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Africa During the Scramble: A French India

By Gary Oswald

Agence Meurisse's photo of Blaise Diagne taken in 1921

In 1914, Blaise Diagne became the first entirely ethnically black African to be elected to a European parliament when he entered the French Chamber of Deputies as their representative for Senegal. He was a socialist outsider who had used black votes to overturn the mixed race and white dominance of the Colony and his success was bitterly opposed by the elite of both the colony and France. There were even attempts to prevent him from taking his seat, on the basis that he was not a French citizen. That Diagne was not truly French, despite being born in French territory, had been a regular attack against him during the campaign and he had argued strongly in turn that just because he was black that did not mean he was not also French. He had served in the French civil service for decades, been baptised as a Catholic and felt he should have the rights of citizenship in the Empire he served. The French government ultimately agreed and he would be allowed to take his seat.

Once seated, Diagne would go on to serve in a number of cabinet positions in France, most notably Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. In those positions he would be instrumental in both the recruitment of Black Africans into the Army for WWI and the re-granting of full citizenship and voting rights to all the residents, regardless of colour, of the Four Communes, the original French settlements in Senegal, in 1916 (this had first been granted in 1848 but had been retracted by Napoleon III only four years later). But his success was not wildly celebrated in pan-African circles. His insistence that he was French first led him to fall out with other black radicals who felt he wasn't doing enough for the black race in general, W. E. B. Du Bois harshly dismissed him as 'a Frenchmen who happened to be black' and Diagne himself would become increasingly less radical, as he assimilated into French culture. He married a white woman, moved to France and even defended colonial forced labour to the League of Nations. Moreover, despite early success, the political path he represented, that is integration rather than independence, would ultimately go nowhere

Diagne, alongside the likes of Kojo Tovalou from Porto Novo in Benin pushed for further extension of French citizenship within French Africa during the 1920s but were firmly refused by Paris. An Empire is built on the idea of resources without responsibility and so while France wanted control of Africa's resources, it did not want responsibility for its people. Diagne's attempt to extend votes to the rest of Senegal were voted down in the Chamber while Tovalou found himself repeatedly harassed and arrested by a hostile government. The seat of Senegal, voted for only by the Four Communes, would remain the only seat in sub Saharan Africa in the French parliament. As a result of this lack of progress, integration became increasingly discredited.

Anyone already on the fence was pushed further towards independence by the experiences of WWII wherein the Vichy government just flat out removed all the hard won rights their colonial subjects had won during the inter war years at the stroke of pen. Slavery was even reintroduced in Madagascar. In the 1950s, attempts by Léon Mba to negotiate Department status for Gabon within France, rather than independence, were shut down by De Gaulle's government. The French Government simply didn't want to have to invest in improving the lives of a poor majority black colony and so Diagne's dream, that all of Senegal could be an integral part of France, proved a mirage.

In the late 19th century though, it wasn't yet obvious that a French Union in which Timbuktu was as much a central part, and saw as much investment, as Paris could never happen. The brief Second French Republic had tried to bring in Libreville and Dakar as integral parts of France and, while the Second French Empire derailed that, it was still a part of French rhetoric. From 1871-76 and then 1879 onwards the Four Communes of Senegal elected a representative to the Chamber of Deputies (albeit through elections that were often partly rigged to favour white and mixed race settlers which is why it wasn't until 1914 that a fully black politician was elected). Edward Blyden, the great Liberian political thinker, was terrified of this integration represented by the likes of Diagne and Alfred Amédée Dodds (the mixed race conqueror of Dahomey). In his view, it was not just that France was conquering African countries, it's that they were destroying everything that made Africans African and turning them into Black Europeans who, like Diagne, ultimately viewed themselves as French, in what amounted to a cultural genocide. This fear of the consequences of French conquest led him to recommend that Liberia instead join the British Empire as, at least that way they could remain Africans, just Africans ruled by a foreign power. Blyden would, however, later visit actual French colonies and conclude that, outside the Four Communes, integration was far more a theory than their actual practice and so he softened his attitude as a result.

