restricted access A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 (review)
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A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930. By Alice L. Conklin (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1997) 367 pp. $55.00

Three years ago, in writing a book on slavery and French colonial rule, I was struggling with two questions. The first was the relationship between the rhetoric of the French colonial policymakers and their actions. I had long seen much republican rhetorics as an ideological smokescreen, and, yet, it clearly influenced policy. The second was a more concrete question. During the period before World War I, the massive freeing of slaves was influenced by the commitment of senior administrators to a free market in labor and the belief that if freed, slaves would work as hard as they did under slavery. Then, in spite of the success of these policies, French policymakers turned away from them toward an emphasis on coerced labor. Why? My problem was compounded by the shortage of French scholars writing about French colonial history. No good general history of French West Africa and no studies of the major civilian colonial governors were available until Conklin’s thesis appeared. Even in thesis form, it was the best work that I had read about the history of French West Africa. A Mission to Civilize is the revised version of that thesis with the arguments refined and elaborated.

The first part of the book focuses on Governors-General Ernest Roume (1902–1908) and William Ponty (1908–1915). Roume converted a ramshackle and amateurish structure into a modern colonial bureaucracy. Conklin argues that he was influenced both by French republican thought and by a belief in science and technology. His republican heritage was reflected in the freeing of the slaves, in hostility to “feudal tyrants,” and a concern that colonial rule contribute to betterment of the governed. This approach to colonial policy intensified under Ponty. Belief in modern technology was reflected in an emphasis on railroad construction and improved health care.

The second part of the book deals with movement away from these ideals during the war and after. Conklin argues that it was rooted in [End Page 323] reactions to events within France and Africa. In France, the war led to a decline in republican thought, a rise in French nationalism, and opposition to assimilation. Within Africa, Conklin argues that administrators were responding to three things. First, they faced an increasing challenge from educated Africans, particularly after supporters of Blaise Diagne, the Senegalese deputy, swept elections in the Four Communes in 1919 with a strongly nationalist program. Second, because French personnel was drastically reduced by the war, a number of revolts erupted, many under the leadership of traditional chiefs. French policymakers believed that neither the new nor the old elites were “loyal” and that they had sapped structures of traditional authority. Finally, investment in transport infrastructure did not produce the dramatic increase in export production that Roume and Ponty had hoped.

The result was a shift in key policies. First, the chiefs were to be treated with respect, to be given access to land and revenue, and to be chosen only from those traditionally qualified for office. Second, the rights of educated Africans were radically reduced, particularly with the emasculation of the powerful conseil général. To the degree that African participation in government was extended in the 1920s, it was comprised of purely consultative institutions, many of which existed only on paper. Third, the use of forced labor, and different forms of labor coercion, increased.

The strength of Conklin’s analysis is that it is based on the thought and actions of the seven governors-general and a few of their advisors. Any weakness is mostly a question of emphasis. Her analysis is persuasive and well presented. Though Conklin pays attention to feedback from governors of the separate colonies, she does not seem fully conscious of the tension between senior policymakers and the field administrators who had to deal with local realities. It is not at all certain that most local administrators thought in republican terms.

Second, because Conklin is studying ideology, she takes it seriously. Though her argument is persuasive, she may...