French in West Africa

French in West Africa

The French in West Africa: Early Contact to Independence Stephen Wooten Department of Anthropology University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign

Early Contacts

Direct European contact in West Africa dates back at least as far as the fifteenth century AD when Portuguese traders made their first links with West African coastal peoples. Previously, Europeans has been aware of and had participated to varying degrees with West African peoples through the trans-Saharan trade. Throughout the latter part of the fifteenth century the Spanish, Dutch, British and French all began to establish their presence in the West African context. The timing of these early contacts is linked closely to the growth of maritime capabilities, increasing interest in trade activity with Africa and the Far East, religious expansion and the Age of Exploration. Africa, and West Africa in particular, came to represent important possibilities for the expansionist policies of the European powers over the next five centuries.

The early contacts made by Europeans, primarily the Portuguese, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were largely focused on the coastal areas of West Africa and were primarily trade related although missionary work and exploration did also occur. The Europeans traded in slaves, sugar, pepper, ivory, wax, and gold during this period. The trade in gold was a major factor in the expansion of European interest in West Africa. Gold from West Africa, Ghana in particular, represented 1/10th of the world's gold reserve in the early part of the sixteenth century (Boahen, 1986). Europe's growing dependence on gold and the associated growth of merchant capitalism reinforced Europe's links to West Africa.

The West African coastal peoples encountered by the early European traders represented only a small part of the richness and complexity of the region in general. Previous to European contact, the region had witnessed the emergence and solidification of a series of ancient African polities, among them, the Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Hausa empires and states. These pre-colonial states, Islamic expansion and a strong pre-colonial trade network all contributed to a diverse and complex social environment into which European traders, explorers and missionaries entered, perhaps naively.

The Expansion of French Interests

Beginning in the latter part of the sixteenth century and continuing up to the middle of the nineteenth century the trans- Atlantic trade in slaves expanded tremendously in West Africa. The European powers began to enhance their links with African slave traders and by the eighteenth century slaves were an important element in the trade conducted by Europeans in West Africa. The slaves were destined primarily for emerging New World plantation economies. Rivalry and warfare between pre-colonial states, the expansion of the Islamic jihads (holy wars) in West Africa and the growing Atlantic/New World demand for labor all contributed to an environment in which the capture, consolidation and transfer of African peoples became a dominant economic activity for Europeans (the Portuguese were eventually supplanted by the Dutch who were in turn supplanted by the British and French) and some segments of the African population in West Africa who were involved in the capture and transport of captives to the markets.

Although the French had established a trade port on the West African coast as early as 1659 at St. Louis (present day Senegal), their participation in West Africa did not increase substantially until later in the nineteenth century. Their participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade was always less significant than their European counterparts, especially the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The French came to focus on gum arabic, groundnuts (or peanuts) and other raw materials originating in the interior regions. The major slave ports, most active during the period between the middle seventeenth and middle nineteenth centuries, were located between modern-day Ghana and the Cameroons and were largely controlled by the British, Dutch and the Portuguese.

French Conquest of the Interior

Although the French had contact in other areas of coastal West Africa their efforts were most clearly focused on the Senegal River area and its hinterland. In St. Louis the French began what would eventually become their colonial project. Assimilation lay at the base of France's experience in West Africa. West Africa would become a part of France. The French colonialists came to think of their sphere of influence "as mere provinces overseas" (Boahen, 1986: 123). By the early nineteenth century an original goal of French settlement in West Africa had been dropped in light of the difficulties experienced by early French settlers. Then by the middle of the century it looked as though the most promising hope for development was with the eager French merchants and traders and the expansion of their interests into the savanna regions of the interior. The French goal of increasing their stake in West Africa was influenced by similar policies undertaken by their fellow Europeans in Africa culminating in the late nineteenth century with a European "scramble for Africa." Industrialization and economic conditions in Europe influenced the expansion of European interests in West Africa from the nineteenth century on.

British and French imperialism in West Africa proceeded hand- in- hand. Throughout the nineteenth century the British and French were at work making contacts and solidifying their interests throughout the interior. The French began a major push eastward into the savanna regions under the direction of General Louis Faidherbe. Faidherbe had been appointed Governor of Senegal in 1854 and began his expansionist program soon thereafter. The actual empire-builders in the French context were from the outset, military men. British expansion was conducted primarily by commercialists and resulted in more solid economic potential than the French endeavor (Crowder, 1990).

When Faidherbe and his successors proceeded with their conquest of the hinterlands they met with strong and sustained resistance from a number of sources including the Moors, the Toucouleur Empire of Segou under Al Hajj Umar and the powerful Almamy Samori of Wasulu. These were far from weak opponents and the progress of French expansion suffered as a result of their presence. There existed a great diversity of political, social, economic, and ideological organization in West Africa at the time of French colonial expansion.

In February 1885, the main European powers who were actively vying for control of large parts of Africa signed the Berlin Act which formalized the process for the partition of Africa. France, Germany, Britain and Portugal all had interests in West Africa and the Act provided the guidelines by which each then proceeded to define their territories. By 1890, the French had signed treaties with several African leaders which ostensibly gave the French the mandate to annex large tracts of the Western Sudan. They negotiated these treaties from a powerful military position. Their expansion was clearly linked to superior firepower and their campaigns towards the Niger Valley were founded on this superiority. The French conquest of West Africa proceeded fort by fort with increasing territory coming under their control. Large tracts of these areas were desert lands not entirely suited for economic activity. This may be related to the military direction of the expansion.

