Mission to Civilize: The French West African Federation
Zambakari, Christopher. 2019. "Mission to Civilize: The French West African Federation." ACCORD Conflict Trends Fall (3), Forthcoming
12 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2019
Date Written: July 1, 2019
Imperial powers like the Roman, Persian, Japanese, and Chinese, have always justified their conquests as a benefit to those that were conquered by virtue of bringing a superior civilization to their world. Among imperial powers one of the most strident were the Second and Third French Republics. The civilizing mission or what Girardet Raoul refers to as “colonial humanism” came to define French colonial statecraft in the early part of the nineteenth century crusade to improve the lives of people that France saw as backward in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. For intellectuals like Leroy-Beaulieu, civilization was to be spread through commerce, trade and exchanges between peoples instead of through conquest. By the early 1800s, the republican ideals that inspired the French Revolution had been slowly abandoned for a more forceful assimilationist policy exemplified by colonial expansionist policies. In the words of Governor Jules Brévié, the most important task for the French was to bring about “cultural renaissance” to the indigenous people. Brévié – the governor-general of French West Africa from 1930–1936, and of French Indochina from 1936–1939 – called for a redefined mission with a focus on teaching colonized subjects to live according to “authentic African traditions.” As with the British before them, French policy was adapting to local context and shifting towards a more “indirect mode of rule,” casting the foreign rule as the protectors of indigenous cultures.
In this article, I set out to analyze the French imperial project in Africa with a focus on the Federation of French West Africa (consisting of today’s Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal). I outline the contour of the colonial project, discussing the differences and similarities between the French mode of direct rule with the British preferred mode of indirect rule, arguing that in order to understand the methodology of rule, one must first understand the system of knowledge production that informed, shaped, and guided the colonial project. I will further show that a policy change occurred after the French experienced a crisis of empire. The new policy shifted focus from antagonism towards Islam to collaboration with Islamic representatives, from civilization to conservation, from a focus on progress to law and order, and a preoccupation with local custom while managing social and cultural differences (pluralism). I will attempt to make an important contribution to the political and intellectual history of the largest colonial state in Africa, the French West African Federation.
Keywords: French West African Federation, Crisis of Empire, Colonialism, Conquest, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal, West Africa, France, Imperialism, French Revolution, Democratic Ideals, Statebuilding, Violence, Mission to Civilize, Assimilationist Policy
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