Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Beyond the Dinner Table

Elizabeth Heath

Colonies_françaises_(en_Amérique)_(Hémisphère_boréal)_-_Fonds_Ancely_-_B315556101_A_LEVASSEUR_092What do wine and sugar have in common?

At first glance not much.

Indeed, besides menu planning that combined wine and dessert, I thought little about connections between these two common foodstuffs, at least until a few years ago. Then, while sitting in the archives, I opened a box of documents from colonial Guadeloupe and found an unexpected treasure: a handful of letters from local citizens to Republican officials written in the early twentieth century.

Immediately intrigued, I followed the correspondence between two. In their letters, Guadeloupeans asked the administration for a number of resources to help them weather the economic crisis afflicting the colony: new schools for their children so that they might find jobs outside of the cane fields and sugar mills; professional training for unemployed workers seeking new opportunities outside the crisis-prone industry; and even a request for a new statue of Victor Schoelcher to honor the celebrated author of the 1848 abolition decree who had died a few years earlier. Republican officials, though, denied each and every one of these requests, even the one for a statue of Schoelcher.

Why? Was the response simply a reflection of Guadeloupe’s colonial status? Had citizens elsewhere in France written similar letters? And, if so, what had been the response?

Answering these questions eventually took me from the shores of Guadeloupe to the Mediterranean and another crisis-prone region reliant on agricultural production: the southern wine-producing department of Aude.

Reading through the archives, I realized that rural metropolitan citizens in the Aude also pressed the Third Republic for aid and assistance to counter their declining fortunes.  The Third Republic, to my surprise, denied many of the early requests from Audois citizens. The state continued to do so until local citizens mobilized, making it clear that the Republic needed to intervene to manage the effects of an economic crisis that threatened the political stability of the region. Guadeloupeans, in contrast, were not so fortunate. There, worker mobilization led to increased restrictions and forms of political marginalization rather than aid, support, and new economic opportunities.

The two responses, I argue in Wine, Sugar, and the Making of Modern France: Global Economic Crisis and the Racialization of French Citizenship, 1870-1910, were two distinct, but related, components of the Third Republic’s attempt to manage local crises stemming from global integration.

What then do wine and sugar have in common? Each played a central role in defining citizenship and the relationship between metropole and colony in the early Third Republic. Thinking beyond the menu and dinner table opens a new way to understand how the Third Republic drew upon the empire and its resources to manage economic crisis and global pressures in the metropole.  Sugar, it turns out, not only sweetened the meals of French metropolitans in the Third Republic, it also helped to resuscitate the post-phylloxera wine industry.

Once the industry rebounded, perhaps a little too well, sugar became a rallying point for Audois winemakers fighting against overproduction and pressing for state aid and protection. Guadeloupean sugar workers, in contrast, won little of the assistance they sought. Instead they became the objects of new forms of exclusion and second-class citizens in an emerging French welfare state. Like sugar, which often plays an essential—but hidden—role at the dinner table, Guadeloupean workers played an important—but overlooked—role in preserving the early Third Republic.

About The Author

Elizabeth Heath

Elizabeth Heath is the author of Wine, Sugar, and the Making of Modern France....

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