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Decolonization in French West Africa  

Tony Chafer

Studies of French decolonization in West Africa have traditionally treated it as a planned and reasonably smooth process. It has therefore been portrayed as a successful decolonization that stands in stark contrast to the much more conflictual decolonization processes in Indochina (1947–1954) and Algeria (1954–1962), which were marked by prolonged wars. This approach has tended to give pride of place to the role of individuals—members of France’s governing elites and African political leaders—who are portrayed as having successfully managed the transition to independence. While the importance of such individuals cannot be denied, it is important to recognize that French decolonization in West Africa was a contingent process. Shaped by the particular nature of French colonial rule in the region, the new international context after 1945, events on the ground, and—on the French side—the perceived need to maintain empire at all costs in order to restore French grandeur after the humiliation of defeat and occupation in the Second World War, it was a process that involved a multiplicity of French and African actors who were not in control of the policy agenda but who were, on the contrary, operating in a highly constrained context and constantly being forced to react to rapidly unfolding events. De Gaulle finally decided to grant independence in 1959, and within a year all the territories of former French West Africa had gained their political independence. However, political independence did not mean French withdrawal and the end of French dominance. There were many continuities between the colonial and postcolonial periods, which have been analyzed in a burgeoning literature on French neocolonialism in sub-Saharan Africa. Decolonization should therefore be seen as a process that started well before French rule formally ended in 1960 and that is—arguably—still ongoing.


Nationalism and Decolonization in Cameroon  

Joseph Takougang

The union between the former French Cameroun and the British Southern Cameroons on October 1, 1961, to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon was a unique experiment in nation building and the struggle for independence in Africa. For instance, the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), the first truly nationalist party in the former French trusteeship that advocated immediate independence and reunification with the British Cameroons, was banned in May 1955 by French colonial authorities because of its radical views, since France was still reluctant to grant its African colonies complete independence. For France, the choice of who and which party could lead the territory to independence depended on who French authorities thought could guarantee continued relations with France following independence. In the end, Ahmadou Ahidjo and his Union Camerounaise (UC) emerged as the best candidate to meet France’s objectives in a postcolonial Cameroun. On the other hand, because of the colonial arrangement that allowed Britain to administer its section of the former German colony as part of its colony of Nigeria to the west, the nationalist struggle took a different trajectory and was more against Nigerian rather than British colonial domination. In other words, for many Southern Cameroonians, the focus by the two major parties (Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) and Cameroons Peoples’ National Convention (CPNC)) during the campaign leading to the plebiscite on February 11, 1961, was whether the territory should be part of the Republic of Cameroun, which was engulfed in violence and bloodshed following its independence on January 1, 1960, or face the threat of Igbo domination if Southern Cameroonians decided to become part of an independent Nigeria.


Race and Decolonization in North Africa  

Muriam Haleh Davis

The precolonial history of slavery is fundamental for understanding the roots of antiblack racism in the region known as the Maghreb. At the same time, the question of skin color does not capture the diverse forms of discrimination that have been experienced by populations in the region over the last two hundred years. French colonial officials, for example, upheld the Berber population as a separate race that was inherently more civilized and less Muslim than the Arab population. Jews in Algeria were offered French citizenship in 1870, further complicating the racial formation of the colonial Maghreb. Despite colonial attempts to posit a racial difference between so-called white and black Africa, the porous geographical boundaries in the southern regions of the Sahara made it difficult to assert a clear distinction between Arab and African peoples. After independence, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia sought to foster a coherent national identity and achieve political legitimacy, and their experiences of state building in turn influenced how religious and ethnic minorities were treated after independence.


Free French Africa  

Eric Jennings

Free French Africa was the part of the French empire that came under the control of General Charles de Gaulle’s movement. From 1940 to 1943, it encompassed French Equatorial Africa and Cameroon; Brazzaville served as its capital. These African lands provided Free France with legitimacy, manpower, revenue, natural resources, and a starting point for military operations in the Desert War. These territories fell into Free French hands for a number of reasons, including the actions of African noncommissioned officers who spearheaded the arrest of Vichy’s governor in late August 1940. Thereafter, they were thrown headlong into the war effort. Some 17,000 soldiers were recruited in these regions and a run on natural resources ensued. It was at considerable cost to local populations that de Gaulle built a military machine in Central Africa, one capable of bringing France back into the global fray. For Africans, the advent of Free France signaled economic hardship, multiple imperatives including military enlistment and rubber collection, and a hardening of colonial practices.