French general Louis Faidherbe as portrayed by Marie-Madeleine Rignot-Dubaux

The Four Communes of Senegal, the Birthplaces of both Diagne and Dodds, were Gorée, Dakar, Rufisque, and Saint-Louis. These were the only French settlements in Senegal as of 1848 and were ran as essentially French cities with votes in the French Parliament, but in the areas conquered after 1848 (the vast majority of modern Senegal) the model was instead that of a protectorate with no citizenship or parliamentary seats offered. Louis Faidherbe, the Governor of Senegal from 1854 to 1865, dreamt of the Four Communes being a base of a vast colony in Africa, encompassing the famously rich salt and gold mines of the old Mali Empire. But he dreamed of a French India, denied self rule and whose wealth would be funnelled to Europe, not a larger Corsica with votes in the metropole. To change that, you need to completely change the way France engaged with its colonial subjects in a way that most likely vastly reduces French expansion.

If every new conquest is a new subject, with full voting rights and responsibilities in terms of welfare then conquest is going to be much less desirable and so much slower than the constant French advancement from the Four Communes, that happened from the 1850s to the 1890s in our timeline. That advancement was of course also militarily opposed by the Muslim and Pagan inhabitants of Senegal outside of the Four Communes, most of whom both had little ambitions of becoming black Frenchmen and knew that choice would never be offered to them. Had that resistance been more successful, had Faidherbe conquered less new land, then complete integration of the areas the French did control becomes more likely.

The Four Communes were North of the British Colony of the Gambia, the borders of which were literally defined as anything a British ship travelling the Gambia river could hit with a cannon. As a result of those borders, Gambia was small, poor, impossible to defend and neglected and so, for most of the 19th century, it was seen as only a matter of time before it was ceded to the French in return for a British advantage elsewhere. This never actually happened, partly because Franco-Anglo rivalry prevented the French from negotiating seriously but mostly because the British kept demanding far too much in return, largely because Queen Victoria took any attempt to give up any British Territory as a personal insult and her Prime Ministers wanted to justify the swap to her. It's possible for the swap to still happen, but it requires major changes to both the French and the British, less French success in the Ivory Coast (which allowed them to bypass the Gambia from the South) and less British involvement in Egypt (which the French resented) would help. The important point is in OTL, with Gambia out of bounds, if Faidherbe was to expand, he needed to go East.

West Senegal, outside the Four Communes, was divided into a bunch of squabbling Pagan Wolof Kingdoms, most prominently Cayor, Waalo, Baol, Sine and Jolof, which had all once been a single empire but had split apart in 1549 and remained divided for the next 300 years. Under Louis Faidherbe, the French would launch a series of assaults on these Kingdoms. They defeated Ndaté Yalla Mbodj, the great Queen of Waalo, in 1855 and looted her Capital, though she would find refuge in the neighbouring Kingdom of Cayor. And this was the general story of the 1850s. Baol would be conquered starting from 1859, the same year that Ndoffene Famak Joof, King of Sine, was defeated in a major battle. And so the French, under Faidherbe, went from being just one power among the others to the dominant one in Senegal with the other Kingdoms as their vassals, though they were not integrated in the way the Four Communes were. This was entirely Faidherbe's call and so very much a thing that could have been avoided had another man been on the spot, there were no orders from Paris to attack the Wolof Kingdoms. But there were reasons, beyond the character of their Governor, why the French were so aggressive.

The Pagan Kingdoms of Senegal were in crisis during the 1850s due to assaults by Muslim jihadists from Mali and Guinea. The Sahel in the 19th century faced a long period of West African Jihads wherein Muslin empires were built and pagans were conquered and converted. And Senegal was an obvious target for the jihad. Partly because it was full of Pagan Kings, or Kings who were nominally Muslim but drank alcohol, worshiped the ancestors and enslaved Muslims behind closed doors. And partly because it was also full of Muslim traders and clerics, many of whom were already in rebellion against their Kingdoms. Throughout the 1850s, the declining Kingdoms were faced with organised and hostile Islamic armies both within their own borders, such as the Madiyanke of Jolof, and without, such as Futa Jallon in Guinea and the Toucouleur in Mali.

While these Muslim forces were capable of allying with the pagans against the French, many fought alongside Ndaté Yalla Mbodj in 1855, they were also often as big a threat as the French, attacking the Pagan Kingdoms regularly and weakening their defences. So, with the Pagans trapped between two enemies, it was an opportunity the French would probably always be inclined to take, especially since the decline of the slave trade had meant peacefully trading was no longer so profitable.

