Colonial Suspects: Suspicion, Imperial Rule, and Colonial Society in Interwar French West Africa

Colonial Suspects: Suspicion, Imperial Rule, and Colonial Society in Interwar French West Africa

by Kathleen Keller
Colonial Suspects: Suspicion, Imperial Rule, and Colonial Society in Interwar French West Africa

Colonial Suspects: Suspicion, Imperial Rule, and Colonial Society in Interwar French West Africa

by Kathleen Keller


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A Vietnamese cook, a German journalist, and a Senegalese student—what did they have in common? They were all suspicious persons kept under surveillance by French colonial authorities in West Africa in the 1920s and 1930s. Colonial Suspects looks at the web of surveillance set up by the French government during the twentieth century as France’s empire slipped into crisis.

As French West Africa and the French Empire more generally underwent fundamental transformations during the interwar years, French colonial authorities pivoted from a stated policy of “assimilation” to that of “association.” Surveillance of both colonial subjects and visitors traveling through the colonies increased in scope. The effect of this change in policy was profound: a “culture of suspicion” became deeply ingrained in French West African society.

Kathleen Keller notes that the surveillance techniques developed over time by the French included “shadowing, postal control, port police, informants, denunciations, home searches, and gossip.” This ad hoc approach to colonial surveillance mostly proved ineffectual, however, and French colonies became transitory spaces where a global cast of characters intermixed and French power remained precarious. Increasingly, French officials—in the colonies and at home—reacted in short-sighted ways as both perceived and real backlash occurred with respect to communism, pan-Africanism, anticolonialism, black radicalism, and pan-Islamism. Focusing primarily on the port city of Dakar (Senegal), Keller unravels the threads of intrigue, rumor, and misdirection that informed this chaotic period of French colonial history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496206183
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 04/01/2018
Series: France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 270
File size: 914 KB

About the Author

Kathleen Keller is an associate professor of history at Gustavus Adolphus College.

Read an Excerpt


"A Vigilant Surveillance"

Creating Suspicion in Interwar French West Africa

In 1921 Governor-General Martial Merlin received seemingly ominous news from the Colonial Ministry about a conspiracy that threatened to spark a communist revolution. According to Paris, "communist agencies and directive committees gave instructions to their diverse groupings in order to prepare, in Asia, a vast Islamic movement, which will be a prelude to the worldwide [universelle] revolution and will have repercussions in the Muslim countries of northern Africa." Although Asia was meant to be the origin of the movement and no threat to sub-Saharan Africa was mentioned, Merlin took the report seriously, alerting the lieutenant governors of the colonies of this news and requesting they "send ... a confidential summary ... of the state of native opinion by telegraph ... and exercise a very vigilant surveillance as much over the Muslim and fetishist milieux as over the more or less Europeanized groups." He asked to be sent "the tracts, brochures, prints, and in general, all instruments of revolutionary or tendentious propaganda circulating in the colony." Merlin's actions came as a swift response to the ministry's communication. Nevertheless he also admitted that no threat of revolt seemed to exist in his domain in Africa. He wrote, "Although no disturbing symptom has yet to be signaled in West Africa, we must collect all indications relevant to the propaganda that the communists could undertake either directly, or by intermediary of affiliated association, in order to create in the black countries a movement that is favorable to their cause." He emphasized, "I must add, in ending, that our natives, be they citizens of the four communes or those who maintained their original statute, have until now, only been preoccupied with commercial affairs, local politics and Muslim proselytism and it does not seem likely that they will turn towards a Pan-Africanism or communism which does not resonate with any idea or feeling amongst them." Nevertheless he also referred to a "danger of contamination" that was "pressing" and recalled that AOF was especially at risk in areas served by ports where "elements of all kinds mix and cross one another, where news brought by ships can be easily and rapidly put into circulation, amplified and distorted by those wishing to cause disorder." Merlin's admission of the lack of a real threat is overshadowed by the urgency with which he agreed to attempt to contain the situation. His response and actions reflect the colonial administration's increased emphasis on the surveillance of radical propaganda in the interwar era in spite of little evidence that such propaganda existed or would be welcomed by the population of AOF.

