As those on the eastern seaboard of the United States take stock of Hurricane Florence's damage, we also approach the anniversary of another great storm. One year ago this week, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and the island still has not recovered. Many have suggested this to be a failure particular to this presidential administration. While the Trump administration has done little to alleviate the problem, and has in many ways made it worse, I suggest considering a much longer historical perspective that uncovers what it means to be a colony-holding republic. My own research looks at the French Caribbean, where there are uncomfortable parallels between disasters in the nineteenth century and those in the present-day. Despite rhetoric demanding assistance for compatriots in the colonies, action and attention often fell short and led to unnecessary human suffering.
At the close of the nineteenth century, France and the United States were deemed the “sister republics,” being two of only three such democracies in the world prior to the First World War. Yet, seemingly contrary to their revolutionary democratic values, they both built expansive colonial empires. Purportedly founded on the revolutionary values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, France's “empire without an emperor” extended across five continents by the century's end and was second in size only to Great Britain's. Meanwhile, under the guise of protecting the world from European interference, the United States established its own colonial footholds in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Polynesia. Over the twentieth century, the United States grew into the world's leading overseas colonial power, inheriting the mantle from Britain and France. Environmental catastrophes, disaster relief practices, and colonial exploitation entangled over that same time frame, worsening the suffering of human beings at the hands of nature.