Martin Thomas and Richard Toye
University of Exeter
‘The struggle of races and of peoples has from now on the whole globe as its theatre; each advances towards the conquest of unoccupied territories.’ Tempting as it might be to ascribe such inflated rhetoric to Friedrich Nietzsche or Adolf Hitler, its originator was Gabriel Charmes, a disciple of leading late nineteenth-century French republican, Léon Gambetta.
In September 1882, Charmes was trying to persuade his fellow parliamentarians that France’s recent seizure of Tunisia was ethically imperative. Similar rhetoric could be found across the political spectrum, in Britain as well as in France. In 1888, the Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury described small imperial wars as ‘merely the surf that marks the edge of the advancing wave of civilisation’. But if Britain and France both claimed to be the spearhead of civilizing influences, what happened when their interests clashed, and what new arguments emerged to rationalize the struggle for power between rival ‘civilized’ nations?
That is one theme of our new book, Arguing About Empire, but in order to answer the question we need equally to ask what happened when Anglo-French interests appeared to coincide. How did the two countries’ respective elites justify their mutual collaboration in the face of challenges from other powers and, increasingly as time went on, from domestic anti-colonial critics and local nationalist opponents too? Continue reading “France and Britain – colonial rivals, or co-imperialists?”