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Ministry of Colonies - Expo Paris 1900

Ministry of Colonies at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1900

The Ministry of the Colonies thought it useful and sufficient to give us an idea of the colonial expansion of France to build a new annex to the Louvre, a small Pavillon de Flore, and to cover the walls with maps and photographs. This so-called synthesis of the Colonial Exhibition does not teach much to the public, who are only kept in the pavilion by the opulent armchairs provided by the furniture store. But the colonials do not often rest on velvet; this is only seen in ministries. They sleep rough when they are in the bush, and if they have a seat to sit on, it is usually a simple folding one.

It would have been better, instead of a fragment of a sumptuous palace, to build a vast colonial dwelling, of a style appropriate to the tropical climates; it would have been better in the note. It would have been better to show us the explorer's tent, as was done in the Congo Pavilion, and to evoke, both by the subjects exhibited and by the paintings which would have adorned the walls, colonial life in its principal features, to represent to us the installation of the civil servant and the soldier in the residences and posts, the organisation of the farms, the houses of the colonists, the cultivation, the clearing of land, what else? in a word, all that constitutes the colonial activity which should bring to the country an increase in prosperity. This Pavilion should have been a demonstration, and the public should have left it converted if necessary, and convinced that the colonies are one of the elements of national vitality. We fear that this goal was not achieved.
Let us first see what the monument is? After climbing the steep steps of a staircase, we arrive at a large gallery decorated with busts, as in Versailles, on which several salons open. These busts, we hasten to say, are those of the men who have done most to increase the colonial patrimony of France, and these great and respected figures should have been there, but their memory would have been as well honoured in a colonial house as in this capitol.

Richelieu and Colbert remind us of France's first efforts to expand abroad and of the lost settlements of North America; the bust of Dupleix evokes the memory of India, of which we have only crumbs left. With Bugeaud, it is the conquest of Algeria that is evoked, then the Saharan penetration with the unfortunate Flatters. Now comes Cardinal Lavigerie who did much to spread the love of France. Colonel Bonnier was surprised with his column by the Tuareg of Timbuktu, Crampel fell under the dagger of Muslim fanatics between the Congo and Chad. These are the martyrs of the first hour, like Francis Garnier and Commandant Rivière in Tonkin. Finally, there is Paul Bert who, as Resident General in Tonkin, helped to bring order and peace to the still troubled colony. Let us add that outside the building is a statue of Jules Ferry, also a martyr of the colonial cause, one could almost say because no one was more decried than he was during his lifetime, and it is to him that we owe Tunisia and Tonkin. After having glanced at the ceiling, painted by Cormon, and representing the populations of the various colonies which have come to submit to the tutelage of France, let us visit the salons which open onto the gallery.

In the first room, the upholstered seats invite you to sit down and, as you were warm enough to go upstairs, you doze off thinking that it is nice in the colonies. Presenting the colonies in such a comfortable way is called gilding the pill.

When you start to wake up from your slumber, you notice that there are a lot of large maps in the room, as well as frames containing photographs. One reads Congo, Cochinchina, Indo-China, Dahomey, Ivory Coast, and, as these maps look very good, one tears oneself away from the softness of the armchair and approaches them. One is, of course, obliged to recognise that one should not shout too much at the Ministry of the Colonies; still, they make very good maps, very clear, precise, and up to date with the most recent itineraries. The geographical service of the colonies, although late in being organised, has not wasted its time; it has produced a great deal and, what is even better, it has done good and serious work. It must also be said that it is in competent hands; its director, Mr Camille Guy, has the merit of having already carried out considerable work. We cannot quote all the maps that are there, but one will surely notice the beautiful map of the Niger loop by Lieutenant Spick, which is based on Captain Binger's map and Marchand's work. Here again is the map of southern China and Tonkin by Captain Friquegnon, the map of the Ivory Coast by the administrator Pobéguin, the one drawn up by Lieutenant Blondiaux after his 1897-1898 exploration between the Sudan and the Ivory Coast; but let us stop here so as not to quote everything.

