African Proconsuls. European Governors in Africa.
L.H. Gann & Peter Duignan, eds.
New York/London/Stanford. The Free Press/Collier Macmillan Publishers & Hoover Institution. 548 pages
by Brian Weinstein
Governor-general Félix Eboué (1884-1944)
Félix Eboué may be the most famous governor in French imperial history, yet he is one of the least known. A single decision near the end of his life brought him into the spotlight illuminated by General Charles de Gaulle and to burial in the Panthéon next to Jean Jaurès and Victor Schoelcher, but that action also obscured the long career in Africa and the West Indies that preceded it. Eboué’s blackness and colonial birth at first provided material for hagiographers and loyalists straining to find models of the successful “native” and reassurances for the continuity of empire after World War II. Later some African and Caribbean nationalists angrily rejected Eboué, calling him a traitor to the goals of liberation, and serious biographers chose to write about black revolutionaries and white innovators in colonial history. Thus accepted, rejected, or ignored on the basis of his usefulness to colonial or anticolonial. ideologies, Eboué’s life was never considered interesting.
In fact, his life is a striking example of how ethnic and racial elites attempt to resolve the tensions between narrow group identity and participation within a larger national system. Equally important, his career as an admininstrator for thirty-five years reflects the tensions between centralizing and decentralizing strands in the French political tapestry. Most significant, his success as a colonialist is a demonstration of the delicate interplay between interests and sentiments in the metropole and those in the colonial state, which link and separate France and Africa then and now.
The grant of citizenship to all inhabitants of France’s Caribbean colonies, Guadeloupe and Martinique, and to the residents of French Guiana on the South American littoral after the end of slavery in 1848 opened a little further the door to a better life. For two centuries mulattoes with good contacts had been emigrating in order to enter the French middle and professional classes; more blacks could now squeeze through, but a wider gate opened after World War II, when the Caribbean possessions were more fully integrated into the French republic as overseas departments.
Limitations on this form of escape from 1848 to 1946 derived from the absence of schools in rural areas, the lack of aid, the isolation and poverty of most of the population, a complex racial belief system—particularly in Martinique and Guadeloupe—and the colonial pact that barred intercourse with neighboring islands and continental America. Even under the most favorable circumstances mulattoes and blacks needed well-placed friends, relatives, or patrons to buy the right ticket.
The solution of political independence was only briefly on the French political agenda, despite the example of Haiti’s successful revolt. The “pearl of the French empire” had had resources lacking in the Lesser Antilles and Guiana (Guyane): a much larger and more defensible territory, at least five times the population of Martinique, a significant educated elite in the island, and a material wealth that far outdistanced that of other French colonies. Thus, although French forces quickly subdued the revolt of Delgrés and Ignace in Guadeloupe in 1802, Dessalines triumphed against the Europeans in Haiti the following year. And in later years the sugar cane, banana, and spice economies of the three remaining colonies became increasingly dependent on France.
In these hopeless circumstances aspiring elites saved themselves individually, rather than as members of communities, through education and careers outside the Caribbean. Men such as Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and revolutionary writer, Gaston Monnerville, president of the French Senate, Saint-Jean Perse, white poet and diplomat, and Félix Eboué served the interests of France and other states well.
The situation in Guiana, where Félix Eboué was born on December 26, 1884, seemed the most hopeless of all despite the economic potential of the colony. A miniscule but racially varied population of 24,000 huddled in ten towns and villages strung along the coast that year, leaving Inini—a vast, unexplored, rich interior—to the few thousand American Indians and black descendants of escaped slaves who had tried to reestablish African societies. About one-third of the population lived in Cayenne, the capital, where the governor had his headquarters and where the elected council met for about a month each year. People had moved to Cayenne after the abolition of slavery and the beginning of the gold rush in 1855. The attraction of gold up the Sinnamary river, for example, robbed the developing farms, which might have provided a foundation for a more economically autonomous community, and young men and women made the town their home.
Félix Eboué’s maternal and paternal families moved to Cayenne from the area of Roura, a town thirty miles away, where his African great-grandparents had worked as slaves on spice plantations. The first record of his paternal great-grandfather appears in an inventory of the Hermitage plantation. This property had been owned by a woman called Sabine, herself a slave freed about 1803. Sabine had given the land to her daughter—probably the offspring of Sabine’s former white owner, Bordes—and to the European she married.
Item 94 in an inventory of 1842 is a slave called “Héboué, 46 years, invalid,” but this man must have died before the emancipation of 1848 because the records contain no further reference to him. A woman, Henriette, identified as his widow, is listed in the manumission book, but the clerk spelled her surname “Eboe” and her two offspring, Alexandre-François and Marie-Gabrielle, were also called Eboe . On the maternal side of the family, the manumission book lists Jean-Baptiste and his wife, Rosie Léveillé, as also born in Africa.
Judging from the approximate birthdates of Eboué’s four great-grandparents—between 1796 and 1810—they may have been captured between 1815 and 1824. Despite the laws against the slave trade, it had begun again clandestinely after the Napoleonic wars in 1815. The year 1824 was particularly active because of an increase in arms sales in Africa . According to the documents available, the highest percentage of slaves during this period came from the general areas of Congo, Angola, and Mozambique . Family tradition placed the Eboué or Léveillé ancestors up a river from the coast. The women kept cowry shells as a remembrance of Africa. Eboué himself told Africans in two areas that he had traced his ancestors there, but this was probably a friendly gesture or a tactic to gain their confidence.
No matter where the Héboué and Léveillé came from, their famous descendant must have had a keen sense of African origins. Henriette lived until 1888, when Félix Eboué was only four years old, but her daughter lived to 1898, when he was fourteen. Henriette stayed at Roura, so the young Félix probably never met her, but Marie-Gabrielle died in Cayenne. His maternal grandmother, Palmyre Léveillé, who lived the first seventeen years of her life as a slave, died in Cayenne in 1918, when her grandson was already thirty-four. Doubtless Félix Eboué heard many firsthand stories about slavery and secondhand stories about Africa from his two grandmothers.
But if Eboué did not think of himself as an African, it is not surprising. Despite an awareness of origins in Cayenne in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century African heritage was not something about which people were particularly proud. Black Creoles—people of African descent born in Guiana—thought Africans must be like the peoples of Inini, whom they called the “primitives,” and they condemned as “savage” any exhibitions of music and drumming assumed to be African. Becoming more French was the watchword, but without important contacts in the schools, the civil service, or politics a family might have little hope to offer its children.
Fortunately for him, Félix Eboué was served some very useful names, and he learned quickly how to cultivate them. Although Yves Eboué, his father, had no legal father at his birth in 1851, family tradition named Philistrat Ursleur, a well-known Cayenne lawyer. Ursleur also reportedly fathered Maximilien Liontel and the son he did recognize as Henri Ursleur. These three half brothers knew each other well, and Liontel and Henri Ursleur achieved prominence. Liontel climbed the colonial judicial ladder, occupying the post of public prosecutor for Guiana between 1887 and 1893; then working in French India, Papeete, Africa, and back to Guiana as attorney general between 1901 and 1905 or 1906. The voters elected Henri Ursleur mayor of Cayenne and then deputy to the French Parliament between 1898 and 1906.
Of the three, Yves Eboué’s career shown least brightly, but his reputation as a gold mine manager put him nonetheless into close contact with important businessmen such as Adolf Bailley, who agreed to be Félix Eboué’s godfather. Yves Eboué was also elected to Cayenne’s municipal council on the same ticket with Ursleur. Unfortunately, he died young (in 1898), a few months before Eboué’s fourteenth birthday. His half brothers may not have helped his family with much money, but they probably promised other kinds of assistance.
Thus, Madame Eboué, a devout Roman Catholic and well-known treasure house of local lore, supported herself and the two of her five children still at home—Félix and his eight-year-old sister, Cornélie. She took up petty trading and raised vegetables and prepared various concoctions for sale. Many years after her death Cayenne remembered this African looking black woman in a long, traditional dress and head scarf smoking her pipe as she waited for customers.
In the meanwhile, her son Félix continued his schooling at the Collège de Cayenne, considered a poor excuse for a secondary school. There he probably learned the virtues of self-control: in a multiracial society like Guiana, where European standards prevailed, schoolchildren mocked their peers who had African features. Eboué, deep brown in color (or “so black he was blue,” one fair-skinned Guianese said), with a broad nose, full lips, and short, curly hair, must have heard many jokes at his expense. A naturally robust physique and a growing interest in sports made him into a formidable opponent in a fair fight, but his mother preached the need for self-control for success in life. The leitmotiv of the dolos, or Guianese proverbs and folktales she knew so well, was that the weak must act with economy and calculation in order to survive and prosper in a world ready to mock and crush them. Eboué learned these dolos well.
