Drunken States: Temperance and French Rule in Cote d'Ivoire, 1908-1916

By White, Owen | Journal of Social History, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Drunken States: Temperance and French Rule in Cote d'Ivoire, 1908-1916


White, Owen, Journal of Social History


The fin-de-siecle French finance minister Maurice Rouvier once stated that France was "not rich enough to fight alcoholism." (1) Alcohol helped to underpin the French economy, while contributing in its own way to the cultural efflorescence of the belle epoque. But it was even more significant in providing a substantial and reliable income to cash-strapped colonial governments struggling to turn recently conquered territories into fully functioning states. In 1911, for example, alcohol was responsible for 46 per cent of the import duties collected in the West African colony of Cote d'Ivoire. (2) Yet in November 1912 the governor of Cote d'Ivoire, Gabriel Angoulvant, addressed a meeting of fellow governors with the aim of persuading them to extend a temperance campaign he had begun in his territory to the rest of the French West African federation--and all in the name of the well-being of a population that he had recently and systematically battered into submission during a violent campaign of "pacification."

Angoulvant's initiative appears especially anomalous in the light of David T. Courtwright's assertion that the taxation of stimulants was "the fiscal cornerstone of the modern state, and the chief financial prop of European colonial regimes." (3) His policy certainly contrasts those of high officials in nascent colonial states elsewhere in Africa, whose inclination at that time was to resist temperance movements. Indeed, Simon Heap has argued for British Nigeria that "the one group ... who never questioned the morality or utility of the liquor trade was the colonial administration." Emmanuel Akyeampong's work on Cote d'Ivoire's eastern neighbor, the Gold Coast (now Ghana), broadly confirms this general point. (4) Given that much of the now copious literature on alcohol in Africa is focused on formerly British-held territory, attention to this state-sanctioned temperance movement in Cote d'Ivoire in the 1910s raises the possibility that it might tell us something about differing European approaches to the "alcohol problem" in colonial Africa. (5)

An additional aim of this article, however, is to make a contribution to the equally large volume of writing on drink and the French in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historians of this period have explored the social functions of alcohol in France and how alcoholism came to be identified with particular "problem" groups in French society, as well as the way drink's happier associations allowed it a privileged place in French national identity. (6) Few of these historians, however, have included France's overseas empire within their field of vision, and studies of the place of alcohol in individual French colonies also remain uncommon. One exception is Erica Peters' recent article on the alcohol monopoly in French-ruled northern Vietnam. Peters shows that metropolitan and colonial debates on alcohol often interacted; Vietnamese opponents of the monopoly, for example, were well attuned to the arguments used by temperance advocates in France. (7)

By focusing on the temperance campaign launched by Governor Angoulvant in French Cote d'Ivoire in 1912, therefore, I aim in this article to provide a link between colonial and metropolitan histories of drink, and to make a contribution to both. My analysis has been guided by a few basic questions. First, why among all the colonies that made up French West Africa should a temperance campaign have arisen first in Cote d'Ivoire, and why did it surface in 1912? Second, how can we explain the contrast between Angoulvant's desire to combat alcoholism and the reluctance of the government in the neighboring British colony of the Gold Coast to pursue a similar campaign? Finally, was there anything distinctively "French" about temperance as promoted in Cote d'Ivoire, and did France's status as a major producer of alcohol, especially wine, influence Angoulvant's thinking in any way? In addressing these questions I hope to say something about the evolution of the colonial state in French West Africa as the era of conquest came to a close, and to draw attention to the ways in which economic, social, and cultural ideas interacted and shaped French policies on social problems in the colonies. …

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