The photographs exhibited in the same room were taken by various missions sent by the Ministry of the Colonies, the Pavie mission in Indo-China, the Binger, Blondiaux, Plé and Hostains-d'Ollone missions in West Africa. We recall that this last mission, led by the administrator Hostains and Captain d'Ollone and coming from the Ivory Coast, joined the lieutenants Wolffel and Mangin, who had left from the north, having thus made the junction of the upper Sudan and the Ivory Coast.

In the small rooms that follow, we find a colonial library, then showcases containing a mixture of the most diverse colonial products, accumulated without it being possible to say what link exists between them or the usefulness of their presence in this place; finally, on tables, the main colonial periodicals.

Of course, it would have been good to include colonial products in the Ministry's exhibition, but we would have understood this exhibition differently. Taking into account that it should not duplicate what can be found in the pavilions of each colony, we could have taken each of the major colonial products separately, for example: rubber, coffee, cotton, silk, etc., and by means of samples, very simple and clear diagrams, and maps, show their importance and distribution throughout our overseas domain. We would have gladly proposed this mode of organisation, but better ones could perhaps have been found. Our main point is that there was something to be done to educate the public, and nothing was done at all.

We will be told that care was taken to draw up and paint on the walls vast pictures which provide all the desirable information. This is to misunderstand the public.

There is nothing tedious to read like these tight lines and cluttered figures: nothing boring like statistics when they are not presented in a form that satisfies the eye. Inscriptions, certainly, could be put on, the idea was good, but there was no need for anything massive, compact; things had to be divided to be read, there were too many on the same surfaces. We look more at the curious objects brought back by Mr Bel from Upper Laos and which also decorate the rooms.

Let us continue our visit; we arrive at a Salon where the Ministry puts colonial stamps on sale. The State does as Maury does: it sells stamps for collections. It has even created pretty little vignettes for the Cote des Somalis and for the Congo, which are a delight to philatelists; thanks to this imagery, this little business can only become prosperous.

Opposite the stamp room, we find the exhibition of the Ecole Coloniale, the students' notebooks and the works of the learned director, Mr. Aymonier, on the antiquities and epigraphy of Cambodia. Here also, the main publications of the Colonial Health Service officers are gathered together.

A staircase leads down to a small rotunda and a gallery where colonial plant specimens have been grouped. It is very small, but it is a pleasant enough place. The palms, cycas, pandanus, phormiums, tall ferns, sugar canes and reeds are reminiscent of the shadows of exotic countries and virgin forests, and one can sit for a few moments next to these beautiful plants which are the enchantment and wonder of tropical nature. In the middle of the rotunda, a reproduction of Frémiet's beautiful statue, "The Bear Digger", has been placed. But why this subject, and what could it possibly have to do with French colonisation? A mystery!

The tiny greenhouse, organised by the colonial garden, is interesting. One can see young specimens of the main colonial plants, cocoa, coffee, coca, pepper, campêche, banana and vanilla. The large coconut with the growing seedling is quite curious.

Before reaching the staircase that descends in front of the Guiana Pavilion, there is, on the right, an exhibition of colonial hygiene, organised by the Colonial Health Service, and, on the left, that of the Institute of the Colonial Museum of Marseilles, whose director is Dr. Heckel; the latter contains various products, ethnographic collections and photographs.

Outside the pavilion of the Ministry of the Colonies is a beautiful bronze group by Barrias, destined to be sent to Tananarive. It is a monument erected in memory of the officers, soldiers and sailors who died during the Madagascar campaign. France, armoured, extends a crown to her dear dead; and, from the folds of her flag, delivers the Malagasy woman, henceforth under her guardianship. On the plinth sits a soldier in campaign dress.

©L'Exposition de Paris - 1900