During the consolidation phase the French were concerned chiefly with carving themselves a niche which they hoped would result in economic benefits. They sought to bring more and more land under their control. It was not until the early part of the twentieth century that their efforts turned to increasing productivity in the colonized areas.

French West Africa

By the early years of the twentieth century the French held most of what would come to be their colonial territory in West Africa (including present day Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Niger). A governor-general of French West Africa was appointed to administer the federation and was based in Senegal, the only place where African people had even minimally been assimilated under the original French plan. Only in St. Louis did even a small percentage of West Africans come to participate in French national affairs. Outside of this area West Africans had become subjects (sujets), not citizens. This dynamic was due most likely to the increasing awareness by the French of the unlikelihood that the African peoples they were colonizing would be 'suitable` French citizens. When the original federation of the French West African colonies was achieved there was no strong statement of the program for assimilation. The French began to install a very centralized federalist administration in their new territory, a system of direct rule.

The governor-general in Dakar was to report to, and take his orders from, the Minister of Colonies and the government in Paris. In the interior of French West Africa, the territories were headed by lieutenant-governors who received their orders and finances through the governor-general. There was a slightly different structure in Senegal where early attempts at assimilation has resulted in the establishment of four communes or municipalities which had a conseil-general, where assimilated Africans could represent the four municipalities in France. The constituent territories of French West Africa were divided into cercles or administrative units which were administered by commandants de cercel or district commissioners and then further, chefs de subdivision at the local level. The French did not utilize traditional power holders in their administration of the colony to any great extent. The French appeared to understand fully, even at this early stage, that assimilation of West Africans under tier control was not in the offing. Both the cost of implementing such a program and the tenacity of the indigenous populations prevented full-scale assimilation (Crowder, 1990: 77). Instead, the French sought to control the West African populations. By contrast, in the British colonies the approach was the opposite: they used local power holders rather than installing a whole new administration. Each system aimed to benefit the colonizers. The French were rather harsh in their administration and their attempts to increase their economic footholds, utilizing such means as forced labor (courvee) and imprisonment (indigenant) to maintain and expand their interests.

One of the most important aspects of the French colonization of West Africa was the requirement placed on the colony to pay its oem way as a colony. The French administration sought to increase productivity and extract valuable resources. They fostered production of groundnuts and cotton where appropriate conditions were present and imposed taxation as a means of inducing participation in the cash economy. Where crops could not be grown, they encouraged migration to wage- earning areas. Although slavery had been abolished in Europe and the New World during the middle part of the nineteenth century, some forms of servitude continued on the West African landscape and the French in their pursuit of gain often looked the other way in order to insure the success of their programs. The French colonial encounter in West Africa was driven by commercial interests and, perhaps to a lesser degree, a civilizing mission. The political administration and the economic interests were fairly uniform throughout the colonial period. Little was done to improve the lives of West Africans, although attempts were made to provide minimal health and educational services. Whereas in the British areas of West Africa some portion of the economic gain accrued to an African middle class, no such dynamic occurred in the French context.

Growing Nationalism and the Move Towards Independence in French West Africa

By the close of the Second World War the colonized peoples of French West Africa were making their dissatisfaction with the colonial system heard. West Africans had participated in both World Wars to varying degrees and their experiences in them, along with a growing opposition to direct rule and its exploitative nature, resulted in a movement which would ultimately lead to independence for the territories.

The Brazzaville Conference of 1944 and the new Constitution of the Fourth Republic in France paid heed to growing calls for reform in Africa. Reforms which included African representation in the French National Assembly and the increase of local councils in West Africa where Africans could participate in local governance were proposed and slowly accepted. The rise of political parties and nationalist programs in french West Africa grew steadily. Parties such as Houphouet-Boigny's RDA (Rassemblement democratique africain) and Senghor's Convention africaine gained support. In 1956 the French passed the loi cadre, or enabling law, which allowed local government for individual territories in French West Africa. It is important to note that the colony itself did not receive this right, rather it was applied to sub-sets of the colony. It has been suggested that this fragmentation was an attempt by France to create a destabilized and fragmented West Africa, perhaps in hopes of gaining an upper hand in the approaching post-colonial period (Crowder, 1990: 78). By 1960, the territories of French West Africa had achieved independence. The new nations were faced with a difficult future as autonomous states with little to draw upon in their move towards the future. French interest in their former territory in west Africa continues to this day.

Suggested Reading and Works Cited

Ajayi, J.F. Ade and Michael, Crowder eds. History of West Africa. Vol. 2, Second Edition, 1987. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited. See sections on French West Africa Boahen, Adu et al Topics in West African History. Second Edition, 1986. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited. A text was used in West Africa as an introduction to the history of the region. Crowder, Michael History of French West Africa until Independence. In Africa South of the Sahara 1991. 1990. London: Europa Publications. Oliver, Roland and Michael Crowder, eds. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Africa. 1981. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. An excellent overall work on Africa, perhaps a bit dated with regard to political developments.

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D.
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