France in Tropical Africa

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France in Tropical Africa

France has been actively involved in the exploitation of goods, services, and labor in tropical Africa since the seventeenth century. Despite the public avowal of universal human rights within its national borders since the establishment of the First Republic in 1792, France's commitment to collective and individual rights in its African territories waxed and waned over the period of formal colonialism and varied by colony. The reestablishment of slavery by Emperor Napoleon I in 1804 was characteristic of this wayward policy and practice. French cultural, political, and development policies in colonial Africa were informed by the French Republican tradition, but shaped by administrative and economic exigencies that contradicted Republican values.

France regained its tiny colonial outposts in Senegal in 1817, following the Napoleonic Wars. This was part of an international agreement that included active participation in efforts to end the transatlantic slave trade and promote the production of "legitimate" commerce. Nevertheless, France returned to an African world that had been subject to the predations and insecurities of the slave trade for four centuries. France had been engaged in the transatlantic slave trade since 1644. French demand for slaves in the Caribbean colonies, particularly in Saint Domingue (later Haiti), contributed to the institutionalization of predation in precolonial Africa. Slaves of varying status were widespread in France's African colonies until 1848 when, under the Second Republic, France abolished slavery by reasserting the principle of the rights of man. Slaves, slavery, and servants remained central social and economic features of French colonies, however, well into the twentieth century.

With the beginning of aggressive colonial conquest in 1879, French administration extended over extensive areas of West and Central Africa, where domestic slavery and slave trading were widely practiced. The National Assembly, however, was reluctant to support the costs of expensive military campaigns in the African interior. Consequently, military leaders recruited African soldiers and auxiliaries, only some of whom received regular pay. While all military action entails human rights abuses, French colonial conquests involved some distinctive characteristics. France rewarded African soldiers and auxiliaries with a share of captured booty. French officers often distributed slaves, and thus participated in the persistence of slavery. Conquest also involved requisition of food stores, cattle, and labor. Even "peaceful" colonial missions of exploration, such as that of Paul Beloni de Challu in the Congo, involved the recruitment or impressment of an army of porters. For example, between 1896 and 1897, the Marchand expedition from Ubangi-Shari to the Upper Nile recruited some 3,000 porters.

The active military phase of colonialism in French West Africa (consisting of Senegal, Soudan [now Mali], Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso], Mauritania, and Niger) persisted into 1898. Military officers also found themselves charged with administering newly conquered territories, and many imposed forms of discipline that led to human rights abuses. In 1893, the civilian governor of the Sudan, Louis Alphonse Grodet, sought unsuccessfully to impose Republican values on his military administrators by prohibiting corporal punishment. Violence was an endemic part of this early phase in the establishment of colonial order. The capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey, Abomey, was burned to the ground and the king exiled in 1898. Because colonial administrators were so few in number relative to the size of the African population and the territories that they administered, officials had relatively little power outside their headquarters and could accomplish little without African collaborators and the threat of coercion.

Administrative coercion was enshrined in the establishment of indigénat, the decree empowering administrators with police powers, in 1887. Administrators could impose fines and prison sentences for a set of defined offenses dealing mostly with acts of disrespect or disorder toward colonial officials and official regulations without recourse to the courts or approval from superiors. Any French citizen or government official could summarily punish any African subject for a vast array of minor infractions, ranging from failing to pay taxes to neglecting to show administrators respect. Originally limited to sixteen identified offenses, the scope of these police functions increased over time. Each colony revised its own list of scheduled offenses. By 1907, the French Sudan listed twenty-four acts that were subject to the indigénat, and by 1918 the Ivory Coast had fifty-four. The fact that the indigénat was an arbitrary system of summary punishments that were only applied to African subjects (French citizens and assimilated Africans were excluded) and against which there was no appeal increased African resentment toward this aspect of the colonial legal system.

The establishment in 1895 of a federation of French West Africa with a governor-general based in Dakar was, in part, an effort to curtail the powers of the French military and to promote a civilian Republican agenda. In 1903 the rule of law was strengthened with the enactment of a new colonial legal code that provided an organized and hierarchical system of courts for both French citizens and African subjects. Although the West African federation was designed to tame the military, abuses persisted. In Fort Crampel in the military district of Chad in 1903, the French commander, nicknamed "the wild beast," celebrated Bastille Day by dynamiting an African accused of disobedience. Periodic revolts and resistance movements were harshly suppressed. Violent insurrections were crushed in northern Ivory Coast and Upper Volta, resulting in thousands of deaths.

In Madagascar and French Equatorial Africa—a federation of territories that included the former slave port of Libreville and the hinterlands annexed by the expeditions of Lieutenant Brazza (Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Central Africa, Chad)—the French presence was even fainter than in West Africa, and Republican traditions were more attenuated. In 1885 there were only thirty-six French officials in the Congo region, and perhaps one thousand African auxiliaries recruited locally and from West Africa. By 1904 the number of officials fell to thirty. Despite the paucity of administrators, military tactics were brutal. The suppression of the Madagascar revolt from 1896 to 1898, for instance, left as many as ninety thousand dead.

