I am an historian of modern Europe and European imperialism with a particular interest in political, cultural, and social history, as well as the history of humanitarianism.
My most recent book, The Violence of Empire: Building the Congo-Océan Railroad in an Age of Humanitarianism (W.W. Norton, 2021), tells the story of one of the deadliest construction projects in history. Between 1921 and 1934, French colonial interests recruited -- most often by force -- more than 100,000 men, women, and children to work on a 500-kilometer stretch of rail between Brazzaville and the Atlantic Coast. In the end, tens of thousands of Africans were dead, killed by mistreatment, starvation, and disease. The book painstakingly recounts the experiences of local communities in the face of colonial economic development, considers why the railroad witnessed such extraordinary violence and suffering, and explores the strategies defenders of the train used to justify the loss of so many African lives.
I am also the author of An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2006), a book that tells the story of how troubled relations between Catholic missionaries and a host of republican critics shaped colonial policies, Catholic perspectives, and domestic French politics in the decades before the First World War. Based on archival research from four continents, the book challenges the long-held view that French colonizing and “civilizing” goals were the product of a distinctly secular republican ideology built on Enlightenment ideals. By exploring the experiences of religious workers, one of the largest groups of French men and women working abroad, the book argues that many “civilizing” policies were wrought in the fires of discord between missionaries and anti-clerical republicans – discord that indigenous communities exploited in responding to colonial rule.