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Popularising geography in France’s second city: The rôle of the Société de Géographie de Lyon, 1873-1968

Rendre populaire la géographie dans la seconde ville de France : le rôle de la Société de géographie de Lyon, 1873-1968
Hugh Clout

Résumés

La première société de géographie en province, celle de Lyon, date de 1873 ; ses conférences et publications ont transmis le savoir géographique pendant de nombreuses années. Des articles sur les activités de missionnaires, explorateurs, colonisateurs et marchands outre-mer ont répondu à une fascination pour l’exotisme et ont fourni une documentation d’une certaine utilité aux commerçants et industriels lyonnais à l’époque où l’empire français arrive à son apogée. Les aventures des explorateurs en Afrique attiraient de nombreux auditeurs aux conférences, et la géographie de l’Extrême-Orient était évidemment du plus grand intérêt pour les soyeux et investisseurs de Lyon. Et les pays européens offraient aussi d’intéressantes perspectives de vacances. Les géographes universitaires ont participé aux activités de la Société, mais sans grand impact avant les années 1920. Les efforts de réorientation vers "la nouvelle géographie" de Vidal de la Blache étaient peu couronnés de succès. Et si les conférences de la Société ont attiré de fortes audiences jusqu’à la fin des années 1960, la publication du Bulletin s’est achevée en 1937 ; son intérêt s’était peu à peu déplacé vers d’autres périodiques universitaires, dont Les Études rhodaniennes renommés plus tard la Revue de géographie de Lyon, puis Géocarrefour. Devenue une discipline académique et scolaire, la Société perd de son attrait auprès du grand public.

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Texte intégral

Origins of the Société de Géographie de Lyon

1During the war of 1870-71, Prussian troops halted their advance on the northern outskirts of Lyon and France’s second city was spared the humiliation of enemy occupation. To express gratitude for what many saw as divine intervention, work was started on building a basilica on the hill of Fourvière, a long-established place of pilgrimage whose slopes housed many religious institutions (Figure 1). At this time, Lyon was famed for its silk trade, an important military presence, and a powerful Catholic influence expressed through religious orders and missionary organizations (Prudhomme 1995, 2004a, b; Lambron 2004, 9). The Society for the Propagation of the Faith had emerged as a well-organized mission aid society by 1822 (Latreille 1975, 344; Drevet 2002). In addition, members of the Société des Missions Africaines and the Pères Maristes, who evangelised territories in the Pacific Ocean, were based in Lyon (Prudhomme 2004c, 161; Zerbini 2007; Douaire-Marsaudon et al. 2008). These distinctive circumstances would influence the early development of geographical activities in the city (Lejeune 1993, 96).

Figure 1: The Society’s offices and lecture halls in central Lyon

  • 1 The societies display considerable variation in detail. Those based in Bordeaux, Le Havre, Lille, M (...)

2The Prussians were believed to have superior knowledge of the terrain over which they were fighting than their French counterparts. Once the Treaty of Frankfurt had been signed (28 May 1871), a start was made on improving the teaching of geography in schools and facultés in France (Claval 1998, 28). At that time, the University of Paris had the only chair of geography but within a few years several historians, of whom Paul Vidal de la Blache became the most influential, began to deliver courses in geography at Nancy, Bordeaux, Caen and Lyon (Drapeyron 1877; Berdoulay 1981, 30; Broc 1974; Lefort 1992; Sanguin 1993). A second reaction to French ignorance of geography was the foundation of geographical societies in provincial cities that complemented the Société de Géographie de Paris dating from 1821 (Fierro 1983; Duclos 1998). The Société de Géographie de Lyon (SGL), which is the focus of this article, was the first of these associations (Murphy 1948, 6). Soon, the French displayed a genuine desire to learn about the rapidly changing world and by 1881 their geographical societies had 9,500 members, almost one-third of the global total (Lejeune 1993, 85)1. Starting in 1878, these associations met together annually with a different society hosting each event. On such occasions, the kinds of theme considered by local societies were projected on to the larger, national screen. Delegates enjoyed banquets, excursions and exhibitions of maps and geographical publications. It would be the turn of Lyon to receive delegates from other societies in 1881 and again in 1894 (Anon. 1881-83, 178).

  • 2 Both Michel Laferrère and Nicole Comerçon stressed that the archives were lost at this time of conf (...)

3The SGL has been studied by historians Jean-François Klein and Jean-Marc Vasquez, with Klein exploring the significance of "la Croix et la soie" (the Church and the silk trade) in its early activities (Klein 2002, 2006, 2008; Vasquez 2004). In addition, the Canadian scholar John Laffey has investigated the work of the Chambre de Commerce in Lyon and especially its promotion of "municipal imperialism" (Laffey 1969a, b). He advanced the argument that, since members of the Chambre de Commerce were among the founders of the SGL and the Chambre de Commerce allocated funds to the SGL, therefore the nascent geographical society was intimately involved in municipal imperialism. Subsequent scholars applied Laffey’s reasoning more generally and argued that other provincial geographical societies were funded by chambers of commerce and hence also promoted municipal imperialism (Schneider 1990). Detailed research into geographical societies based in Rouen and Le Havre has shown that this kind of relationship was not so straightforward (Clout 2008a, b). The present article charts the activities and interests of the SGL across the century of its existence, thereby expanding the time span from the early years that have been scrutinised by other scholars. It highlights the themes that were presented to its members and the relative attention devoted to various sections of the globe in its lectures and articles. In addition, it investigates the impact of university teachers on the Society’s activities. The printed evidence in its Bulletin must form the major source since the archives of the SGL have not been traced after the events of 1968 and the subsequent fragmentation of the Université de Lyon in the early 1970s, and little mention of the Society is found in the archives municipales or the archives du Rhône2.

  • 3 Vasquez (2004) has analysed membership in detail; such an analysis is not possible after World War (...)

4In November 1872, the Société nationale d’émulation de Lyon proposed that a geographical exhibition should be mounted but soon realised that a society "to promote the study of geography among the middle classes" would have greater effect (Christophe 1875-76, 16). Not only did Lyon "trade with the most important parts of the globe" but its "propagation of the faith covers the whole world" (Ibid. 15). Two months later, three dozen enthusiasts assembled in the premises of the Union syndicale des marchands de soie at 13, rue de l’Arbre-Sec, under the chairmanship of Louis Desgrand, a wealthy silk merchant and member of the Société de Géographie de Paris (Vasquez 2004; Klein 2008)3. A working group was established, including Oscar Galline (chairman of Lyon’s powerful Chambre de Commerce), Louis Desgrand, Lieutenant-Colonel Debize (a military surveyor), Étienne-Félix Berlioux (a teacher of history and future professor of geography at the faculté), Abbé Christophe (canon of the cathedral) and Abbé Stanislas Laverrière (editor of the periodical, Les Missions Catholiques and the Annales de la Propagation de la Foi). Galline was made président but the most active members were Desgrand and Berlioux (vice-chairmen), Debize (treasurer) and Christophe (secretary). The presence of representatives of the Church and of the silk trade at the birth of the Society was indisputable.

  • 4 Attempts to create a society of commercial geography at Bordeaux were delayed by prolonged negotiat (...)

5At its meeting in Lyon in the following August, the Association française pour l’avancement des sciences supported the nascent geographical society that forged ahead without reference to the Société de Géographie de Paris, which saw it "not as a rival, but as a sister" and an example of "intellectual decentralisation" (Christophe 1875-76, 19)4. Having the promotion of geography as its main aim, the SGL strove to advance scientific understanding, enhance the teaching of geography, disseminate useful information to traders, and produce regular publications. Its founders insisted that geographical knowledge could be applied "to all branches of social, religious, commercial, industrial and military activity" (Ibid. 21). By corresponding with travellers and other geographical societies, it would "assemble the means for its members, living in Lyon and surrounding towns, to study geography" (Ibid.). Desgrand was elected président and would hold that post for eighteen years, with Debize and Berlioux as deputies, and Abbé Christophe as secretary. Other members of its council were drawn from the city’s Chambre de Commerce, educational institutions, commercial community and the Church. A property on the quai de Retz (now quai Jean Moulin) was rented to house its first editorial office, meeting room and library (Figure 1).

  • 5 According to J-F. Klein, members of the “economic patriciate” (48.5 %) were most numerous, followed (...)

