Guillaume Barrera


1Hannon “left, in those places suited to trade, families from Carthage” (EL, XXI, 11). It is such “establishments” that Montesquieu at first calls “colonies”. Thus he uses this term before it comes to signify political and military occupation of foreign lands in order to exploit their resources and “civilize” their inhabitants. In fact, the expressions colonize, colonizer, and colonialism only appear after his death, around 1770. The same is true of colonization. From 1700 to 1748, while the European expansion is reinforced in the America, India, on the African coastline, there is nothing like a colonial empire in the sense it is understood in the two following centuries. Only Spanish America is perhaps close. For the rest, overseas possessions, French and English in particular, do not present a uniform face. They group crown domains, company concessions, more or less private properties under supervision, and simple marketplaces. Above all, the state generally delegates the responsibility for valorizing these lands. In a word, Montesquieu does not belong to the era of white empires, but to the era of companies.

2In this respect, he is inscribed in his times, which his thought reflects and in part reinforces. Unsympathetic toward religious proselytism, he does not encourage so forcefully the propagation of “Enlightenment”. The extension of commerce and naval power seems to him the best reason for forming colonies, if not by then the only ones. Therefore he forthrightly defends the exclusive trade system for the profit of the home countries. Finally, his particular position marks a notable ambivalence: on one side, a very English intelligence of the fact, which he doubtless owes to his own origin (major trade was particularly profitable to the Atlantic coast of the realm), on the other the weak enthusiasm common to French opinion of the time for overseas expansion. Going by that, Montesquieu would seem only to express, in appearance, the interests and opinions characteristic of a Bordeaux merchant.

3But this particular merchant had contemplated universal history for forty years, with equal constancy and range. The colonial question, just to take it, is at the heart of the Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne, of the Considérations sur les […] Romains, and the Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle, in other words on the empire, all works written in the years 1728-1734. Finally, coincidentally to L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu had collected sketches of reflection excluded from the final edition, but rich in lessons. Usually published as an appendix, these papers testify to a classical concern for classification (L’Atelier de Montesquieu). So as to restore now this thought in its coherence and continuity, there is nothing like the author’s double precept: “illuminate history with laws, and the laws with history” (“Il faut éclairer l’histoire par les lois, et les lois par l’histoire”, EL, XXXI, 2). Here, however, the examination of colonialism, its causes and its effects, will precede the general definition and typology it requires.

4The expansion, migration, establishment of peoples on new lands, discovered, conquered or conceded, go far back and is not ended. In order to explain the phenomenon, Montesquieu first invokes necessity which, in turn, takes root in climate, demography, the nature of conquest or that of thalassocracies.

5As far as the first cause, one lesson emerges from Books XIV and XVII of L’Esprit des lois: Montesquieu held it unlikely for southern nations to conquer the North and establish themselves there permanently.

6The “number of men” also explains colonization. The swarming of Greek citizens in Asia Minor, Italy, Sicily, of the Germanic migrations at the decline of the Roman Empire, for example, answered to the necessity of freeing a city or even a land of its excess inhabitants. But in Montesquieu’s opinion this necessity belonged to ancient times. To believe him, the earth would not cease to lose population, raising questions about such a project. Colonies of undesirables or fugitives expelled by religious intolerance, a properly modern phenomenon, are moreover a more durable type of colonization.

7In the third place, colonization often follows conquest. There exist indeed few other ways of preserving one. Montesquieu joins under this heading the Macedonian or Jewish cities founded by Alexander, the colonies of veterans deposited along the frontier fortifications like the Spanish vice-royalties that supplanted “two great empires” in America and other pre-Columbian “great realms”. Conquest and colonization often depend on tactical and scientific superiority as the Gauls or the Mexicans learned at their expense.

8Finally, maritime cities or republics like Tyr, Athens, Venice, Holland, could not fail to found trading posts since they had to “draw their subsistence” from “the whole world” (EL, XX, 5). Here emporia, trading posts, havens of rest, made up a veritable empire by their ties to each other, but a maritime empire, which is fundamentally separate from a terrestrial one.

