In This Review

A Velvet Empire: French Informal Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century
A Velvet Empire: French Informal Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century
By David Todd
368 pp, Princeton University Press, 2021

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European imperial powers preferred to control certain colonial territories by indirect means: they sought to co-opt local economic and cultural elites rather than establish full territorial control. This strategy of “informal imperialism” required far fewer resources than direct rule and allowed the imperialists to focus on economic exploitation rather than governance. The more formal “scramble for Africa” in the 1880s only intensified when imperial powers began bumping up against one another. British informal imperialism is well studied, but Todd examines its less well-known French counterpart, which took shape especially in North Africa. Whereas London enjoyed unmatched competitiveness in cotton textiles, ironwork, transport, and financial services, Paris dominated in luxury goods such as silk and velvet, women’s couture and cosmetics, home furnishings, and fine food and drink. The French also took advantage of their strong legal services sector and state-supported banks. The luxury trade was profitable enough that, contrary to what one often reads, neither France nor the United Kingdom was willing to risk war with the other late in the nineteenth century in an attempt to extend its possessions—leaving open the question of why governments established formal colonies at all.