A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930
The great economist Joseph Schumpeter dismissed modern imperialism as an “atavism” promoted by displaced aristocrats out of step with the logic of the marketplace and the democratic political institutions associated with it. To his eminently rational mind, imperial conquests and the colonies they created could hardly be considered either rational or progressive in any meaningful sense. Schumpeter, of course, reached these conclusions largely on the basis of his understanding of neoclassical economic theory rather than from an exhaustive study of what the colonizers actually said or did. Had he paid more attention to imperial ideology, he might have been surprised at what he would have learned. In the case of the French, in particular, he would have learned that the ranks of the colonial administration were filled with individuals professing a fierce loyalty to republicanism and a zealous commitment to reshaping their colonial subjects’ lives in ways consistent with a French republican vision of modernity. Indeed, these administrators regarded themselves as children of the Enlightenment embarked upon a crusade to improve the lives of what they saw as the backward and oppressed peoples of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. To employ their own words, they were on a mission civilisatrice, a mission to “civilize” their colonial subjects.
This French imperialist self-concept forms the focus of Alice Conklin’s Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930. Conklin, a historian at the University of Rochester, argues persuasively that the zealous republican ideology animating France’s Third Republic in the late nineteenth century also defined its West African empire. In making this argument, Conklin portrays the French colonial administration in West Africa not as a Schumpeterian atavistic enterprise but rather as an expression of social forces originating in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and coming to full flower in the Third Republic. However, as Conklin makes painfully clear, what may have been progressive and democratic within metropolitan French society became a license for conducting an aggressive racist assault on African societies when transported to the colonies.
To develop and support this thesis, Conklin examines official rhetoric and decision making in French West Africa as manifested in the [End Page 488] directives and policy initiatives of the colonial governors-general over a thirty-five-year period. The office of governor-general, the source of most of Conklin’s documentation, was a peculiar feature of the French approach to colonial administration. In 1895 in an effort to impose controls on the unruly soldiers who created the African empire, the French grouped their various West African territories into a federal structure presided over by a governor-general in Dakar, Senegal. In each of the territories, local administration reported to a lieutenant governor who, in turn, reported to the governor-general, who was responsible to the minister of colonies in Paris. The paperwork generated by this system of command and control, along with memoirs written in retirement by some of the governors-general, provide Conklin with the evidence for constructing her argument. From these source materials she distills the governing ideas of the mission civilisatrice.
What were these governing ideas? Primarily they had to do with mastery—mastery of physical nature, including the human body, and mastery of human behavior. To be “civilized” in the French colonial understanding of the term was to rise above the various tyrannies that had shackled the human race from time immemorial. The tyrannies of most concern to the colonial administrators included those imposed on humans by climate, by disease, by ignorance, and by despotic government. In the face of such tyrannies, considered rampant in sub-Saharan Africa, the governors-general and their underlings saw themselves as liberators. Their task, as they saw it, was to diffuse the benefits of Western science and education while actively attacking and eradicating African institutions they deemed retrograde. Thus in the name of civilization the French did battle against African languages, slavery, “feudal” chieftaincies, and certain aspects of customary law, all of which they regarded as barbaric.
Writers on French colonialism have long emphasized this drive to remake indigenous societies, explicit in both French ideology and policy. What Conklin does that earlier writers for the most part did not do is to place this drive within the broader context of the history of the Third Republic. Drawing on Eugen Weber and other recent analysts of French social history, Conklin suggests that what the French colonizers were trying to do overseas was similar to what French republican administrators and teachers were trying to accomplish in the rural areas of metropolitan France. A zeal to modernize and cast out perceived demons of ignorance and superstition was as characteristic of domestic republicans as it was of their colonial counterparts.
Up to the outbreak of World War I, the dominant attitude in the [End Page 489] governor-general’s office was one of disdain for African institutions. During and after the war African resistance to French efforts to recruit soldiers and mobilize other colonial resources led French administrators to rethink their approach. At the urging of colonial intellectuals like the ethnologist Maurice Delafosse, the administration began trying to work with African institutions, reshaping rather than trying to crush them. This new approach, known as “association,” was subtler and more culturally sensitive than what had gone before it. But it was still a firm expression of the republican zeal embodied in the mission civilisatrice.
By sketching out the main elements of French colonial ideology as it manifested itself in the upper reaches of the administration and by relating this ideology to broader political and cultural trends in French society, Conklin renders an important service. Her book should be of interest not only to students of colonialism in Africa, but also to practitioners of world history interested in the comparative study of modern European imperialism. If the book has a weakness, it is its somewhat bloodless prose style coupled with a tendency to remain overly cautious in its generalizations.
From the perspective of today, it is tempting to dismiss this French mission civilisatrice as so much arrogant humbug. Its nineteenth-century optimism and innocent enthusiasm for science and technology are hard enough to swallow, to say nothing of its unquestioned confidence in France’s ability to reorganize the lives of Africans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders. Conklin understands such a view and to an extent shares in it. But the main burden of her book is to persuade us that the ideals held by France’s top colonial administrators made a difference in the way they carried out their work and thus made a very large difference in the lives of Africans under French rule. As Conklin writes in her conclusion, French colonial ideology was most assuredly racist, but it was never only racist in content. Its overt aspirations were as universalist and emancipationist as those of the Enlightenment and French Revolution from which they sprang.
In Conklin’s view, however, what was most important about the idealism of the mission civilisatrice was not so much the fervor of its adepts, but rather the degree to which belief in this ideology prevented French leaders and much of the French population at large from recognizing the inconsistency between empire and the republic’s democratic commitments. In no small measure, it was the mission civilisatrice that ensured ongoing support for the imperial enterprise on the part of otherwise democratic elements in the French population. Conklin [End Page 490] does not deny the exploitative nature of the colonial system or the delusional elements at the heart of its ideology. Yet by reminding us of the intimate relationship between these delusional elements and some of the central ideas of modern, enlightened Western democratic thought, she complicates and enriches our understanding of imperialism and prevents us from embracing simplistic explanations like the ones advanced by otherwise brilliant analysts like Schumpeter.