Exploring France’s Colonial Past

Exploring France’s Colonial Past

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The Bois de Vincennes, a sprawling park to the east of Paris, is best known for its eponymous Château that dates back to the early 14th century and the family-friendly Parc Floral.  This park, however, like its confrère the Bois de Boulogne to the west, is teeming with occult curiosities for the more adventurous park-goer. Among the more historically significant destinations, although widely overlooked, is the Jardin Tropical, a small garden tucked away in the southeast corner of the Bois de Vincennes that can only be described as a ghost town of France’s colonial past.

The garden’s origins date back to 1889, when French colonial authorities decided they needed to optimize agricultural exploitation in the colonies through increased crop yields and the introduction of more profitable crop varieties. To this end, the Jardin d’essai tropical was created to begin conducting research. Over the years, an agricultural school, the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Argonomie Coloniale, made its home in the gardens as well. It is from this research center that emanated many decisions that would have profound an enduring social, environmental and economic impacts on France’s economies, such as the introduction of rice in Senegal.

From May to October of 1907, the tropical gardens were radically transformed to welcome over two million visitors for a Colonial Exposition. Six pavilions were constructed along with five “mini-villages” to show off the wealth and diversity of France’s colonial holdings. Hundreds of people from France’s colonies were transported to Paris in order to “animate” the exotic villages and thrill spectators, transforming the gardens into a veritable human zoo. Among the “villages” constructed for the Exposition were a Touareg encampment, a Tunisian settlement with a central bazar and an Indochinese village complete with neighboring rice patty.

The Jardin Tropical is also home to a number of memorials dedicated to the memory of soldiers from the colonies killed while fighting for France during the First World War. There are several smaller commemorative plaques, steles and even a stupa, a mound-like religious structure used by Buddhists, that give recognition to specific colonies. The most impressive monument, however, is a large obelisk dedicated in the 1920s that commemorates the sacrifice of colonial troops.

Far from the public eye, this may seem a strange choice of location to build monuments, but the gardens, from 1914, were home to a military hospital for colonial troops. During this period, Muslim soldiers also built the first mosque ever to be erected on French soil, although it has since been destroyed.  Because many wounded soldiers passed through the gardens, the site became a place of pilgrimage for nostalgic veterans after the war. Even today, small ceremonies are still held annually by local ethnic communities to commemorate the sacrifices their ancestors made for France.

After being allowed to decay for decades, the City of Paris purchased the gardens in 2003 and reopened them to the public after considerable renovations to ensure safety. Nevertheless, the garden remains a little visited and ill-maintained corner of the park. Today, some of the old buildings and greenhouses of the colonial research center are still standing, although many have fallen into a state of disrepair. Modern visitors can also still find a few of the colonial pavilions and remnants of the “mini-villages” from the 1907 Colonial Exposition. Other original buildings that are still in use house an archival research library and various research centers where academics now focus their energies on sustainable development in emerging countries.

No place in Paris better captures France’s long and complicated history with its former colonies than the Jardin Tropical. In the metamorphosis of the garden over the years, you can follow the paradigmatic shift in the way a country viewed the rest of the world. The diverse historical remnants that quietly inhabit the Jardin Tropical bear witness to France’s changing relations with its colonies over the past century and its messy and suppressed collective memory concerning this history.

How to get there?

If you take Line 1 to its eastern terminus Chateau de Vincennes, it is possible to walk or bike over to the Jardin Tropical; however, budget at least 45 minutes for the walk and come with a map! For easier access, take the RER A to the suburban town of Nogent-sur-Marne, signs will guide you the short distance from the train station to the gardens. Coming from Paris, be sure to take a train heading towards Boissy-Saint-Léger. From Châtelet – Les Halles in the center of Paris, it is a quick 15-minute trip on the RER. Be aware that a trip on the RER will cost you a few euros extra, you must purchase a “zone 3” RER ticket.

 

 

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