Faith in Empire: Religion, Politics, and Colonial Rule in French Senegal, 1880-1940

Faith in Empire: Religion, Politics, and Colonial Rule in French Senegal, 1880-1940

Faith in Empire: Religion, Politics, and Colonial Rule in French Senegal, 1880-1940

Faith in Empire: Religion, Politics, and Colonial Rule in French Senegal, 1880-1940

Synopsis

Faith in Empire is an innovative exploration of French colonial rule in West Africa, conducted through the prism of religion and religious policy. Elizabeth Foster examines the relationships among French Catholic missionaries, colonial administrators, and Muslim, animist, and Christian Africans in colonial Senegal between 1880 and 1940. In doing so she illuminates the nature of the relationship between the French Third Republic and its colonies, reveals competing French visions of how to approach Africans, and demonstrates how disparate groups of French and African actors, many of whom were unconnected with the colonial state, shaped French colonial rule. Among other topics, the book provides historical perspective on current French controversies over the place of Islam in the Fifth Republic by exploring how Third Republic officials wrestled with whether to apply the legal separation of church and state to West African Muslims.

Excerpt

A battle raged in the summer of 1884 between the parish priest and the mayor of Rufisque, a bustling port town on the throat of the Cap Vert peninsula in French Senegal. It began on Bastille Day, when the mayor, Monsieur Sicamois, approached the priest, Father Strub, and asked him to hang the tricolor flag on the Catholic church in honor of the newly minted French republican holiday. Strub flatly refused, so Sicamois attached the republic’s banner to the church tower himself. Infuriated, Strub tore it down and threw it in the mud. A month later, tempers flared again on the occasion of the first “prize day” at Rufisque’s new secular public school. School prize days were a highlight of the annual calendar in Senegal’s coastal towns and always featured solemn speeches by municipal and colonial officials to the assembled students and their parents. Yet this celebration of secular education was unusual because Catholic congregations ran most of Senegal’s urban public schools. As Father Strub bristled in the audience, Mayor Sicamois used his address to praise the laic instruction at the school as the best way to “break down the old ramparts of superstition and intolerance that separate our minds from those of the natives in whose midst we live.” He went on to argue that Muslim Lebu, who composed much of the local African population, harbored a “fierce antipathy” for Christianity, which had prevented them from sending their children to the colony’s Catholic schools. It was necessary, however, he argued, to “convert” Africans to “our language and our mores [moeurs],” and secular education provided a way forward. Now, Sicamois claimed, Lebu children would come to school when their parents saw that religion was not part of the curriculum, and the result would be the extension of French language, influence, and “civilization” in the region.

Father Strub interpreted Sicamois’s speech both as a condemnation of Catholicism and a personal attack. Fuming, the priest went home after . . .

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