Women in Gabon  

Claire H. Griffiths

Gabon, a small oil-rich country straddling the equator on the west coast of Africa, is the wealthiest of France’s former colonies. An early period of colonization in the 19th century resulted in disease, famine, and economic failure. The creation of French Equatorial Africa in 1910 marked the beginning of the sustained lucrative exploitation of Gabon’s natural resources. Gabon began off-shore oil production while still a colony of France. Uranium was also discovered in the last decade of the French Equatorial African empire. Coupled with rich reserves in tropical woods, Gabon has achieved, since independence in 1960, a higher level of export revenue per capita of population than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa in the postcolonial era. However, significant inequality has characterized access to wealth through paid employment throughout the recorded history of monetized labor. While fortunes have been amassed by a minute proportion of the female population of Gabon associated with the ruling regime, and a professional female middle-class has emerged, inequalities of opportunity and reward continue to mark women’s experience of life in this little-known country of West Central Africa. The key challenge facing scholars researching the history of women in Gabon remains the relative lack of historical resources. While significant strides have been made over the past decade, research on women’s history in Francophone Africa published in English or French remains embryonic. French research on African women began to make a mark in the last decade of colonization, notably with the work of Denise Paulme, but then remained a neglected area for decades. The publication in 1994 of Les Africaines by French historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch was hailed at the time as a pioneering work in French historiography. But even this new research contained no analysis of and only a passing reference to women in Gabon.


The History of Gabon  

Douglas A. Yates

Primeval rainforest at the Equator on the west coast of Africa, the land we know as Gabon, was settled prehistorically by Pygmies during the late Stone Age, and then by Bantu-speaking migrants during the Iron Age. These culturally diverse peoples did not develop a common language or political system with one another until after their violent conquest by Europeans during the colonial era. The Age of Discovery in the 15th century brought European explorers to the coast. The Atlantic triangle trade, with its slave barracoons and entrepôts, transformed some African communities along the coast into centralized kingdoms, and turned other clan-based societies of the forested interior into hunted peoples suspicious of any and all outsiders, European or African. The Scramble for Africa brought military expeditions into Gabon in the 19th century, when French colonial rule was established. Colonialism bestowed on the ethnic groups of Gabon a protonational identity of being “Gabonese,” although this nationalist impulse was muted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the effort of French authorities and missionaries to assimilate black Africans into France’s culture and civilization. Unassimilated colonial subjects in the interior of the newly conquered territory violently resisted French colonial rule until the world wars, by which time the assimilation project had sufficiently fashioned a new coastal French-educated Gabonese elite. The two world wars weakened France and led these assimilated elites to a call for political reforms, at first taking the form of mono-ethnic-based political parties, but eventually coalescing around multiethnic coalitions, largely francophone in outlook, while retaining many elements of older precolonial identities. Independence in 1960 brought to power three authoritarian rulers—Léon Mba, Omar Bongo, and Ali Bongo—as well as consolidation of an oil-rentier state and an oxymoronic dynastic republic. “Gabonese” national identity emerged, an imagined community constructed out of African music, literature, and art, yet incorporating French as its lingua franca.


Ping, Jean  

Jeremy Rich

Jean Ping (born November 24, 1942) was a leading figure in Gabonese politics from the late 1980s well into the 21st century. His mother belonged to the Nkomi ethnic group and his father was a rare Chinese resident of Gabon. Like most other young Gabonese intellectuals, he studied abroad in France and then became a supporter of the ruling Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG) party. After working as the Gabonese representative to UNESCO, Ping returned to Gabon in 1984. He became a close associate of dictator Omar Bongo, had two children with Bongo’s daughter Pascaline, and held a series of top ministerial posts from 1990 to 2014. Ping became Gabon’s most prominent diplomat. African Union delegates voted for Ping to become the president of the African Union in 2008. He held this position until 2012. Perhaps his greatest disappointment was the failure of the African Union to successfully mediate between Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi, Libyan rebels, and Western countries who chose military intervention to overthrow Qaddafi. Although Ping had become a member of Omar Bongo’s inner circle, he pulled away from the PDG party after Omar’s son Ali Bongo Ondimba won the 2009 presidential elections. Ping quit the PDG in 2014 and ran for president in the 2016 elections. Many Gabonese and outside observers believed Ping triumphed in this contest. The official results that proclaimed Ali Bongo as the winner stated Bongo had won 95% of the vote in Haut-Ogooué province, where supposedly 99% of all eligible voters actually cast their ballot. Ping rejected the findings and declared he was the true president of Gabon. Ping’s career, starting as a young Gabonese intellectual and becoming a member of the PDG elite and finally the leader of the Gabonese opposition, is a crucial part of the political history of Gabon after the end of French colonization.


