By Lorenzo Bonomelli
In a Think Piece published on this blog, Ann-Sophie Schoepfel pointed out that France’s colonial past ushered an underlying faith in the country’s historical civilizing role which still permeated French political discourses and collective imagination in the second half of the 20th century. Civilizational ideas were a fundamental feature of imperial structures, then distilled into international law and organizations. The French mission civilisatrice, in particular, was rooted in the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt and the takeover of Algeria, and later represented the official credo of the Third Republic’s colonialism. In this piece, I will focus on the debates around two French interventions in Portugal (1831) and the Papal States (1832) to show how the civilizational worldview did not apply only to colonies but also served to define hierarchies and justify power projection outside French-conquered territories and even within Europe.
These French diplomatic and military intrusions in the internal affairs of two small southern-European states took place shortly after the Parisian revolution of 1830, which dethroned the reactionary Bourbon dynasty and established the constitutional, centrist, (allegedly) peaceful, and business-oriented July Monarchy of the bourgeois king Louis-Philippe d’Orléans (1830-1848). At that juncture, debates over the excellence of French civilization reached their peaks in the country’s intellectual circles. Historians such as François Guizot—arguably the preeminent intellectual and political figure of the epoch—and the young Jules Michelet re-interpreted human history by placing France at the head of European civilization. This term encompassed only the Western part of the continent, which Orleanist thinkers described as sharing a common Greco-Roman and Christian heritage and standing at the forefront of humanity’s progress. According to them, France could absorb, mediate, and gather the best qualities of all the other nations. In the field of politics, this notion was mirrored by the July Monarchy’s aim to blend revolution and conservation in its moderate-liberal system. Abroad, this peculiar understanding of civilization and France’s civilizing role would imply supporting factions and institutions inspired by the Orleanist model.
The southern-European interventions, furthermore, fit into a phase in which France struggled to readjust its global role after the catastrophic end of the Napoleonic era. Along with keeping some territorial colonies and conquering Algeria, France experimented with alternative forms of economic, cultural, diplomatic, political, and military leverage over weaker states. The great powers’ informal imperialism also affected several Southern European countries such as Greece, Portugal, and the Papal States. These strategies had crucial economic motivations and goals, such as the promotion of national trade and finance. In the case of the interventions in Portugal and the Papal States, however, political and strategic reasons were dominant because France aimed, first and foremost, to assert its position of great power in Southern Europe. I contend that a deep-rooted civilizational ethos imbued France’s (and Britain’s) attempts to impose its influence in this region. Power politics and imperial projects were nurtured by the same ideology that, with growing degrees of intensity and combined with increasingly detailed racial hierarchizations, guided the attempts to control the freshly emancipated Latin American countries and later drove the ‘scramble for Africa’ and European colonialism worldwide.
The French intervention in Portugal occurred at a troubled moment. When King João VI died in 1826, his son Pedro, Emperor of the newly independent Brazil, returned to Lisbon, issued a constitution, and crowned his daughter Maria, with his brother Miguel as her Regent. Two years later, however, the latter seized the throne and revoked the constitution, sparking a civil war between the absolutist miguelistas and the liberal pedristas, most of whom fled into exile. Throughout Europe, liberal newspapers and politicians blamed Miguel as a despotic “usurper” akin to ancient tyrants and Eastern pashas, whose rule was strangling civilization and—along with Spanish restored absolutism—reducing the Iberian peninsula to “nothing different from Africa”.
Foreign governments officially remained neutral regarding the Portuguese dynastic conflict. France’s naval threat on Lisbon in 1831, indeed, only sought indemnifications for some French nationals mistreated by Portuguese authorities. Yet, most French servants and the public opinion held an utterly negative opinion of Miguel due to the influence of pedrista propaganda. The French consul in Lisbon, echoed by his British colleague and the press in France, complained about the “outrageous” and “barbarous” sentences directed at some Frenchmen accused of political crimes. Other French officers and diplomats argued that “Miguel’s bloody despotism and a police modeled on the Inquisition” persecuted foreigners and political opponents, and hindered any economic and cultural activity. Therefore, “regarding civilization, Portugal ought to be compared to what most European peoples were a century ago and not to what they are today” (French Diplomatic Archives [FDA], Correspondance Politique [CP] – Portugal, 148: Cassas to Santarem, 28 February 1831, Monay to the Navy minister, 2 April 1831, and unsigned ‘Note sur la situation du Portugal’, July 1831).
