- ‘I hope that the government does not forget my extraordinary services’: Urban Negotiations, State Influence, and Welfare in Colonial Libreville, 1937–19501
Government authorities in Libreville, the capital of the French colony of Gabon, received a flowery letter penned by an African retired clerk named Gaston Dowet-Orangault in early 1949. The former office worker did not mince words. “Completely impoverished of even the least centime to buy a baton of manioc [and] father of a family…I throw myself humbly at your feet,” he pleaded.2 After 17 years of government service, he considered himself worthy of aid. Governor of Gabon Norma Sadoul concurred. The administrator decreed Dowet-Orangault would have a small stipend.3 Others were less fortunate. In the same year, 40-year-old Congolese carpenter Paul Mavoungou asked for help since he claimed paralysis left him unable to work for over a year.4 Police sent to inspect the handicapped man’s home reported he did not deserve a single state franc. Declaring that Mavoungou still sold furniture lived in a home “decorated in European fashion,” the police report rejected any state involvement.5
Welfare, whether in contemporary America or late colonial Africa, has provided a venue for debates on class, race, gender, and the role of governments in shaping everyday life. In Libreville, the creation of state relief programs in the aftermath of the Popular Front victory in 1936 sparked an array of controversies among Africans and Europeans. The ways different branches of the colonial administration determined who merited aid reveal a host of disputes over citizenship, the ties between French authorities and African subjects, and the impact of imperial rule on local society. Quarrels over entitlements, though ostensibly dealing with social problems visible in France as well as Gabon, played out in a very different fashion in a colonial setting. In turn, records from Gabonese archives show how educated individuals employed republican rhetoric and images of poverty in the struggle to obtain state support.
Applications for welfare in Libreville reveal the complexity and diversity of urban poverty in a small African port city. Their pleas indicate a mission education alone did not necessarily lead to financial prosperity. Wounded veterans, terminally ill people, and the elderly depended on the uncertain charity of relatives and neighbors. Migrant workers could not count on family aid in the old age. Younger widows, single women with children, and disabled people battled adversity. Recent arrivals from rural areas without access to education had no ability to write for aid, while runaway wives and men wanted on criminal charges had little to gain from soliciting policemen and officials for benefits. Even so, the struggles of poor literate people in town demonstrate the challenges of urban life and multiple strategies for survival in a small African city.
This essay will examine contradictions of early welfare programs and the strategies townspeople relied on to acquire state relief. Far from being a coherent program, local administrators in Gabon implemented vague decrees made at higher levels of the state bureaucracy in a piecemeal and uneven manner. Much as in British Africa, disagreements among government officials on the role of state intervention created divisions that well-placed Africans exploited to their own benefit.6 After examining the roots of aid in Libreville, I will scrutinize attitudes towards Africans, French identity, and family structures in town expressed in welfare correspondence. Finally, the tactics urban people employed to gain assistance will take center stage. Mission-educated Africans manipulated state authorities to serve their needs at the expense of rural Africans not so well versed in bureaucratic correspondence. Petitions also offer a glimpse of town society where formal education and social status did not necessary match with economic success.
Libreville, State Authority, and the Rise of Welfare 1937–1950
Roughly 10,000 Africans and several hundred Europeans lived in the sleepy colonial port of Libreville during the late 1930s. Originally founded by French naval officers in 1843 in an area inhabited by coastal Mpongwe traders, the settlement gained some notoriety as the administrative center of French colonial expansion into Central Africa in the late nineteenth century.7 Libreville lost its importance as a commercial and political...