9In L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu eloquently evokes both of these last sorts of colonies ten books apart. The first figure in the chapters devoted to defensive and especially offensive “force” (EL, IX et X), in other words in part to war and its sequels, the second in Book XXI, which deals with the “revolutions” of a trade, the hallmark of which “is to bring peace”. If the original meaning of the term “colony” refers to the land, the colony privileged by Montesquieu is most often by the sea.

10Furthermore, the political writer was not content with studying facts which soon become types, being sharply characterized and distinguished in the years 1731-1734, during which Montesquieu wrote his Considérations sur les […] Romains and his Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle. After 1740 Montesquieu finally separates in his manuscripts “colonies of conquest” from “colonies of commerce”, and “of population” (Dossier de L’Esprit des lois, Dossier 2506/6, OC, t. IV, p. 763-783).

11The former are for the occupation of lands, the maintenance of metropolitan influence through armed force, the exploitation of fiscal, agricultural, perhaps even mineral resources of the country subjected by the simultaneous presence of troops, functionaries, but first of colonists whose purpose is to become implanted. The latter constitute the colony properly speaking, which is supposed to extend itself as direct administration.

12Population colonies do not overlap with these, though they sometimes resemble them. If they sometimes keep a direct tie to their metropolis, they can also lead to the founding of new states, without passing through conquest. However that may be, Montesquieu always underscores the radical newness of these states: this is what is “extraordinary” about Pennsylvania (EL, IV, 6) or the constitution of feudality on the ruins of the Empire, by the effect of laws that did not “derive” from “those which were known previously”, an “event that happened once in the world” (EL, XXX, 1).

13On its side, the colony of commercial seeks only to extend trade by setting up trading posts and concessions on the great highways of exchange of “portable goods”, without necessarily tending to populate, nor to political domination. It did not escape Montesquieu, however, that wealth leads to power, power to ambition, and ambition to the taste for domination: Carthage is the major example of this. This type of colonization remains nonetheless distinct from the two others.

14Two lessons must be kept in mind. In the first place, the types of colonies are not only distinct, but opposed. On the one hand, there are colonies of conquest, on the other, colonies of commerce. In the interest of contemporary powers inclined to the latter, and of the “government” that runs them, the historian criticizes the errors of certain commercial cities of Antiquity, enamored of hegemony to the point of making themselves hateful toward those they administer (Romains, IV). Without naming Venice, the thinker recognizes on the other hand that the invention of “trading companies”, by relieving the state of the weight of colonization, forms within this type itself a decidedly new variant (EL, XXI, 21) which marks more clearly the very finality of colonies less than ever conquering. Now that can only be the “views” of “refined” peoples. It thus appears legitimate to consider the distinction between colonies of conquest and of commerce and the opposition of times, antique and modern, as parallel.

15Finally, it is true that these two realities, conquest and commerce, do not repel each other to the point where the one cannot on occasion be capable of engendering the other. Even during Montesquieu’s life, positions of relay or trading posts thus became colonies of population, or even of conquest. After the Mascareignes islands (today Île de la Réunion and Île Maurice), colonized starting in 1735 under the aegis of La Bourdonnais, by metropolitan colonists and African and Indian slaves with a food-producing agriculture, spices and plantations, India, where the empire of the “great Mogul” was collapsing, then became the theatre of sizeable operations, destines to establish vast protectorates to the benefit of France and England, in the middle of the century. The cause of this expansion was at least threefold. Besides demographic reasons, it was based on the project of exploiting the soil, and no longer the subsoil, as well as the intention to collect taxes from new subjects.

16On the other hand, the conquest can prepare the extension of trade when it is not conducted by a “destructive nation” but by an “industrious” one. A capital question which completes chapter 14 of book X, devoted to the merits of the conqueror, sufficiently states the opinion of the thinker in this regard: “It is true that Alexander conquered the Indies, but must a country be conquered to trade with it?” (EL, XXI, 8).

