The Seed That Blaise Diagne Planted

Article excerpt

In May 1914, Blaise Diagne, a Senegalese, became the first African to be elected to the French parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. One hundred years later, the seed that Diagne planted has germinated all over Europe, with more Africans and African-descended people being elected to national and local governments across the continent. Clayton Goodwin marks Diagne's centenary by looking at the African achievement in contemporary Europe.

Events in the summer of 1914 changed the structure of the world as it was then seen. They caused the fall of empires, and inspired a spirit of nationalism and new ideas. We shall hear about that in detail during the course of this year. For now, it is appropriate to mark the centenary of one event, which, though historical, tends to slip under the radar: the election in May 1914 of Blaise Diagne to the French Chamber of Deputies, the first African to be so elected while international tensions were yet to develop to boiling point.

Today there are African members - including cabinet ministers - of several European national legislatures. The progress has been clear - or has it?

It is not possible in the scope of this one article to give more than an outline, because some people, countries, and achievements are bound to be omitted. Nevertheless, I have tried to select instances that reflect aspects of the overall picture. Sometimes the written record, itself, is regularly updated.

For example, John Archer, elected mayor of Battersca in southwest London in 1913, has long been regarded as being the first black mayor in the UK, but that honour is now accorded to Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns, the

Clockwise: French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira: Blaise Diagne: and French politician Rama Yade mayor of Thetford in 1904.

But Blaise Diagne (initially Galave Mbaye Diagne) is a different kettle offish. He was born on 13 October 1872 on Gorce island, off the Senegalese capital, Dakar. His father was a Serer and mother a Manjack.

Adopted by a rich mixed-race family of Adolphe Crespin, who renamed him Blaise, he studied in France (Aix-en-Provence) where he joined the customs service in 1892 and served in several of that country's African colonics, often criticising the oppression of, and discrimination against, the black population.

Seven years later, Diagne became a freemason, which would not have hampered his political advance. On 10 May 1914, campaigning on a platform of African rights and improved conditions for workers, he was elected to the French parliament as the representative for Senegal, defeating the mixed-race lawyer Francois Carpot.

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Blaise was consequently reelected several times until his death 20 years later. His success is seen as being the beginning of direct African participation in the politics of Senegal.

Shortly after his election, Diagne played a critical role in the government intervention to counteract an outbreak of plague in Dakar, and was instrumental in convincing the parliament to pass the Loi Biaise Diagne granting full citizenship to the communes of Gorce, Saint-Louis, and Rufisque.

In 1916, Daigne was appointed commissioner with responsibility for recruiting servicemen from French West Africa to fight in the First World War. After the war, he became commissioner general of the Ministry of Colonies for just over a year, supervising military personnel and general workers.

African participation in Senegalese politics began with Blaise.

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He became the president of the first Pan-African Congress (1919), working with contemporaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Later he represented France in the secretariat of the International Labour Organisation, leaving to become under-secretary of state for the colonies, which was a cabinet position.

Diagne was also mayor of Dakar from 1920, where he founded the newspaper La Democratie (later L'Ouest African Francais), until he died of tuberculosis at Cambo-les-Bains, southwestern France, on 11 May 1934. …

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