Saharan Peoples and Societies  

E. Ann McDougall

The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.” However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire. The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel. Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.


Writing African History in France during the Colonial Era  

Sophie Dulucq

In the second half of the 19th century, French imperial expansion in the south of the Sahara led to the control of numerous African territories. The colonial rule France imposed on a diverse range of cultural groups and political entities brought with it the development of equally diverse inquiry and research methodologies. A new form of scholarship, africanisme, emerged as administrators, the military, and amateur historians alike began to gather ethnographic, linguistic, judicial, and historical information from the colonies. Initially, this knowledge was based on expertise gained in the field and reflected the pragmatic concerns of government rather than clear, scholarly, interrogation in line with specific scientific disciplines. Research was thus conducted in many directions, contributing to the emergence of the so-called colonial sciences. Studies by Europeans scholars, such as those carried out by Maurice Delafosse and Charles Monteil, focused on West Africa’s past. In so doing, the colonial context of the late 19th century reshaped the earlier orientalist scholarship tradition born during the Renaissance, which had formerly produced quality research about Africa’s past, for example, about medieval Sudanese states. This was achieved through the study of Arabic manuscripts and European travel narratives. In this respect, colonial scholarship appears to have perpetuated the orientalist legacy, but in fact, it transformed the themes, questions, and problems historians raised. In the first instance, histoire coloniale (colonial history) focused the history of European conquests and the interactions between African societies and their colonizers. Between 1890 and 1920 a network of scientists, including former colonial administrators, struggled to institutionalize colonial history in metropolitan France. Academic positions were established at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France. Meanwhile, research institutions were created in French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française [AOF]), French Equatorial Africa (Afrique Équatoriale Française [AEF]), and Madagascar between 1900 and the 1930s. Yet, these imperial and colonial concerns similarly coincided with the rise of what was then known as histoire indigène (native history) centered on the precolonial histories of African societies. Through this lens emerged a more accurate vision of the African past, which fundamentally challenged the common preconception that the continent had no “history.” This innovative knowledge was often co-produced by African scholars and intellectuals. After the Second World War, interest in colonial history started to wane, both from an intellectual and a scientific point of view. In its place, the history of sub-Saharan Africa gained popularity and took root in French academic institutions. Chairs of African history were created at the Sorbonne in 1961 and 1964, held by Raymond Mauny and Hubert Deschamps, respectively, and in 1961 at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, fulfilled by Henri Brunschwig. African historians, who were typically trained in France, began to challenge the existing European scholarship. As a result, some of the methods and sources that had been born in the colonial era, were adopted for use by a new generation of historians, whose careers blossomed after the independences.


Education and Politics in Colonial French West Africa  

Kelly Duke Bryant

Education was profoundly political in colonial French West Africa (1895–1960), a federation that included the modern-day countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Benin (formerly Dahomey), Côte d’Ivoire, and Niger. It shaped political discourse across the federation as officials, educators, missionaries, African families, and African students weighed in on the type of education they thought best. Dissatisfaction with education policies or with the quality of schools encouraged Africans to become politically active, and the practical skills they learned in school along with the status gained through school attendance prepared young people to agitate for colonial reform and ultimately for independence. Colonial officials engaged in a back and forth with the Catholic missionary orders that provided public schooling in much of the region, especially as they sought to balance early 20th-century metropolitan demands for secularization with the colonies’ need for reliable and inexpensive schools. In the second half of the 19th century, administrators attempted to undermine Qur’an schools through regulation and surveillance, hoping that this would result in increased attendance in French schools. In doing so, they competed directly with popular Islamic leaders and the interests of the Muslim community, which had the unintended effect of involving African Muslims in colonial politics in new ways. Officials also attempted to “adapt” colonial school curricula to the local realities of African communities, usually by decreasing academic content and focusing instead on vocational and agricultural training. Yet over several decades, they encountered significant resistance from urban educated elites and rural farmers alike, all of whom pushed in one way or another for schooling that would allow for social mobility and, ultimately, claims for equality with the French. Finally, education played a crucial role in formal politics in the region, preparing Africans for political candidacy and leadership, mobilizing the voting public, and helping to determine access to voting rights after African subjects became citizens in 1946. Education and politics were thus inextricably linked in colonial French West Africa.