Faidherbe saw the advantages of the Jihad for the French, but he also saw the danger. Omar Saidou Tall, the first Toucouleur Emperor, was born in modern day Senegal, within the Islamic Imamate of Futa Toro and his well armed and zealous soldiers were mostly recruited from East Senegal. Tall took those soldiers east into Mali against the Bambara and the Kaarta where he smashed pagan shrines, built mosques and demanded conversions. He also captured the great Malian Muslim cities of Timbuktu and Hamdullahi and sought to unite Mali and Senegal into one single state. This was a huge threat to Faidherbe's plans as it meant instead of bordering a bunch of squabbling Kingdoms, the French would be faced with the centralised expanding Toucouleur Empire.

In 1855, when Faidherbe started his assault on the Wolof Kingdoms, he also began to provoke Tall, building forts up the Senegal river and making deals with his enemies. These forts rallied opposition to the Toucouleur and built up the French, in the eyes of the pagans, as an alternative to the Jihadists. In 1857, Tall sent 20,000 men to capture Medina Fort, in modern day Mali, which was as far east as the French had got, as the first step in a campaign to reduce French influence. The 64 French soldiers in the fort held out through several assaults and three months of siege, until Faidherbe could personally lead 500 reinforcements up the river in a gunboat. From the gunboat, French artillery and Rifle fire would rain down on the Toucouleur Army and Tall's men broke and fled, allowing the fort to be relieved. Had reinforcements arrived as little as a month later, it is likely the fort would have been starved out. But as it was this was a huge victory for the French and Omar Saidou Tall would find himself driven out of Senegal entirely in the aftermath of it. Omar himself would be killed by French backed rebels in 1864 and while the vast Toucouleur Empire would endure another generation under his family, the French would not finally conquer it until 1890, it would only do so in Mali and not Senegal.

But while Tall was out of the picture, Faidherbe still had a lot of Senegal to conquer. He had however, secured alliances and built forts to the East of the Wolof Kingdoms in order to fight off Omar Tall and as a result he had them surrounded. By the mid 1860s most of Pagan Senegal was firmly under the French thumb, though Ndoffene Famak Joof, King of Sine, would remain rebellious until his assassination by a French agent in 1871. It would instead be time for the Muslims of Senegal to take up the baton of resistance. In 1865 Maba Diakhou Bâ, a Wolof Muslim leader, would find Islamic candidates for the Wolof Kingdoms and would sweep through them, placing his men on the thrones in the aim of forming a united Islamic Empire to oppose the French. For the next two years, Ba's alliance would be a thorn in the French side.

For only two years though because, in 1867, Maba Diakhou Bâ would die while attempting to conquer Famak Joof's pagan Kingdom of Sine and his alliance would crumble as a result and be picked off one by one. The Madiyanke of Jolof refused French terms of submission and were wiped out in 1875. Bâ's other main ally, Lat Jor, the newly installed Muslim King of Cayor, would instead accept French over lordship though he'd still end up rebelling two further times when he saw French weakness. Both rebellions would be defeated and, while further Jihadists emerged to challenge the French, most notably Mahmadu Lamine who besieged a number of French Forts in West Senegal in 1886, by 1890 the Muslims of Senegal had also been pacified. At least militarily.

If Bâ had survived and been victorious in 1867 or if Umar Tall had taken Medine Fort and so the Toucouleur had not been cut off from Futa Toro, it's likely that the French would have faced more united opposition. For that matter had a less ambitious man than Faidherbe been governor, Tall and Bâ might have been able to unite Senegal and Mali entirely, assuming they could work together. This could have made a huge difference if either had been able to mount a concerted attack on the French between 1865 and 1871. During that time period, the French in Senegal were losing soldiers to disease and were starved of reinforcements due to commitments elsewhere. A decisive victory that drove the French out entirely is still unlikely as the general lack of artillery among the African armies meant French forts rarely fell, but a concerted attack could have reversed France's recent gains and kept them constrained to the Four Communes. In 1871, after the end of the Franco-Prussian War, however that door slammed shut.