Watching his successful relatives, talking to civil servants and businessmen, working hard at his studies, the young man moved swiftly through school. Because it did not grant the baccalaureate, or secondary school diploma, the lucky few would finish their education in metropolitan France. Ursleur and Liontel could not have been indifferent to Yves’s son, who had also been at the top of his class; thus, in 1901 Eboué left for a lycée in Bordeaux with a scholarship in hand.
Sailing to France that September, a few months before his seventeenth birthday, he must have reflected on the career options before him. A return to the stagnant homeland was out of the question unless he wanted to work in the prison administration watching over poor souls like the famous Captain Dreyfus. His mother had begged him not to go into gold prospecting, and he already knew what he would write to a relative twenty years later: “there is nothing for us in Guiana. . . . [O]ur children’s futures cannot be guaranteed with the famine salaries in Cayenne.”
Thus, the years in Bordeaux, from the end of 1901 to the end of 1904, helped Eboué formulate career goals, articulate a personal philosophy built on the dolos of his mother, and find new contacts. Beginning at the Lycée Montaigne he found other West Indians such as René Maran (future winner of the Prix Goncourt for the novel Batouala). Eboué and Maran rejected the church of their parents and substituted a stoic faith in elites, restraint, internal withdrawal, harmony with nature, and unity of humanity. A better life depended on order and discipline, and those who could not control themselves would have to be forced into certain patterns of work. These ideas nourished Eboué for the rest of his life and sustained his confidence in the benefits of colonialism. In one of the many notebooks he kept over the years he wrote:
Love, Love in and of itself lets leave it to Tolstoy. We must live—to live = blows. But if we have iodine to dress the wounds, we agree on an existence that is to live and to fight. All the rest is nonsense. That is colonization—more Nietzsche than Tolstoy. We must know how to suffer. Only suffering permits organization
Becoming a colonial administrator thus was not a difficult decision. The service offered relatively high salaries, job security, and a pension; West Indians were encouraged to join the relatively unpopular administration. Both Eboué and Maran had many contacts in it, and good positions were increasingly open to graduates of the Ecole coloniale.
The Ecole coloniale, as Eboué knew it, had been founded in 1889 to train a corps of professional administrators. Unfortunately, teachers knew very little about the colonies, and Eboué must have found most courses useless. Increasingly, however, the school was the entry point into the corps of administrators from which the highest ranking officials and governors were to be drawn.
Having been accepted in the class entering in 1906, Eboué moved to Paris. Here he discovered the great intellectual life of the French capital and joined the SCUF (Sporting Club universitaire de France) where he plaved football along with a new friend, Yvon Delbos, future cabinet minister and candidate for the presidency of the republic. These activities and a reported affair with a young Italian woman—to say nothing of the mediocrity of the courses offered—were doubtless responsible for his poor showing at the school. In July 1908 Eboué was graduated near the bottom of his class—twenty-third out of twenty-seven students. Malgache language studies was the only area in which he had done very well.
Perhaps he knew he might be assigned to Madagascar. On November 30, 1908, a decree named him to the island, and he prepared to leave. A Martiniquan classmate begged Eboué to exchange posts, however; he had just married, and couples discouraged from going to the French Congo, where he had been assigned. Eboué agreed to the exchange and left for Africa on Christmas Day 1908, celebrating his twenty-fourth birthday at sea.
The trip to Brazzaville, capital of the Congo, lasted from December 25 to January 21, 1909. En route Eboué glimpsed France’s new empire in West Africa as the ship made stops in Senegal, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. Lagos, Britain’s richer colony, must have impressed him then and over the next decades because of the higher rate of investments than in the French possessions. He also had to pass through the Belgian Congo because the French had still not built a railroad to the coast although the Belgians had built one inland to their capital by 1898. In Brazzaville, a village in 1909, the governor-general’s office quickly assigned him to Ubangi-Shari where he would spend almost twenty years.
Early Days in Ubangi-Shari, 1909-1931
Much of the Congo—which then included today’s Chad, Gabon, Central African Republic, and Congo—had been explored, but very little of it was under French control. Taxes could not be collected because Africans refused to accept French authority, and administrators were too few and far between to control the huge territory (four times larger than France). Thus, the colony consisted of a few islands of administrators surrounded by a vast sea of indifference and hostility. Problems of communication and underadministration were to plague these colonies throughout Eboué’s career and even to the present day.
As an élève-administrateur Eboué was on trial that first year, and the rule was that he work under an experienced administrator at a variety of tasks. The lieutenant governor assigned him to the Upper Shari, one of the seventeen administrative divisions. He left Bangui, the capital, by tipoye—a type of hammock carried by four Africans—for his posting at Bouca to the north. Another West Indian supervised his work, and he quickly understood the complications of census taking, construction, and mapmaking and began to learn an African language. Eboué’s superior returned enthusiastic reports, and the ministry of colonies made him an assistant administrator third class, at the bottom rank in the corps of administrators at the beginning of 1910.
This year was also the beginning of the efforts made by Martial-Henry Merlin (governor-general of French Equatorial Africa, 1910-1917) to reorganize the administration. The name French Equatorial Africa replaced the name French Congo; more important, the first systematic administrative organization was set up. Merlin clarified his powers and those of the lieutenant governors who headed each colony. He set the frontiers of the colonial subdivisions, decentralized budgets, and sent out instructions for the weaving of a French administrative network throughout this vast area.
Despite the circulars that steadily filtered down to administrators in the field, Eboué learned early to work out his own way of interpreting them. He could do nothing, he saw, without taking into account local chiefs and French business interests, particularly in isolated places such as Bozoum, to which the governor assigned him.
The Mandjia people lived at Bouzoum, and they refused to pay their taxes. Merlin had set the tax per man and per woman at five francs, a higher figure than in the richer French West African colonies. The only way it could be paid was by the collection of rubber and ivory for sale to the private concessionary companies. Paris had told the colonies they had to be self-supporting, so that administrators’ salaries came from the taxes collected on the sale of rubber and ivory and from customs duties. Little money was left for development. For example, the 1910 budget for Ubangi-Shari shows that at least sixty-three percent of expenditures went for functionaries’ salaries, whereas only one percent was spent on education, less than one percent on agriculture, and slightly more than one percent for health
Under these conditions Africans failed to understand what benefits the colonial administration could offer. Recruited as porters to carry equipment toward Chad, forced to collect wild rubber for no immediate material benefit, moved to new villages near administrative posts, subjected by businessmen and some administrators to various humiliations, they naturally began to resist and flee the European and his guns.
Eboué thus participated in the last stages of what officials called “pacification,” particularly in the area of Bozoum. He circulated through an endless region with armed African troops, attempted to collect taxes in some form, and somehow stopped attacks on European businessmen. The governor had instructed him to arrest the most troublesome chiefs, but the young administrator quickly showed his adaptability and cleverness.
Soon after his arrival in Ubangi he began the study of the cultures of the various people through African informants. Along with a colleague he prepared a manuscript on the Baya people that was published many years later. On the basis of his research in Bozoum he became convinced that the French must ally themselves with traditional authority in its various forms. This strategy meant convincing chiefs of the advantages they could win through cooperation: a five percent slice of the taxes collected, for example, or a gift of a few guns to be used against old enemies. Thus, instead of arresting dissident chiefs Eboué arranged palavers with them.
Eboué’s willingness to negotiate went beyond temporal authority. He dealt with secret societies, particularly one he labeled Somale, which fascinated him for thirty years. These societies, which helped keep order, were perceived by Eboué as the type of elite organization that fit with his stoic philosophy. Somale was thus seen as legitimate, something he should help preserve in African society, In this troubled region he arranged a meeting with the leading spirit of the society, assumed to be a supernatural being called the Ngakola, after sending gifts of salt, machetes, and cloth. He traveled to the appointed meeting place during a howling storm, which his only companion, an African interpreter, saw as proof of the spirit’s power. Some messages were exchanged during the encounter, and, as Eboué told the story in a speech to a group of Freemasons many years later: “His cooperation was promised, and I must admit that the contract was faithfully executed, that orders were given in the way I desired [to pay taxes, stop harassing Europeans and their agents], after which the difficulties disappeared like magic.” Eboué should also have added that he had recognized the spirit’s interests as well.
No supernatural spirit could help an administrator’s relations with the big companies, however. Because the French government had refused to spend money for development, it made immense land grants-concessions-to private companies that promised to undertake various undefined projects in French Equatorial Africa. The plan failed. Companies “without capital or spirit of enterprise” collected what they could without making any positive contribution; their “inertia paralyzed the economic life of the country” in those early years . Yet they demanded that the colonial administration maintain order, which meant forcing the Africans to collect wild products for them and providing coerced labor to carry the products to acceptable ports. Even when roads opened and inland waterways were available, the businessmen often hesitated to invest in trucks and boats, preferring the cheaper human labor. Eboué and others, struggling with the problems of development, became increasingly skeptical about the role of private enterprise.