Policing, Surveillance, and Prisons in French Colonial West Africa  

Kathleen Keller

Police and prisons played important roles in the operation of the colonial administration of French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française, AOF). As foreign institutions and tools of colonial power and domination, they aimed to support and defend imperial rule, not reform or respond to problems within society. The police in AOF aimed to keep order, repress crime, and monitor people and groups who were identified as potential security threats because they supposedly challenged the authority of the state. Police operated largely in urban areas, beginning in during the interwar era. Surveillance was a tool of policing that worked to identify potential threats to colonial rule. The law code known as the indigénat, which applied to Africans designated as subjects (as opposed to those who were citizens—a very small group of the overall population), was an important bridge between policing and prisons as it served to police behavior and frequently resulted in short prison sentences. Prisons were some of the earliest colonial institutions, accompanying military conquest and serving repressive political means and labor demands. Prisons and policing were institutions that relied on techniques (including surveillance) that colonial authorities transplanted from France to West Africa, and which had a profound social impact.


Women and Gender in French North Africa, 1830–1962  

Julia Clancy-Smith

The workings of modern empire can better be viewed through the lens of gender because gendered hierarchies illuminate broad, intersecting aspects of the colonial project. Community, kinship, household economies, religion, education, sexuality, social engineering, nationalism, and transnational reform movements were all inflected by imperial patriarchy in various guises. This perspective is especially rich for “French” North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) from 1830 until 1962 since the region and its peoples were subjected to intense forms of “European” settler colonialism. From the start, the “woman question” assumed particularly fraught and contentious dimensions whose repercussions can be detected even today. Nevertheless, colonial North Africa did not represent a self-enclosed container. Transimperial and global processes shaped the sociopolitical terrain, and in turn. Policies, practices, and resistance in the Maghrib exerted a powerful torque far beyond its limits. Key to understanding women, gender, and settler colonialism is the state of the “archive,” the sprawling corpus of records, writings, words, things, and images left in an empire’s wake. The voices of women, children, and “ordinary” people, those labeled “the colonized,” have until recently been missing in conventional narratives. As Antoinette Burton observed, the archives themselves structure “the conceptual frameworks of women’s and gender history.” In the imperial historical context, the task of recuperating and restoring lost voices is all the more problematic, yet urgent. One might also add that the fundamental question is “whether ‘women’ is a category at all.”


The Amazons of Dahomey  

Agbenyega Adedze

The Amazons in general come from Greek legend and myth without any palpable historical evidence. However, there is no doubt about the historical female fighters of the erstwhile Kingdom of Dahomey (Danhome or Danxome) in West Africa, which survived until their defeat by the French colonial forces in 1893. The history of the historical Amazons of the Kingdom of Dahomey stems from vast amounts of oral tradition collected and analyzed over the years, as well as written accounts by Europeans who happened to have visited the kingdom or lived on the West African coast since Dahomey’s foundation in the 17th century to its demise in the late 19th century. These sources have been reviewed and debated by several scholars (including Amélie Degbelo, Stanley B. Alpern, Melville J. Herskovits, Hélène d’Almeida-Topor, Boniface Obichere, Edna G. Bay, Robin Law, Susan Preston Blier, Auguste Le Herisse, etc.), who may or may not agree on the narrative of the founding of the kingdom or the genesis of female fighters in the Dahomean army. Nonetheless, all scholars agree that the female forces traditionally called Ahosi/Mino did exist and fought valiantly in many of Dahomey’s battles against their neighbors (Oyo, Ouemenou, Ouidah, etc.) and France. The history of the Ahosi/Mino is intricately linked to the origins and political and social development of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Ahosi/Mino are still celebrated in the oral traditions of the Fon.