17In the second place, Montesquieu’s reflection on the diversity of colonies and their causes does not lead him to a condemnation on principle of the phenomenon itself, even if he has the merit of proclaiming as early as 1721 that the great deportation of blacks to America severely weakened the west of the African continent (LP, 114 [118]). In one of the Lettres persanes, where it appears the most virulent, the criticism is specifically directed to the idea of “empire”, and is accompanied by a qualification, on the colonies of commerce (LP, 117 [121]). Indeed, Montesquieu is not Raynal. The rejection of empire, on the other hand, already present in 1721, becomes massive after 1734. The writer continues to judge severely colonies of conquest founded in what he calls “the pride of domination”. He condemns not only their manner, he also deplores their consequences, baleful even for the mother country. This is the tree that dries up as grows: these colonies, in a word, in his eyes always suffer from an inherent vice. Nothing equals reading the Romans to understand his point of view.

18In the case of Rome, the colony, in the literal sense, prepares for colonization in the broad sense, which designates the reduction of lands and conquered kingdoms to the rank of “provinces”. It is true that the Romans, in order to secure their conquests at the least expense, first acted as masters of an indirect, insensitive administration, having recourse to alliances or to anticipatory feudal relations. Had they stopped there, they would have offered a model of the patrocinium (protectorate) which the English contemporaries of Montesquieu opposed to imperium, a distinction borrowed from Cicero (De officiis, II, 27).

19This quality aside, Montesquieu draws up a very negative balance sheet of Roman conquest which a single Persian letter summarizes in three points: unjust difference between citizens and conquered subjects, excessive authority of governors and pillage of nations (LP, 125 [131]). In Romans, Montesquieu does not even mention the edict of Caracalla (212 CE), of which one Pensée drily delivers the motive: “It was to increase revenues” (Pensées, no. 2191). On the other hand, he shows clearly that the size of the empire and then of the City, and the excessive extension of the “right of bourgeoisie”, or droit de cité, undermined the Republic.

20The judgment in Romains is further aggravated and generalized by L’Esprit des lois. “A great empire”, we read there, “supposes despotic authority” (EL, VIII, 19). As much as to say that through colonization, a republic, unless perhaps it forms an authentic confederation, has its back to a dilemma: either it dissolves and changes its nature and principle, by too much state power or too many citizens, or else it makes itself hateful by its colonial administration, in crying contrast with its own government (Book IX). In a sense, Rome did both and Montesquieu’s accusation culminates in Book XI, where he discusses knights, and the prætors and proconsuls who became in the provinces “the bachas of the Republic” (EL, XI, 19).

21The historian therefore does not praise the grandeur of the general accomplishment. When Voltaire, who made this reproach to him, admired, before Gibbon, the civilization and genius of organization imposed on the barbarians, Montesquieu explained to his English correspondent Domville “on the duration of the English government” that British colonization favored wealth founded on work and trade, whereas Roman colonization produced fortunes like Sallust’s (Pensées, no. 1960, dated 1749). Furthermore, he opposed the uniformity of mores imposed by the conquest and pacific communication, from beginning to end of his work.

22Montesquieu thus is properly situated in the history of ideas retraced by Anthony Pagden. Making of Roman history a counterexample, he rejects its castilian repetition, observing in the two cases an identical displacement away from the center of gravity at the expense of the home country. He would seem then to foreshadow Adam Smith or Turgot, who were quick to exalt the history of Greece, if he did not criticize even more radically Athens’ taste for domination. In sum, modern republics, Dutch and English especially, hardly need any patronage: their own success is sufficient.

23This reflection confirms in any case the change in reference points that leads from an imperial model – conquest along with evangelization – to the “calculation of benefits” (Pagden, chap. VI). Here commerce forms the link that supposes naval power, source of wealth and power. Only the “empire of the sea”, in this regard, would find grace in the eyes of the thinker (EL, XIX, 27). Finally, the juxtaposition in his manuscripts of the titles “federations” and “colonies” proves sufficiently that he was thinking of substituting this sort of alliance for the bond of dependency specific to “universal monarchy”. As much as to say that what his times reject or, on the contrary, again project, come together in exemplary fashion in his thought.