These reports convey a belief in a uniform and ordered path towards a modern civilized paradigm, shaped by France, and intended for the advancement of human (and first and foremost, European) societies. This ideology also emerged in the debates on the rising of the northern provinces of the Papal States in 1831. The Holy See requested the Austrians to repress the revolts, but the French could not tolerate the spread of Vienna’s troops in the peninsula, seen as part of their zone of influence. To avoid a foreign military occupation, France took the lead in a conference of the main European powers to propose a reform program to the Pope and appease the rebels pacifically.
The French understanding of the turbulence in Italy was perfectly consistent with their analyses of Portuguese affairs. As a confidential note explained, the 1831 turmoil was due to “the unforgivable mistake committed in 1815 by the Holy See”: when Rome recovered its territories after Napoleon’s defeat, “its first concern was to replace liberal and fruitful institutions with the abuses of a regime borrowed from the Middle Age” (FDA, Mémoires et documents – Rome-Saint Siège, 101: ‘Résumé historique de la question d’Italie’, 1 November 1832). The dismantling of the French-style administrative and legal institutions implanted by Bonaparte had led to the return of the clerical power, with no modern bureaucracy nor codified legislation. As in Portugal, the French diplomats saw this as the work of a backward regime which hampered the progress of humankind and reversed history. Guizot tellingly commented that “there is a level of bad government which peoples [. . .] can no longer endure nowadays”, longing for “the progress of modern civilization.” King Louis-Philippe even placed himself in the wake of Napoleon’s civilizing mission by recalling how “a high degree of civilization [and] fifteen years of a different system under France’s domination” had impeded the Italians’ submission to the clerical government (FDA, CP – Rome-Saint Siège, 970: ‘Minute de la main du Roi Louis Philippe’, 6 March 1832). In the end, the project of reforming the Papal States failed, and in 1832 the French occupied the port city of Ancona to counterbalance Austrian hegemony in Italy. As in Portugal, they did not aim to prompt a political change by force. However, many contemporaries interpreted this event through a civilizational lens, as an attempt to export “the benefits of [the French] constitution.”
Such debates hinged on France’s self-perception as the nation that should promote the progress of humanity. This same conception, added to ideas of racial and religious superiority, also lay at the core of the first “humanitarian interventions” in the Ottoman Empire, the imposition of France’s financial and political control over its former colony of Haiti, and the colonization of Algeria. In this regard, a maverick group whose civilizational faith played a key role in Algeria and the whole French empire were the Saint-Simonians. Not by chance, their press outlet Le Globe blamed the French government for not engaging itself “actively and effectively for the cause of civilization” against “the tyrant of Portugal.” Because of their attention to scientific, technological, and economic progress, the Saint-Simonians also disapproved the intervention in Ancona. Rather than “expensive convoys of useless weapons” France should launch “a new kind of Crusade” and send “a pacific army of engineers” to stimulate agriculture and guide Italians “through great industrial enterprises.”
Although French power politics was inspired by blatantly imperialistic principles, it is noteworthy that many Portuguese and Italian liberals shared the Orleanist civilizational ideology. The inhabitants of Ancona, for instance, petitioned the French General in the city to support their requests for “wise laws [. . .] fitting the needs of current civilization,” and replicating the “happiness and joy” of the Napoleonic times. Portuguese exiles, in turn, wished to mirror the European civilization modeled on the liberal-conservative outlook of the British Whigs and the French doctrinaires. Theirs was the “cause of right against usurpation, of order against the revolution, of liberty against slavery, of civilization against barbarism”, as a pedrista representative in London claimed (Portuguese National Archives – Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros, 538: Abreu e Lima to Palmerston, 24 March 1831).