6By February 1874, 250 citizens had applied to join the Society and by December the total rose to 317 (Anon. 1899-1900, 10; McKay 1943, 220). Along with merchants, industrialists, teachers, engineers, military men, doctors and lawyers, of whom many lived on the presqu’île between the rivers Saône and Rhône, the exclusively male founding members included fourteen priests, headed by the city’s archbishop (Anon. 1884-85, 361-74; Pellissier 1996; Klein 2002, 338)5. Regular membership rose to a peak of 411 in 1883 and a similar number of people purchased season tickets for lectures (Figure 2). During straitened economic conditions later in the 1880s, following the crash of the Union Générale bank, membership declined and the Society moved to a small office at 6, rue de l’Hôpital (Laffey 1975, 27). However, this trend was soon reversed, partly because of a popular response to the attractive stands of the Exposition coloniale held at the Parc de la Tête d’Or in Lyon during 1894; 535 full-fee members were noted in 1899 (Anon. 1899-1900, 9; Prudhomme 2004c, 167). The Society’s meetings were important events in the city’s social calendar, with five lectures by Ferdinand de Lesseps on the Panama canal project proving so popular that they were given in local theatres. De Lesseps also chaired the fourth national congress of geographical societies held in Lyon in 1881 and the celebrations to commemorate the Society’s tenth anniversary in January 1884. No details survive of membership of the SGL in the first two decades of the 20th century but numbers doubled from 195 in 1920 to 428 in 1931 (Figure 2). Membership fell again during the depressed 1930s and only 170 regular members were recorded in 1948, but large numbers of schoolchildren bought tickets for particular events.

Figure 2: Membership of the Society

  • 6 The annual subscription for most provincial societies was 10 francs; Lille and Marseille charged 15 (...)
  • 7 Although not a mountaineer, E-F. Berlioux was président of the Lyon branch of the Société du Club A (...)

7In 1874, an annual subscription of 20 francs entitled a member of the SGL to attend lectures, use its library and receive its quarterly Bulletin6. Those who wished only to attend lectures could purchase a 5-franc season ticket. Without doubt, the SGL received important subsidies in the early years. For example, a statement of July 1876 declared total receipts of 14,750 francs, of which 8,750 francs were subsidies (Archives Départementales du Rhône: 4T40, Société de Géographie de Lyon, 13 juillet 1876). Three thousand francs came from the conseil municipal to purchase 6,200 geographical books from Abbé Tolibos, with 2,400 francs from other sources for cataloguing and shelving. The municipality provided a further 1,150 francs for compiling an economic map of Lyon, and giving prizes to schoolchildren. The Chambre de Commerce supplied 1,000 francs, more than half of which paid a teacher to give classes on commercial geography to schoolteachers. The conseil-général of the Rhône allocated 250 francs and a one-off sum of 600 francs came from the Société du Club Alpin7. These early subsidies were unquestionably impressive but most were tied to specific objectives. During 1875-76, total expenditure amounted to 15,900 francs, which covered publishing the Bulletin (2,500 francs), paying staff (2,400 francs), renting accommodation (2,200 francs) and covering costs of lectures and meetings (1,800 francs). The SGL declared itself 1,150 francs overspent in July 1876 and complained that the conseil-général had contributed only 250 francs.

  • 8 This was the smallest amount given to any learned society in the Rhône. Other recipients were: Acad (...)

8The financial situation improved rapidly since an expenditure of 13,390 francs noted in December 1878 was more than covered by an income of 15,290 francs derived from subscriptions, subsidies (5,150 francs) and 1,900 francs held in reserve (Anon. 1877-78a, 496). The conseil municipal provided a further 3,000 francs for the Tolibos collection, work on the economic map, and public lectures on military geography. The 1,000 francs from the Chambre de Commerce continued to be channelled into courses for schoolteachers, and the conseil-général supplied 250 francs8. Finally, the Ministère de l’Instruction Publique gave a one-off grant of 900 francs (Archives Départementales du Rhône 4T40: Société de Géographie de Lyon, 16 juillet 1878). During the 1880s, the conseil municipal, by then dominated by anticlerical radical republicans and suffering from financial difficulties after the collapse of the Union Générale, stopped its subsidy for the library, however the conseil-général continued to grant 250 francs each year (rising to 500 francs in 1887 and 1888) and allocated 3,000 francs for a commemorative volume when the Society hosted the national geographical congress in 1881 (Latreille 1975, 357; Benoit 2004a, 179). The Chambre de Commerce still gave 1,000 francs each year to support courses for teachers but cut this to 500 francs between 1897 and 1914 (Chambre de Commerce de Lyon: CR des Travaux annuels, 1875-1950).

  • 9 From time to time the Bulletin carried financial statements but far too irregularly to be useful.

9Apart from knowing about the subsidies from the Chambre de Commerce that continued until 1930 when global crisis struck, little information has survived about the Society’s finances after the early years9. Its funds seem to have been directed to named, core activities and were not available to assist explorers or travellers as the "municipal imperialism" hypothesis would require. Like other learned societies, the SGL awarded medals to distinguished lecturers but very rarely gave material support to explorers. Thus, Paul Soleillet received 500 francs and a quantity of silk to present to dignitaries in north-east Africa, Charles Martin was given a precision timepiece to use in Siberia, and Father Charles Zappa received equipment to assist exploration along the Niger (Anon. 1875-76a, 178; Martin 1887-8; Anon. 1899-1900, 15; Schneider 1990, 110). In the last two cases, the Society held special collections to pay for the equipment. The oft-repeated suggestion that all provincial geographical societies gave more than moral support to explorers is not substantiated by available evidence for the SGL (Bancel, Blanchard, Vergès 2003, 59).

The Bulletin as source

  • 10 By the early 1900s 700 copies were being printed each year (Vasquez 2004, 56).

10Given the absence of other documents, the Bulletin must serve as the essential source of information on the SGL. Its first volume covered 1874-76, running to 670 pages of articles, notes, book reviews, correspondence from explorers and missionaries, and transcripts of talks. Volumes of the Bulletin were normally biennial until 1890 and annual thereafter, with at least 500 copies printed (Desgrand 1889a, 13)10. Publication was interrupted during World War I but restarted in 1921. The last issue was for 1936-37, by which time 15,658 pages of text had been printed since 1875. On average, 368 pages were issued annually during the first forty years but this fell to 58 pages annually between the wars (Figure 3). The Society’s activities contracted during World War II and only speakers and lecture titles are known for the 1940s.

Figure 3: Annual number of pages in the Bulletin

  • 11 This amounts to 7,192 pages out of the total of 15,658 pages.
  • 12 Construction of the Palais du Commerce was decided in 1853 as part of the modernization of Lyon und (...)
  • 13 For example, clerical contributions were almost entirely absent from the publications of geographic (...)

11It is possible to identify the profession of contributors for almost half of the content of the Bulletin11. Schoolteachers and academics provided 36 per cent of the material, with university teachers supplying a quarter of that amount (8.9 per cent). Most of these contributors were employed in the city’s lycées, facultés and other educational institutions such as the École Supérieure de Commerce located in the Palais du Commerce12. The most prolific author was Valérien Groffier who began to teach geography at the École in 1884 and was also secretary of Les Missions Catholiques (Lejeune 1993, 104). He contributed 5 per cent of the attributable content of the Bulletin, in the form of annual reports about missionary activity (1884-1901) and articles describing his European holidays. Reflecting the importance of Lyon as "a fortress of Catholicism", priests provided 26 per cent of attributable content between 1875 and 1937. Klein was right to identify the importance of "la Croix" in the activity of the SGL prior to 1900. Of course, material about religion and from men in holy orders offended radical republicans and articles by priests became very rare after the official separation of Church and State in 1905 (Latreille 1975, 357; Benoit 2004a, 180). Some contributions by missionaries scarcely differed from accounts by explorers or military officers, but other pieces were scholarly and might have come from academics. The sheer volume of articles by priests makes the Bulletin very different from publications by other French geographical societies that eschewed religious affairs13. About one-tenth (11.1 per cent) of all attributable material was written by army officers, many of which were military surveyors. Medical doctors (8.6 per cent), explorers (8.4 per cent) and engineers (5.3 per cent) figured more prominently among contributors than either administrators (3.3 per cent) or lawyers (1.3 per cent).

  • 14 Between 1875 and 1914, 8,188 printed pages, out of a total of 14,734, related to specific parts of (...)
  • 15 By contrast, the Le Havre geographical society devoted great attention to the Americas.

12Despite the appeal of the Far East among the silk merchants and members of the Chambre de Commerce, it was in fact Africa that occupied pride of place in the Bulletin, being discussed on two-fifths of its pages from 1875 to 1914 that are spatially specific, and exceeding 45 per cent between 1885 and 1904 when exploration of the continent was at its height (Table 1)14. Accounts of Asian territories, especially China, occupied a quarter of page space from 1875 to 1894, falling to one-sixth in later years. By contrast, Europe moved into leading position after 1905 as the Society’s members expressed growing interest in holiday destinations as well as in their own city. South and Central America occupied almost 5 per cent of page space before 1914 but received less attention thereafter. North America, Oceania and the Poles were largely absent from the Bulletin, however polar expeditions were discussed in the decade prior to 191415. Klein’s emphasis on "la soie", which may be correlated with East Asia, is not really supported by an analysis of the regional coverage of the Bulletin. The explanation lies with the fact that the SGL addressed other issues and audiences than the city’s silk merchants.