24However that may be, the Roman example would dissuade any reasonable conqueror and discredit any colonization. Yet other colonies have borne decisive and beneficial fruit. Montesquieu insists on the debt that most great nations had contracted with respect to another, Greece with Egypt, western Europe as a whole with Greek cities and after them German tribes. The indictment of colonies of conquest in Letter 121 of Persian Letters, for example, comes only a little before the “spirit of freedom” that passed from Greece to the western Mediterranean (LP, 125 [131]).

25The same letter recalls that liberty stifled by the Empire was reborn under the effect of the Germanic invasions. Now given this legacy, the spirit characterized by limitations imposed on royal power, legislation entrusted to the assembly of the “nation”, and the impossibility for the prince to raise taxes without its consent, it is not exaggerated to say that he has passed from the “woods of Germania” to England, then from England to the banks of the New World by means of the colonies. In any case, Montesquieu repeats clearly that not all colonization is thus bad for him.

26We understand better the effort he made to oppose two major types of colonies. It remains nonetheless true that force and domination did not define only the Roman provinces: they are even part of any colonial experience. At worst, colonies enter into a “terrestrial” empire into which, in a certain way, they meld; at best, they form a “federation” (Larrère). The best federation consisting, in sum, in a sort of democracy, it would in fact be the equivalent of a suppression of colonial status properly so called: that much comes out of the manuscripts already cited. To be sure, Montesquieu includes among the confederations a political relation that today would deserve to be called “colonial” (as between Italians and Romans, Ireland and England). But that is a fruit of conquest, and that “monarchical confederation” which assembled more than it unifies peoples or states does not form an equal and free convention. It situates itself equidistant between federative republics and classical relations, between the metropolis and its colonies. Montesquieu judges it harshly: “[…] it is a sovereign imperfection when the constitution is monarchical […]” (“[…] c’est une souveraine imperfection lorsque la constitution est monarchique […]” (OC, t. IV, p. 770). 

27The study of colonies thus remains a reflection on domination: whatever the type of colonies which Montesquieu discusses, it is always a question of “dependence” and “subsistence”. This domination in turn proves to be at once economic, political, and cultural. Even the trading companies which he praises in that function do not practice trading alone in his era. To achieve their best interests, they also levy taxes, render justice, strike money, and dispose of troops, sometimes so many that they overpower kings (LP, 130 [136]).

28The colonial phenomenon moreover concerns several orders of laws as “force” (books IX and X), “commerce” (books XX and XXI), and finally “the number of inhabitants” (XXIII). It now only remains to restore the complete judgment which Montesquieu brings to them.

29In the first place, it cannot be determined whether colonies are profitable without asking for whom. The answer in Montesquieu’s time especially must embrace the interests of three distinct actors: the metropolis, the colonists, and their subjects, often slaves, or devoid of rights. At the end of the century and the beginning of the following one, the emancipation of colonies was to be effectuated in the name of the colonists for anticolonialist reasons brandished against the metropolises, but certainly not to the advantage of the “natives”. Montesquieu, for his part, privileges the interests of the metropolitans in chapter 21 of book XXI. But he also proves himself sensitive to the fate of the former or new natives. Taking the nature of the climate as argument in order to explain nevertheless the forced labor which Aristotle had justified by man’s nature, he sides with the colonists of the Antilles (Ghachem).

30Considering colonies from a strictly political point of view this time, Montesquieu judges monarchical and republican regimes, by concern for glory or taste for “great undertakings”, more inclined to colonization than a despotism withdrawn into itself. But the landed or territorial character of almost every colony spawns serious disadvantages for these two regimes: the difficulty of governing an empire with moderation and the loss of citizens which it provokes are the principal ones. The contrast of regimes in the metropolis and the provinces also feeds a hatred that harms the strength and unity of the whole. The problem is in a way resolved only if the metropolis leaves the colonists their initial laws (XI, 19) or manages to communicate the very form of its government, as England to the American colonies.