Portuguese and Italian liberals’ references to civilization, with France as its center, were both the clues of a common worldview and a calculated bid to present themselves as the natural allies of the liberal powers. And this tactic somewhat paid off. The French interventions, in fact, did not directly back political changes, but officers and diplomats on the spot assisted those who shared their moderate, reformist, and civilized outlook. For instance, the absence of popular uprisings against Miguel proved that the Portuguese were “not yet worthy of being part of the great family of free peoples,” yet French warships sheltered local opponents willing to flee into exile. In Ancona, furthermore, the civilizational affinity revealed its social facet: while offering his aid to arrest the “wretched assassins” who sparked violence, the French commander only protected the “enlightened liberals belonging to the wealthy classes” (French Military Archives – Armée de Terre, Monarchie de Juillet, Expédition d’Ancône, 1: Cubières to the War Minister, 19 August 1832).
Besides tying French and foreign moderate-liberals, this civilizational worldview served as the ideological foundation for the “first entente cordiale” between France and Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. In the words of Admiral Roussin, commander of the expedition to Lisbon, the “union” of these “two nations advancing with an equal step at the head of civilization [. . .] may be favorable to their mutual interests and to the general interests of Europe,” and also a young Adolphe Thiers argued that “a common civilization” and “the cause of humanity” bound the two powers. The alliance was not merely ideological, for it enabled France to project its power more effectively by freely using its naval forces.
This language of civilization, mirrored by British sources and Franco-British diplomatic cooperation, had its sworn enemies. The Italian democratic leader Giuseppe Mazzini, for instance, warned its compatriots against “waiting for freedom from foreign armies” because the French government was using the peninsula only for its interests. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the governments of the targeted countries, as well as the legitimist press in France, Portugal, and Italy, described the French aggressors as “cannibals or Iroquois” at the mercy of revolutionary hysteria, who promised the “miracles of civilization” while showing contempt for “the Public Law of the civilized world”. Yet, the transnational liberal-moderate civilizational ideology proved resilient. In Portugal, the pedristas eventually gained London and Paris’s support and seized power in 1834. Analogous civilizational discourses also resurfaced in the Papal States between 1846 and 1848, when Francophile local elites and French diplomats played a leading role in Pius IX’s brief reformist period.
The civilizational worldview was the ideological ground for Orleanist France’s power politics and a means to back pro-French elites in minor countries and promote French influence. It was a long-term feature of French history, where “the notions of progress, modernity, and universality” have been at the core of the enduring “French culture of power” since 1789. We should, therefore, overcome some received classifications which still obstruct a broader comprehension of the past. As this piece shows, imperial history and history of international relations are not separate fields, to the same extent that Europe is not an historical exception cut off from the rest of the world. As I have tried to argue throughout this piece, imperialism may be conceived as a layered range of modalities and asymmetrical relations that spanned across the globe and even in Europe, whose Southern margins might be conceived as the northern periphery of the Global South. With varying degrees of intensity and different implications, the hierarchic and progressive civilizational ideology beneath the French interventions in Portugal and Italy had the same intellectual basis as the mission civilisatrice in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. Tracing connections between distant histories and understanding the broader dynamics shaping the past and present without losing sight of dissimilarities and nuances is our main challenge today. If this essay may in some way be helpful, I hope it will provide an unrequested (and perhaps unneeded!) encouragement to continuously re-think, re-imagine, and re-discuss imperial history along these lines.
Lorenzo Bonomelli is a Ph.D. candidate in Global History and Governance at the Scuola Superiore Meridionale of Naples, Italy, and Sciences Po Paris, France. His research focuses on French interventionism and imperial projects in Southern Europe and Latin America in the 1830s and 1840s.
Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez
Featured image: Pierre-Julien Gilbert, L’escadre française commandée par l’amiral Roussin force l’entrée du Tage, 11 juillet 1831. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.