French Colonies

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I have always related to that Robert Frost poem, first published in 1916, so I adopted its theme for this blog, though I prefer my title to his (which has a wistfulness to it, as if he wished he had taken the traveled road).

As you know, we strayed from the road less traveled the other day and paid the price by having to deal with the crowds. [We witnessed two (nearly three) fistfights on the streets here in Paris over the course of the last couple days, undoubtedly the combination of crowded conditions and hot weather; not that that is an excuse for such uncivil behavior.]

Anyway, yesterday we decided to get back on the less trodden path and went to visit the Musée du Quai Branly near the Eiffel Tower.

It’s a good thing I hedged, saying that the Musée d’Orsay might be the newest museum in Paris. It’s not, but I think the Musée du Quai Branly, opened in 2006, probably is.

The Quai Branly has nearly 300,000 cultural and artistic objects from around the world in its collection, although it only exhibits about 1% of them. This is something that has always perplexed me about artifact-type museums; they’re like icebergs, you only get to see the tip.

It’s an interesting collection, taken mainly from four regions of the world and displayed in this order: Oceania; Asia; Africa; and, the Americas. There’s no explanation (at least none in English) about why the focus is on these places, but I think I know the answer: these are the former French Colonies.

Now, I realize that not many Americans know much about their own country’s history, much less world history, generally, but most probably have at least heard of what we call the French and Indian War. After all, it made George Washington famous.

But the more significant aspect of that war, called the Seven Years War in Europe, was that it brought to an end the first era of France’s attempt at empire and cost it nearly all of its foreign conquests and colonies (specifically, the lands that make up modern day Canada, the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, several Caribbean islands, and trading posts in Senegal in western Africa). What little remained was lost in the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, although the settlement of those wars gave the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, French Guiana on the coast of South America, various trading posts in Senegal, and Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean back to France.

Starting around 1830, the French set off on a second attempt at colonial empire with the successful invasion of Algeria, followed in the 1860s by incursions in Mexico and Southeast Asia, an area that became known as French Indochina and included Cambodia and Vietnam.

By the turn of the century, the French also had colonies throughout Africa (countries today known as: Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Benin, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and French Somaliland) and in the South Pacific (New Caledonia and a group of islands now known as French Polynesia that included the Marquesas, Tahiti, Bora Bora, and the rest of the Society Islands). After WWI, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire ceded Syria, Lebanon, Togo and Cameroon to France, as well.

My maternal grandparents lived in Africa in Dakar (now Senegal) during most of the 1950s when my grandfather, Harry DePriest, ran the operations of the Sacony-Vacuum Oil Company (now merged into ExxonMobil) in French West Africa.

All things come to an end, though, and by 1960, nearly all of France’s colonies had achieved independence (I suspect my grandfather saw the writing on the wall, explaining, in part, my grandparents’ return to the U.S.A. shortly after I was born).

Anyway, getting back to the Quai Branly, the bulk of the artifacts on display are less than 150 years old and are predominately from French Polynesia, French Indochina and French West Africa.

During our visit to the museum, Dale had my iPhone, taking pictures of interesting designs to incorporate into her ceramics when we return home, so I don’t have any photos of my own to post, but here are a couple more of hers:

There were very few tourists in the Quai Branly and its air conditioning system made our time in the museum almost heavenly; it’s the kind of place you could spend hours in. We rented the English-language audio guides, but ended up not using them because there was sufficient signage in English to understand most of the exhibits.

We spent most of our time in the Oceania section, partially because French Polynesia is still a French Territory (one of the only ones left) and, after all, this is a trip to France so we really didn’t want to take too much time looking at stuff from other places.

We had entered and exited the museum from the backstreet. The museum has a modern look, but it’s landscaped in the more natural environment of the tropics.

It was a nice way to spend the afternoon.

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