Women in Congo-Brazzaville  

Catherine Porter

While the Republic of Congo has been frequently eclipsed by its neighbor with a similar name, women have been active participants in its history. Women’s experiences vary across Congo-Brazzaville, depending on their location and economic status; they create a diverse fabric of histories of multiple ethnicities, occupations, and encounters. The contemporary political boundaries of the Republic of Congo are European colonial constructs from the early 20th century, and today the majority of the population resides in the capital city of Brazzaville and in the other large urban areas in the southwest. Early contact with the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries at the base of the Congo River destabilized the Kingdom of the Kongo, which was further accelerated by the proselytization of Catholic missionaries. The encroachment of Europeans and missionaries combined with the consequences of the trans-Atlantic slave trade deeply affected the traditional gender dynamics that women had in rural settings on farming plots. Women lost much of their social and political power that they held in precolonial settings, and this was further exacerbated by traditional roles that were impressed by Christian missionaries. The establishment of French Equatorial Africa in 1910 with Brazzaville as its capital shifted the importance of the area within French West Africa. The railroad industry and the completion of the Kinshasa-Matadi and the Brazzaville-Point Noire Railways changed the demographics of the southwest, most specifically Brazzaville, into not only an administrative city but also a hub for industrial activity. As men began to move the coast into railway labor camps, women followed suit, where they became predominant in tailoring, domestic labor, and, later, secretarial services. World War I and World War II brought profound changes to Congo-Brazzaville as men were conscripted into the French armed forces and women provided necessary services to the colonial French administration in the form of administrative and tailoring work. During the push for independence and decolonization, women joined political parties such as Union Révolutionnaire des Femmes du Congo, Union de la Jeunesse Congolaise, or Confédération Générale des Travailleurs Africaine, mainly as auxiliary members. Women focused their political, social, and economic concerns and pushed the emancipation of women to the center of the government in 1967. While women had a greater role in national life for the later part of the 20th century, women faced daily harassment and exploitation, especially with the 1993–1994 and 1997–1999 civil wars. Constitutional reforms in 2002 and 2015 guaranteed women the same rights as men within the country and a proportional representation within the upper and lower houses of the National Assembly. While this has increased the prominence of women on a national level, it has not proven consistent in daily interactions. Generally women are subjected to intimate violence, including domestic and sexual violence as well as street harassment. Organizations based in Congo-Brazzaville, such as Rencontre pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme (RPDH), are actively working for the stabilization of gender parity through law, education, and civic participation but face regular roadblocks on day-to-day activities.


Africans in World Wars I and II  

Joe Lunn

World Wars I and II were very probably the most destructive conflicts in African history. In terms of the human costs—the numbers of people mobilized, the scale of violence and destruction experienced--as well as their enduring political and social impact, no other previous conflicts are comparable, particularly over such short periods as four and ten years, respectively. All told, about 4,500,000 African soldiers and military laborers were mobilized during these wars and about 2,000,000 likely died. Mobilization on this scale among African peasant societies was only sustainable because they were linked to the industrial economies of a handful of West Central European nation states at the core of the global commercial infrastructure, which invariably subordinated African interests to European imperial imperatives. Militarily, these were expressed in two ways: by the use of African soldiers and supporting military laborers to conquer or defend colonies on the continent, or by the export of African combat troops and laborers overseas—in numbers far exceeding comparable decades during the 18th-century peak of the transatlantic slave trade—to Europe and Asia to augment Allied armies there. The destructive consequences of these wars were distributed unevenly across the continent. In some areas of Africa, human losses and physical devastation frequently approximated or surpassed the worst suffering experienced in Europe itself; yet, in other areas of the continent, Africans remained virtually untouched by these wars. These conflicts contributed to an ever-growing assertiveness of African human rights in the face of European claims to racial supremacy that led after 1945 to the restoration of African sovereignty throughout most of the continent. On a personal level, however, most Africans received very little for their wartime sacrifices. Far more often, surviving veterans returned to their homes with an enhanced knowledge of the wider world, perhaps a modicum of newly acquired personal prestige within their respective societies, but little else.


Madagascar (Modern)  

Jane Hooper

The French formally colonized Madagascar in 1896. After violently repressing resistance movements, the colonial government began efforts to transform the island into a profitable member of the French Empire by taxing their subjects and instituting a harsh forced labor regime. These exactions were resisted by Malagasy throughout the entire colonial period, culminating in a widespread revolt in 1947. In 1960 Malagasy held their first elections, but the French would continue to exercise political and economic influence over the island’s government for the next twelve years. Madagascar has been ruled by a series of strong presidents who were removed from office following popular unrest and military coups. The pro-French government of Philibert Tsiranana was forced out in 1972. In 1975 the new president, Didier Ratsiraka, implemented socialist policies in the country. After Madagascar experienced a sharp economic decline, Ratsiraka agreed to restructure the economy with the assistance of the IMF and World Bank in the 1980s. Since that period, leaders have struggled to deal with recurring environmental crises and to improve living standards for the island’s residents. The pro-business president Marc Ravalomanana was removed from office following mass protests in the capital, Antananarivo, in 2009. He was replaced by Antananarivo’s mayor, Andry Rajoelina. International groups, viewing such a move as unconstitutional, withdrew economic aid, an act that exacerbated economic crises in the country. Fresh elections were held in 2013 but the victor, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, has dealt with strong challenges from several ex-presidents.