Today’s blog post comes to you from Library Assistant Michel Potop. A native of Brittany, France, with  Masters’ degree in History from Florida International University, Mr. Potop has been working to accession and catalog a cache of materials purchased by museum founder, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. in Paris and deposited with us as a promised gift. Here is his report on one of those items.

Most children nowadays (and their adult chaperones) probably think of the Dreamworks movie series, Madagascar when they hear about the island off the east coast of Africa.

In reality, Madagascar is a gorgeous country so full of exotic plants and unique animals that Conservation International designated the island a biodiversity hotspot. More than ninety percent of the primates, birds, reptiles, and other animals living on the island are indigenous,  and therefore unique in the world.


Today’s blog post will deal with a rather different view of Madagascar (also aimed at youth) but designed less to entertain than to program children into accepting a certain idyllic and flattering image of the island when it was part of France’s colonial empire. An integral part of the colonial endeavor, French imperial propaganda conditioned the metropolitan population of France to accept and take pride in the nation’s overseas colonies. While the Wolfsonian museum and library holds numerous items related to propaganda aimed at younger readers, I have selected a book written by M. L. Lamy with colorful pochoir (stencil) printed illustrations by Pierre Portelette (1890-1971). This colorful and eloquent propaganda book designed “for big and small” focuses on the positive and progressive changes introduced by the French on the island colony.

The book generally makes use of a “before” and “after” strategy to demonstrate the advance of “civilization” that followed the French occupation of Madagascar. An illustration of the colonial capital emphasizes progress and order by picturing a modern train arriving just behind a large, white beaux-arts railroad station, and orderly streets separated by floral gardens.


Another illustration in the book presents an example of a pre-colonial village which, in spite of its picturesque nature, shows the native men and women leading a simpler, if more difficult life. Scantily clad native porters walk on dirt paths and bear their burdens on their backs and shoulders. Their lodgings appear uncomfortable and, according to the adjacent text, the natives were plagued by omnipresent violence—at least until the intervention of the colonial government.


Another illustration of city life in the colony contrasts modern transportation like the automobiles introduced by the French with the old-fashioned indigenous forms, such as rickshaws and oxen-driven carts. The same image depicts a French officer directing traffic, literally embodying the colonial benefits of progress and order.


Education and Christian indoctrination were important parts of the French “civilizing” mission and also emphasized the unity of the empire.


According to another illustration, the local peoples gladly mingled their traditions with French customs, but that assimilation was assumed to move only in one direction.


The celebratory depiction of people entering a new theatre also reinforces the idea of that the indigenous peoples benefitted from the implementation of European architectural building techniques and revolutionary new technologies, such as cinema.


Even as the books boasts of the benefits bestowed on Madagascar by French colonizers, it also suggests that the time-honored traditions of the native peoples were also respected.


An illustration of the equestrian monument erected to honor Joseph Galliéni, (who served as Governor-General of Madagascar between 1896 and 1905), elevates the French colonizers so that the indigenous peoples in the park must literally look up to him in admiration.


Promoting the unity of the French empire was crucial to the colonial endeavor, especially in propaganda aimed at children (and the patriotic parents who purchased such books). Children’s propaganda books emphasized pride in the nation’s history, scholastic achievement, and a fascination for modern technologies such as automobiles and the cinema. In an idealized French colonial perspective, both indigenous and European peoples were encouraged to embrace progress and exoticism in the period of the Third Republic.

~ by "The Chief" on August 20, 2013.


  1. Your posts are marvelous — thank you.

  2. Beautifull illustrations, great blog, Congratulations!

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