Think back to the peak of French colonial power: 11 million square kilometres of land spread across almost every continent; 100 million of the world’s people, all of them subjects of the Third Republic.
Consider the children of Paris lycees, looking at a wall in the classroom that mapped their country’s overseas possessions, listening to the gallant tales of explorers and missionaries who subjugated these lands for the glory of the empire.
In a time when the distance between Europe and the rest of the world was so vast, when dissenting views on the morality of colonialism were seldom given a platform, it was inevitable that propaganda and caricature abounded in France’s understanding of its far-flung dominions.
Trading cards, one particular, long-forgotten plank of France’s colonial ephemera, were recently the subject of a public lecture by historian Joel Montague at Meta House.
Filling the same function that sports trading cards did for recent generations of youth, the art form came into its own in 1867, when the Bon Marche department store printed scenes of colonial life on the obverse of cards that advertised the store’s wares.
Colonial-themed trading cards were a feature in life in many European countries with overseas empires. England, Germany and Spain all had their own variants, which were often included in cigarette packets.
What differentiated France was that the target audience was primarily children.
These lithograph pictures of life in Indochina and elsewhere came to be sold with under-age indulgences such as chocolate, and were potentially produced in their millions by companies specialising in luxury goods.
Although they began as an advertising ploy – rather than a state-sanctioned effort to promote colonialism’s virtues to youngsters – Montague says trading cards without doubt played some role in shaping French adolescent attitudes in many ways, including a jingoistic notion of the French Empire.
Children adept at negotiating with their friends could aspire to complete special albums produced by the card manufacturers.
If they collected the set, albums could be redeemed for prizes such as a new bicycle or toys.
Although the line between card manufacturers seeking to depict subjects of interest to children and what Montague calls the “didactic intent” of the manufacturers is unclear, in some cases the cards certainly skew towards the propagantistic.
Some depicted the benefits of French control of overseas territories, allowing for the importation of cheap goods such as cocoa.
Others featured statistics on the empire’s population and florid pronouncements of France’s need to have unfettered access to global trading markets.
Still others lionised the missionaries, military officers and even bureaucrats upon which the empire depended.
Inevitably, France was cast as a grand benefactor, echoing the Foreign Office’s image of a country locked in eternal marriage with its outposts, the custodians of natives thankful for their rulers’ benevolence.
Southeast Asia, and particularly Cambodia, played a vital aesthetic role in this formulation.
“The region’s history was portrayed as one of decline and chaos following the Khmer civilisation,” Montague said in his lecture.
“Angkor was recast as a symbol of a new Indochina reborn from its ruins, a rebirth made possible by France – which was depicted as the ‘legitimate inheritor of this ancient Khmer civilisation’.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]