He followed these activities and maintained contact with the chiefs—particularly the select group cooperating fully with the French—by regular tours. Traveling by tipoye, Eboué could cover about five kilometers in an hour over the fairly flat savanna country of Ubangi-Shari. He kept little notebooks accounting for every minute spent, and they show he could not have stayed more than a few moments in most villages. Most of his time was spent haranguing chiefs who had almost exclusive access to the administrators: they must get people to pay taxes; they must supply workers and porters; they must move villages nearer the administrative post or new road.
Until the 1920s administrative problems in Ubangi seemed to be getting worse, however. At Kouango, located upstream from Bangui, for example, a rebellion had slowed tax collection and had adversely affected commerce. The governor wrote in 1914 that the French had even less control of the area than in 1912. Because of the beginning of the first world war, the soldiers in charge of Kouango had to leave for German controlled Kamerun, where the French were fighting. Thus, the governor had to choose an experienced civilian to subdue a region in which, in his words, “the villages are dispersing; the roads are abandoned; convoys are attacked.”10 The governor gave the assignment to Eboué, who had been on leave and then had been posted to Damara in 1913.
By allying himself with Sokambi, a clever Banziri chief who knew the advantages he could get from a close association with the French, Eboué succeeded in reestablishing French control and even in extending it. This effort rested on long military operations. During one of them Eboué traveled 1,143 kilometers from September 7 to November 21, 1915; another trip lasted from May 5, 1916 to July 31, 1916 11. Without medical personnel he treated his own illnesses, including painful ear trouble; although he had some European products, he had to live off the land; and with Africans for companions he talked with them in the evening about their customs and beliefs.
Sokambi, an ally and friend, provided troops, protection for Eboué, knowledge of the area, information, and even a wife from his own extended family. In return for these services to the French, the Banziri leader won secure control over a large population, which meant money, prestige, and power. It meant he had first access to the economic and technological changes brought with the introduction of coffee and cotton a few years later. Sokambi’s children received the first smatterings of colonial style European education, the French language and arithmetic, initially in a school that he himself founded and then in a French school. They thus became the first teachers and clerks, well placed to play an important role in the political evolution of the country in the years to come.
With the reestablishment of peace at Kouango the major company there, the Compagnie du Kouango frangais, purchased increasing quantities of products. Despite a worldwide decline in prices, this company shipped 141,000 kilos of rubber in 1915 and 191,000 kilos in 1916 compared with only 38,025 in 1914. Their exports of ivory increased from 1,060 kilos in 1915 to 1,998 in 1916 12. On his own, Eboué shipped food from Kouango to Bangui: 9,000 kilos of manioc, 16 pigs, 11 goats, and 800 kilos of Millet 13. In 1916 these efforts were recognized by his promotion to assistant administrator first class and to full administrator third class the following year.
With the rank of full administrator Eboué could now be assigned to head a complete circumscription instead of the smaller subdivision. After a 1917 vacation in France, during which he tried to join the French army fighting in Europe 14, Eboué returned to direct the affairs of a much larger area under the leadership of a new, dynamic governor who reshaped the colonial state of Ubangi-Shari in the way Merlin had given new life to the organization of French Equatorial Africa.
The man was Auguste-Henri Lamblin, governor of Ubangi-Shari from 1919 to 1930. Lamblin’s long tenure marked a change in colonialism, and the decade was the most important in the colony’s history. He and Eboué shifted the economy from one of collection of wild products to industrial agriculture. Lamblin also supervised the construction of an extensive communication system and by these two actions showed that if a colony—even one in French Equatorial Africa, the Cinderella of the empire—had a well-staffed administration under the same, intelligent direction for more than five years, something of permanence could be built.
Lamblin assigned Eboué to Bambari from 1918 to 1921. Bambari was located in the center of the colony among the Banda people, the largest local ethnic group. Under Lamblin’s direction Eboué built roads and introduced peanuts, rice, and sesame. He encouraged the development of a small sack-making industry. Significantly, also, Eboué established the largest school in the colony—at one point it had 300 students.
An enthusiastic governor proposed Eboué for an honor and a promotion, but Governor-general Victor Augagneur stood in the way. Augagneur, with the reputation of a liberal reformer, was suspicious of Eboué because of the number of people in prison in Bambari.
It is true that along with the rising rate of tax collection the number of people in Eboué’s jails also increased. This is not surprising, of course, because his philosophy was that colonial officials knew best—that the African had to be forced to work for his own benefit, that he needed more discipline, and so forth. Refusal to cooperate meant punishment although there is no evidence that Eboué, like some of his colleagues, ever used any cruel or unusual methods.
On his way out of the colony to go on leave he met with Augagneur in Brazzaville in July 1921 to explain himself. Eboué pointed out that his region had the largest population in Ubangi-Shari, which was true, and that it was logical that the prisons should have a larger population than others. Doubtless he also explained his attitudes toward work. Augagneur told him he understood and praised Eboué in a general way, promising support for promotion in the near future. He probably remained suspicious of Eboué, however, and Eboué left for France and Cayenne, where two important changes in his life were imminent.
By 1921 Felix Eboué was thirty-seven years old, a bachelor with two sons—Henri, born in 1912 of a Mandjia mother, and Robert, born in 1918 of Eboué’s Banziri wife. Apparently Eboué had once been engaged to marry a Guianese, but plans changed, and he seemed content with his two sons, whom he recognized legally. His sister, Cornélie, had a friend whom she encouraged Eboué to court: Eugénie Tell, twenty-nine years old, had been educated in France and was working as a schoolteacher at Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. Her father, Herménégilde Tell, was director of the prisons, the first Guianese to hold this high post. In addition, he headed a local Masonic lodge and had many contacts in France and Africa, where his close friend Blaise Diagne had been elected to the French Parliament.
Marriage to Eugénie Tell would be convenient: new contacts would help in promotion, his two children would have a mother, and his life could achieve a new stability. However, all accounts of their twenty-two years of marriage indicate clearly that deep affection and love developed over time. And, on June 14, 1922 Eboué, giving in to the religious sentiments of his mother, wed Eugènie in the Catholic church of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni.
One month later Eboué completed the picture of the successful Creole by joining the Cayenne lodge of Freemasons, La France équinoxiale. This action, too, would provide a wealth of new friends because freemasonry under the Third Republic was popular among political figures and civil servants. It was also powerful, forming a secret network of information and mutual help, particularly within the colonial administration. Joining this society was consistent with Eboué stoicism. The association of elites for discussions and reform of society appealed to him. The lodges had close ties with the socialist and radical parties and supported provocative political positions. For example, the federation of lodges to which the Cayenne lodge was affiliated resolved in 1922 “that natives should be educated to be on a level with the white and that natives in the colonies should be represented in parliament.” 15
Thus, with marriage contract and Freemason membership, Eboué’s life changed. And he, Eugénie, and Henri—who had been staying with Eboué’s mother—sailed for France. Because Eugénie soon became pregnant, Eboué requested an extension of leave in Paris, taking advantage of the time to complete his degree in law and to take some courses in anthropology. Eugénie met all his friends, with the exception of René Maran, who was still in Africa working as a colonial official.
In 1921 Maran had published Batouala, a novel about life in Africa from an African point of view. The book, whose introduction contained some sharp criticisms of colonialism, won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, and Eboué was filled with pride because this black man won. In addition, Eboué doubtless had contributed some details about African life—including Somale. He thought that the delay in his promotion might have been related to the book’s publication. For this reason and because his wife began to doubt she would be happy in Africa, Eboué applied to the ministry of colonies and other agencies for a post in Paris.
In January 1923 the ministry promoted him to administrator first class, and Governor-general Augagneur asked for his speedy return to French Equatorial Africa, showing his respect for Eboué despite the full prisons at Bambari. Eboué obtained a further extension of his leave for the benefit of Eugènie, who gave birth on March 17, 1923, to their first and only daughter, Ginette. Five months later the three of them set sail for Africa, leaving Henri at school.
In Ubangi-Shari Governor Lamblin assigned Eboué to direct the Lower Mbomou region in the east. This area, inhabited by Zandé and Nzakara, had the only important monarchs left in the colony, and Eboué was fascinated by Sultan Hetman, who had cleverly supported French expansion for his own benefit. Hetman’s services would be needed again because of a decline in French authority: taxes had not been collected recently, exports declined, and the people showed a general dissatisfaction with the colonial administration. A dynamic program might revive the area’s economy. Because of increase demand for cotton in France, Eboué and other began to experiment with this plant.
