of the place of race in the French citizenship experience, focusing on the rights of 'mixed-race' people in French Indochina and other colonies. Emmanuelle Saada deftly weaves together the perspectives of jurists, colonial officials, journalists and the "mixed-raced" individuals themselves to demonstrate why the French Empire -- and by extension, today's France -- cannot be analyzed in black and white terms. A nuanced and important account, beautifully translated by Arthur Goldhammer."
Ohio State University - Alice Conklin

“In this pathbreaking work of historical legal anthropology, Saada uses a vast array of primary sources to trace the deep racial logic of a new 1928 decree regulating the status of the métis, or person of mixed race, in Indochina. At a moment when much of the historiography of empire is focused on the crude violence of colonial rule, Empire's Children persuasively argues for the critical role of law in the exercise of power overseas.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226733081
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/2/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 1,283,913
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Emmanuelle Saada is associate professor of French at Columbia University.

Arthur Goldhammer is an award-winning translator who has translated books by Georges Duby, Jacques Le Goff, and Jean Starobinski.

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Read an Excerpt

Empire's Children

Race, Filiation, and Citizenship in the French Colonies

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-73308-1

Chapter One

An Imperial Question

In the late nineteenth century, métissage ("racial mixing") was not a new phenomenon in France. Representations of it go back a long way, to the early days of European colonization. Perceptions of métissage, however, changed significantly in the second half of the century, with the formation of the new French Empire. These were shaped by increasingly influential social sciences, especially anthropology. By the end of the period of colonial conquests in the 1890s, métissage had become an issue of the utmost importance throughout the empire. Its forms varied from colony to colony, yet colonial actors clearly felt that they were dealing with an issue of imperial scale and significance.

New Empire, New Question

As early as the seventeenth century, people had begun to use words drawn from the lexicon of animal breeding to describe the offspring of Europeans and the natives of the new World. In French the most common terms were métis, mulâtre ("mulatto"), and sang-mêlé ("mixed blood").

In the first half of the nineteenth century, men and women of color in the colonies became familiar figures in popular literature. In a volume entitled Les Français peints par eux-mêmes (1842), for instance, the mulâtre appeared among the classic types of provincial Frenchmen—the Breton, the Roussillonnais, the Béarnais, and the Dauphinois. a métis was the tragic hero Alexandre Dumas's novel Georges, published in 1843 and set in Mauritius. Serialized popular fiction featured plots built around the ambiguous appearance of mulatto characters: in the volumes of Eugène Sue's Mystères de Paris that came out in 1842 and 1843, Cécily, a former slave from the American South, plays a major role passing as an Alsatian. The mulatto doctor in Ponson du Terrail's Rocambole (published between 1857 and 1870) knows the secrets of various medicinal plants, including some that can "erase the most indelible tattoos."

In the nineteenth century, however, it was above all anthropology that appropriated the theme of métissage. at midcentury, métissage played a central role in a debate between monogenists, proponents of the unity of the human race, and polygenists, who argued that different races have distinct sources. The arguments of both camps can be traced back to the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, who had argued that species are defined by the ability of members to produce fertile offspring: monogenists insisted that racial hybrids were viable, fertile, and therefore valuable, while polygenists argued that interbreeding led to sterility and deformity and therefore that the distance between the races was insurmountable. The physician and anatomist Paul Broca revived this debate with his early work and used the rejection of a paper on métissage by the Biology Society as a pretext for founding the Paris anthropological Society in 1859. This society played a central role in the development of physical anthropology as an autonomous discipline.

A confirmed polygenist, Broca questioned the universality of "interfertility" and suggested that, depending on the proximity of the races involved, hybrids could be either "sterile," "dysgenesic," "partially fertile," or "eugenesic." Using these distinctions, he was able to condemn the mixing of "distant races" and to promote "eugenesic" mixing. By showing that the French population was the result of a harmonious cross between Celts and Kymris, he lent scientific support to the celebration of the "French melting pot," a central feature of the nineteenth-century republican representation of French history. One also finds this theme in nineteenth-century historical writing—in Jules Michelet's description of France as a "person," for example, or Charles Seignobos's characterization of the French as a "people of métis."

The general tendency was nevertheless pessimistic: in the final decades of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of the many anthropological studies of hybridization stressed the deficiencies of the métis. The figure of the monstrous freak, which had fascinated the eighteenth century, gave way to a new theme: physical and moral degeneracy due to the conflict of heredities. For instance, at the Second International Congress of Criminal anthropology in 1889, Clémence Royer, a female philosopher and scientist and Darwin's French translator, proposed that an investigation of the genealogy of criminals would reveal large numbers of hybrids: "Indeed, it is only natural to expect that in the offspring of very diverse races, with different habits, mores, and social instincts, the vast difference in moral heredity will result in mutual cancellation, as when forces of opposite sign are added together to yield zero."

