Crossroads of the World: Colonial Encounters in Le Havre and Nantes

Letter from 1919 reporting to the mayor of Le Havre that a Chinese worker had been sentenced by the British authorities to 28 days in prison for touching the shoulder of a female resident of Le Havre (Archives municipales de la Ville du Havre).

The Project

This project, undertaken by Professor Kate Marsh, explores France’s northern port cities in the interwar years, with a primary focus on the Normandy port of Le Havre (the ‘New York of France’) but also considering the other major French port for transatlantic travel, Nantes.

In looking at Le Havre, Kate concentrates on the history of Le Havre, from its assumption of strategic importance in 1914 to the destruction of the old city by Allied bombers in 1944. Exploring colonial encounters, i.e.

  • the arrival of colonial workers during the Great War
  • anti-colonial activism after 1919
  • European migrations (the arrival of Belgian refugees, the emigration of Eastern Europeans to the Americas)
  • international campaigns against the trade in women
  • and periods of social unrest and economic crisis (1919, 1922, 1936)

the research aims to provide a new perspective on the dynamic interaction of international, national and local affairs before 1945. In so doing, it offers a new direction to studies of France’s regional history, building on the significant contribution which Kate has made to understandings of France’s imperial and colonial histories.

A recent output of this research was the monograph, Narratives of the French Empire: Fiction, Nostalgia, and Imperial Rivalries, 1784 to the Present, published in 2013, which showed how the political contexts of colonial outposts in Tahiti, Martinique and India provide an alternative reading of France’s global position—one in which expansive power, comparative inferiority and moral superiority intertwine.

Narratives of the French Empire is a must-read not only for those interested in the literature and history of the French colonialism, but equally for those concerned with culture, transnationalism, and the making of the modern world.

- Tyler Stovall, University of California, Berkeley

In its investigation of the history of Nantes (1919–39), the project considers the links between metropolitan France and its empire by examining the largest trial staged in France between the wars — a trial in which 14 French citizens from the South American colony of French Guiana stood accused of looting and murder during riots which had taken place on 6 and 7 August 1928 in Cayenne. A central finding of this investigation is how, by staging the trial, the city of Nantes, notorious for its role in the transatlantic slave trade until 1848, was able to refashion itself as the home of French liberty in 1931.


Kate is currently collaborating on a project with local Merseyside artists The Singh Twins. This has developed out of her work on transnational and colonial encounters in port cities, and is inspired by her work on the role played by Indian luxuries (silks, calicoes, muslin) in the transatlantic slave trade. Entitled ‘Slaves of Fashion’, the project will involve artistic outputs (an exhibition of Indian miniatures), educational resources and workshops. The exhibition ‘Slaves of Fashion’ will be hosted by the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, in spring 2018.

Selected publications

  • Kate Marsh, 'L’Affaire Galmot: Colonialism on Trial in 1931', French Cultural Studies, 23: 6 (2015), 260-276
  • ‘“La nouvelle activité des trafiquants de femmes”: France, Le Havre and the Politics of Trafficking, 1919–39’, Contemporary European History (forthcoming, 2016).