In early 1924 cotton seeds sent from Bangui were planted. Eboué and his colleagues had distributed them to local leaders such as Hetman, who in turn distributed them to their people, as they were instructed, or to slaves. The experiment failed because of lack of experience and insufficient rainfall. The following year boded well for the colony in all ways, however. Governor Lamblin finally abolished the porter system and insisted that companies use trucks on the new roads. (Ubangi then had 3,800 kilometers of roads, the largest system in French Equatorial Africa.) Another good sign was the disappearance of the old-style large companies. Africans were now free to sell their products to the highest bidder, and they had money to spend on consumer goods 16. The stage was set for industrial agriculture controlled by Africans, similar to the peanut industry in Senegal and the coffee industry in Ivory Coast.
The year 1925 had to be a success! To prepare himself for it Eboué read everything he could lay his hands on. René Maran, back in France, sent him books and articles, but the Belgians proved to be most helpful of all. On the south side of the Mbomou river they were getting good results with an American variety of cotton. Eboué entered into close relations with the Belgian administration and with businessmen who already had considerable economic influence in Ubangi. He obtained precious seeds from them and began his own experiments.
Introduction of cotton meant long tours and absences from Bangassou, the administrative capital. Eugénie, busy with her baby and Eboué’s son Robert, who had joined them, gave birth in May 1924 to another child, Charles. With such responsibilities she could not bear her husband’s absences. She also feared the drumming in the night, the thunderstorms during the rainy season, and the general loneliness of an administrator’s wife. She begged Eboué to leave Africa, but he warned her his career would be broken if he did. He rushed back to Bangassou when he could, but the governor’s warning about another crop failure kept him in the field.
The effort paid off. There was enought rain, and the Africans had taken proper care of the plants. Between January and March 1926 the harvest and sale took place, and for several weeks Eboué moved exuberantly from village to village supervising production. The results were spectacular: 180,000 kilos of cotton transformed the economy of Lower Mbomou in the space of one year.
To Eboué must go the credit. Lower Mbomou was the only successful region in the colony that year although others had conducted their own experiments. For the first time in the history of Ubangi-Shari, the Africans had a significant surplus of money after the payment of taxes. Businesses quickly shipped in cloth and other manufactured products to satisfy the needs of a new market 17
Like so many victories in life, this one was bittersweet. The personal satisfaction was there, but Governor Lamblin seemed to want to take the public bows; much worse were the complaints of the old companies that depended on the purchase of ivory and rubber from the Africans. Articles mysteriously appeared in colonial magazines and reports were written accusing Eboué of creating a famine since cotton cultivation allegedly prevented Africans from collecting or producing food. Behind the attack was the economic interest of businessmen who feared that other companies would benefit from the new crop.
A furious Eboué submitted his own article to the magazine Le Monde colonial illustré. At the same time, he prepared for the governor a draft decree setting forth the organization of the production and sale of cotton. Because of his growing suspicion of private business, Eboué proposed strict government control of the market, a minimum purchase price, and assurance that France would have the right of first refusal. The Belgians seemed more dynamic than their neighbors and Eboué feared their economic power in the colony, so he worked with a French businessman, Marcel Bénard, of a Paris banking family, to set up a French company for the processing and purchase of the product.
In a very brief period of time cotton had been firmly implanted in the colony’s economy, and Eboué felt he could go on leave in June 1926. He had hoped to see his mother, but she died in March and he had to travel to Cayenne to settle her estate. While there, he advanced in the hierarchy of the Freemasons and received word that he had been named chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
Again in Paris, he spent long hours with Senegal’s representative in parliament, Blaise Diagne. Rising black bureaucrats had similar interests and kept in close contact with each other and with the few African and West Indian politicians of importance. They pledged mutual support, seeing in their own personal success proof that black elites could obtain equality with white elites within the French nation. Diagne promised to help Eboué advance, although by the time Eboué left for Africa at the end of 1927 no decision on his promotion had been made.
The Ubangi-Shari he found on his return was undergoing another difficult period. The Baya people in the west rebelled against the French, and recruitment of workers for the new railroad-which the French finally decided to build from Brazzaville to the coast-challenged further the equanimity of administrators. Like the system of porterage, railroad recruitment paid little heed to the African workers’ needs. Ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ignorant of the difficult tasks expected of them, the workers died in shocking numbers. Eboué’s labor quota for the Kémo-Gribingui region, which he headed during most of 1928, accounted for less than ten percent of the total—520 out of 6,075 for the entire colony that year—but most of the workers probably never returned 18
Africans fled this death sentence by hiding in forest areas or by crossing the river into the Belgian Congo. Eboué, in a coded telegram to the governor, said: “Many natives have fled into the bush. I intend to have them found and request authorization to modify recruitment plan to take them for railroad rather than those who stayed to cultivate.” 19 In 1929 he recruited workers from the area of Bambari, capital of Ouaka, where the governor reassigned him.
Eboué found old friends at Bambari and happily administered the region from 1929 to 1931, still as an administrator first class. Governor Lamblin and Governor-general Antonetti supported Eboué’s prorntion to administrator in chief, the highest rank in the corps, but the nomination was stopped at the ministry. Complaints about this matter to the Freemasons brought discreet promises of action. Eboué also wrote to West Indian politicians such as Gratien Candace, who represented Guadeloupe in the Chamber of Deputies. The ministry defended itself sharply against Candace’s letter, implying racial prejudice, and Eboué received no promotion.
Work continued at Bambari. Gold had been discovered at Rohandji, near the post, and Marcel Bénard, the banker who had helped set up a cotton company in the Lower Mbomou, created the Compagnie équatoriale des mines to exploit it. Eboué purchased shares in this company while recruiting workers for it (administrators were allowed to own shares of corporations working in their areas despite what might seem to be possible conflicts of interest). He often traveled to Rohandji to observe the work there, and his wife—now more at home in Ubangi-Shari—enjoyed accompanying him. In 1930 Ginette was seven and Charles was six, old enough to free Madame Eboué a little; Henry and Robert attended school in France.
Eboué and his wife continued his researches into African culture and he sent René Maran his latest findings, but he was a little bored. He studied the upcoming parliamentary elections and asked his father-in-law’s opinions about his chances in Guiana. Fortunately Eboué’s career took a turn for the better; at the end of 1930 he received his long awaited promotion to administrator in chief, and one month later his friend Blaise Diagne became undersecretary of state for the colonies. The Eboué family left Bambari for France in March 1931.
That year was to be important for the nation, and it would be useful for an ambitious administrator to be in the capital. The international colonial exposition was opening to promote the colonies; Diagne held a high position; and elections were on the way. Eboué spent most of his time at the exposition, attending in particular the exhibits on French Equatorial Africa. At the opening on May 20, 1931, he met old colleagues as well as businessmen he knew. In June he traveled to Belgium apparently for a colonial conference; back in Paris he attended an international congress of anthropologists and prehistory archaeologists, at which he gave a paper on Ubangi-Shari. Part of that report also appeared in La Revue du monde noir, edited bv West Indian intellectuals.
After a brief trip to Cayenne to settle the affairs of this father-in-law who had recently died, Eboué met with Blaise Diagne. The undersecretary of state was working to have Eboué appointed secretary-general of Martinique. In such a position his chances for a governorship would be excellent. Secretaries-general ran the day-to-day administration of a colony under the direction of the governor, and they could replace the governor temporarily. Acting as governor—if the latter went on leave, for example—gave a man the chance to prove he could do the job; thus, if the governor were to retire or be transferred, the secretary-general would be well placed to try for promotion. Such appointments were more complicated in the West Indies than in Africa because of the presence of locally elected politicians. In addition, Antillean sensitivity to fine color differences among blacks meant that fair-skinned Martiniquans might object to the appointment of a man of Eboué’s darkness. Henry Lémery, Martinique’s very fair-skinned and conservative senator, did in fact object, but Diagne was too well placed and the nomination went through.
The West Indies. 1932-1934
On January 26 a presidential decree named Félix Eboué secretary-general of Martinique, and he prepared to leave in two weeks. Just before his departure, however, he met with other Guianese to sign an agreement about the forthcoming legislative elections. A white journalist had held Guiana’s seat in Parliament, and many Creoles thought he should be replaced. Some of them supported a more liberal white; others, like Eboué, thought a black should represent the colony. Eboué wrote friends that blacks could do the job, just as Candace represented Guadeloupe and just as Diagne represented the citizens of Senegal. It is significant that Eboué chose these two examples because both Candace and Diagne were darker-skinned than other black politicans. In the West Indies and in Africa Eboué consistently opposed special advantages for people of Euro-African ancestry. Finally, the Guianese agreed to support two Creoles instead of a white, and Eboué left for the Caribbean.