  

1875-

1884

1885-

1894

1895-

1904

1905-

1914

Average

1875-1914

1921-

1929

1930-

1937

North Africa

18.3

8.6

9.7

5.8

10.5

17.2

13.3

Tropical &

Southern Africa

14.0

37.9

36.2

14.6

28.7

16.2

14.5

Europe

22.8

19.9

29.6

50.9

28.4

36.3

48.2

Indo-China

5.7

4.2

0.6

6.0

3.7

4.0

6.0

Rest of Asia

21.3

22.1

16.5

10.9

18.4

15.1

8.4

North America

4.4

0.9

1.6

0.3

1.8

0.0

1.2

South &

Central America

9.7

4.3

3.1

1.7

4.7

7.0

7.2

Oceania

2.7

2.0

0.7

2.3

1.8

3.0

1.2

Polar Regions

1.1

0.0

2.0

7.5

2.0

1.0

0.0

Table 1: Regional coverage of attributable material in the Bulletin, 1875-1937 (%)

Proportions for 1875 to 1914 are calculated from attributable pages but for 1921 to 1937 from titles of lectures and articles

The contribution of missionaries

  • 16 After appearing in a special volume produced in 1881 on the occasion of the Congrès national des so (...)

13In its statutes, the Society declared its commitment to applying geographical knowledge to religious activity (Anon. 1875-76b, 21). According to its first président: "Today, geography touches everything, penetrates everywhere. Its teachings enable the industrialist, the merchant, the soldier and the missionary to improve their professional knowledge" (Desgrand 1877-78a, 478). In addition, the SGL welcomed information from missionaries (Christophe 1879-80, 459). As Groffier explained, "among priests outside Europe we may count valiant explorers, knowledgeable naturalists, ethnographers, archaeologists and philologists" (Groffier 1884-85a, 451). Some missionaries presented scientific information, sometimes "in advance of our explorers, soldiers and merchants", as well as proclaiming the "benefits of Christian civilization" (Piolet 1901-02, 150; Conklin 1997). Président Desgrand repeatedly extolled the virtues of Christianity, as in 1879 when he described how six clusters of Catholic missionaries and three Protestant groups were confronting "the task of bringing moral and religious civilization to the people of Africa" (Desgrand 1879-80, 116). Subsequently, he asserted that the qualities of "charity, devotion and sacrifice" inherent in Christianity rendered it the most appropriate faith for stimulating economic growth (Desgrand 1881, 314)16.

14Missionaries held slavery, human sacrifice and cannibalism in particular abhorrence, with descriptions of such activities causing frissons of horror among audiences in Lyon. Following a lecture about "The savage peoples of Gabon", the secretary of the SGL noted: "We cannot swear that some of the ladies who attended this meeting have not been haunted in their sleep by memories of frightening bloodthirsty rites [and] sorcery among the cannibals of central Africa, described by Father Trilles" (Trilles 1912, 80). Many missionaries identified the inhabitants of tropical Africa, Oceania and the Arctic North as sauvages, however some qualified their usage. Mgr. Navarre’s life among cannibals in New Guinea convinced him that "these sauvages appear to be peaceful; you find very calm people when you do not mistreat them" (Navarre 1887-88, 492). Mgr. Clut called Eskimos sauvages "not because they are evil but simply because they are nomadic" (Clut 1879-80, 62). Eskimo children attending missionary schools were "equally intelligent as those in civilized countries" (Ibid.). European missionary activity had occurred in the Far East for centuries and reports about the "ancient civilizations" of the Orient were couched very differently from those about tropical Africa (Favier 1899; Laffey 1969a,b). The SGL was informed that China contained half a million Christians and 4,000 churches and schools, and Japan had 50,000 Catholics who were served by three bishops, eighty missionaries and sixty nuns, all originating from France (Groffier 1884-85b, 303; Marnas 1891, 73). After 38 years of residence, Mgr. Favier, bishop of Peking, issued an invitation to his audience, saying: "Come to China. Come to see me and I will show you what a beautiful and excellent country it is. With a little more dedication and resolve we [French] will no longer say that there are only English merchants in China" (Favier 1899, 271). Adopting a different tone, Groffier insisted: "the open ports for European trade are the breaches through which the white race may mount its assault on the yellow race" (Groffier 1884-85b, 303).

The Lure of the Orient and the Lyonnais silk trade

15Without doubt, the appeal of China was inextricably bound up with Lyon’s silk trade of Lyon (Laffey 2000, iv; Klein 2008). Indeed, this industry was "perhaps the most frequent exception to the general rule" of indifference of French business to colonial expansion" (Andrew & Kanya-Forstner 1981, 16). Members of the Chambre de Commerce "enthusiastically supported the conquest of Indochina" with "no financial institution [able to] rival the sense of imperial mission displayed by the silk magnates of Lyon" (Ibid.). Earlier in the 19th century, the city had experienced remarkable prosperity associated with silk manufacture of silk fabric, which generated three-quarters of its industrial revenue by 1850 (Garrier 1975, 320-21). Over 50,000 silk weavers were at work in the city with as many in the surrounding countryside; however this nexus of wealth was threatened by the spread of silkworm disease (pébrine) in southern France. Lyonnais merchants needed to identify new sources of raw silk in southern Europe, the Ottoman Empire and especially in the Far East where they opened trading posts, starting in Shanghai in 1855, and through which they imported great quantities of raw silk (Durand 1995). During the 1860s, China came to rival Italy as a source of silk, moving into leading position in the 1870s (Laffey 1969a, 82-3). As members of the trading community realized, the SGL could provide valuable information on sources of supply and potential markets. It was no surprise that the Society supported the compilation of a map showing silk production. This was prepared by Léon Clugnet, librarian at the Chambre de Commerce, whose Géographie de la soie was published by the Society in 1877 (Laffey 1969b, 285; Klein 2002, 338). In addition, members of the SGL were anxious to learn about China and territories that would become part of the French Empire in "Indochina". Quoting his report for the Ministère de l’Agriculture et du Commerce, Isidoire Hedde discussed raw silk in China, with Father Ridel adding information for Korea (Hedde 1875-76; Ridel 1875-76).

16In 1877, so many people arrived to hear Émile Guimet talk about the "races and religions" of the Far East that the lecture room could not accommodate them (Desgrand 1877-78b, 102). After visiting Egypt in 1865-66, this local industrialist and art collector had undertaken a world tour in 1876-77, bringing back scholars from Japan, China and India, and "a veritable library and museum"(Ibid). He intended to found a school in Lyon that would "bring glory to the city, raise its intellectual level and contribute to material prosperity" (Ibid). Guimet duly opened a museum in the city in 1879 but chose to donate his collections to the State five years later. In 1893, he established his highly successful museum of oriental art in Paris (Prudhomme 2004c, 163). By contrast with Guimet’s cultural approach, lawyer Xavier Lançon stressed the potential of the Far East as a source of cheap labour for colonization schemes (Lançon 1877-78; 1879-80). The desirability of establishing French colonies in south-east Asia was discussed by M. Morice, who told how Jacques Dupuis had prospected the Red River route from Tonkin into Yunnan. He urged the SGL to convey its strongest support for colonization schemes to the government in Paris (Morice 1879-80, 319; Gomane 1998).

17Following the outbreak of the Franco-Chinese War in 1883, the Society’s officers delivered a special series of lectures on China. Desgrand declared that the conflict was "legitimate by virtue of a superior law that allows ideas and products to be exchanged in the name of humanitarian progress" (Debize 1884-85, 270). Lieutenant-Colonel Debize insisted that since 1860 China had developed an efficient officer class, and its army and navy were no longer "a negligible quantity" (Ibid.). He noted that the French had held "a foothold in Tonkin" for ten years and urged his compatriots to "conquer the whole of our colony" (Ibid.). Addressing cultural matters, Father Palatre described the Chinese practice of infanticide, especially of girls (Palatre 1884-85). Finally, Groffier acknowledged that social change in the East would be slow but insisted that France had a duty to encourage this. In his superlative language: "Our most heroic children" would help reach the "sublime objective" of modernizing life in China by "infusing her arteries with the generous blood that courses through our own veins" (Groffier 1884-85b, 303).

18In March 1888, Castonnet des Fosses insisted that "the Far East is, so to speak, the domain of Lyon" and the city’s traders had the privilege of "indicating the route for our commercial relations with the Celestial Empire" (Castonnet des Fosses 1887-88, 365). Then Jean-Louis de Lanessan, radical député for the Seine département, described Indochina from personal experience (De Lanessan 1887-8, 475). He argued that Lyon could become "the regulating market for silk throughout the world" thanks to routes passing from the Orient through the Suez Canal. In Annam and Tonkin "much silk is produced and this could become as fine as Chinese silk; it is up to our manufacturers to develop production" (Ibid. 486). He then advanced guiding principles for colonization: "You will be wise to respect the customs of the people. Do not imagine that your administration is the best, and that you must take it wherever you plant your flag; present yourselves as associates and respect [local] traditions, religions and customs… They may consider you to be the civilizing force, they may consider you to be Progress; the reward will be to have made a great people… who honour the flag of France" (Ibid. 488).

  • 17 He envisaged numerous opportunities for French investors and predicted an important development of (...)
  • 18 Already president of the Société des Docks de Haiphong (with G. Cambefort and G. Saint-Olive, both (...)

