Skip to main content

'Marianne', the personification of the French Republic, delivers the cornucopia of French civilisation's gifts to Morocco, Paris press image from 1911.

Research projects

The Rhetoric of Empire: Managing Imperial Conflict between Britain and France

"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 liberal French republican, who sought in September 1882 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 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 civilization, what happened when their interests clashed, and what new arguments emerged to justify the struggle for power between rival 'civilized' nations?

Using a combination of archival sources, newspapers, periodicals and published parliamentary debates, the project analyses the most divisive arguments about empire between Europe's two leading colonial powers from the age of high imperialism to the post-war era of decolonisation. Focusing on the domestic contexts underlying imperial rhetoric, the project adopts a case-study approach, treating decisive arguments about empire as historical episodes to be investigated in depth. The episodes in question have been selected both for their chronological range, their variety, and, above all, their vitriol. Some were straightforward disputes; others involved cooperation in tense circumstances:

  • The Tunisian and Egyptian crises of 1881-2, which saw France and Britain establish new North African protectorates, ostensibly in co-operation, but actually in competition.
  • The Fashoda Crisis of 1898, when Britain and France came to the brink of war in the aftermath of the British re-conquest of Sudan.
  • The Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911: early tests of the Entente Cordiale, when Britain lent support to France in the face of German threats.
  • The 1922 Chanak crisis, when that imperial Entente broke down in the face of a threatened attack on Franco-British forces by Kemalist Turkey.
  • Britain’s July 1940 bombardment of the French fleet at Mers el-Kébir, Algeria, the beginning of an undeclared colonial war between the former allies.
  • The collapse of the Syrian and Palestine Mandates between 1943 and 1948, which saw British military forces compel a French pullout from Damascus and the French security services become the principal arms supplier to Zionist terrorist groups.
  • The Geneva Conference of 1954, which formally ended French rule in Indochina, and during which the British helped arbitrate a settlement and prevent the use of an atomic bomb against Hanoi.
  • The 1956 Suez intervention, when, far from defusing another imperial crisis, this time Britain colluded with France and Israel to invade Egypt – the culmination of the imperial interference that began some eighty years earlier.

Professor Martin Thomas and Professor Richard Toye are collaborators on this project.