Guianese politics were probably simpler than those in Martinique, and soon after his arrival in Fort-de-France, the capital, Eboué learned the various ins and outs of the delicate and prickly relationship between the colonial administration and the elected officials. The reason for this intensity had to do with the distribution of favors such as jobs, scholarships, promotions, and the governor’s influence over elections. A governor could weaken or strengthen the position of a deputy or senator by rewarding his friends and supporters and even by insuring electoral victories through failing to prevent corruption or voter intimidation. On the other hand, an elected deputy could weaken a governor’s position by raising questions in Parliament to embarass a minister of colonies, or he could strengthen the position of the governor by writing letters of support.
The politicians Eboué found in Martinique were masters of intrigue, and the 1932 elections were preceded and followed by plot and counterplot. One of the two deputies, Joseph Lagrosillière, was trying to displace the governor and Senator Lémery. The governor was supported by Lémery and by the other deputy, Alcide Delmont. Each side blamed the other for various local scandals. On July 15, 1932, Governor Louis Gerbinis left for France to testify at the trial of Lagrosillière, accused of involvement in certain illegal activities, and Gratien Candace, then undersecretary of state for colonies, supported Eboué’s nomination as acting governor.
From July 15 to August 23, 1932, Eboué acted as governor of a colony for the first time in his life, and he enjoyed it immensely—at first, anyway. Other good news came, for his book on Ubangi-Shari—based on materials collected over the years—began to appear in installments in the prestigious L’Afrique française, and his article on sports in Africa was published in Le Monde colonial illustré 20. Eboué’s friends moved from success to success: Maran’s reputation as a writer grew, and Yvon Delbos, a fellow sportsman, was an increasingly important deputy in Parliament. Eboué loved the parties of sophisticated Fort-de-France, and he faithfully attended Masonic meetings at Les Disciples de Pythagore lodge, which welcomed him as a representative of La France équinoxiale of Cayenne. The fact that this was also Lagrosillière’s lodge did not go unnoticed among the deputy’s political opponents.
The following year, 1933, rumors of Gerbinis’s possible retirement grew; he was already sixty-two, two years beyond the age at which he could retire, and when he went on leave in June 1933 many assumed he would never return. Gerbinis, Delmont, and others opposed again making Eboué acting governor, suspecting then that Eboué might favor Lagrosillière and his friends. On his side, however, Eboué had an impressive array: Blaise Diagne, Lagrosillière, Candace, René Maran, plus Yvon Delbos and Maurice Sarraut, who ran the influential newspaper La Dépêche de Toulouse. An Eboué friend, the journalist Roger Dévigne, knew Sarraut well, and doubtless the latter communicated favorable comments about Eboué to his brother Albert, who conveniently was minister of colonies. Eboué became acting governor on June 4, 1933.
Eboué’s interim lasted for seven months, and he got a full taste of Carribean politics and problems. Although no labor conflicts erupted, problems in the school system shook the colony, and the mysterious death of the editor of a communist newspaper caused an uproar in left-wing and student circles. A growing group of young West Indian intellectuals, who had called for radical political change, saw in the death of the journalist the white hand of sugar interests. The affair sparked a protest meeting in Paris attended by Eboué’s son Henry, who also signed a petition demanding justice in this case. Any such protest would naturally be labeled “red” in those days, so Eboué was deeply embarrassed and then infuriated by Henry’s actions, which he thought might hurt his career.
Despite the problems and tensions, Eboué and his wife wanted to stay in Martinique. In November 1933, after five months as acting governor, he wrote to René Maran: “I have keenly wanted to be where I am, and [this is] where I want to be kept.” 21 Many Martiniquans, too, were happy to see a black man at the head of their administration.
Surprisingly, Gerbinis returned to the colony in early January 1934, and the pushing and pulling over the next three months between supporters of Gerbinis and Eboué’s friends in Paris determined the decisions of the new minister of colonies, Pierre Laval. Diagne was ill (he died in May) and could be of little help; Lagrosillière had more legal troubles; and Sarraut was out of the ministry. Laval decided to remove both Gerbinis and Eboué at the same time and by so doing avoided displeasing the different sides too much. He retired Gerbinis as part of a depression austerity program and gave Eboué a not unattractive position in West Africa.
Sudan Interim, 1934-1936
Back in France on a short leave, Eboué was having some health problems. In December he would be fifty years old, and at the time he was considerably overweight. He was already hard of hearing because of an untreated ear disease from Ubangi days and he was suffering from gout. According to the physicians he saw, the uric acid in his blood was too high. He therefore “took a cure,” as they called it, in Vittel. Feeling better after a rigid diet of milk, thin soups, lean meat, and no alcohol, Eboué and the family (except Henry) left Bordeaux the last day of July 1934 on the S.S. America for Dakar and the trip by railroad to Sudan to become secretary-general and acting governor.
He felt at somewhat of a loss in Sudan because he could never know this huge colony—today the twenty-third largest country in the world—from the bottom up the way he had known Ubangi. Yet he stayed for two years, from August 1934 to September 1936, and acted as governor for almost half that time. The experience
was a rich one and quite calm compared with the spicy Antilles.
By mid-1935 Eboué had visited all twenty-two cercles into which the colony was divided. He found an essentially Muslim and hierarchized population with a higher level of education than in French Equatorial Africa and began to think about the role of a growing group of educated Africans. Through his conversations with church officials, whose goodwill he scrupulously cultivated by a sympathetic ear and an open purse, he perceived the growing problems between Christian initiated social change and Muslim authority. For the first time Eboué thought French colonial policy needed to provide for a new intermediary status between subject and citizen. His notes show he wanted to call the status noir évolué
For the first time in his career he had contacts with African civil servants whom he considered his equals or almost his equals, and this, too, influenced his view of colonial policy. Fily Dabo Sissoko was probably the most important one. Teacher and then canton chief, this Sudanese conducted anthropological research that interested Eboué. They had many conversations about Sissoko’s work and about the role of black elites in world history. Eboué was much more race conscious than most people knew; in the dedication Sissoko wrote on an article he published and sent to Eboué, he said: “To Félix Eboué—who never despaired of the race.” Eboué kept the article and all others written and sent to him by the Africans 22. He saw these low-ranking clerks, teachers, and canton chiefs as a new African elite who should be encouraged, promoted, and cultivated to insure a continuing alliance with the modernizing colonial administration. They would, in his view, provide a link with precolonial and evolving African society and would be able to maintain order within that society alongside chiefs and others.
But Eboué had no power to undertake major reforms, and his thoughts had to be shelved for almost three years. At the end of 1935 Matteo Alfassa arrived to take up the post of governor of Sudan. Once again Eboué was a mere secretary-general, and partly to try for something higher he went on leave early in 1936, a key year in French history.
The elections of 1936 had been won by a coalition of the left, and Léon Blum, leader of the Parti Socialiste (SFIO), became prime minister of the Popular Front government in the midst of an economic and social crisis. Marius Moutet, also a Socialist, took charge of the ministry of colonies in June 1936, and Yvon Delbos, Eboué’s friend, became minister of foreign affairs. With a Socialist government in power, a friend at the Quai d’Orsay, and an excellent record in the colonies, Eboué was in an excellent position to be promoted to a governorship.
Coincidentally, the ministry was looking for a way to solve a current uproar in Guadeloupe, Martinique’s sister colony to the north. The 1936 election had brought more than the usual uproar and conflict. The governor, Louis Bouge, was already on bad terms with at least one major politican, and many thought he showed racist tendencies. The spark setting off this year’s explosion was that white gendarmes fired on black demonstrators, and one important political figure went into hiding when Bouge ordered his arrest. The ministry decided to recall Bouge, and Eboué’s friends calculated that if he were named acting governor and could solve the current conflict he would be well placed to claim the governorship. A group of progressive-minded men had been elevated to high positions in the Popular Front government and administration; their pro-black sentiments combined with Delbos’s and Lagrosillière’s weight worked, and on September 29, 1936, a decree named Eboué acting governor of Guadeloupe.
Guadeloupe’s 300,000 population slightly exceeded Martinique’s, and the colony consisted of a series of islands instead of just one. Each island and the different regions of the two largest islands sheltered several fiefdoms of politicans whose conflicts rivaled those of the fabled Chinese warlords even though the rewards they fought for were of infinitesimal importance on the world stage. As in Martinique, the sugar mills provided most income; unlike the situation in Martinique, absentee investors controlled them.
Eboué’s arrival in this colony on October 21, 1936 brought out the best in Antillean society-a warmth and cordiality and at least the appearance of solidarity 23. In a letter to his wife, who had remained in Paris to keep an eye on his promotion at the ministry of colonies, the new acting governor wrote: “Excellent first impression. The population is showing some pride in seeing me govern their island. You should see the joyful smiles on their faces. The Martiniquans gave me a lot of [good] publicity.” 24
When the music celebrating his arrival had died down, Eboué worked quickly to lead the administration. With Jean de La Roche, a white he knew in Martinique, he prepared speeches to the population, a statement to the elected Conseil Général, and a plan to solve the disorders that necessitated a change of leadership in the first place. He revoked his predecessor’s order to arrest a local politician and convinced the ministry to recall to France the white gendarme seen as responsible for the shootings. He traveled quickly around the two main islands making speeches and greeting people, and he settled dock and sugar workers’ strikes in good order.