19Exactly three years later, de Lanessan was invited back to Lyon before leaving France to become governor-general of Indochina. He was welcomed in the Palais du Commerce by the city’s "administrative, commercial and industrial notables" and listened attentively to a speech by Ulysse Pila, who had just returned from Tonkin (Anon. 1891, 78; Persell 1983, 10; Klein 1994). This ambitious silk merchant, who was vice-président of the SGL and of the Union coloniale française, outlined the rapid rise of European commerce in the Far East. He asserted that, by occupying Indochina, France was preparing for "a very great place" in this trade (Anon. 1891, 78; Brunschwig 1966, 120-34). However, he was disappointed when he compared the country "he had visited in 1886 [that was] full of promise, almost completely pacified and giving birth to trading activity, [with] the Tonkin he had just seen" (Anon. 1891, 79). He insisted that territory beyond the main towns was dangerous for Europeans; piracy was "organized and menacing, newly established trade threatened, and French and Asian settlers discouraged and ready to give up" (Ibid.). Pila attributed this to "insufficient power given to governors, defective organization of defence, and perpetual conflicts and frequent changes among administrative personnel" whose staff was poorly recruited and lacked confidence (Ibid.). He continued to blame "the pretence by the metropolis to direct all administrative matters from a distance of 4,000 leagues, the premature retreat of our troops, an inappropriate application of our system of tariff duties that has paralysed commerce, and the outlawing of the opium trade" (Ibid.). Among further complaints, Pila added the absence of roads and railways, but he then declared he was "full of confidence for the future of Tonkin" (Ibid. 81)17. He recommended that a school be opened in Lyon to train colonial administrators and repeated his fervent wish that "the future business of Tonkin should be dealt with in Tonkin and not in Paris" (Ibid.)18. Faced with this formidable critique, the new governor-general acknowledged that Indochina was not fully pacified, with internal troubles and piracy being "the consequence of extreme misery, which must be eradicated" and he invited bankers and merchants in Lyon to invest in Indochina (Ibid. 84).

  • 19 The chambers of commerce of Lille, Roubaix, Roanne, Bordeaux and Marseille were also involved (Laff (...)

20Reports and lectures about the Far East continued to reach the SGL, as in 1894 when Ly-Chao-Pee, a member of the Chinese mission in France, spoke about modernization in China since 1860 (Ly-Chao-Pee 1893). So great was the interest in this lecturer, that the audience spilled out of the large amphitheatre of the faculté des lettres into surrounding corridors. Enthused by his words, the Chambre de Commerce decided to send a trade mission "to penetrate the secrets of this immense and mysterious territory… and to prepare important outlets for our own industries by establishing friendly relations, and to open up new sources of employment for our workers" (Anon. 1895, 148). Lyon was "most directly interested through its silk industry" and was taking the initiative but this mission "had the interests of the whole of France at heart" (Ibid. 147)19. The Sino-Japanese War delayed the visit but in December 1897 the leader of the delegation, Henri Brenier, presented the SGL with his findings after two years in China (Pila 1896-97; Brenier 1896-97). This immense empire offered great trading opportunities but he warned France that American, British, German and Russian merchants were installed already. By the end of the 19th century, Lyon had become even more firmly committed to trade with China and Indochina, and returning travellers and soldiers continued to inform members of the Society (Leroy-Beaulieu 1901; De Caix 1913; Cupet 1907). Important though the Far East most certainly was to the activities of the SGL as Klein has demonstrated, it was nonetheless Africa that occupied most pages in its Bulletin.

Explorers in Africa and beyond

  • 20 Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rouen and Avignon, in addition to Lyon.
  • 21 Soleillet died in Aden in 1886 (Clout 2008a, 32).

21In its promotion of world knowledge, the Society invited numerous explorers and travellers to describe remote parts of the globe. These intrepid men were feted as national heroes and their stories fuelled a popular fascination for the exotic (Zerbini 1995; Blanchard, Lemaire 2003). Their talks guaranteed full lecture halls and increased societal funds. In 1874, Paul Soleillet inaugurated the Society’s meetings with an account of how he studied the Koran in Arabic in Algeria and Tunisia, and went on to advocate building a trans-Saharan railway between Algiers and the Sénégal (Soleillet 1875-76, 89; Carrière 1998; Cassou 2004). He thrilled his audience with a vivid description of his 1873 expedition in the Sahara. Soleillet returned to Lyon four years later as part of a lecture tour that took in Paris and five provincial cities20. The great lecture hall in the Palais du Commerce proved insufficient to accommodate all those wishing to hear about his travels in the Sénégal and the Haut-Niger (Soleillet 1877-78, 648). Once again, he urged that a railway be built across the Sahara, whose population "could provide an army of workers, capable of bringing the desert into cultivation" (Ibid. 650). When operational, the railway would allow "the Sénégal to become an annexe of Algeria, and that portion of Africa… will one day be placed under the influence of France" (Ibid.). One year later, he spoke again to a capacity audience in Lyon, dismissing objections to the trans-Saharan project. He insisted that extensive areas of the Sahara were not covered with treacherous shifting sands and argued that the hostile Touareg were "very brave" whilst acknowledging that they attacked caravans that failed to pay tribute (Soleillet 1879-80, 166). If a railway were to be built, he claimed, "all the Sahara will be cultivated and populated within a century… France will not only serve her own commercial interests, but will be faithful to the mission she has been given – to bring civilization to the world" (Ibid.). Despite such powerful rhetoric and support from De Lesseps, the railway project was not funded. Soleillet’s final lecture to the SGL in 1884 recounted how he joined the Société française d’Obock in 1881 and travelled into unknown territory in Ethiopia where the emperor granted him trading privileges (Soleillet 1884-85)21.

22Of all French explorers, it was Pierre de Brazza who most captured the nation’s imagination (Zimmermann 1905; Brunschwig 1970; Frèrejean, Klein 2002, 159-82). His likeness appeared on cigarette packets and fountain pens, and copies of his portrait formed popular gifts. The SGL made him a corresponding member, awarded him a gold medal in 1880, and invited him to speak about his third expedition to the Congo in 1883. A date was arranged in 1886 prior to his return to the French Congo as governor-general, but an engagement in Paris took precedence and Charles de Chavannes, "his valiant companion" born in Lyon, took his place (De Chavannes 1886, 65). In 1890, Louis Binger described his recent journey to the Ivory Coast informing his audience that, "War and famine has changed this region… into a vast human charnel house. No inhabited villages, dead bodies everywhere" (Binger 1889, 657). French colonization could improve such areas but, he argued, "Let us organize our colonies modestly, with their own budget, which will be sufficient if we do not drown them with civil servants" (Ibid. 693). One month later, Captain Trivier captivated "a large and brilliant audience" with his heroic story of travelling from the Congo to the Indian Ocean (Trivier 1890, 31).

23During the following fifteen years, impressive numbers of explorers came to lectured to the SGL. In 1893, Louis Monteil described his reconnaissance of a vast area from the Sénégal to Lake Chad and northwards to Tripoli, following the Franco-British agreement of 1890 on defining spheres of influence (Monteil 1892; Debize 1890). Camille Maistre recounted how he travelled from the Congo to the Niger to relieve the Dybowski expedition (Maistre 1893; Andrew & Kanya-Forstner 1971, 106). Lieutenant Hourst explained how he studied the navigability of the river Niger below Timbuktu (Hourst 1896). In 1901 members of the Society followed with rapt attention as Fernand Foureau described how the Touareg attacked his expedition, and then burst into applause when he declared that his arrival at Lake Chad linked three great areas of French occupation in Africa (Foureau 1901). Henri Trilles did not spare his audience the harsh details of 19 months "without contact with the civilised world, without letters, without newspapers", through the Fang country of Gabon (Trilles 1901, 735). As a naturalist and medical officer, Émile Brumpt adopted a distinctly scientific tone as he outlined his hypothesis that the tsetse fly was the vector of sleeping sickness, which he formulated on the expedition from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean (Brumpt 1904). In 1913, Captain Niéger addressed his audience "in the splendid uniform of a captain of the Saharan méharistes (camel corps), the troop that has had the glory of pacifying the Sahara" so effectively, it was claimed, that "a child may now travel without danger in this blood-stained country" (Niéger 1913, 54).

24The Society extended few invitations to foreign explorers, but in 1881 it received young Dr. Oskar Lenz from Vienna who recounted his travels in central Africa, Morocco and the Soudan to a large audience (Anon. 1881-83, 92). In 1903 it was the turn of Dr. Sven Hedin, not yet aged forty, who came to Lyon after his second journey to central Asia (Anon. 1903a, 6). His expedition had lasted three years during which he surveyed the Tarim valley with such great precision that "few rivers in Europe are better known", undertook archaeological work on statues and Buddhist frescoes, and crossed the redoubtable Taklamkan desert, but he failed to enter the forbidden city of Lhassa (Ibid. 7). His photographs and "the gigantic map… measuring 4m by 5m" that he had drawn to show the mountain ranges of central Asia intrigued his audience. Members of the Society had been introduced to the roof of Asia whose geography contrasted with that of the commercially attractive lowlands of the Far East that had such appeal to the city’s silk merchants.

