- Willing Migrants: Soninke Labor Diasporas, 1848—1960
François Manchuelle (1953—1996) died tragically in the crash of TWA flight 800 to Paris. At the time of his death, Manchuelle had already made significant contributions to the study of Africa and the African diaspora. Among these [End Page 207] one must add Willing Migrants: Soninke Labor Diasporas, 1848—1960, a welcome addition to the growing literature on migration, based upon extensive reading in precolonial and colonial archival sources in both France and Senegal, as well as oral interviews and printed government sources. Exceptionally well grounded in the work of European and American migration historians, Manchuelle sought to understand the internal dynamics of the labor migration process itself. By locating the origins of Soninke migration history during the precolonial period, Manchuelle convincingly challenges the prevailing notion that “precolonial African societies were self-contained and resistant to change” (p. 7). Even more, Manchuelle’s approach calls into question older studies which viewed African labor migrations negatively—as a function of colonial taxation and coercion.
The possibility that a fundamental connection existed between precolonial trade migrations and recent labor migrations among the Soninke presented itself to Manchuelle in the astonishing fact that 85 percent of all Black African migrants to France since the 1950s came from this one ethnic group, all natives of one particular region of West Africa. As Manchuelle explains, since at least the thirteenth century, grain producing Soninke communities occupied a pivotal location in the dynamic Western Sudan commercial system. Early periodic return migration among the Soninke was rooted in the activities of seasonal itinerant trading expeditions, from which, in order to expand grain production, the Soninke nearly always reinvested profits in the purchase of slaves. Thus, Soninke migrations, from an early date, stemmed from a kind of “traditional” entrepreneurial spirit. By the nineteenth century, as patterns of return migration expanded, many slaves, as well as free Soninke, “became labor migrants in the Gambia or in French colonial centers for periods of two or three years or became sailors on French boats” (p. 34). By the early twentieth century, this well-established migration became increasingly regular and seasonal. Like the French Auvergnats studied by Abel Chatelain, to which Manchuelle repeatedly compares the Soninke throughout his study, Soninke migrants used seasonal migration as a way to maximize their productivity during periods of agricultural inactivity.
As a migration study, Manchuelle’s use of evidence is both impressive and problematic. One marvels at the way Manchuelle pieces together a wide range of fragmentary data: colonial administrative reports and correspondence, occasional lists and other samples of convenience. But these are far from the kind of systematic data, such as marriage contracts or census records, typically used by migration historians. In order to bridge the inevitable gaps in his data, Manchuelle often makes inferences or speculations that some specialists may find questionable. One example: crucial to the history of Soninke migrations during the nineteenth century was the expansion of navetane employment, the hiring of seasonal migrant labor in the peanut fields of Senegambia. According to Manchuelle, this migration originated in the older commercial grain production and trade networks along the Gambia river that provisioned the slave trade. At this point in the narrative, in the absence of hard evidence, the author speculates upon Philip Curtin’s discussion of late eighteenth century grain production in the Gambia: “Although Curtin makes no mention of other regions other than Bandu from which migrants came in order to grow grain, which they then sold to buy trade goods that could be sold inland at substantial profit], it seems obvious [End Page 208] that the young migrants must have come also from neighboring Soninke areas Gajaaga and Gidimaxa” (p. 54). At other times Manchuelle uses data from the late nineteenth century to bolster his speculations about developments at mid-century or earlier. Nonetheless, Manchuelle’s main point here seems clear. Throughout the nineteenth century Soninke families could profit substantially by sending a son for a season of labor in the Gambia. Again, Manchuelle stresses the...