Assimilation and Racialism in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century French Colonial Policy

Assimilation and Racialism in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century French Colonial Policy

The American Historical Review
Volume 110, Number 2

Saliha Belmessous, Research Fellow of History
University of Syndey

Although the idea of race is increasingly being historicized, its emergence in the context of French colonization remains shadowy. This is despite the fact that colonization was central to the emergence of race in French culture. The French are either credited with a generous vision and treatment of Amerindians or they are kept in limbo. The publication of Richard White’s Middle Ground in 1991 shook up these conventional ideas by showing that French conciliation toward indigenous peoples had to be explained by particular political and economic factors rather than by national character. Yet the issue of race has remained almost untouched, and French America has still not taken its place in the current debate about race, color, and civility.

The present essay is an empirical contribution to the discussion on the origins of European racialism as applied to colonial situations. It argues that racial prejudice in colonial Canada emerged only after an assimilationist approach had been tried for almost a century and had failed. In the seventeenth century, French policy toward the indigenous peoples of New France relied on the assimilation of the natives to French religion and culture. The aim was to mix colonial and native peoples in order to strengthen the nascent New France. This policy of francisation (sometimes translated as “Frenchification”) was based on a paternalistic vision of cultural difference: the French officials viewed the Amerindians as “savages,” socially, economically, and culturally inferior to the Europeans. As such, they had to be educated and brought to civility. This policy remained the official “native policy” employed throughout the period of the French regime in Canada despite the internal tensions and contradictions displayed by French officials. Historians have traditionally emphasized the implementation of this policy by missionaries and, consequently, have neglected or, at best, diminished the significance of francisation for civil authorities. The conversion of Amerindians to Christianity was undoubtedly an important part of the policy of francisation, but that importance has been overstated: francisation was more a political program than a religious one. An understanding of the central role played by the state in the promotion of the policy of assimilation has profound consequences for our comprehension of the relations between the French and Amerindians…

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