On October 31 Eboué proposed gradual extension of Popular Front laws, already applied in the metropole, to the colony of Guadeloupe. They included limitations on the work week, rights of collective bargaining, and other progressive measures. This began to disturb businessmen, as well as the two deputies, Maurice Satineau and Gratien Candace, who wondered how Eboué would use his soaring popularity.
Satineau, the more volatile of the two, had already openly requested Eboué to help his local political party through his agent in Pointe-à-Pitre. Never a man to engage in subtleties, Satineau wrote: “I confirm that I have complete confidence in him, and I am asking you to reserve a warm welcome to the steps he will take with you in the interest of my party and my friends.” 25 Eboué responded stiffly without committing himself. He could ill afford to offend.
Then the ministry retired his predecessor, and the way seemed open. Oddly, the decision to promote Eboué to the rank of governor and then to name him to Guadeloupe seemed to be floating in the sea of bureacracy. Eugénie and some close friends reported that certain high-ranking officials opposed the advancement. Candace seemed cool to the Guadeloupe appointment despite his support over the past years; the deputy did not favor Popular Front reforms. Eboué wrote to Yvon Delbos and Henry Bérenger, Guadeloupe’s senator since 1912 and chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Senate. On November 29 the general council passed a motion praising Eboué and affirming its confidence in him.
As usual in such circumstances, Eboué became moody: the world had abandoned him and friends could not be trusted. But finally the minister decided in his favor, and on December 4, 1936 the president of the republic, Albert Lebrun, promoted Eboué to the rank of governor third class and appointed him governor of Guadeloupe. In the flood of praise and telegrams in which Eboué swam he liked one statement in particular: a Cayenne newspaper, L’Observateur, said that the appointment proved France wanted to show the world that there are no inferior races. This is the first time, the writer said, that a truly black man had been named governor 26
Thus, Governor Félix Eboué prepared for the triumphal arrival of his wife and threw himself once again into his work, which brought successful returns. Although the worldwide economic depression had damaged Guadeloupe’s fragile colonial economy, sugar prices rose in 1936 so that workers could expect more money. Eboué increased the budget for the colony. Exports of refined sugar increased from 40 million kilos in 1936 to 61 million in 1937. Banana exports increased, too, so that despite devaluation of French currency, the economy improved 27
Encouraged by the economic progress, Eboué traveled widely; he was the first governor in twenty years to visit the small island of Désirade. He started an expansion of educational facilities and reclamation of swampland for new housing. He encouraged cooperation between Guadeloupe and Martinique.
In the midst of this Caribbean sunshine a storm appeared foreshadowing the tropical hurricane just out of sight. Strikes always took place at the beginning of the sugarcane cutting season in December and January because this was the only time cutters and hawlers could put pressure on owners. If the cane were not cut and processed, it would rot. Similarly a dockers’ strike in April meant the loss of the banana crop. Thus, strikes began here and in the sugar mills.
Eboué suspected the hand of Maurice Satineau in these strikes. The deputy spent considerable time in Guadeloupe and because Eboué refused to serve his friends in the manner expected Satineau began to bate the governor. In addition, some people believed that the deputy had been recruited by some big businessmen—worried about the minimum wage laws, Eboué’s recent price ceiling on retail sales goods, and his suggestion of a property tax—to undermine the governor. He began insulting Eboué in his newspaper, La Voix du peuple, and he wrote to Marius Moutet demanding the governor’s removal. The Freemasons and other friends counterattacked with messages of support, and Moutet refused the demand.
Gratien Candace entered the fray as the senatorial elections approached. He wished to finish his parliamentary career comfortably as a senator whose nine-year term of office and limited constituency guaranteed a safe seat. (Only about 315 men voted for senator; they were the “notables” such as mayors and members of the Conseil Général.) But Bérenger, a friend of Yvon Delbos, had supported Eboué’s nomination as governor, and Eboué thought an alliance with him would serve his career. Governors were supposed to be neutral in elections, but everyone knew they played a key role in the choice—either directly and blatantly by permitting ballot-box stuffing or indirectly by giving advice and lending their prestige to one candidate or the other. Eboué played the indirect role by advising Bérenger, taking a poll for him, and letting people associate the names Eboué and Bérenger. Candace railed against Eboué in his newspaper, La Démocratie sociale, but he had little influence on the government.
Satineau and Candace thus probably celebrated the fall of the government in 1938. Georges Mandel, more interested in the course of German rearmament than in the colonies, took over the colonial ministry. Unfortunately for Eboué, Mandel and Bérenger were reportedly on bad terms because of some old and complex disagreements. Thus could enemies prepare the fall of Eboué on the small stage of the Caribbean hen the curtain fell on the Popular Front.
The details of the maneuvers have been lost, but Mandel resolved to recall Eboué, and Satineau and Candace knew about this decision before the governor. On July 13, 1938, Satineau sent the following telegram from Paris to his friends in Guadeloupe: “Have obtained recall Governor Eboué.” The following day they printed the telegram and distributed it around the colony. A copy was brought to Eboué, who immediately telegraphed the ministry for a telegram of support to counteract what he supposed to be a canard. Mandel replied on July 15 with a
terse, coded telegram: “I am asking you to come here as soon as possible; to give temporary authority to the secretary-general; and to instruct him to observe a strict neutrality during the forthcoming senatorial election campaign.”
Furious about the implication he had acted improperly and that Satineau seemed to have had a special influence at the ministry, Eboué and his family quickly packed. He refused to believe he would not return after the appropriate explanations, and his friends sent telegrams and letters of support. Two Masonic lodges appealed to Grand Orient headquarters—the leading Masonic federation—and the union of civil servants appealed for help to the central trade union in Paris, the CGT. On July 26 Eboué left Guadeloupe after a large and warm send-off by the people of Pointe-à-Pitre.
In Paris Eboué waited for vindication. Mandel sent an inspector to investigate Candace and Satineau’s claims; his report absolved Eboué of any wrongdoing although he wrote that the governor might have inadvertently left the impression of partiality. On October 23 Bérenger won the election overwhelmingly, and popular singers predicted Eboué’s speedy return. Eboué awaited the good news, but Bérenger became silent and cold. Other friends cheered him. Behind the scenes Satineau and Candace worked against him.
Mandel called Eboué to the ministry and abruptly informed him that he would not return to Gaudeloupe but would instead go to Chad, in French Equatorial Africa. To lessen the blow Mandel raised Eboué prematurely to the rank of governor second class. He also indicated that Chad might have an important role to play in the growing tensions between France and Italy and seems to have promised Eboué a better post after some months if he would cooperate. On November 19, 1938, the decree was issued.
This appointment amounted to a demotion because the colony did not then have a governor. An administrator-in-chief ran its affairs since the reorganization of French Eouatorial Africa in 1937 and he could do nothing without the approval of the governor-general in Brazzaville. Mandel had to create a lieutenant governorship for Eboué, but even so Eboué would no longer be able to communicate directly with Paris as he had done in Guadeloupe.
Obedient and downcast Eboué planned his return to the heart of Africa. To cheer him up Lagrosillière and others organized a party on January 21, 1939. Marius Moutet and many friends attended. Early the following morning Chad’s new governor took what was proably his first airplane trip, going from Paris to Africa by way of Marseilles and then on to Algiers, Gao, and Fort-Lamy, the capital ofChad.
The house waiting in that dusty, grey town reminded Eboué of some of the simple dwellings of his early days as an administrator third class. The buildings, equipment, and material belonging to the administration were deficient in every way, and conflict was sharp between the civil administration and the military. On the bright side, Eboué found some old French Equatorial Africa hands and even a cousin.
Shortly after his arrival he began his usual tours and tried to organize his administration by bringing in friends such as jean de La Roche to occupy key vacant posts. He also made a strenuous but useless effort to increase the autonomy of the colony to facilitate decisionmaking and to increase his power.
Madame Eboué arrived in Fort-Lamy in March and found the accommodations disgusting. She had left Ginette in school in Paris, where Charles was attempting to enter military school. Robert studied for his baccalaureate examinations, and Henry got a job in Senegal. The Chad appointment must be temporary, Eboué and his wife reasoned, and—convinced it had sufficiently purged them of their alleged sins—they planned to go on leave about July 1939. Lagrosillière worked to have Eboué named governor of Martinique, governor of Cameroon, or maybe even the head of a proposed federation of the Caribbean colonies. Eboué also savored the thought of running against Satineau in the forthcoming elections in 1940.
