- Faith in Empire: Religion, Politics, and Colonial Rule in French Senegal, 1880–1940 by Elizabeth A. Foster
Scholarship on the French colonial empire has grown in the last twenty years from a cottage industry of a few researchers to a major field of inquiry across the academy. Until recently, much of the work on French rule in Africa has focused on the major institutional and political actors involved such as administrators, government officials and ministries in France, organized political movements in the colonies, and the actions of emergent social groups such as workers and the educated elite. However, new studies have pointed to the subtle but significant role that religious communities and organizations played in structuring the colonial experience in French-ruled Africa. Elizabeth Foster’s engaging study, Faith in Empire: Religion, Politics, and Colonial Rule in French Senegal, 1880–1940, fits within this new line of inquiry while offering interpretations of the colonial experience that go beyond the analysis of religion and empire.
Faith in Empire concentrates on Catholic missionaries in the French colony of Senegal from the era of the imperial conquest to France’s defeat in World War II. [End Page 812] During that period French administrators and religious missionaries both struggled to define their mission in the region as well as their relationship with each other. Foster takes us through several critical encounters among missionaries, administrators, and African indigenous populations wherein the “Catholic civilizing mission” was clarified and transformed. Moreover, Foster also highlights the conflicts that emerged within missionary organizations between those in Senegal and their leadership based in France. Such an approach reveals a much more complicated and rich history of Catholic missionaries in the French colonial experience in West Africa. The Catholic missionaries developed a distinct colonial mission that was offered as either an alternative to the official French civilizing mission or as the authentic embodiment of France’s purpose in the region. Foster’s study demonstrates that the missionaries were not explicitly or exclusively handmaidens to empire, nor were they benevolent forces working to protect Africans from the worst vicissitudes of imperial practice.
Perhaps Faith in Empire’s most interesting analytical contribution is in its interpretation of the political dynamic on the ground as more akin to feudal relations than the modern bureaucratic state practices often presented as the mode of rule of the colonial state. Foster sees patron-client relations and shifting alliances in the competition for control over souls, resources, or political influence in very local contexts as the primary forces structuring patterns of governance in colonial Senegal. It is, Foster suggests, that pattern of power relations that thwarted the more statist and centralized political strategies pursued by colonial administrators and Catholic missionaries alike. That also allowed local African actors to influence colonial practice and missionary activities in Senegal from the 1880s to the 1930s. Unfortunately, this promising line of argument trails off a bit as the book moves later in the story. In the last couple of chapters there is little discussion of this analytic frame, and most of the action has become centered on the encounters between missionaries and agents of the colonial state.
Overall, Foster’s study is an important and welcome addition to the scholarship of French colonialism and Senegalese history. It offers a new analytical framework as well as a unique window into the colonial experience. Although more attention to the African angle of the triangular engagement among indigenous peoples, colonial rulers, and Catholic missionaries would have enriched the study further, it nonetheless stands as a well-grounded, clearly written, and engaging work of French colonial history. [End Page 813]