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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Building the Creole Empire: Architecture, Urbanism, and Social Space in the French Colonial World, 1659-1810

  • Author(s): Carey, Dwight Anthony
  • Advisor(s): Nelson, Steven D.
  • et al.

During the first centuries of French colonial expansion, the imperial towns of Saint-Louis (Senegal), New Orleans (Louisiana), and Port Louis (on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius) witnessed the emergence of buildings that combined European floor plans with patterns of design and site usage that were commonplace throughout the European and the non-European world. These components included wrap-around porches, detached kitchens, and a lack of interior hallways. Architectural historians describe buildings with these features as creole dwellings. These structures often existed within creole towns, which consisted of hundreds of such domiciles. Previous scholars have claimed these structures and their urban surroundings developed as West African and European building traditions coalesced in Atlantic societies. Yet, as Port Louis demonstrates, towns in the Indian Ocean harbored stylistically identical dwellings despite different population dynamics. This historical reality provokes two pertinent questions: Why did creole buildings and towns in the early West African, American, and Indian Ocean colonies of France exhibit profound non-European stylistic similarities? Who and what were responsible for these architectural and urban continuities?

This dissertation is the first comparative study to answer both of these questions. It contends that Saint-Louis, Port Louis, and New Orleans each hold the potential to transform our understanding of creole architecture and urbanism, in particular, and of creole cultures, at large. In engaging the interconnections between the built environments of these places, I demonstrate that worldwide systems of social control and economic exchange—rather than West African and European mixture—facilitated architectural creolization. The three chapters of my dissertation trace the history of creole architecture and urbanism from 1659, when France founded Saint-Louis, to the end of French rule of Mauritius in 1810. This project elucidates the social mechanisms that rendered creole architecture and urbanism some of the most economically relevant building traditions of the modern colonial world.

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