Histoire des Deux Indes, (full title, Histoire philosophique et politique du commerce et des établissements des Européens dans les deux Indes) 1770
Published first in 1770 in six volumes, the Historie was revised in 1774, and again, with extensive and audacious revisions, in 1780. Diderot made a large number of contributions, all of which were anonymous. His main involvement was with the third edition, for which he wrote nearly a fifth of the text. It has only been during the last thirty years, with the discovery of the collection of Diderot’s manuscripts known as the Fonds Vandeul, that it has become possible to identify these contributions. The work was a history of European colonization from its beginnings in the East Indies and West Indies. It combined historical and anthropological information, and attacks on slavery, with a firm belief in the benefits of commerce, “this new soul of the moral world”. In the Salon de 1769 Diderot wrote that everyone was becoming “preoccupied with administration, commerce, agriculture, imports, exports and finance...The Abbé Raynal can boast of having been the hero of this change”. Raynal’s work was one of the most frequently reprinted books in the years immediately preceding the French revolution, and Raynal himself was invited to be a member of the Constituent Assembly in 1789. According to Furbank, the History of the Two Indies had almost the same importance for the philosophique movement as the Encyclopédie itself. Its original purpose had been to recommend a more rational colonial policy for France. However, the overall effect of Diderot’s contributions to the third edition transformed the work from one which advanced colonialism to one which suggested that colonialism was a crime. In one passage he urged the inhabitants of the Cape to resist the colonialists: “Flee, unhappy Hottentots! Flee! Hide yourselves deep in your forests. The wild beasts who inhabit there are less to be feared than the monsters whose rule you will fall... Or if you feel the courage for it, take up your hatchets, bend your bows and rain down poisoned arrows on these intruders. May none remain to bring the news back to their fellow-country men”.
Raynal’s History, and especially the third edition, was one of the most discussed and important books of the late eighteenth century; it influenced, for example, the young Napoleon, who was entertained by Raynal in Marseilles. The Holy See objected to the book in 1774, when it was placed on the Index. Smuggled copies of the work found their way into France - it was originally published in Holland - and eventually in May 1781, Parlement condemned it to be burned and Raynal was threatened with arrest and had to seek refuge abroad. The work appeared in thirty-five editions in five or six languages in thirty years. In England it ran through eighteen editions.
“Raynal is a historian of a sort we no longer see; so much the better for him and so much the worse for history. If from the beginning history had seized, and dragged by the hair, both political and religious tyrants, I don’t suppose they would have been better men, but they would have been more thoroughtly detested, and their unhappy subjects would have perhaps become less patient with them.” Then after doubting whether such bellicose history was still history Diderot writes, “All right efface the word ‘history’ from his book, and be silent. The kind of book I like is the one that kings and their courtiers detest, it is the kind of book that give birth to Brutuses - give it whatever name you please.” (Quoted in Hans Wolpe, Raynal et sa machine de guerre: ‘L’Histoire des deux Indes’ et ses perfectionnements, 1957, 43-4)
On slavery Raynal wrote, “even imaginary misfortunes wring tears from us in the silence of our study and, even more, in the threatre. Only the fatal destiny of miserable Negroes fails to interest us. They are oppressed, they are mutilated, they are burned, they are stabbed - and we hear it coldly, without emotion. The tormets of a people to which we owe our pleasures never reach our hearts.” (Quoted in Wolpe, ibid., 155)