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France's African Colonies

France's African Colonies

Until the 1850s, the French position in Africa was a very marginal one. In 1659 France occupied two island bases: Saint-Louis in the mouth of the Senegal River and Goreé in what is now Senegal's Dakar harbor. Trading posts on the upper Senegal River, along the West African coast, and in Madagascar served as bases for French trade, mostly in slaves but also in gum, hides, and wax. When the slave trade ended in the early nineteenth century, various colonial governors sought a new trade in commodities.

In 1854 Major Louis Faidherbe (1818–1889) was appointed governor of Senegal. In wars with major Senegalese states, he established control of the Senegal River, opened up access to the Niger Valley, reduced customs paid to African states, and occupied some coastal areas. He also built schools, organized a bank, created a rudimentary civil administration, and began an accommodation with Islam.

France was forced to cut back its imperial ambitions by the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), but within a decade French soldiers, interested in seeing action and restoring France's military prestige, were promoting railroad construction in Senegal and between the Senegal and Niger rivers. The first, which connected Dakar and Saint-Louis, was built between 1882 and 1885. The second, connecting the Senegal and Niger rivers, necessitated a military effort if the line was to be protected. In 1879 Governor Brière de l'Isle (1827–1896) sent Colonel Joseph-Simon Gallieni (1849–1916) to investigate possible routes. The following year, French troops under Major Gustave Borgnis-Desbordes (1839–1900) began the conquest of the Sudan.

In Equatorial Africa, French interests were more limited, though there were several trading stations along the coast from the 1830s. The most important was Libreville (in modern Gabon), founded in 1849 for freed slaves. In 1875 France sent Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (1852–1905) to explore the interior. His two explorations and treaties signed with African chiefs became the basis for French claims to land north of the Congo River when the European powers divided up Central Africa at Berlin in 1885. The Berlin Conference also set up the ground rules for the partition of Africa and began a race for control of Africa.

The Soudan (Sudan) became the fief of soldiers, who conquered it between 1883 and 1898, often ignoring civilian authority in the process. In Madagascar, French rule was not definitively established until the suppression of a Malgache revolt by Gallieni in 1896. French Guinea was created in 1893 by uniting various trading posts. In 1896 a small French force was able to take over the powerful kingdom of Futa Jallon (in present-day Guinea). Dahomey was conquered in 1894, and French rule was gradually extended further north. The colony of Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) was proclaimed in 1893, but was not securely under French control until the eve of World War I (1914–1918). In Mauritania, efforts at peaceful pacification failed when its architect, Xavier Coppolani (b. 1866), was assassinated in 1905, and the last resisters were not defeated until 1934.

After a brief period of rule through the governor of Senegal, decrees of 1902 and 1904 created two federal administrations with capitals in Dakar and Brazzaville (in present-day Republic of the Congo). Each had authority over law, administration, communication, health, public works, and agriculture. Boundaries between colonies were regulated and each was divided into cercles (administrative districts), which in turn, were divided into cantons.

Writers on colonialism have often compared French direct rule and British indirect rule. In some ways, this comparison is deceptive. The French did not preserve the trappings of the traditional state and were more likely to interfere with rules of succession and boundaries between traditional states. The French did, however, rule through chiefs, most of whom were chosen from traditional ruling families, and in areas like the Futa Jallon and the Mossi kingdoms (Burkina Faso), those traditional chiefs had a great deal of power. Colonial rule was thinnest in Saharan cercles, where tribal leaders were usually recognized, and in Equatorial Africa, where the regime gave large areas to concessionary companies.

Conquest brought peace and an end to slave-raiding and slave-trading. The regime was more timid in dealing with slavery. A 1905 law abolished any transactions in human beings. Administrators were also told they could no longer support the claims of masters to their slaves. Though many administrators hoped that slaves would not leave their masters, more than a million did so, often to return to earlier homes. Others remained where they were, but gradually asserted greater control over their work and family lives.

The major concern of the new colonial regimes was economic growth. The end of warfare and the construction of railroads opened large areas to trade and cash-crop production. The process was, however, often a harsh one. The French had obtained large areas, but with lower population densities and lower productivity than areas acquired by the British and Belgians. Colonies were expected to pay their own way, which led to taxes, which were coercive for peasants who worked the lands with hoes. Much of the infrastructure of the colonial state was created by the use of forced labor.

The French ideal of assimilation had a limited importance. The disestablishment of the Catholic Church during the early years of the twentieth century raised the cost of schools, which had been run by the missions. Those schools generally placed importance on the acquisition of French language, which in the long run produced an elite very much at home in French culture.

Politically, the rights of French citizens were given only to the inhabitants of the Four Communes of Senegal (Saint-Louis, Dakar, Rufisque, and Gorée). These rights were poorly defined until World War I forced France to turn for help to African soldiers, and France gave Senegal's black deputy, Blaise Diagne (1872–1934), the leverage to demand confirmation of those rights. The idea of assimilation was most clearly articulated by the reforms that took place after World War II (1939–1945). All French colonies were given representation in the French Parliament.

This experiment contributed to the political education of a new elite, but it did not last long. Colonial voters recognized that they would always remain second-class citizens in the French Union. Leaders of wealthier colonies, most notably Felix Houphouet-Boigny (1905–1993) of the Ivory Coast, did not want their taxes used to support poorer colonies. The loi-cadre of 1956, which restructured French West Africa weakened federal authority and focused power more on the individual colonial governments. In 1958 the constitution of Charles de Gaulle's (1890–1970) Fifth Republic offered those colonies a much greater autonomy. Only the Guinea of Sekou Toure (1922–1984) rejected that offer and chose independence. Nevertheless, within two years, the leaders of all of France's African colonies had gone to Paris and been given independence. Formal French rule in West and Equatorial Africa was ended.

see also Empire, French; Scramble for Africa.


Cohen, William. Rulers of Empire: The French Colonial Service in Africa. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1971.

Conklin, Alice. A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997

Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. "French Colonization in Africa to 1920: Administration and Economic Development." In Colonialism in Africa, 1870–1960, edited by Lewis H. Gann and Peter Duignan. Vol. 1: The History and Politics of Colonialism, 1870–1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Kanya-Forstner, A. S. The Conquest of the Western Sudan: A Study in French Military Imperialism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Manning, Patrick. Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa, 1880–1985, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Marseille, Jacques. Empire colonial et capitalisme français: Histoire d'un divorce. Paris: Albin Michel, 1984.

Suret-Canale, Jean. French Colonialism in Tropical Africa, 1900–1945. Translated by Till Gottheiner. New York: Pica, 1971.

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