Colonization and Settlement

  • 22 Having held the chair of finance at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques (1879-81), occupying th (...)

25Unlike the exploits of missionaries, explorers and traders, the settlement of Europeans in colonies overseas attracted little concern among members of the SGL, just as their compatriots were less concerned with colonization than their counterparts in Britain and Germany (Ganeval 1887; Velasco-Graciet 2008). The Bulletin described individual colonial territories but did not carry a resounding case for colonization until 1891. This came from the Parisian publicist Paul Leroy-Beaulieu who had founded L’Economiste français in 1873 and whose book De la colonisation chez les peuples modernes (1874) established his role as a leading advocate of colonization22. Fully aware of counter-arguments and failures, however he insisted that colonization was legitimate since "the accumulation of intelligence, capital and manufacturing [in Europe] should be spread to other countries whose population remains stagnant [and] without knowledge" (Leroy-Beaulieu 1891, 233). Colonization did not appear like "a ripe fruit" but was like a plant that required "grafting, improving, cultivating, watering and fertilizing", and would "not start to yield fruits for a long time" (Ibid. 234). French colonial administration was defective and he wanted to see an administration that was "at least more stable and less exposed to inexplicable changes" (Ibid. 248). Genuine settlers were required not amateur travellers. With his voice rising to a crescendo, he exclaimed: "We must become a truly colonizing nation… colonizing and civilizing in our way" (Ibid. 254).

26In 1895, Joseph Chailley-Bert, scholar, journalist and founder in 1893 of the Union coloniale française, similarly identified the shortcomings of French colonial activity and advised the Society "how to found a colony" (Chailley-Bert 1895, 45; Andrew& Kanya-Forstner 1981, 15). He alleged: "The State is not sufficiently interested in our colonial empire; it believes that everything is finished once conquest is complete whilst, on the contrary, nothing is achieved since possession of land is nothing… Land is worthless apart from the use to which it is put. The State scarcely occupies itself with organizing public works [or] creating roads, railways and canals" (Chailley-Bert 1895, 46). Three years later, M. Westphal ended his lecture about the Ivory Coast by exclaiming, "You, young people… leave the old world and go to sunny lands from which you will bring back memories that nothing will erase" (Westphal 1898, 110). Such exhortations fell largely on deaf ears, since on the eve of World War I the French overseas empire contained only 855,000 Frenchmen, of whom more than 600,000 were in Algeria (Andrew & Kanya-Forstner 1981, 18).

27Four decades after the start of French settlement in Algeria, members of the Society received reports on two utopian projects judged to be "of great importance for French interests in Africa", namely the proposed trans-Saharan railway and the interior sea (Desgrand 1877b, 104; Heffernan 1994, 101). In 1877, Colonel Champanhet, a long-serving military surveyor under Maréchal Bugeaud, discussed both matters. Quoting censuses and tax returns, he described towns, villages and European farms in Algeria in very encouraging terms (Champanhet 1877-78a, 359). The old idea of making an inland sea by cutting a channel from the Mediterranean to flood a series of saline depressions (chotts) had been revived in 1874 by Captain Élie Roudaire who believed that land could be irrigated and cultivated, thereby encouraging settlement and new employment, and dissipating the effects of the sirocco (Murphy 1948 70; Heffernan 1988). With the backing of the Académie des Sciences, the Société de Géographie de Paris and Ferdinand de Lesseps, two expeditions had prospected terrain around the chotts in 1874-5 and 1876 (Champanhet 1877-78b). Champanhet stressed that the project would involve territory "under Italian and German influence, and that our rivals would enjoy greater benefit than ourselves" (Desgrand 1877-78b, 104). Instead, he preferred the trans-Saharan railway but cautioned that its potential impact on caravan routes and ability to attract settlers required investigation (Champanhet 1877-78a, 360). In 1878 a third expedition to the chotts identified more physical obstacles, however the enthusiasm of De Lesseps was undiminished (Baudot 1879-80; Anon. 1879-80, 75). Captivated by this rhetoric, président Desgrand declared to the SGL: "The government must finance this enterprise... If successful, it will enrich Algeria and definitely ensure our conquest of Africa" (Ibid.). More expeditions to the chotts followed but after Roudaire’s death in 1884 the inland sea project was abandoned. Subsequent reports to the Society about Algeria, such as those by governor-general Jules Cambon, focused on the consolidation of French settlement (Cambon 1895, 1896-97a,b).

28In 1877, the Bulletin also described New Caledonia that France had annexed in 1853 to accommodate its convicts and problematic poor (Saussol 1996). The few settlers who arrived in the first ten years remained close to military posts, in order to avoid the "intelligent, warlike and barbarous" Kanaks whose "cannibalism and satanic ways" terrified even the most courageous Europeans (Anon. 1877-78b, 227). The Bulletin stressed how its penal settlements "purge France of its most dangerous criminals and keep them at little cost in the midst of the South Seas" (Ibid. 237). In 1889, Francisque Ordinaire, former député for Rhône département, gave his personal impressions. The penal administration on the island was "omnipotent [and] possesses 110,000 ha of cultivable land in the most fertile valleys" where maize, coffee, manioc, rice and tobacco were being grown (Ordinaire 1889, 494). Nickel was mined, coal reserves had been identified and 2,500 convicts were laying roads (Ibid. 504). Some tribes embraced Catholicism and missionary schools were changing behaviour, but he predicted: "this race [of Kanaks] is destined to disappear following the arrival of Europeans" because of ravages of consumption and "abuse of strong liquor" (Ibid. 502).

  • 23 In fact, events would prove otherwise.

29After French troops occupied the main ports of Madagascar in 1883 and annexed the island a dozen years later, this territory came to fascinate the armchair geographers of Lyon (Pervillé 1993, 39). In 1887, François Césaire de Mahy, député for La Réunion, lectured to an amphitheatre overflowing with members of the Society and of the Chambre de Commerce. He identified Madagascar as a source of cotton, timber and "perhaps of silk, [since] silkworms live in a natural state" on the island, and he (De Mahy 1886-87, 511). He insisted: "It is important that we master the country... Let us colonize in the interest of France initially, and later – only later – in the interest of humanity" (De Mahy 1886-87, 514-15, 511). In 1898, General Joseph Gallieni, governor general of Madagascar (1896-1905), was welcomed to Lyon at a glittering reception in the "presence of representatives of all the colonial societies in the city" (Anon. 1898, 596; Frèrejean, Klein 2002, 140-58). Through numerous other lectures and publications, the SGL charted France’s imperial domain and continued to exhort young people to emigrate (Westenra-Sabon 1901-02; Bonnefoy 1901-02). For example before Morocco become a French protectorate in 1912, explorer René de Segonzac lectured to "a vast crowd" about "a country that is so close to us and yet is so mysterious", insisting that "the territorial integrity of Morocco must remain; there can be no question of dividing the country" (De Segonzac 1904, 127, 131)23. His findings were valuable to General Hubert Lyautey prior French military occupation (Singer 1991). At the very moment that France began its occupation of Morocco, René Moulin assessed Lyautey’s preparatory work at a lecture chaired by Mayor Edouard Heriot who stressed "the urgent need to follow changes in the Islamic countries around the Mediterranean, to which part of the future of France is linked" (Moulin 1912; Anon. 1912, 81). However, by this time the SGL was paying more attention to places closer to home.

A growing fascination for Europe

30During its early years, the Society paid scant attention to domestic or European matters, preferring the commercial appeal of the Far East and the exoticism of Africa. Apart from a paper in 1880 on the political configuration of the continent after the Congress of Vienna (1814), the first "European" item was a discussion of the physiography of the Rhône basin (Perrin 1879-80; Falsan 1881-83). Physical geography did not reappear in its pages until 1901 when Paul Privat-Deschanel examined the hydrology of the Beaujolais (Privat-Deschanel 1901). Nonetheless, the Society invited civil engineers to lecture on railway projects in the Alps, and on internal navigation schemes in France and abroad (De Vautheleret 1884-85; Goegg 1903; Breittmayer 1891). As early as 1887 it members considered the potential of the Rhône to improve irrigation and provide a modern navigable waterway (Breittmayer 1887-88). Two decades later, this topic would be revisited and especially the challenge of cutting a channel parallel to the Rhône (Frécon 1909; Pritchard 2004).

  • 24 The changing socio-political environment in Lyon meant that further discussions of missionary activ (...)
  • 25 Analyses of lectures given at Rouen and Le Havre reveal that Blondel was a frequent speaker at prov (...)
  • 26 These included discussions of settlement in the Jura and the Monts du Lyonnais, manufacturing in th (...)