In the interwar era AOF's authorities identified suspects, conducted investigations, and placed people under surveillance. But what were the origins and the reasoning behind such a policy? Martin Thomas has shown that interwar colonial intelligence gathering in North Africa responded to a thriving nationalist movement in Algeria and armed rebellions in Morocco and Syria. Yet in AOF, as Merlin reminds us, very little evidence of nationalist or revolutionary activity existed. In this chapter I argue that the strategy of political surveillance, which was critical to creating the culture of suspicion, emerged through the convergence of a variety of forces, including precedents established in AOF during the First World War, a global red scare, the fears of the Colonial Ministry in Paris, and the choices made by officials in Dakar. Surveillance was deeply influenced by fear and paranoia, not rational decision making. It also emerged as part of a set of responses to the imperial crisis the French seemed to face in the aftermath of the Great War. I trace precedents to and the emergence and development of surveillance as a political strategy enmeshed in a web of various influences from Paris to Hanoi, to other parts of the empire, and finally Dakar.

The Origins of Colonial Policing in French West Africa

Unlike the British in India, with their reference to the Mughals, or the French in Syria and Lebanon, who relied on Ottoman institutions, the French did not use prior models for the earliest creation of police services in Senegal. As early as the nineteenth century, when French settlements along the coast of Senegal were growing, municipal policing institutions were imported from the metropole to protect European property and the increasingly diverse population of Europeans, Africans, and mixed-race people. The earliest goals of policing were broad and included the prevention of crime, the maintenance of order, cleanliness of streets, and the pursuit of criminals, but also other kinds of regulation such as the inspection of hotels and cafés and the "surveillance of the fabrication of bread." In 1825 Buignoz, a court official, called for the creation of a Commissaire de Police in and around Saint-Louis in addition to a judicial police bureau already in place because of the growth of the population and businesses. Buignoz identified a host of motivations, such as "the white population in Saint-Louis is growing. It contains artisans and workers whose pasts are not always known. This population must begin to come under some kind of surveillance." His concerns extended to the mulatto population "born on the land and who can easily support the climate"; the growing black population, "very numerous and inclined towards stealing"; and "foreign negroes [who] come to the city often, certain to find Muslim hospitality" and "other negro thieves who return, long ago chased from the city." Although Buignoz here references mostly concerns about crime, his brief description of the various elements of the population in need of surveillance, French, Africans — especially Muslims — and foreigners, previews the major groups that would become objects of political surveillance into the mid-twentieth century.

Policies of surveillance of the populations of Senegal and later AOF in the mid- to late nineteenth century lacked uniformity and developed slowly over time as the colonies were established. Three distinct threads of surveillance activities can be detected in this period, however. First, in the mid-nineteenth century authorities identified the marabouts, Muslim leaders in Senegal and Mauritania, as potential opponents who could inspire their devoted followers to oppose colonialism. Second, as early as the 1890s they targeted the Lebanese and Syrians, whom they considered intruders in the economy and potential carriers of disease. Third, shortly after the federation was established, governors-general Ernest Roume and William Ponty attempted to impose a general surveillance over the politics and economy of the "native" population.

