Damien Tricoire, born in 1981, studied in Paris, Cologne, Berlin, Munich and Warsaw. In 2004 he obtained an MA degree at Sciences Po Paris, and in 2006 a second MA at LMU Munich. In 2011 he completed his PhD at LMU Munich and the Sorbonne with a thesis on the relationships between the Catholic Reform and politics in Poland-Lithuania, France, and Bavaria (with focus on the state cult of the Holy Mary). The thesis resulted in a monograph published in 2013 (Mit Gott rechnen). Since 2011 he has been an Assistant Professor at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. In 2014, together with Andreas Pečar, he published a book on the Enlightenment, criticizing common narratives (Falsche Freunde). He has just completed a monograph on the topic The Colonial Dream: Knowledge, Enlightenment, and the French-Malagasy Early Modern Encounters. Next year he will also publish a volume at Palgrave MacMillan entitled Enlightened Colonialism.
Beňovský on Madagascar: the Self-Fashioning and Knowledge Production of a Central European Actor in the French Colonial Empire
A lot of research has been done on the participation of scholars from Central Europe and, more specifically, Germany, in the great expedition (Forster, Steller). They concentrate on production of knowledge which may be considered credible today, at least as a certain stage in the history of sciences (see e. g. Vermeulen on the birth of ethnography). However, this approach implies normative bias. The concept of “Knowledge” should have nothing to do with the quality of information: it is a category useful for analyzing social constructions of reality and thus only describes those descriptions of reality that people believe to be adequate (see Luckmann/Berger).
In addition, the history of knowledge production in the colonial framework is biased in another way: it often postulates implicitly that imperial expansion and knowledge production had mutually reinforcing effects. Most recently, Charles and Cheney showed that this assumption is most questionable. Studying the French case, they argue that the knowledge produced was mostly not taken into consideration by central administration, that patronage relationships restricted the information flows, and that the knowledge produced was partly disturbing for the colonial system. The case I would like to examine gives some insight into the mechanisms of knowledge production in the French Empire.
In 1772, the Upper Hungarian Maurcie Augustus Benyovszky (in Slovak Beňovský, in Polish Beniowski) was commissioned by the French king to create a colony in northern Madagascar. His task was to develop peaceful relationships with local nobility, and commerce with the population. Contrary to these instructions, coming with voluntary troops of different, mainly French and Central/East European origins, Benyovszky soon tried to conquer the region. The knowledge Benyovszky produced on Madagascar was largely instrumental in convincing his superiors to invest more resource into the colony. Benyovszky abused the French Enlightenment narrative about universal progress in history to present his policy as a soft policy of persuasion and civilization of the Malagasy, the same way his predecessor Maudave had done. But contrary to Maudave, Benyovszky’s narratives departed more and more from his real experience on Madagascar. He made up wars and victories, and claimed to have created roads or settlements which in reality did not exist, and to have turned the Malagasy into proto-French people.