He shelved these projects as the international scene deteriorated. When the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, thus beginning World War II Eboué could not desert Chad. Cameroon, coveted by the Third Reich, shared a frontier with Chad, and the Italians in Libya—also one of the colony’s neighbors—tried to undermine French authority. Improving communication to ease troop movements toward the border with Libya, recruiting African troops, and insuring African loyalty and cooperation depended on steady leadership.
The attitudes of African authorities took on a greater importance than ever before. Eboué cultivated the friendship and loyalty of key chiefs and sultans, including Muhammad Ourada, sultan of Ouaddai, traditional leader of almost 250,000 souls. Then he chose Henri Laurentie, who also respected African traditional authority, to direct the affairs of this region. As the war news got grimmer and as Laurentie’s relations with the French military worsened, Eboué brought him to Fort-Lamy to work closely with him. But even with this help, Eboué fell into a state of depression again and requested leave; in March 1940 the governor-general, Pierre Boisson, refused.
By spring 1940 the war took a sharp turn for the worse. German forces moved swiftly into Belgium and Holland in May, and France braced for the worst. Frenchmen thought they had a strong army and sufficient defenses in the Maginot Line, but the enemy skirted neatly around the cement fortresses in early June and moved toward Paris. The Italians attacked from the southeast, and the French government moved to Bordeaux to escape the onslaught. Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned on June 14. Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, hero of World War I, took his place in the midst of chaos and flight. On June 17 the French armed forces surrendered to the Germans.
For the next week colonial governors agreed the struggle must continue. Boisson and Eboué shared this view. Both had tried to prepare French Equatorial Africa for the conflict, and they saw no reason to stop now. The proposed organization would be called the “Bloc africain,” according to several colonial officials.
The signature on June 22, 1940, of an armistice between Marshal Pétain and the Germans, providing for a quasi-autonomous French government in southern France while the enemy occupied the north, including Paris, changed enthusiasm to obedience and submission. French Equatorial Africa had looked to its stronger neighbors in French West Africa and in North Africa for leadership. Everyone waited for action by Admiral Nogués, head of the colonial administration in Morocco, but he apparently feared a German invasion and declined to continue the battle. Marshal Pétain demanded obedience and promised that no German or Italian invasion of French colonies would take place. The British sinking of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir the first week in July gave Pierre Laval, second in command to Pétain, ammunition for his anti-British campaign.
Felix Eboue and General Charles de Gaulle,circa1943.
The British, now alone in the war against Hitler, had launched a campaign in June to rally the French colonies to their side. Charles de Gaulle, a relatively unknown brigadier general, had broadcast appeals over the BBC in an effort to organize his compatriots, but he had little immediate influence. Britain needed a French involvement in the war effort because of the location of the French colonies in between the British colonies, because the French possessions might be able to provide a French leader such as de Gaulle with weapons or the money to buy them, and because they felt painfully the need “to give a broad international character [to the war effort] which will add greatly to our strength and prestige and will demonstrate to the world that we are fighting to restore freedom of oppressed peoples of Europe.” 28
Eboué and Laurentie responded favorably to their messages; but in equatorial Africa the British considered Cameroon to be of far greater importance than Chad, and they had little contact with the colony’s leaders.
To encourage French cooperation the British began a sea blockade of their colonies so they could neither export their products nor import food and manufactured goods. Eboué and Laurentie consulted with the British, but they were waiting for Boisson to act. Eboué requested that the British governor of Nigeria send a delegation to Fort-Lamy to discuss a continuation of the war effort and the meaning of the blockade. Cooperation would mean an end to the blockade and even the purchase of local products for which the British had “no use whatsoever,” 29 but they had no weapons to offer. With respect to Cameroon, for example, Bernard Bourdillon, governor of Nigeria, and his colleague the commander of British forces in West Africa told the foreign office that they “could not support the French in Cameroons if they were attacked by French troops from elsewhere.” 30 That was exactly the reason why several Frenchmen hesitated.
Meanwhile Pétain’s government reorganized itself. The marshal became head of state, Laval prime minister, and Eboué’s old opponent from Martinique, Senator Henry Lémery, took over the ministry of colonies. Pierre Boisson agreed to cooperate with the new government, then located at Vichy, and they named him high commissioner over the colonies. Traveling through Fort-Lamy on his way to his new headquarters at Dakar, Boisson told Eboué on July 20, 1940, that resistance would be useless and that someday France and the colonies might reenter the war in some unspecified way. On the surface Eboué agreed, but he and Laurentie thought about ways to continue the war effort.
Further to insure loyalty, Vichy sent Admiral Platon to the colonies to explain the armistice and to warn officials that disobedience meant punishment. The threats frightened the governor of Cameroon, and the British decided they could no longer count on him. Bourdillon telegraphed London:
Duala was at one time the bright spot in the picture. Now with the exception of Dakar itself it is almost the darkest, and that in spite of the fact that our economic help was so obviously needed and had so nearly been arranged. I cannot avoid the conclusion that the Germans are devoting special attention to the Cameroons, and that there have been contacts and propaganda of which we have no information. A demand, acquiesced by Vichy, for the return of Cameroons to Germany seems by no means impossible; at any rate German infiltration begin[ning] from Fernando Po and Muni, must be certainly expected 31
Eboué and Laurentie were tormented during these weeks of British and French maneuverings and hesitations. Laurentie’s wife and four children were in France. Of the Eboué children, only Charles was safe. At the last minute Ginette could not leave France, and Henry and Robert had been taken prisoner by the Germans. Colonel Marchand, commander of the military in Chad, hesitated to support the British and General de Gaulle partly out of obedience to Marshal Pétain and partly because he knew his forces had no means to repulse an attack.
A report that Vichy would soon replace the acting governor-general in Brazzaville with a new man known to be loyal convinced the British and General de Gaulle that speedy action was necessary. Vichy loyalists would have to be removed, by force if necessary, and Eboué, the only governor who had never wavered in his support, would have to be strengthened. De Gaulle thus sent four military men and a civilian to French Equatorial Africa to bring the colonies into his movement, and—very important—the British were now prepared to promise military assistance.
On August 23, 1940, René Pleven and Colonel Colonna d’Ornano flew into Fort-Lamy from Lagos. In the next couple of days they discussed de Gaulle’s plans with military men and civilians. When finally they promised three airplanes with pilots, trucks, and other equipment, Colonel Marchand agreed to follow them. Eboué needed no convincing, but he, too, was relieved that the commitment had been made 32. It was decided that Colonel Marchand would announce the colony’s adherence to de Gaulle in order to underscore the military aspect 33, and on August 26, with Eboué at his side, he declared Chad would continue the battle alongside the British and under the leadership of the French general. The signal was given, and on the following day de Gaulle’s representatives linked up with friendly forces in Cameroon and declared that colony would join the movement. On August 28 a group of young officers staged a coup in Brazzaville to join Chad and Cameroon. On August 29 word was received that Gabon would join the rally, but the governor of that colony then changed his mind and it was not until November that Gaullist forces defeated Vichy loyalists. Confusion reigned in Ubangi-Shari for some days, but it joined de Gaulle, too.
Vichy reacted swiftly by dismissing Eboué as governor and by threatening him and others. French West Africa and North Africa remained on the side of Pétain and Laval despite General de Gaulle’s efforts. After he unsuccessfully tried to win the support of Senegal he realized that French Equatorial Africa and Cameroon
would be his only basis for claiming France was still in the war, and he proceeded.
On October 15 de Gaulle flew into Fort-Lamy. He and Eboué had long talks about the war effort before he flew on to Brazzaville to organize a new administration there. On November 9 he wrote Eboué that he wanted him to become governor-general. He had consulted with the British and the Belgians about naming a black man to head this important group of colonies, and they agreed with this choice despite some reservations. The British military mission wrote: “Eboué new governor of A.E.F. [French Equatorial Africa] is by all accounts a fine man but he is a Martinique [sic] native which will not help in Congo or West Africa although it may have some favorable effect on native opinion generally.” 34
Governor-general in French Equatorial Africa, 1940-1944
Eboué had never liked Brazzaville partly because of the antiblack attitude o many of the so-called petits blancs there and partly because he always felt freer in the field. Naturally, however, he accepted the appointment with joy. Laurentie, who would become secretary-general, flew to Brazzaville to help set up the offices and de Gaulle named Colonal Edgar de Larminat to the newly created post of high-commissioner for Free French Africa.
