Adolphe Felix Sylvestre Eboué

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Adolphe Felix Sylvestre Eboué

Adolphe Felix Sylvestre Eboué (1885-1944) was a governor of French Equatorial Africa. As a successful and apparently well-adjusted black Frenchman, he represented the epitome of French assimilationist policy.

Felix Eboué was born in Cayenne, French Guiana, on Dec. 26, 1885, the son of gold washer and of a comparatively well-educated mother. In 1901 he traveled to France on a scholarship to complete his secondary education at Bordeaux, where he also picked up an adolescent interest in the political ideas of French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès as well as a lifelong penchant for sport. Between 1904 and 1908 he pursued twin courses of study at the Paris Law School and at the École Coloniale.

Early Civil Service

Upon graduating from the École Coloniale in 1908, Eboué asked to be assigned to the French Congo (modern Republic of Congo), an area which had just acquired considerable notoriousness as a result of widespread abuses committed against the African population. He was sent to the remote and undesirable district of Ubangi-Shari (modern Central African Republic), where he labored tenaciously against administrative inertia and covert racial prejudice, making slow but steady progress on the civil service ladder and collecting anthropological material, which he later published in book form: Les Peuples de l'Oubangui-Chari (1931; The People of Ubangi-Shari) and La Clef musicale des langages tambourinés et sifflés (1935; The Musical Key to Drum and Whistle Languages).

Eboué's liberal views, his Masonic affiliations, and his friendship with West Indian novelist René Maran, whose prize-winning novel Batouala (1921) painted an unflattering picture of French Equatorial Africa, appear to have caused some official annoyance with Eboué during the 1920s. But Eboué was no anticolonialist and seems to have taken a dim view—at least initially—of the criticism leveled against French rule by such men as novelist André Gide and journalist Albert Londres.

In 1932, having finally been promoted to a senior grade in the colonial civil service, Eboué was dispatched to Martinique, then served as secretary general of French Sudan (modern Mali) from 1934 to 1936. With the coming to power of the left-of-center Popular Front coalition in 1936, however, Eboué received his first gubernatorial appointment in Guadeloupe, and although political influences resulted in his recall from that West Indian island after 2 years, he was given a key post in 1938 as governor of Chad.

The appointment of a black governor by a Jewish minister (Georges Mandel) took on additional significance against the ominous backdrop provided by the rise of German and Italian fascism. Also, Chad had a considerable strategic value in view of Mussolini's expansionist policies in Africa. Eboué stepped up military preparedness by developing military roads through northern Chad, which were later used by the Free French forces in their victorious advance into Libya.

Free French Leader in Africa

When France fell in 1940, Eboué refused to follow the Vichy government's orders to break all relations with Great Britain and on Aug. 26, 1940, became the first governor in Africa to rally to De Gaulle, a move that was emulated within a few days by the governors of French Congo and Ubangi-Shari. French Equatorial Africa thus became the first bastion of the Free French government. On Nov. 12, 1940, Eboué was appointed governor general of all Equatorial Africa, and in December, Free French forces, using Chad as a base, began military operations against the Italians.

Eboué's main efforts during the next 3 years were devoted to the pursuit of the war effort, but he also found time to introduce some of the reforms he had advocated as a junior official, such as the development of secondary education and the protection of African values and institutions. At the same time, however, his opposition to any kind of nationalist movement was similar to that of any high official: during his incumbency the Amicaliste movement in the Congo was severely repressed, and its leader, André Matswa, died in jail in 1942. Eboué's last public action was his participation in the 1944 Brazzaville conference which laid down the principles of postwar French colonial policy. On May 27, 1944, while on leave from his post, he died of pneumonia in Cairo.

Further Reading

A biography of Eboué is Brian Weinstein, Eboué (1972). Satisfactory histories of Equatorial Africa are scarce. A survey of African history in which Eboué is mentioned is Roland Oliver and J. D. Fage, A Short History of Africa (1964). See also Basil Davidson and Adenekan Ademola, eds., The New West Africa (1953). A longer study that combines history, sociology, and anthropology is Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff, The Emerging States of French Equatorial Africa (1960). □