31Finally, the colonies offer Montesquieu the opportunity to introduce a new concept. Discussing Spain and the Indies, he thus calls “sphere of power” the maximum distance from which the control and preservation of colonies become difficult for the metropolis (Richesses de l’Espagne, art. 6 and 7). Similarly, he evokes a “sphere of democracy” which cannot include a limitless number of citizens (EL, X, 6). He concludes from that that for a state to grow most often means weakening and becoming more exposed.

32Indeed, Montesquieu’s concern, in the interest of metropolises and colonies, can be measured by a double consideration: power and prosperity. Now the first in large part supposes the second. Moreover, the thinker prefers the “mediocre” prosperity of trading republics to that of empires. He is above all the advocate of these modern times for which power and prosperity principally depend on trade and navigation (MU, II). The distinction between landed and liquid wealth thus is central and the ban on new colonies of commerce becomes clearer. We should note in passing that it is exception in a reflection usually opposed to monopolies and favorable to competition. Here we see the interest of the founding state being paramount. Indeed, these colonies do not depend on the exploitation of fictive wealth, but on work and trade, which are profitable to all.

33Nevertheless, this praise of colonies of commerce must not hide the criticism of colonial expansion which is quite evident in this train of thought. Men adapt poorly to other climates; laws rarely are appropriate to more than one people: to shock them is tantamount to a tyranny “of opinion” (EL, XIX, 3), to try to overturn them leads to “great upheavals” (EL, XXVI, 23), often bloody. Did Montesquieu for all that judge the power of climate so strong that freedom can no more be exported to the south than from the south to the north, if we can put it that way? At least, he appears to leave it up to effect of communication, or of an extended trade in the broadest sense, rather than to conquerors and missionaries (EL, XX, 1).

34Does the partisan of colonies press him on this question in L’Esprit des lois: “What would a government lose in being recreated which has reached the point where it can no longer reform itself?” (“Un gouvernement parvenu au point où il ne peut plus se réformer lui-même, que perdrait-il à être refondu ?”, EL, X, 4)? He would doubtless hear him distinguish between nation and government, “general spirit” and principle. The rarity of successful colonies, unions of spirit such that a new nation seems to take shape, would be another argument. Finally, colonies are ungrateful because ill-conceived; they precipitate the ruin of the empire, perhaps even of their mother country; too prosperous, they think only of their emancipation. We must believe on this a spirit betimes prophetic: in 1721, Montesquieu leaves only two centuries for the Ottoman empire; in 1748 he advises Spain to let go her colonial monopoly; in 1730, while in London, he writes: “I believe that if some nation is abandoned by its colonies, it will begin with the English nation” (“[…] je crois que si quelque nation est abandonnée de ses colonies, cela commencera par la nation anglaise”, Notes sur l’Angleterre, OC, t. X, 2012, p. 504).


Cathering Larrère, “Montesquieu et l’idée de fédération”, L’Europe de Montesquieu, Cahiers Montesquieu 2, 1995, p. 137-152.

Anthony Pagden, Lords of all the World: ideologies of empire in Spain, Britain and France c.1500 - c.1800, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Patrick Villiers and Jean-Pierre Duteil, L’Europe, la mer et les colonies (XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles), Paris: Hachette, 1997.

Guillaume Barrera, “Montesquieu et la mer”, Revue Montesquieu 2, 1998, p. 7-44.

Malick Ghachem, “Montesquieu et la colonisation française: le siècle des Lumières entre le Code noir et le Code civil”, Bordeaux 1999, p. 459-467.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ed., L’Atelier de Montesquieu: manuscrits inédits de La Brède, Cahiers Montesquieu 7, 2001.

Bibliographical reference

Barrera Guillaume , « Colonies », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :