Abstract Between 1880 and 1900, the conjunction of the development of higher education in France with the renewal of colonial expansion resulted in the creation of the ‘colonial sciences’. ‘Colonial geography’ played a key role in the development of these new disciplines, alongside ‘colonial history’, ‘ethnology’, ‘colonial economics and legislation’ and ‘colonial psychology’. This paper considers the social history of this field and of the institutions in which colonial geography was formed. This involves examination of the study of the teaching of ‘colonial geography’ in the universities and French grandes écoles, the gradual professionalisation of scholarship, and the increase in the number of doctoral theses and book publications, which all serve to demonstrate the vigour of the subdiscipline, leading to the emergence of a veritable research community. Under the Third Republic, ‘colonial geography’ in the universities was characterised by great diversity, irreducible to a single or homogenous ‘colonial discourse’.