As they recovered from their shocking defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the French decided they had to be committed to the Senegal to prove themselves still a great power and that they were willing to spend whatever it took to keep it, in both coins and bodies. They spent tens of millions of francs on railroads and forts, without ever seeing the return from minerals that they expected. Their push to conquer new land in the hope riches would be found, continued on far past the point of sunk cost and so France would eventually conquer the vast majority of West Africa. This is difficult to avoid with any point of diversion after the Franco-Prussian War. There were anti imperialists in French politics, on both the left and the right, but the army and business were very much for expansion in Africa and they tended to just do it anyway, even without orders from back home. The desire to regain Pride through expansion was an institutional one, unaffected by parliamentary elections.

And the French didn't just aim to control more land, they took more control over the land they already owned. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, the French stamped down on Senegal, raising taxes and reducing the autonomy of their puppet Kings. They wanted Senegalese conscripts in their army (the feared tirailleurs who conquered West Africa for the French), they wanted peanuts to sell (the Senegal would soon become a monoculture of peanut farms) and they wanted railways built.

This is the single remaining photo of Ahmadu Bamba.

This transformation of the state would be opposed by Amadou Bamba, a Sufi religious leader who had been an advisor to Lat Jor. He would emerge as the main new leader of opposition to the French but of a very different sort to Bâ or Tall. He was a passionate educator and preached pacifistic disobedience rather than Jihad. He urged his followers to simply create new villages where the French had no infrastructure to escape their taxes, conscription and demands over which crops to produce. His pacifism was entirely sincere but the French seem to have viewed it as nothing but a cunning ruse, he was Islamic, he had followers and he hated the French so obviously he was a Jihadist and would reveal that in time. In 1895, under that logic, he was arrested and sent to exile in Gabon.

Bamba would spend seven years in Gabon, four years in Mauritania and then five years under house arrest in Senegal. It was this 16 year stretch in captivity that would turn him from a popular figure into an idol. His stoic resistance and calm acceptance of hardships made him a hugely popular figure among the Muslim people of Senegal, especially those who had come through the schooling system set up by his students.

And Bamba would use this influence to improve his own position. The Sufi orders he had formed had became a series of linked brotherhoods under his allies all of whom viewed him as their leader. Bamba would send them missives (no doubt closely monitored by his captors) preaching pacifism and, increasingly, cooperation with the French. His allies even donated money to French electoral campaigns, notably Blaise Diagne was funded by them, but they'd previously funded several non black politicians who they thought might be sympathetic to their cause. Bamba's men were increasingly the most productive and loyal French subjects in Senegal outside the four communes. In gratitude, Bamba was finally released in 1912.

And the lesson was one Bamba firmly learned. Gone was the anti-authoritarian preaching of his early years. From 1912, until his death in 1927, Bamba was an active collaborator with the French, even working alongside Diagne to recruit huge numbers of Senegalese soldiers into the armies during WWI, a deed for which he was offered, and refused, a Légion d'honneur. His followers became an accepted and major part of the economic and political system that ensured French control and in return the French allowed him and his followers free reign to run Islamic schools and convert the pagan Wolof, a mission that continued apace. Free from jail, he could preach and teach and write and study the Quran. As long as he didn't ever annoy the French again by reducing their tax income.

Blyden was worried that the result of French Colonialism would be that it would turn the Wolof of Senegal into a race of Diagnes, who considered themselves Europeans. The existence of people like Bamba who maintained their own African and Islamic culture and thought patterns even under French rule and indeed created a thriving counter culture to the French way of doing things with schools that taught Arabic rather than French, was in Blyden's mind a huge blessing. But it was also equally welcomed by the French Colonial service, who cared mostly about the tax income which was generally higher from the honest and hard working students of Bamba.

Bamba is remembered for his pre 1895 resistance to the French and the cost he paid for that, whereas Diagne is remembered as a black Frenchman but the truth is from France's point of view, Bamba was a more useful subject than Diagne, because his price was lower. The latter wanted the full rights of citizenship in return for his loyalty, whereas the former just wanted to not be in Jail.

And yet, for all the hostility he faced, Diagne did win those full rights for the Four Communes, something that can't be dismissed. The Four Communes represent a path not taken in Africa, what might have happened had Louis Faidherbe and his ideological kin not won out and rapid expansion within Africa hadn't become French Policy. With a smaller French Empire in Africa, integration becomes far less threatening and the likes of Kojo Tovalou might have more success in their own attempts to become French Citizens in full.

Edward Blyden would doubtless view such a timeline as far worse than our own.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.


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