Between the two world wars, this argument was enthusiastically embraced by psychiatrists, who appropriated the theme of métissage and linked it to the question of immigration, both European and colonial. In the 1920s, Dr. Edgar Bérillon claimed in a series of publications on "the psychobiological problem of racial mixing" that observing the offspring of mixed marriages between French and immigrants had convinced him "that in our European environment, the crossing of antagonistic races, even when the skin color of the individuals involved was the same, yielded offspring of obvious inferiority with respect to health and resistance to disease as well as to morality."

A few years later, Dr. Georges Heuyer, one of the founders of child psychiatry and a pioneer in the field of "maladapted childhood," noted that "the number of offspring of marriages between Arab men and French women is large," so it would be wise to determine "whether it is a good idea or a bad one to encourage natives of the colonies to come to France and marry French women." On this basis, he launched an investigation into "the important question of whether the métis is capable of social adaptation." He studied the offspring of marriages between "French" and "Chinese," "Indochinese," "Martiniquais," "Muslim Arab," "Indian," "mixed blood," and "métis from Madagascar and Réunion" and found "character troubles" in all of the adolescents he examined.

Denunciation of the consequences of racial mixing grew louder in the 1930s among a small group of doctors who posed as experts on immigration. Among them was René Martial, the longtime director of the Douai department of public hygiene and later marine health inspector, who also began teaching a course in anthropology at the Paris Faculty of Medicine in 1938.

Alongside this dominant line of criticism, another school of thought emerged around the view that racial mixing could produce offspring "superior to the mother races." This idea was first formulated by Armand de Quatrefages, a contemporary of Broca and an ardent defender of the monogenist line, who argued that, among other things, the métis was generally more resistant to the tropical climate than his European father. Between the two world wars, another variant of the racial-mixing theme gained currency on the fringes of physical anthropology: a critique of theories of race as static, unchanging formations, which began with a reflection on the "value" of children of mixed race. After World War II, this idea would be taken up by various antiracist groups such as UNESCO (the United nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). The universality of racial mixing was seen as an important argument not against the existence of races but against the idea that there exists a racial hierarchy.

Yet although these debates agitated scientific circles, they attracted little attention in the colonies. When colonials discussed racial mixing, they rarely referred to anthropological concepts and never cited anthropologists. Evidence that the concerns of Parisian scholars aroused little interest in the colonies can be seen in the low response rate to a "questionnaire on the métis" sent out by the Paris anthropology Society in 1908, even though it was transmitted through the colonial administration. For anthropologists in France, the colonies served mainly as a laboratory, providing a vast reservoir of samples for the study of interbreeding, just like other historical examples of conquests and migratory movements. For the most part, these scholars had little interest in what was distinctive about the history, politics, or social aspects of racial mixing in the French empire.

Yet colonials were well aware of the phenomenon. Instead of looking at it in physiological terms, however, they were mainly interested in its implications for colonial rule. This was already the case by the middle of the nineteenth century, after Africa had become a focal point of colonization. Colonial administrators like Louis Faidherbe looked to generalized racial mixing as a way of "regenerating" the African races.

Things changed further toward the end of the century: the proximity of the colonizers to the natives lost favor, and the segregation of populations became a stronger norm. Racial mixing ceased to be a desired goal and began to be presented as an "agonizing problem," which was soon subdivided into three subproblems: "human," "social," and "political." In the 1890s, interested actors in the colonies began to describe the situation of mixed-race children, usually abandoned by their European fathers, as an injustice. their status was said to be that of "outcasts" or "pariahs," caught between colonizers and colonized. Their discontent was perceived as a threat to the colonial order.

In short, the phenomenon of métissage acquired a new face: it became the "métis question," which, as we shall see, shared many features with the "social question"—the political and moral threat posed by the rise of an industrial working class—that was such a central feature of nineteenth-century culture. The new formula was associated with what is called the "second colonial empire," which historians traditionally date from 1830. Colonial rule was now legitimated by the assertion of a hierarchical difference between colonizers and colonized, the reproduction of which the colonial authorities were constantly at pains to assure. By blurring this crucial dividing line, the existence of the métis posed a problem of classification and threatened the stability of the most basic categories of the colonial social order. That is why the métis question would continue to be raised in more or less the same terms from the end of the nineteenth century to the eve of decolonization. Observers considered it "undoubtedly a human and charitable question, as well as a social question, a question of reason, and a question of politics. Throwing into the colonial mix an individual of mixed race, out of step with both colonizers and colonized, raises serious issues that justified the intervention of the authorities." Over the next decades, actors from both within and without the colonial state intervened continually to resolve these "issues."