As French authorities sought to secure territory and establish rule in rural Senegal and Mauritania in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century they created a Muslim Affairs Bureau to monitor Muslims and investigate various questions related to the practice of Islam. The Bureau collected information on Muslims, including well-known figures who were monitored with the use of bureaucratic forms known as fiches de renseignements (information forms). By World War I Muslim Affairs was conducting surveillance over Islamic schools, courts, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Perhaps most important, going back to the 1880s the Muslim Affairs Bureau conducted surveillance over marabouts. As they attempted to control these powerful leaders, French authorities also tried to co-opt them. The legendary Amadu Bamba Mbacké, leader of the Mouride Sufi brotherhood, for example, was exiled three times beginning in 1895 because French authorities considered his presence in the Senegal peanut basin to be destabilizing. Bamba's "fanatical" followers were former warriors and slaves who frequently came into conflict with newly appointed chiefs over issues such as taxation. In 1912 Bamba was permitted to return to his homeland after having publicly acknowledged that the French were allowing Muslims to practice their religion in peace. David Robinson describes the complicated relationship between Bamba and the French as he transitioned from agitator to accommodator. Even after Bamba encouraged his followers to serve in the French Army during the First World War he remained under strict surveillance that essentially restricted him to his home. As with suspect individuals in the interwar era, Muslim leaders were considered potentially powerful political agitators. Unlike most interwar political suspects, however, the marabouts were also understood to be important allies who could help the French impose political and economic control over rural areas. Surveillance of Islam that began in the nineteenth century continued throughout the colonial period. Sometimes the police investigated Muslims suspected of pan-Africanism, but the Muslim Affairs Bureau also continued to conduct surveillance over marabouts, Muslim propaganda, and other questions related to Muslim life.

French authorities also made a concerted effort to monitor foreign populations, especially the Lebanese and Syrians, who were consistently targeted for special surveillance beginning in the 1890s. The Lebanese and Syrians were despised by the French administration as outsiders and itinerant merchants who could undercut French traders. Surveillance of the Syrians (as they were often known) related primarily to scrutiny of their health and business practices. A regular "sanitary" surveillance was conducted over the Syrians. When an epidemic broke out in 1900, the governor-general asked the different communities of Senegal to send him a report on Syrians living within their domain, including specific comments on the "sanitary state" of each individual. The Circle of Tivouane responded in a typical report, "There are still only four Syrians at this port, three men and one woman. Their sanitary state is excellent." As early as 1908 the European Chamber of Commerce in Dakar complained in a letter to the government general that Lebanese and Syrians were dominating trade with fraudulent practices and demanded protection. Unlike Muslims who had only their leaders placed under surveillance, the entire Lebanese and Syrian community was subject to monitoring and scrutiny by French officials.

In terms of the rest of the population, it was the task of administrators to collect information of a political nature. In 1902 Governor-General Roume sent instructions to his lieutenant governors requesting "a monthly report on the political, administrative and economic situation of the colony, accompanied by the most interesting excerpts from reports from the administrative chiefs and the Chief administrators of the circles." By 1914 French authorities were attempting to firm up control of the outer regions of AOF and the administration was desperately trying to collect information about the territories they now claimed to rule. Gathering a variety of information by the circle commanders was considered essential to bolstering their authority. In 1914 Governor-General Ponty sent out a scathing circular to the lieutenant governors lamenting that "certain administrators" were ignorant of their own cercles, especially in economic matters. He reminded them that they needed to keep two journals, logging such information as the "history and origins of the circle, its composition, its borders, its political, administration and judicial organization." In addition they would keep a daily journal that would log new information as well as "a note placed next to each item of information [that] will reveal the origin, name, and quality of profession of the individual who reported it and whether the information is more or less reliable." Vigilance toward the collection of information was considered a solution to correcting the "ignorance" of administrators. Later, in the interwar era, authorities would attempt to streamline both police institutions and the collection of specific political information.

World War I Surveillance Policies

During the First World War foreigners absorbed the focus of authorities' fears, and once again the Syrians and Lebanese took a central role in surveillance policies. Now instead of health status, authorities inquired about the Syrians' loyalty to France. Fear that these subjects of the Ottoman Empire might place their allegiance with the enemy led to restrictions over their movement, including the requirement that they seek permission before traveling. They also continued to be criticized for their business practices. Commissaire Abbal remarked in 1916 that Syrians were undercutting indigenous shops with their prices because of "all kinds of privations they are able to impose on themselves." He noted that prices were already cheaper at Syrian shops than in either indigenous or European-owned stores. Abbal complained too about the continued arrival of Syrian migrants, writing, "The police can but signal once again the daily arrival of Syrians without resources, but who are welcomed by their compatriots with the greatest eagerness." In 1918 Interim Governor-General Gabriel Angoulvant, in a letter to the Ministry of Colonies, went on a particularly vitriolic tirade against the Syrians, whom he considered war profiteers. He claimed, "In Senegal, especially in Dakar their fortune has been remarkable, many of them have luxury cars, indeed even automobiles. Those who knew them before the war when they miserably scraped by in little shops can now see their sumptuous establishments." Lumped together by nationality, culture, and (before and during World War I) their status as Ottoman subjects, Syrians and Lebanese were suspicious based on their group identity and not as individuals.