31Four accounts of historic journeys in Europe were published during the 1880s, but not until 1895 did the irrepressible Groffier begin to lecture about his European holidays (Didelot 1887-88; Groffier 1895, 1896-97, 1899, 1901-02, 1905)24. Each of his talks contained the adjective "pictureseque" in its title and enabled him to whet the appetite of his bourgeois audience for European travel, whilst also covering basic aspects of human geography (Fontaines 2000). Talks about art and architecture drew large audiences, as did vivid descriptions of particular countries. In March 1895, almost a thousand people crowded into the lecture hall to hear Hughes Le Roux, the "distinguished writer", speak about Norway (Le Roux 1895, 130). By contrast with numerous accounts of journeys, few speakers addressed political circumstances, although Charles Stuart-Merritt charted economic and military changes in Russia (Stuart-Merritt 1889). Shortly before World War I, Georges Blondel, a leading specialist on Germany and professor at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales and the Collège de France, used evidence from three visits to characterize Bosnia-Herzegovina as "an astonishing land of ethnic, political and religious conflicts [where] western civilization is in contact with, and struggles against, the remnants of Byzantine culture and Turkish society" (Blondel 1912, 61)25. After the turn of the century, the Bulletin started to draw on the results of local research and published scholarly articles on European themes by graduates in history and geography of the faculté des lettres in Lyon26. Military surveyor, Colonel Raymond advocated that large-scale maps should be produced for the whole of France, and Victor Turquan, director of the Bureau de la Statistique Générale de la France, synthesized the geography of the Rhône département (Raymond 1905; Turquan 1904). The SGL would revisit the theme of Lyon and its surroundings soon after World War I.

The contribution of academic geographers to the Society

32The SGL was not the only forum for presenting geographical information in the city. In 1871 the conseil municipal had arranged for evening classes in geography to be given and three years later the faculté des lettres initiated teaching the subject. Étienne-Félix Berlioux performed both roles. Trained as an historian, he taught at the city’s lycée and wrote a doctorate on French colonization in Sénégal (Broc 1975). His evening course drew audiences in excess of six hundred and in 1874 he began to hold lectures and seminars at the faculté. He retained his professorial post until he resigned in 1889 following the decision of the republican city council to halt his evening classes, which bore the indelible, and to some extent controversial, mark of his profound Catholicism (Zimmermann 1910; Chappet 1911; Archives Municipales de Lyon, 708073: Le professeur Berlioux). Berlioux was a founder member and vice-president of the Society, but he only contributed to its Bulletin in his retirement, preferring to publish books and articles in other journals (Berlioux 1890, 1898). Like other geographical pioneers in France, he drew inspiration from German scholars and insisted that geographical explanation should begin with a thorough interpretation of topographic maps (Broc 1974, 559; 1977). After Berlioux, a succession of younger men, each trained at the Sorbonne, taught geography at the faculté and duly joined the SGL but only one stayed in the city for more than a few years. This rapid turnover of academic staff, as well as their differences in scholarly orientation, meant that most of them hdd little impact on either the Society or the University.

  • 27 Gallois also wrote a 50-page essay on the geography of Lyon for the book that commemorated the Expo (...)
  • 28 The title "institute" or "laboratoire" was a conscious move to distinguish geography from history, (...)

33Berlioux’s successors were influenced by Marcel Dubois, professor of colonial geography at the Sorbonne, and by Paul Vidal de la Blache, who strove to develop a "new geography" based on the relationship between mankind and the natural world, the recognition of regions and the importance of map work (Lefort 1992). Differences in methodology and politics meant that the two men did not form a harmonious team in Paris (Soubeyran 1997). In 1889, Lucien Gallois was appointed in Lyon and joined the committee of the Society. As well as publishing on historical cartography, he investigated the pays around the city, using geology as the starting point to interpret landscapes and the natural resource base. Four articles were published in the Bulletin but his major contributions on the environs of Lyon appeared in Vidal’s journal, the Annales de Géographie (Gallois 1890, 1891a,b, 1892)27. After only four years in Lyon, Gallois moved back to Paris and was succeeded by Henri Schirmer whose mentor was Dubois (Soubeyran 1997). With a doctorate on the geography of the Sahara, Schirmer published two articles in the Bulletin on Africa and assembled maps, atlases and equipment to install in the Institut de Géographie opened in splendid new university buildings alongside the Rhône in 1896 (Schirmer 1893, 1895; Garden 2004, 201)28. However, in 1899 Schirmer decided to move to a lectureship at the Sorbonne.

  • 29 This arrangement continued until 1947 when the École ceased functioning for lack of demand. The num (...)

34Schirmer’s replacement was Georges Lespagnol, who was an enthusiastic lecturer, author and organizer, indeed, his sole contribution to the Bulletin was a catalogue of the institute’s resources (Lespagnol 1901-02). Unfortunately, his health was poor and he died in post in 1905. Another geographer trained by Vidal arrived in Lyon in 1899 in the person of Maurice Zimmermann who proceeded to teach colonial history and geography in an evening course at the École de préparation coloniale funded by the Chambre de Commerce (Chambeyron 1898)29. He soon assumed responsibility for teaching colonial geography at the University and would continue to do so beyond formal retirement in 1934 (Laffey 1975, 173; Klein 2006; Morando 2004). By contrast with his predecessors, Zimmermann was an extremely active member of the SGL, contributing lengthy reviews and articles, and assuming numerous responsibilities, including that of secretary and editor in 1902 and of president in 1936 (Zimmermann 1909a,b; Anon. 1949). With his deep-rooted interests in exploration and colonization, he was at ease with the kind of geography espoused by the Society.

35Vidal had also trained Emmanuel de Martonne, Lespagnol’s successor, and with great determination he sought to instil his master’s "new geography" in Lyon (Klein 2008, 108). After teaching at Rennes, he arrived in Lyon in 1905 and emphasized the need to adopt a scientific approach to geography and the need to undertake fieldwork. As vice-président of the SGL, he declared that the age of exploration was over and that he aimed "to spread modern geographical knowledge and a taste [for the subject] among the citizens of Lyon" (De Martonne 1908a, 1). He invited members to visit his institute and argued more space and resources were needed (De Martonne 1908b). He convinced officers to hold discussion meetings as well as public lectures, and to organize local fieldtrips with the help of schoolteachers. In 1908 he ran an ambitious excursion to the Dauphiné Alps, with the help of his protégé, André Cholley (De Martonne and Cholley 1908). Under his influence, the Bulletin published genuine research papers by young scholars and the Society invited scientists to give lectures. Describing his own achievements, he reported: "The Société de Géographie de Lyon showed great activity during the time when the professor of geography at the university was its vice-president. Its journal, completely transformed, published interesting papers on local geography. It organized excursions and study meetings whose proceedings are worthy of note" (De Martonne 1924 12). Whilst at Lyon, De Martonne completed a second doctorate and wrote the major part of his Traité de géographie physique (1909), but his project to enhance the Institut de Géographie was not approved by the university (Clout 2003, 344). He returned to the Sorbonne where he occupied the chair vacated in 1909 by Vidal, his father in law. In his own words: "The University of Paris called the professor at Lyon to be [Vidal’s] successor, and he felt he could not refuse the call" (De Martonne 1924 40). Zimmermann and several local teachers assumed the task of delivering geography in the university and the Society settled back into its old ways. Lecturers described travels in Europe, explorers spoke about the Antarctic and tropical Africa, and Zimmermann wrote lengthy review articles on polar and colonial topics. When activities came to a halt in the early months of World War I, traditional, popular geography rather than innovative, academic geography continued to characterise the Society. Plus ça change

Continuing activity of the Society but financial crisis

  • 30 These were associated with his preparation of the volume on Asie Occidentale-Haute Asie (1920) for (...)

36After an interruption of five years, the Society resumed lectures in 1919 and the Bulletin reappeared in 1921 but much reduced in size. Thereafter, few lectures were printed in full, with most being summarized or noted by title. Annual subsidies totalling 2,500 francs came from the Chambre de Commerce, the conseil-général and several minor benefactors (Anon. 1922-23, 9). In 1921, new premises were rented in rue Gentil to seat up to fifty people, with double that number accommodated in an adjacent hall belonging to the printer of the Bulletin. Much larger space was rented at the Salle Saint-Jean (rue Sainte-Helène) for public lectures. Exploration, traveller’s tales in Europe and beyond, and accounts of colonization figured prominently among the titles of the six to ten lectures delivered each year. However, "The popularity of the Club Alpin among the citizens of Lyon is detrimental to the development of the geographical society" (De Martonne 1924, 12). In an attempt to enhance its appeal, the SGL arranged for members to attend lectures presented to other associations. The first of these was the Société d’études locales (chaired by Arthur Kleinclausz, history professor at the university), which sponsored twenty-two lectures between 1921 and 1923 (Assada et al. 1922; Kleinclausz 1925). This reciprocal arrangement was successful and a similar agreement was made with the Association des anciens élèves de l’enseignement colonial for the period 1923-27. Not surprisingly, these lectures focused on exploration, travel and colonial activity, thereby reinforcing the traditional diet of geography in Lyon. Academic speakers to the Society were rare; however Raoul Blanchard came from Grenoble to discuss his travels in Asia Minor and Syria30. In addition, the Society adopted De Martonne’s idea of research discussions. André Cholley, who lectured at the city’s university between 1923 and 1927, was a very dynamic force and organized sessions for the SGL on French ports and navigation along the river Rhône. Like three others before him, he left Lyon for the Sorbonne.

