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Popular Unrest and the Press Campaign Against the Capitation Tax in Dahomey, 1929–1935
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On April 11, 1900, a new financial law was adopted that stipulated the principle of financial independence of all the colonies under French rule. As a consequence, the new capitation tax, owed by all Natives, became one of the main budgetary resources of the French Colonial Empire. Between 1907 and 1930, this tax alone represented 60 percent of the budget of the eight territories within French West Africa. 1 In the colony of Dahomey, as in all the other territories that comprised the Afrique Occidentale Française (AOF), 2 such a tax was not welcomed by the population, who tried to counter it in many ways: refusal to pay, individual or collective fleeing, and false declarations, among many other things. Initially, resistance clearly lacked a strong organization capable of channeling individual protests. The economic crisis of the 1930s enabled a meeting between the population and the so-called group of “évolués,” who started to increase their political activities. In 1931, the governor noticed that a considerable part of the population in the southern territories was not paying their taxes anymore. It did not take long to realize that the consequences of the economic crisis were not the only reason as resistance did not stop and took so many different forms. The Commandants de cercles in charge of the territories used fines or even imprisonment to cope with the situation. The French government had no choice but to vote for fiscal reforms to improve the situation.

If the Dahomean uprising of the 1930s was seen as the logical consequence of the people’s rejection of French colonial exigencies, the social group of évolués played a major role. The group took over the tax issue as a way to obtain more political power. Inspired by their Western education and their links to metropolitan associations, the évolués became the voice of the popular uprising. The various newspapers that emerged between 1930 and 1934 were instrumental in gaining support for the revolt against colonial power.

This reluctance to pay taxes was without a doubt a clear indicator of the tensions that existed between the state and the colonized. It was a crucial factor allowing historians to grasp the “colonial situation”—in Georges Balandier’s own words—wherein the administration was trying to force its sovereignty onto Native subjects that were not citizens of the Empire. 2 If many researchers have studied the revenues of the colonial system, in particular the commercial and financial networks between metropolis and overseas territories, few of them have focused on the fiscal system. 3 In colonial Africa, if the literature on forced labor and the exploitation of plantations is important, 4 works studying the fiscal system are scarce and often quite old. 5 Some books deal with taxation as part of larger economic studies 6 or with bureaucratic policies. 7 In such cases, the capitation tax is described as a tool to face the lack of natural resources, which entailed many important changes, including monetarization of the economy, the introduction of large-scale plantations, and deep political and social mutations. Gilchrist Anicet Nzenguet Iguemba’s recent worked revises such a framework by insisting on the way Gabonese taxpayers had supported the tax burden during the colonial period. The author insists in particular on the taxpayers’ “passivity” as the unique, only means of opposition. 8 But the fiscal uprisings are largely neglected by historians, especially in Dahomey. 9

This article sheds new light on major problems of colonial studies, notably the agency of people and their consent to French sovereignty overseas. I analyze the fiscal crisis as a key moment that accelerated a shift from a system of passive and nonorganized action to one of structured contest giving birth to future national exigencies.

Fiscal Demands on the Taxpayer

The capitation tax was introduced in the colony of Dahomey by a decree on June 28, 1899, which required every man, woman, and child older than ten to pay an amount between 1.25 and 2.25 francs. 10 The tariff system provides considerable important financial resources as well, but it depended to a certain extent on economic trends. Before World War I, when it increased constantly, the capitation...



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