Hybrids and Bastards

the new view of racial mixing did not apply uniformly to all offspring of colonial sexual encounters. The métis question referred only to hybrids who were also "bastards"—unrecognized by their European fathers. The relatively few children who were born from the legitimate union of a colonial male and a native female or, still more rarely, of a European female and a native male, were not a problem. Indeed, they were rarely referred to as métis at all. thus, in a discussion of the métis question, the president of the Society for the assistance of abandoned Franco-Indochinese Children declared that he was "not speaking here of the children of regular Franco-indigenous unions whose families are taking care of them nor of illegitimate children whose fathers have acknowledged them and not abandoned them." these "unproblematic" métis were not very visible in colonial society and have left few traces in the archives.

Still, the condition of the métis was not defined solely by their status as illegitimate children: they bore both physical and social stigma and could not hide from "the presumption of bastardy that marked their features." an article published in a popular Indochinese newspaper in the 1920s stated:

In the home country, legal steps have been taken to counter outdated prejudices and cruel hypocrisy with effective measures to protect illegitimate children—a phrase which not so very long ago was capable of provoking an outcry in certain segments of society. In the colonies, the question is more complex: the illegitimate child, generally born out of wedlock to a native woman and a European father, is also of mixed blood (métis). In the battle of life, there is nothing to distinguish the illegitimate child in France from others around him, or later from other men. His status is merely a matter of how his birth is recorded. In the case of the métis, however, the mixing of two races is indelibly inscribed in his features, and diverse emotions will at various times contend within his bosom.

Situated at this intersection of illegitimacy and hybridity, the condition of the métis placed the racial question squarely in the realm of law.

The Law Takes Up a Social Question

In the twentieth century, the ideal type of colonial métis combined illegitimate birth with nonrecognition and abandonment by a European father. although statistical evidence is lacking, most métis probably met these criteria. the legal terms used to express these conditions were important. The French Code civil was quite precise about the kinship status of persons. the key distinctions were based on the marital status of the parents (which determined whether the child was legitimate or illegitimate) and, in the case of illegitimate children, whether or not the child was officially recognized by his or her father at the office of identity records (bureau d'état civil). Abandonment was also a term defined by law, especially after major legislation concerning child assistance was passed in France on June 27, 1904.

The métis problem thus involved children who stood outside the institution of the family as defined by law. This immediately raised a second issue. French law followed the tradition of patrem liberi sequuntur ("When the parents are married, the condition of the child is that of the father") to determine the child's legal status and nationality. A legitimate child inherited the father's legal status, but illegitimate and unrecognized métis acquired the native status of their mother and were therefore not French citizens. They stood outside both the family and the nation, and it was this double alienation that made the métis question so acute. This point was noted by one of the most astute colonial observers, who wrote several books on the subject following a lengthy stay in Indochina at the turn of the twentieth century.

When, for example, a Frenchman marries an Annamite women under French law, his wife becomes French, his children are French, and, in general, all is for the best in the best of all possible Protectorates. What is at stake is simply a question of personal behavior and family happiness, which concerns only the two people involved. There is no "métis question" because the children of a natural-born Frenchman and a naturalized Frenchwoman are French in law and in fact, and in real life no one has any right to discriminate in any way between them and pure-blooded French offspring.... But marriages that count as legitimate in the eyes of French law are rare. By contrast, what are quite common are unsanctioned temporary unions with yellow-skinned women: our concern is with these relationships and their consequences.... If children are born to these couples, of which nothing noble or enduring remains, it is a great misfortune both for them and for the state.


Excerpted from Empire's Children by EMMANUELLE SAADA Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Frederick Cooper /....................ix
Acknowledgments /....................xiii
INTRODUCTION /....................1
ONE / an Imperial Question /....................13
TWO / a Threat to the Colonial Order /....................43
THREE / "Reclassifying" the Métis /....................67
FOUR / nationality and Citizenship in the Colonial Situation /....................95
FIVE / The Controversy over "Fraudulent Recognitions" /....................121
SIX / Investigating Paternity in the Colonies /....................147
SEVEN / Citizens by Virtue of Race /....................171
EIGHT / The Effects of Citizenship /....................207
NINE / Identities under the law /....................223
TEN / French nationality and Citizenship Reconsidered /....................243
Notes /....................261
Bibliography /....................307
Index /....................329
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