In the absence of a strong French administrative presence, the subdivisions of the colony adapted the neighboring Congo Free State's regime domanial model for economic development. Thus, monopolies over the "products of the soil," in particular rubber and ivory, were ceded to concession companies. The Société du Haut Ogooué acquired eleven million hectares, and the largest publicly traded company, the Compagnie des Sultanats du Haut-Oubangu, operated monopoly rights over 140,000 square kilometers. To make concessions profitable, concessionaires demanded forced labor. Although the French prohibited forced labor in principle, a poll tax was introduced in 1897 that effectively forced Africans to work by extracting resources and selling them to the company. During the early colonial period, sleeping sickness and other diseases preyed heavily on tired workers' immune systems, leading to a dramatic population decline. Concessionaires responded to this by increasing and elaborating new methods of coercion. On the Mpoko Concession, one of the few to declare a profit, forty European managers and 400 armed African guards shot on sight any African not collecting rubber. Between 1903 and 1905, the administration reported 1,500 murders. Most concession companies disappeared with the decline in easily accessible wild rubber during World War I, but a few persisted until 1935. The novelist André Gide brought international attention to the human rights abuses of French Equatorial Africa in his 1927 exposé, Voyage au Congo (Travel in the Congo). Major administrative reforms in 1906 and 1907 brought French Equatorial Africa into line with French West Africa, but the demand for tropical commodities led to new forms of human rights abuses in the region.

France's mobilization for World War I led to increased demands for military and domestic materials and African troops and porters. Aggressive recruitment of African tirailleurs (African riflemen) began in 1915 resulting in localized revolts. In addition to demanding troops, the French imposed a requirement that Africans produce maize, millet, rice, groundnuts, palm products, cotton, and rubber for the war effort. Already introduced in 1912, forced labor for public works was expanded dramatically during wartime mobilization. All French West Africans were subject to eight to twelve days of forced labor per year. In Equatorial Africa, Africans were subject to seven days per year in 1918, which was raised to fifteen days in 1925.

Following the war, the French introduced obligatory peacetime recruitment. The French drafted 14,000 men annually into tirailleurs regiments. In the process, they discovered that the majority of young men were not physically fit to serve. Many of the unfit were conscripted into a second tier of recruits for the purposes of public works, a poorly disguised form of corvée(forced) labor. Some 127,250 Africans were recruited in this way to work on the Congo-Océan railway in Equatorial Africa, and an annual average of 2,719 Africans were impressed into labor in French West Africa between 1928 and 1946. In the new French-mandated former German colonies of Togo and Cameroon, however, League of Nations treaties banned forced labor. The Permanent Mandates Commission stringently monitored the terms of labor in these two territories, but direct taxation that permitted payment in kind or in labor was permitted.

As France rebuilt its economy during the interwar period, it sought inexpensive raw materials. Africans were forced to cultivate commodities, especially cotton. Even before the war, Gabriel Angoulvant, who served as lieutenant governor of Ivory Coast, had raised cotton exports from zero in 1912 to 350 tons in 1916 by forcing every African subject to produce a certain amount of cotton for export. In 1924, when serving as West Africa's governor-general, Angoulvant proposed solving France's cotton deficit through what he called "the obligation to produce." Forced commodity production led to a food crisis in Ivory Coast, and to various forms of resistance, as well.

Conversely, the interwar period also saw the proliferation of African groups campaigning for human rights and the right to form labor unions. Some movements were inspired by trends back in France, such as the Ligue pour la défense des droits de l'homme et du citoyen, which founded branches in Dahomey and Togo, and Socialist Party committees. Others were mobilized by a new sense of rights and entitlements enshrined in the League of Nations charter and the Treaty of Versailles, and by the creation of an internationalized anti-colonial movement led by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization and the Moscow-based Communist International. Yet others were motivated by pan-African sentiments, expressed in such forums as the Pan-African Congresses organized by W. E. B du Bois (first held in Paris 1919); The Crisis, published by the NAACP, and The Black Man, published by the United Negro Improvement Association (both books were available throughout Africa). Also influential were the early Négritude writers such as Aimé Cesaire, Léopold Sedar Senghor, and Alioune Diop, who later established the journal Présence Africaine.

In France, the short-lived Popular Front government of Léon Blum between 1936 and 1938 led to the general reappraisal of colonial policy and to debate about "African human rights." Colonial Minister Maurius Moutet expressed his commitment to the extension of maximum social justice to the colonies and called for a review of colonial polices, including forced labor and commodity production. He also introduced major reforms, such as offering African women the right to choice in their marriages. With the approach of war in Europe, however, the Popular Front collapsed. Even after Germany conquered France, the Vichy government retained control over Algeria, French West Africa, Madagascar, and Togo, and reasserted that the role of colonies was to support the mother country through materiel and labor. Under the governorship of Félix Ebouey, Equatorial Africa and Cameroun sided with the Free French in opposition to Vichy collaborationists. In the territories it controlled, Vichy reestablished forced labor and obligatory commodity production, thus leading to a new phase of rights abuses. In Togo, villagers still narrate the tales of the excessive brutality that was deployed in the collection of oil palm kernels during World War II. A coup in Dakar in 1943, however, brought French West Africa into line with de Gaulle and the Free French.

As the tide of war changed, senior Free French officials met with political and trade union leaders at the Brazzaville Conference in 1944 to discuss postwar colonial policy. Delegates urged that both forced labor and the indigénat be replaced with guarantees of free labor and a unified penal code. In 1946, forced labor and the indigénat were abolished as part of a wider set of colonial reforms, including new development funds and rights for African political representation. Between 1958 and 1960, French tropical Africa became independent.

The legacy of the French colonial experience for postcolonial human rights regime is ambiguous. Despite the French government's commitment to human rights, its practices in Africa remained contradictory. Most states enshrined human rights in their constitutions during the immediate postcolonial period, but few respected them in practice. Regulation of labor also remains a chimera; Mauritania, for example, has abolished slavery by statute five times since independence in 1960. The post-1990 third wave of democratization in Africa has brought a reflourishing of African civil society and demands for constitutional protections of human rights.

SEE ALSO Algeria; King Leopold II and the Congo; Slavery, Historical; Sudan


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Benjamin Lawrance
Richard Roberts

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France in Tropical Africa

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