Academic journal article The Historian

Conflicted Missionaries: Power and Identity in French West Africa during the 1930s

Academic journal article The Historian

Conflicted Missionaries: Power and Identity in French West Africa during the 1930s

Article excerpt

IN A 1935 SPEECH TO MEMBERS of the colonial administration in the federation of French West Africa (AOF--Afrique Occidentale francaise), Governor General Jules Brevie asserted that one of France's most important tasks was to bring about a "cultural renaissance" among the indigenous peoples of the region. France's redefined mission civilisatrice was to be fulfilled, Brevie argued, by teaching the subject populations how to live according to "authentic African traditions," (1) and they were to receive that instruction in "rural popular schools" founded by the government general in the 1930s. (2) This vision of France's role overseas as the protector of indigenous cultures in the colonies challenged earlier presentations of the colonial mission that had presented France as the bearer of "European civilization" and "French culture" destined to bring Africa out of the "darkness" in which many late-nineteenth-century colonizers claimed its people lived. (3)

This transformation occurred because by the 1930s many colonial officials had concluded that the earlier version of the civilizing mission had produced a "dangerous class" of "semi-civilized" natives that threatened the future of French power in West Africa. (4) This reflected the heightened fear of "bolshevism" among French officialdom as well as a deepening racism throughout the colonial empire after the First World War. (5) Consequently, by the early 1930s the class of French-educated elite produced through the colonial school system was said to embody both the threat of communist revolution and the menacing racial Other that too closely approximated the metropolitan Self. However, recognition of that "problem" did not lead officials to abandon the idea of a civilizing mission altogether, in particular France's position as tutor to subjects still regarded as in need of tutelage. Rather, Brevie and others decided the cure resided in recasting the objectives of the mission and aggressively expanding its reach, particularly to rural areas. The result, they hoped, would be the production of a new "Africanized" elite within the colonies that would serve as an antidote to the earlier "Frenchified" elite.

This article seeks to understand some of the ways in which power was configured and contested in the colonized context of French West Africa. The government general's rural education campaign in West Africa highlights a larger shift in official colonialist discourse, reflected in imperial praxis, that was both a response to challenges to French rule from elements of the colonized population as well as an attempt to reconfigure imperial power in order to preserve France's dominance in the region. This shift contributed to the articulation of separate and essentialist French and African identities during the 1930s that was shaped by and, in turn, helped to configure a "dominant cultural framework" privileging notions of racial and ethnic identity as the bases for social differentiation and political action among colonizers and colonized. Thus, elites and subalterns within rulers and ruled became enmeshed in what David Laitin calls "a web of significance" that sustained a hegemonic discourse founded upon notions of essential and immutable differences between African and French culture. (6) The idea of the "rural popular schools," consequently, became part of the larger terrain of struggle between colonizers and colonized at a time when the systems of governance in France and West Africa were both in crisis. (7)

Recent work on the history of colonialism has led to a rethinking of the colonial experience as well as its legacies for former colonies and ex-metropoles alike. Much of this scholarship has proceeded from concern over current crises afflicting each locale, and the assertion that these phenomena should be viewed as linked through a genealogy born of colonial rule. (8) For example, Tony Chafer and Amanda Sackur argue that "[e]mpire has played an all-important role in the definition of modern French nationalidentity. …

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