37By contrast, his successor André Allix (1886-1966) would spend the whole of his career in the city, directing his energies to the Society as well as to the geographical institute and the Institut des Études Rhodaniennes (Archives Municipales de Lyon 3C302: André Allix). Membership of the Society rose steeply from 195 in 1920 to 329 seven years later, and larger audiences flocked to attend lectures in the Salle Saint-Jean that could seat six hundred. Copies of the Bulletin were exchanged with publications from 43 learned societies in France and its empire and from 51 foreign associations (Anon., 1926-27, 4). The SGL celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on 23 November 1923 in the presence of Mayor Herriot and General Charles Mangin, who had served in the Soudan, central Africa and Morocco. After hearing a summary of activities and the names of "the most celebrated explorers" who had lectured to the SGL, members listened to Mangin’s address on the desirability of a trans-Saharan railway, and to a talk about Indochina and the French empire by Henri Gourdon (Anon. 1923-24, 6; Gourdon 1931).

38With membership increasing and lectures remaining popular, the continuing success of the Society seemed assured, however important changes affecting the status and representation of geography in Lyon after the creation of the Institut des Études Rhodaniennes (IER) in 1923. Reflecting a growth of interest in the Rhône for navigation, irrigation and electricity generation, the IER derived from an initiative taken by the conseil-général du Rhône and the ville de Lyon. Both bodies provided funds and would soon be joined by other donors. Attached to the university, the IER was, in Cholley’s words, an "organ of scientific organization with the task to stimulate and coordinate research and physical studies concerning the Rhône and its tributaries, to publish them, and to furnish… necessary elements for understanding and managing the river, and developing regions linked to it... It is a vast scientific enquiry" (Cholley 1924-25, 37). Its council comprised local politicians, technical experts, university professors and staff of the state’s great engineering services (Bethemont 1996, 153). Mayor Herriot was central to this array of power and experience, and the academic discipline of geography was pivotal in this multi-disciplinary enterprise that assumed responsibility for publishing relevant research (Benoit 2004b, 169). Its first volume comprised Le régime du Rhône that Maurice Pardé defended for his doctorate at the Institut de Géographie Alpine (Pardé 1925). Successive issues, bearing the title Études Rhodaniennes, became the preferred publication outlet for professional geographers based in the Université de Lyon and at lycées throughout the Rhône valley. The Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de Lyon continued to appear until 1937 but was no match for the new academic journal (Rendu, Rochefort 1988).

  • 31 Fieldwork leaders included Jules Blache from Grenoble, who ran an excursion to the massif of the Gr (...)

39Confronted with this professionalization of geography in the city associated with the IER and the University, the venerable geographical society continued to organize meetings between the wars with as many as ten public lectures being given in some years. Traditional themes remained popular, with films and transparencies being used to illustrate many talks. Excursions to nearby locations, such as the Dombes, Vienne and the city’s new port installations, were run. Usually these events attracted about twenty members but over a hundred visited Bron aerodrome in 193131. Despite subsidies continuing and membership peaking at 428 in 1931, the Society’s finances deteriorated sharply as Lyon experienced the effects of global crisis (Laffey 1975, 44)(Figure 2). Greater use was made of local speakers, but new members were needed to raise income (Anon. 1934-35, 2). The Society’s efforts proved successful and membership rose to 341 in 1936, after dipping to 306 in 1934. Whilst continuing to attract large lecture audiences and increasing its library holdings through exchange, the Society’s budget reached "disturbing imbalance" in 1936 because of "general costs, in particular rental of premises, that the crisis has made excessive" (Anon. 1935-36, 2). Cheaper accommodation had to be found away from the presqu’île in the mairie of the 6th arrondissement (33 rue Bossuet) (Figure 1). Despite all these difficulties, the Bulletin for 1936-37, which was the last to appear, reveals a fully functioning Society, with Zimmermann as président and other local academics (André Gibert, André Allix) on its committee. Lectures and films were presented at the Étoile Cinema, and the Salle Rameau was hired for a talk on French West Africa by General Brissand-Desmaillet in March 1937 to coincide with the city’s trade fair (Anon. 1936-37, 8).

40Outbreak of war in 1940 "provisionally interrupted the functioning of the Society" and schoolmaster Marcel Clerget analysed its "grave crisis" which was also experienced by other provincial geographical societies (Archives Municipales de Lyon, 134ii10: Rapport sur la situation de la Société de Géographie de Lyon en juin 1941). He attributed this crisis to "increasing prices, competition from radio and cinema, lack of interest among a public increasingly satisfied by simple and mediocre things, and indifference and lack of enthusiasm among young people". He stated that expenses exceeded income but the use of cheaper accommodation and printers and less secretarial help failed to reduce costs. Nonetheless, he insisted, "It is more necessary than ever to inculcate geographical realities in the minds of the French people… rather than the ideologies that have assailed them". He recommended that all societies in Lyon with an interest in geography and colonial affairs should join together. Such a new association would need an energetic committee including representatives of the Chambre de Commerce and the facultés. Only interesting articles should be published and lectures with attractive titles and engaging speakers should be given in the city centre. Geographical films should be screened for children, and a central location be identified for an integrated library. Subscriptions should be raised to cover outgoings, and another recruitment drive be launched. Like many before him, Clerget declared, "One of the causes of our national weakness has been our ignorance of foreign countries". Looking to the future, he concluded: "The current indifference that most young people show toward problems on which their future depends, and in particular colonial problems, is a source of concern among their teachers".

  • 32 Speakers included Pierre Birot, Georges Chabot, Jacqueline Beaujeu-Garnier, Jean Dresch, Pierre Geo (...)
  • 33 In 1949 the journal was renamed as the Revue de Géographie de Lyon, a title that would be replaced (...)

41Negotiations failed to bring together the SGL, the IER and the Ligue maritime et coloniale to produce a single "geographical" society and periodical. In 1942, Études Rhodaniennes reported the business of the geographical society and continued to carry its advertisement for twenty years. Late in 1941, the programme of public meetings of the SGL was revived by "a brilliant lecture" on French Canada by Raoul Blanchard that was followed by talks by André Allix (the Danube) and André Siegfried (world sea routes)(Bonnoure 1942, 63). Seven lectures were held during 1942-43 and, "despite growing difficulties", eight public lectures were delivered in the following year by academics, including Blache from Grenoble and De Martonne from Paris (Leclerc 1944, 84). Subscriptions were revised and, on Allix’s advice, the small discussions were replaced by the Cercle d’Etudes de la Société de Géographie, whose sessions were designed "to stimulate research and receive communications on geographical subjects not yet in print" (Ibid.). Held in the Institut de Géographie of the University, they attracted academics and lycée teachers from across the Lyon region to listen to speakers from universities throughout France32. Without doubt, these sessions formed an effective way of integrating the local geographical community and assisted the recruitment of future undergraduates (Michel Laferrère interview June 2008). Such events were noted in print until 195733.

  • 34 Student recruitment was also a vital objective of these lectures and of a three-day conference on t (...)
  • 35 For example, in the early 1950s, three distinguished academics from Paris addressed the Society, wi (...)

42In 1948, the Society had only 170 full members, many of whom were presumably schoolteachers, however 950 students and schoolchildren purchased tickets to attend public lectures, of which between eight and twelve would be given each year over the next two decades (Zimmermann, Trenard 1949, 165)34. This activity owed much to the wholehearted support of André Allix who, after almost twenty years as professor of geography, was elected rector of the académie of Lyon in 1945, a position of great influence that he held until retirement in 1960 (Gibert 1966; Lebeau 1988). Drawing on his impressive network of contacts, he invited speakers from universities throughout France (and abroad) and entertained them when they were in the city (Jacques Bethemont interview May 2008). In addition, he and his wife (also a geographer) ensured that colleagues from within the Society, the university and local banks and businesses were invited to dine with visiting lecturers35. As Jacques Bethemont remarked: "Allix held everything in his own hands" (pers. comm).

  • 36 Many aspects of the life and work of Le Lannou are discussed in the Revue de Géographie de Lyon 68, (...)
  • 37 Some would insist that the word "traumatic" should be used rather than "transformative". It may eve (...)

43The recent history of the Society is not known in any detail since its records were lost either in 1968 or a little later in the early 1970s when the University was divided into two and then three institutions. Allix’s successor, Maurice Le Lannou (1906-1992) did not hold the Society in particularly high regard and was less enthusiastic about forging new links with the municipality and the city’s bankers and businessmen. Instead, his geographical vision extended more widely across the continent of Europe and the Mediterranean (Bethemont, Commerçon 1993)36. Following the transformative events affecting the Université de Lyon after 1968, the activities of the first provincial geographical society in France came to a halt37. After being a matter of widespread popular interest during the Third Republic, which fascinated large audiences and informed members of the city’s mercantile class, geography became a subject of more specifically academic concern that certainly flourishes in the universities and schools of Lyon at the start of the 21st century but has largely disappeared from popular discourse (Rocques 2006). As Vasquez commented, from being an "object" holding wide fascination, geography acquired the identity of a scholastic "subject" (Vasquez 2004, 53).

