The Creation of French Africa: Officialdom at Work

Portuguese rendition of the world, 1550, by Jorge Reinel (1518?-1572)

True, the British colonized the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria, but for all practical purposes, like a roll of the dice, West Africa fell to the French. And it wasn’t an easy roll of the dice, either.

Carton after carton of documents from the late 1800s arrive at my assigned reading space in the Archives d’Outre-Mer. I’m looking for things like the impeccably handwritten book on West African agriculture or mentions of food eaten by colonial administrators, things that appear only sporadically in the innumerable reports sent between colonial administrators and the Ministre des Colonies in Paris. Instead, I find endless papers marked CONFIDENTIELLE, relaying the trials of subduing the local population, of treating with this marabout or that one. “J’ai l’honneur de … ” they all start that way and the handwriting at times is enough to drive me blind, I need a magnifying glass to pick out the script sometimes, so small it is. Or penmanship loses out to length and emotion and despair, year after year.

No words about how a good dinner made the oppressive heat bearable, no ramblings about Maman’s blanquette de veau while they tossed and turned with the torrid dreams brought on by malarial fevers or shook with yellow fever.

Not yet, anyway.

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2 comments

  1. I know what you mean about the handwriting in old documents. I guess these people never realised they were writing for posterity! Good luck with your search, the discoveries will be fascinating when they arrive!

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