British vs French Colonial Rule in West Africa

Map of West Africa c 1937

Map of French West Africa interrupted by British colonies (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gold Coast, Nigeria, parts of Cameroon, the Gambia) circa 1937

“France is in Africa to make Frenchmen out of the Africans,” explains Derwent Whittlesey in the January 1937 edition of Foreign Affairs.

Having lived in Ghana, I am aware that the country is surrounded by French speaking countries — Cote D’Ivoire to the West, Burkina Faso to the North, Togo to the East.  Further inland there are a bunch of French speaking countries like Niger, Cameroon, Gabon, Benin, Senegal.

Every so often I meet an Ivorian/Burkinabé/Nigerien and just assume they are like the Ghanaians.  But then I catch glimpses of how they are not.  First, most of them speak seemingly coherent French.  (I neither speak French nor any African language but one gets used to the “melody” of a language.)  For instance, African words are not interspersed in their French.  In contrast, similarly educated Ghanaians usually do not speak anything resembling the “King’s English.”  They either use a pidgin English or go straight to their native tongue.

Second, these Francophone African women are very French.  Anyone who has spent time in France knows that French women are not like English women.  What’s worse is all women from former British colonies — American, Australian, Canadian, South African women — are similar to English women.

As my British friend explained, “English women want to be one of the boys; French women are happy to be women.”  The best way to describe French women is to say they are feminine or “lady-like”.  Wikihow offers these 8 Steps to be more like a French woman.  For instance, I don’t think you’d ever find a French woman wasted outside a club spewing her most recent meal.

Ghanaian women are influenced by both the British and their homeland.  For instance, I always see women sitting on benches with their legs spread wide apart.  Fortunately, they are wearing long dresses.  Furthermore, most Ghanaian men and women urinate outside.  Anecdotally, I have heard that Ghanaian women can pee standing up.    Standing up!  (I’m curious but I really don’t want to know how it’s done.)

Given this increasingly obvious difference between Francophone and Anglophone Africans, I decided to read up on the differences between British and French colonial rule in West Africa.  Most of these insights are from Derwent Whittlesey’s article “British and French Colonial Technique in West Africa” (January 1937) of Foreign Affairs.

From American history, most Americans are somewhat familiar with British colonial ways.  British colonialism was focused on trade and mining,   Whittlesey calls it “indirect rule” whereby the British allow the colonists to be ruled by natives who set up “a hierarchy of European officials alongside the native administration.”   The British basically divided up large tracts of land (1,000 – 33,000 square miles) with populations of 30,000 to 2,000,000.  They appointed their own “Residents” who acted as mini-kings that could act as judges, mayors, and police captains.  Whittlesey notes that Residents “not only functions well, it operates at low cost…”

The British maintained a small contingent of British (male) colonial masters.  Approximately 1,300 were in Lagos, the capital of British West Africa, and small numbers spread out among their other colonial possessions.  The total white population amounted to 11,000 people (most of whom were traders).  These men stayed for 18-month tours usually without their wives and definitely without their children.

Thus, most infrastructure — trains, police, army, hospitals, schools — were operated by Africans with minimal British supervision.   The British raised a local, volunteer army to occupy the local population.  When not occupying, the army was used for drilling.  Lastly, regarding education, there was no requirement that Africans learn English.  This led to shortages of literate English-speaking African job candidates.   In other words, the British sought to maximize profits while minimizing both human and capital costs.  (Sounds very American!)

The French, in contrast, practiced “direct rule” and viewed their possessions nearly as extensions of France.  “All land is French, except that which an individual African registers with the French authorities,” Whittlesey notes.  Meanwhile, the French sent approximately 12,000 Frenchmen to govern their substantially larger – yet more sparsely populated – territories.  Theoretically, a qualified African could do the same job as a Frenchman.  The total white French population was 31,000.

Educating — or brainwashing — the population seems to be major differentiator.  The French-imposed education system required all African children to learn French and they were taught French customs and traditions.  The ubiquity of churches encouraged Africans to adopt Christianity.

Lastly, universal conscription into the military was adopted for 5 year terms.  The superior group were trained as troops while the rest were organized into labor units.  Furthermore, many of these conscripts could spend 2 out of their 5 years in Europe.  Two hundred thousand West Africans fought for France/Allies in Europe and North Africa during WWII.

Senegalese Tirailleurs

Senegalese Tirailleurs regiment (Le fanion du 43e bataillon de tirailleurs sénégalais décoré de la fourragère.)

The French seemed to have invested significantly more resources in their colonies because the French viewed them as extensions of their country.  Greater involvement meant that the French were more involved in the daily lives of their colonists and expected more from them, e.g. dying for France.  The French also offered these people the opportunity to become French citizens.

Today, I believe the most active countries in Africa to be China, the US, and France.  The Chinese are largely interested in economic opportunities to extract resources from Africa, open markets for Chinese exports, and create job opportunities for Chinese laborers.

The Americans are interested in quelling terrorism threats.  For instance, it was reported today that American forces were “active” in Somalia and Libya.

Lastly, the French are active in the politics of its former colonies and their neighbors.

French Embassy in Ghana is across the street from Ghana's President's house

French Embassy in Ghana is across the street from Ghana’s President’s house


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  1. Pingback: Africa Focused News | Africa

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