44The Society had, indeed, been founded on the twin notions of "la Croix et la soie" however the interests of its members were very much wider and were not only focused on commercial information and missionary activity. Explorers’s tales about Africa occupied more space in its Bulletin than articles on the Far East. Undoubtedly, the SGL benefited from monetary support from the Chambre de Commerce and other organizations but these funds were largely tied to specific local objectives and did not finance expeditions as the "municipal imperialism" hypothesis would require. With the exception of Maurice Zimmermann, the association between academics and the Society was neither strong nor long lasting in the early days. De Martonne attempted to break the traditional mould of its activities but members returned to the established formula when he left Lyon. A new phase of contact between the SGL and the faculté began when Allix arrived in the late 1920s but by then its lectures, together with those of other learned associations, were forced to compete with films and other forms of instruction and entertainment. As the success of the Cercle d’études among teachers and of lectures and films among students and schoolchildren revealed, the Society managed to retain an audience after World War II, albeit within the framework and the premises of the University rather than in the city at large. When the unitary University was fragmented in 1970, the venerable Société de Géographie de Lyon disappeared from the social agenda of France’s second city. Its experience was paralleled by that of many other geographical societies in provincial France and elsewhere. Circumstances had changed greatly from when "geography was à la mode at the end of the 19th century" (Vasquez 2004, 46).

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Notes

1 The societies display considerable variation in detail. Those based in Bordeaux, Le Havre, Lille, Montpellier, Nancy and Rouen have been subject to scrutiny (Pehaut 1994; Clout 2008a; Gamblin 1998; Saussol 1990; Bonnefont 1999; Clout 2008b).

2 Both Michel Laferrère and Nicole Comerçon stressed that the archives were lost at this time of confusion. The faculté des lettres was totally occupied by students and outsiders for a month during 1968 when books, paintings and archival documents relating to several disciplines were dispersed and destroyed.

3 Vasquez (2004) has analysed membership in detail; such an analysis is not possible after World War I since lists were not included in the abbreviated Bulletin.

4 Attempts to create a society of commercial geography at Bordeaux were delayed by prolonged negotiations with the Société de Géographie de Paris (Heffernan 1994, 106).

5 According to J-F. Klein, members of the “economic patriciate” (48.5 %) were most numerous, followed by teachers (11.2 %), military men (6.0 %), doctors (4.8 %), and lawyers (4.8 %). The remaining 24.7 % belonged to other professions or had none specified (Klein 2008, 103).

6 The annual subscription for most provincial societies was 10 francs; Lille and Marseille charged 15 francs and 25 francs respectively (Lejeune 1993, 111).

7 Although not a mountaineer, E-F. Berlioux was président of the Lyon branch of the Société du Club Alpin in 1887-8.

8 This was the smallest amount given to any learned society in the Rhône. Other recipients were: Académie des Sciences, Belles Lettres et Arts 1 500 francs; Société de Médecine 600 francs ; Société Linnéenne 500 francs ; Société des Sciences Industrielles 300 francs.

9 From time to time the Bulletin carried financial statements but far too irregularly to be useful.

10 By the early 1900s 700 copies were being printed each year (Vasquez 2004, 56).

11 This amounts to 7,192 pages out of the total of 15,658 pages.

12 Construction of the Palais du Commerce was decided in 1853 as part of the modernization of Lyon under Préfet Claude Marius Vaïsse. Designed by René Dardel, it was built between 1856 and 1860. The Chambre de Commerce and the municipality of Lyon jointly funded the new building.

13 For example, clerical contributions were almost entirely absent from the publications of geographical societies in Rouen and Le Havre, and the society of commercial geography in Bordeaux banned discussion of religious matters (Pehaut 1994).

14 Between 1875 and 1914, 8,188 printed pages, out of a total of 14,734, related to specific parts of the globe as shown in the first five columns of Table 1. By virtue of the contraction of the Bulletin between the wars, the last two columns have been calculated from the titles of articles and lectures rather than by page content.

15 By contrast, the Le Havre geographical society devoted great attention to the Americas.

16 After appearing in a special volume produced in 1881 on the occasion of the Congrès national des sociétés françaises de géographie held in the city, the same text was delivered as a lecture and republished in the Bulletin three years later (Desgrand 1884-85b).

17 He envisaged numerous opportunities for French investors and predicted an important development of trade in silk, cotton, hemp, tobacco, pepper, coffee and cinnamon. In fact, such dreams for Indochinese sericulture were never realized, to the grave disappointment of Lyonnais investors.

18 Already president of the Société des Docks de Haiphong (with G. Cambefort and G. Saint-Olive, both members of the geographical society, as directors), in 1898 Pila headed the Compagnie lyonnaise indo-chinoise to promote trade with China and economic development in Indochina. He was also a director of the Société cotonnière de l’Indochine, and was involved with the Société des ciments portlands artificiels de la Chine (Laffey 1969, 91).

19 The chambers of commerce of Lille, Roubaix, Roanne, Bordeaux and Marseille were also involved (Laffey 1969, 90).

20 Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rouen and Avignon, in addition to Lyon.

21 Soleillet died in Aden in 1886 (Clout 2008a, 32).

22 Having held the chair of finance at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques (1879-81), occupying the chair of political economy at the Collège de France since 1878, and being a member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, he was one of France’s leading economic theorists, with impeccable credentials to speak about colonization.

23 In fact, events would prove otherwise.

24 The changing socio-political environment in Lyon meant that further discussions of missionary activity were not welcomed by the Society.

25 Analyses of lectures given at Rouen and Le Havre reveal that Blondel was a frequent speaker at provincial geographical societies.

26 These included discussions of settlement in the Jura and the Monts du Lyonnais, manufacturing in the Velay and around Montbéliard, physical geography in the Causses and Ségalas, the hydro-electric potential of the French Alps, and regional studies of the Dombes and the Landes (Legaret 1904; Savey-Casard 1927-28; Lucussol 1908; Bolle 1909; Ricard 1912; Dubois 1913; Lager 1912-13; Valantin 1926-27).

27 Gallois also wrote a 50-page essay on the geography of Lyon for the book that commemorated the Exposition colonial in Lyon in 1894 (Gallois 1894).

28 The title "institute" or "laboratoire" was a conscious move to distinguish geography from history, its parent discipline, whose students required no more than library resources.

29 This arrangement continued until 1947 when the École ceased functioning for lack of demand. The numbers registered for Zimmermann’s courses normally ranged between 10 and 20 each year (reaching a peak of 40 in 1922) but less than half of these students passed the final examination.

30 These were associated with his preparation of the volume on Asie Occidentale-Haute Asie (1920) for the Géographie Universelle, conceived by Vidal in 1908 and edited by Lucien Gallois.

31 Fieldwork leaders included Jules Blache from Grenoble, who ran an excursion to the massif of the Grande Chartreuse, and Abbé J-B. Martin, professor of geography at the Institut Catholique in Lyon, who led a fieldtrip in the Monts d’Or (Allix 1937, 135) The Institut Catholique (originally Université Catholique) was established in Lyon in 1875. J-B. Martin trained under Charles Vélain at the Laboratoire de Géographie Physique in Paris, obtaining his doctorate in 1911 with a thesis on the physical geography of the southern Jura.

32 Speakers included Pierre Birot, Georges Chabot, Jacqueline Beaujeu-Garnier, Jean Dresch, Pierre George, and André Guilcher. The titles of these events were printed until 1957.

33 In 1949 the journal was renamed as the Revue de Géographie de Lyon, a title that would be replaced by Géocarrefour in 2000.

34 Student recruitment was also a vital objective of these lectures and of a three-day conference on the teaching of geography held in June 1948, which attracted 158 schoolteachers from ten départements (Anon. 1948).

35 For example, in the early 1950s, three distinguished academics from Paris addressed the Society, with Roger Dion speaking about the growth of Paris, Jean Dresch questioning the rôle of France in tropical Africa, and Pierre George tracing the impact of electrification in eastern Europe.

36 Many aspects of the life and work of Le Lannou are discussed in the Revue de Géographie de Lyon 68, 1993, 209-56.

37 Some would insist that the word "traumatic" should be used rather than "transformative". It may even be argued that the Society still survives since its last president, Professor Jean Pelletier (born in 1926), is still alive (Michel Laferrère interview June 2008).

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Hugh Clout, « Popularising geography in France’s second city: The rôle of the Société de Géographie de Lyon, 1873-1968 », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Epistémologie, Histoire de la Géographie, Didactique, document 449, mis en ligne le 27 avril 2009, consulté le 14 décembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/22214 ; DOI : 10.4000/cybergeo.22214

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Hugh Clout

University College London, United Kingdom
hughdclout@aol.com

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