Marseille continually reinterprets its colonial heritage. The city constitutes an imaginarium of material and immaterial symbols revealing of its history. No French city has been more wedded to colonization than this cross roads of Mediterranean peoples. Historians signal frequently its lavish colonial expositions of 1906 and 1922, and a visitor to the one of 1922 found that the city itself was “a colonial city, … [like] a capital of the French colonial empire.” Aside from the 1931 Exposition coloniale in Paris, the 1906 exposition was the largest French event of its genre.
Scientists and physicians were involved in all three expositions. Colonial science and colonialism itself altered environments and human populations in lands far from Europe but the effects are still felt here. Legacies of the colonial era endure but are now framed in terms of assistance, development, and cooperation between international partners. The 2008 relocation from Paris to Marseille of the headquarters of the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD) exemplifies a continuing dimension of the city’s “colonial vocation”. Commerce and colonialism often co-habit the same domain, and Pre-Revolutionary Marseille had a busy commercial port second only to Bordeaux in French colonial traffic. By 1832 it was Europe’s third port in total maritime traffic behind only London and Liverpool, and by 1875 half of all French tonnage to and from the empire passed through its port.
*Michael A. Osborne is Professor of History of Science at Oregon State University, and is a resident scholar at L’Institut Méditerranéen de Recherches Avancées in France.