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French Colonialism in West Africa

Among those ruled by the French in western Africa, the spectacle of white men killing each other in World War I eroded much if not all of whatever view they had that whites were indeed superior to Africans. During the war, the French had recruited 175,000 from their colonies in West Africa, some of these recruits becoming combat soldiers, some others becoming support personnel. These were a variety of men of many shades of brown, some of them Moslems, and some not. After the war some of them stayed in France, where several became advocates for more rights for Africans, most of them favoring assimilation rather than national independence. A movement that favored nationalist independence was led by a missionary-educated military veteran, André Matswa, whose movement spread to French-controlled Brazzaville in the Congo.

France's colonies in West Africa covered an enormous area, from the dry and sparsely populated Sahara to the rain forests farther south – an area that in the decade of the1920s was calculated to have only 3.1 million people. It was a population that had been declining. Europe's flu epidemic during the close of its Great War had spread to France's sub-Saharan colonies, killing about five percent of the population there. And diseases continued doing their damage through French West Africa, including venereal diseases, which spread sterility, while the most damaging diseases were malaria, yellow fever and smallpox.

In their West African colonies the French were less successful than they were in Morocco, and British colonialists looked down upon French colonial rule in West Africa, deriding the French for  failing to live up to their pretended standard of liberty, equality and fraternity. France was letting its entrepreneurs develop enterprises in Africa as they saw fit – enterprises that were largely coffee and banana plantations and that lacked the restraint of public opinion with which businesses in France had to contend. In France, the average person or politician had little grasp of conditions in West Africa. There were no television camera crews going about making documentary exposés, and the French had too few civil servants to travel about looking for and prosecuting abuses. Africans, moreover, had little protection from the colonial court system – a system that frequently prosecuted minor "offenses" by Africans with death sentences.

The French had wiped out the most eminent chiefs in its conquest of West Africa, and in the peace that followed they had replaced chiefs that were legitimate in the eyes of Africans with chiefs of their own choosing, the qualification for chiefdom being their willingness to please the French. And the French obliged their African chiefs to enforce arbitrary colonial rules on taxation and all other matters, including the drafting of labor.

Beyond investments in coffee and banana plantations, very little was being invested by the French in West Africa, and very few Africans were able to accumulate capital. The capital that was raised was squeezed from Africans in the form of taxes. Taxation in some areas was such that African farmers had to grow cash crops in order to meet their tax requirements. The French forced cotton growing requirements on farmers who might have been better off growing food. And the cotton they produced they sold to French merchants at prices that brought very little return.

Taxation forced farmers in French-ruled Sudan to migrate seasonally to Senegal to work in groundnut fields there. Anyone who did not grow cash crops in great quantity had to sell their labor. Laborers traveled to work on cocoa plantations and to cut timber in the Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire). And there was conscripted labor. Some of it was on French-owned plantations for the growing of crops destined not for Africans but for the people of Europe. And some of it was on public works projects. There was construction of three hundred miles of railroad from Brazzaville to Pointe Noire (on the Atlantic coast), construction that over a ten-year period killed nearly ten thousand.

In 1927, while this railway was being laid, the French writer André Gide had his book Travels in the Congo published, and in France a furor of indignation followed. There were calls for reform. Gide wrote that the less intelligent the white man he found in Africa the more stupid this person considered blacks to be. He wrote of dim-minded young whites being sent to remote stations in the colonies, being put in supervisory positions without sufficient training and trying to make blacks obey and respect them by brute force.

Africans were not overjoyed at the prospect of working for the French. Many of them were debilitated by one or more of a variety of diseases. Some of them preferred to work for subsistence outside the money economy. Some French in Africa saw any lack of enthusiasm in working for them and for money as laziness. Some French saw the Africans as lacking the Westerner's belief that work ennobles man's character.

Like the British, the French were pursuing a program to educate their African subjects. The French wished to ennoble them with French culture. The education that the French advocated was mostly primary, with some secondary schooling to fill a need for office workers. Christian missionaries tried making Africans more French by eliminating the tradition of men having more than one wife. But facing competition with Islam, which permitted polygamy, some missionaries gave up the struggle.

Many Africans who were unhappy with French rule joined religious cults, such as the Kimbangu cult in the Congo. Most educated Africans, on the other hand, favored assimilation with the French. They advocated that with this assimilation should come more political power, civil rights and French citizenship. The most successful of the Africans who favored assimilation was Blaise Diagne, who believed in the superiority of western civilization. Diagne was a black man who had lifted himself from humble circumstances to become the representative from Senegal in France's parliament (the Chamber of Deputies). He was the first black man to fill that position who was not mixed white and black or a French merchant from Africa. Diagne found fault with W E B Du Bois, the American rights advocate for black people. Diagne accused Du Bois of obscuring what he, Diagne, described as the benefits that European powers were bestowing upon colonial peoples. Diagne called for labor legislation that was in force in France to be applied to French West African colonies, legislation that would provide France's colonial subjects with more leisure time and arbitration in labor disputes. But Diagne's proposals never progressed in parliament beyond talk.

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