It was during the First World War that the government general and officials from the colony of Senegal also began to systematically keep track of other foreigners, especially enemy nationals. Bernard, delegate of the government of Senegal in Dakar and key proponent of surveillance of foreigners during World War I, told the governor-general, "The current circumstances require us to redouble the surveillance of foreigners and especially individuals of suspect nationality." Bernard had developed a plan to utilize immigration services, put in place to identify foreigners in 1911, to monitor the actions of foreigners in the colony. When a boat arrived in the port of Dakar the commissaire of immigration and a doctor or other "sanitary agent" would meet each passenger on board before departures and arrivals. In 1916 the lieutenant governor of Senegal advocated "the establishment of a discreet but tight surveillance of all the foreigners who descend in Dakar." This policy points to a larger shift in French thinking about surveillance of populations. Instead of the previous model of relying solely on administrators' summaries of the political and economic situation, lists of foreigners residing in the colonies, or simple immigration control, the actions of foreigners would become a specific focus of surveillance, both as a group and as individuals.

During the First World War various institutions participated in the surveillance of foreigners. Bernard asked the municipal police of Dakar to take charge of the task of surveillance of foreigners and "assure that the policing of these individuals be carried out with the greatest vigilance and discernment." The Service of Civil Affairs undertook the task of centralizing intelligence collected by the municipal police, the armed forces, and the metropole. They also investigated suspects, including "Syrians and other Ottoman subjects, their travel and migrations, measures against hostile Ottoman subjects, the expulsion of suspects, surveillance of neutral ships and surveillance of suspicious businesses." Civil Affairs took on myriad responsibilities during wartime, including "passports, policing of military arms and ammunition, contraband of arms, trade with the enemy, correspondence with invaded regions, deserters and disobedient soldiers of allied nations, diverse regulations relating to wartime, identity cards for foreigners, measures concerning individuals from Alsace-Lorraine, instructions relative to the repression of the spreading of false information, and offenses committed by the press."

In fact the Civil Affairs Service and the navy were so overwhelmed with attempts to police the foreign population and the port during the war that a "special inspector" from the metropole was brought in to help, Noël Paoli. He held the rank of inspector fifth class of the Police Spéciale and, by his own admission, was "one of the youngest" in France. The Police Spéciale ran intelligence operations in metropolitan France and was charged with the collection of information that was of interest to national security. Civil Affairs brought in Paoli, who was, theoretically, under their jurisdiction, although his role was broadly defined to include aid to the police and the navy as well. In fact Jules Carde, then the director of Civil Affairs, claimed to have dispatched Paoli from the metropole specifically because the commander of the navy "expressed the wish for help." Paoli's specific task was "surveillance and intelligence," and his duties were supposed to be restricted to those "normally included in the functions of a Special Police Inspector." For example, he was not to be stamping passports, but he would also not be permitted to function as "an agent of the Sûreté," that is, a regular policeman.


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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations,
A Note on Translations,
1. "A Vigilant Surveillance": Creating Suspicion in Interwar French West Africa,
2. "Proceed with a Discreet Surveillance": The Investigation and Surveillance of Suspects,
3. Enemies, Charlatans, and Propagandists: Foreigners under Surveillance in AOF,
4. "Powerless with Regard to Our Nationals": Policing Frenchness and Redefining the Civilizing Mission in AOF,
5. Creating Networks: African Suspects, Radical Politics, and Colonial Repression,

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