Skip to main content

Elisabeth Wallmann

Thanks to a Warwick Transatlantic Fellowship, I had the opportunity to spend the period from the 10th to the 21st of February at the Newberry Library in Chicago. I used my time at the Newberry to study their extensive holdings of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writings on, and maps of, the French colonial territories in North America. In particular, I was looking for literary, natural historical or economic descriptions of animals as an alternative way of understanding political ideas about government, in particular colonial government.


I was able to consult approximately 10-15 texts containing sizeable descriptions of animals. These are held predominantly in the Newberry’s Edward E. Ayer collection and include several accounts by French travellers, manuscript documents written by colonial officials (such as the Memoire par rapport au traitté general concernant les colonies, la Navigation et le comerce a M.rs les Commissaires Plenipotentaires à Ryswick) and natural history treatises. As I explored these texts, I noticed that writers at the time were fascinated with one animal in particular: the beaver. This is partly due to economic reasons, as much of North American commerce at the time relied on the trade of beaver fur and castor oil; beavers, however, also fascinated writers because of their elaborate social life.

From this research, I plan to write an article analysing the ways in which francophone natural history of animals, and in particular of beavers, in North America was used to re-think theories and practices of governing living bodies, both at home and abroad. In doing so, my article will contribute to the history of knowledge in the French eighteenth-century in two related ways. Firstly, it will expand on recent scholarship on natural history as a commercial enterprise by shifting the focus from botany to zoology and, as a consequence, from commerce to the then nascent field of political economy, concerned with the government of bodies. Secondly, as the article examines the as yet understudied history of knowledge production by francophone settlers, missionaries, government officials and naturalists in the Transatlantic, it will contribute to the growing body of scholarship on France’s global relations.

During my time in Chicago, I was also able to meet with a member of staff from the History of Science department in Northewestern University who researches the history of eighteenth-century entomology and environmental history. We used the meeting to plan a panel proposal for the next meeting of the American Historical Association, which will also take place in Chicago.