Eboué did not arrive in Brazzaville until December 30, 1940, and de Larminat took many measures before that date for which Africans would blame Eboué. The most significant was, perhaps, the imprisonment and execution of Balali leaders who for years had been demanding a special status and rights. Martial Sinda, a Congolese writing many years later, bitterly and erroneously accused Eboué of the severe repression of the Africans 35. Installed in the governor-general’s residence at the end of December, four days after his fifty-sixth birthday, Eboué would not grant the Balali their demands. He saw his role as keeping the population mobilized for the war effort; but he did take certain initiatives for reform that surprised the Free French Committee in London and de Larminat, none of whom could match his experience and knowledge of the problems of French Equatorial Africa.
On January 19, 1941, Eboué issued a decree that put forward broad principles of decentralization. More authority would be given to the governors and administrators in the field. Then he went on tour to make contact with his subordinates, particularly in Gabon, to find out what problems they faced. Returning to Brazzaville to meet General de Gaulle on April 18, Eboué explained that even in wartime a decentralized administration would be more effective than the centralized, Jacobin pattern typical of France since the revolution of 1789. His antagonists were the high commissioners—de Larminat and then Surgeon general Adolphe Sicé—until the abolition of the office in June 1942.
Of equal interest to Eboué and Laurentie were changes in native policy. On November 8, 1941, Eboué published his famous La Nouvelle Politique indigène, written largely by Laurentie after long consultation. The purpose of the document was to serve as an introduction to three major decrees designed to decentralize power. General de Gaulle’s advisors knew little about the colonies, but because de Gaulle favored some reforms they thought the document would serve to show the world that the Free French planned major changes.
Although the Free French gave much more publicity to this document than either Eboué or Laurentie expected, these same officials ignored or fought the concrete changes subsequently proposed. These measures included the establishment of African courts and African run municipal institutions in Brazzaville and the creation of a new status between subject and citizen that Eboué had been thinking about since his days in the Sudan and called notable évolué. Only after energetic lobbying by Eboué and Laurentie were these proposals adopted.
Other important reforms were the expansion of the education system and the upgrading of African civil servants to a level equal to that of a few of the European functionaries. All governors had had their African protégés and favorites whom they promoted into decent jobs, but most of them were Euro-Africans, sons of French fathers and African mothers. Eboué insisted that no favoritism be shown mulattoes, partly because he had always resented this practice in the Caribbean, and he upgraded a tiny minority of four African clerks who worked in his cabinet. He met frequently with these men, encouraging them to organize themselves into cultural and discussion organizations, and he gave them money. Furthermore, he encouraged them to fight—in peaceful ways—against the segregation and overt racism of Brazzaville. These gestures seem derisory compared with changes soon to come, but in the context of the time many whites considered them subversive.
Other decisions—those concerning the war—were really outside Eboué’s domain although he advised General de Gaulle on certain policies in the Caribbean. which he knew better than anyone else in the general’s entourage. He passed on the orders to increase cotton production and rubber, needed since the fall of Malaysia to the Japanese. Gold mined in Equatorial Africa also helped the Free French, and the British kept their promises, including the one that obliged them to purchase coffee and bananas dumped into the ocean or burned. Gabon’s wood was more useful finding its way into warplanes. And communication between West Africa and the Middle East was no longer in danger.
The personal distress Eboué and Laurentie felt did not abate until December 1942—at least for Eboué. Although Laurentie’s wife had been sent to a concentration camp for helping the French resistance, Eboué’s children slipped out of France and arrived on December 20 in French Equatorial Africa. Ginette remained with her mother and father; Robert and Henry flew in March 1943 to Cairo to rejoin the army, Charles attended pilot training school in England.
At that time in 1943 General de Gaulle was fighting for his political life. British support was never complete, and once General Giraud, who outranked de Gaulle, began to set up his own movement after the Allied invasion of North Africa, his position weakened. Making matters worse, the Americans, who had opposed de Gaulle, began to support Giraud.
Eboué telegraphed his loyalty to General de Gaulle and had his African subordinates do the same. He informed the British and the Americans, who had set up a consulate in Brazzaville, that he would recognize no other leader except de Gaulle. Finally, de Gaulle and Giraud agreed to be co-presidents of the Comité français de la libération nationale, and in August 1943 the committee was officially recognized as the tide turned against the Germans.
A provisional consultative assembly meeting in Algiers in November began to plan for the future of France. The members raised the question of possible African representation and the status of African élites in postwar Frence, subjects of great interest to Eboué. Such questions might be resolved at a meeting of colonial officials scheduled for the end of January 1944 in Brazzaville. René Pleven, minister of colonies, planned a conference to bring about some reforms in the empire, but it is doubtful he wanted or expected anything profound. The choice of Brazzaville was a tribute to Eboué, about whom Colonel Leclerc, a key figure in the Free French movement, wrote, “[his] attitude in 1940 will remain a historic example for all Frenchmen.” 36
The conference lasted from January 30 to February 8. For some observers it represented the beginning of a new age in the colonies; others saw it as another missed opportunity. At the very least, it can be seen as one of a series of attempts throughout colonial history to make politicians and the public more sensitive to the needs and problems in the colonies, and it inspired some African élites to believe changes might give them higher positions 37. Eboué was a little disappointed by the meeting, and he made little mention of it in the short time he still had to live.
The future of his own position troubled some. Eboué had been ill and now could hear only with an aid. Rumors of his replacement circulated. The British sent the colonial office a report about it, but, curiously, they destroyed the document after the war. Eboué fully planned to continue but felt he needed a vacation. Earlier he had been invited to Nigeria but could not go, and a vacation in South Africa, where his white colleagues went, was out of the question. He decided he wanted to go to Egypt and then to Jerusalem and Damascus to renew an association with antiquity that had begun with his study of the Stoics in the Lycée Montaigne. African and West Indian civil servants begged him not to leave.
On the morning of February 16 he, Madame Eboué, and Ginette left Brazzaville by car for what Eboué said would be a three-month holiday. Their driver took them first to the Belgian Congo and then to Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, where they traveled down the Nile by boat to Khartoum to meet Governor-general Huddleston. He made speeches to the British about the French colonies.
From the Sudan the family took the railroad to Cairo, where they arrived on April 4. The history of Egypt fascinated Eboué and he toured the pyramids near Cairo. On April 15, speaking about French colonialism at the French lycée, he felt ill. Physicians put Eboué in a hospital as a precaution, but his health quickly declined, attacked by pneumonia and then uremia. Laurentie, who had been working with René Pleven in Algiers, flew to Cairo to be with Eboué, Madame Eboué, and Ginette. Although Eboué had never had trouble with his heart, his stoutness fatigue, and illness strained it too far. Seven months before his sixtieth birthday, on May 17, 1944, Félix Eboué died.
Eboué, the Symbol
Beyond the circle of family and friends, the West Indian and growing African elites felt Eboué’s loss most keenly. The black governor-general symbolized the France they hoped would permit them access to the highest posts within nation and empire. Burial in the Panthéon in 1949, the monuments raised, and the streets named here and there to honor his memory seemed to confirm a secure place for blacks. Finally pulled along toward independence by neighboring colonies and worldwide anti-imperial sentiments, the same elites and their younger brothers later forgot Eboué or dissociated themselves from him.
Yet the meaning and interest of Eboué’s life transcends the colonial period and the day-to-day politics of the successor states. He belonged to an ethnic or racial minority, and he successfully formulated that identity in a way that permitted his assimilation into a larger national community. Thus, his most intimate friends (and enemies) were Antilleans and Guianese, and he kept his ties with the Caribbean by visits to Cayenne and by struggling to be named governor of Martinique and Guadeloupe. In Africa, by supporting traditional elites and then intermediate elites, he showed his respect for African civilization within the French empire. At the same time he proved his loyalty to France and promoted European values and technology through education, administrative organization, and economic change.
The success of this pluralism depended on decentralization of the decisionmaking process and on administrators who remained a significant period of time in one colony. As an administrator Eboué consciously reshaped orders and took initiatives, and as a governor he encouraged subordinates to do the same while respecting parallel institutions. Success also depended on his contacts above and below, in Africa and in France. Eboué cultivated friendships in all circles—Free-masons, clubs, political parties—and younger elites followed him when they realized the advantages to be gained.
Playing such a game of life on two stages had its risks and costs. Eboué heard and tolerated racist remarks and actions, but he refused to give up his French identity in the face of such provocation. Intense desire to advance up the colonial hierarchy meant pleasing Paris while working within the realities of the colonial state. The development of an economy and new administration meant finding balance between the greed of some businessmen, who had the money, and the naural resistance of Africans, who had the labor.
Eboué attempted to solve these tensions by objectifying them. He studied Stoic philosophers, who had come to terms with their own minority position in Roman empire; he studied and wrote about African civilization, seeking comparisons with what he saw in the Caribbean and Europe; and he read about and discussed colonial policy with colleagues. His heavy smoking and moodiness—even his premature death, perhaps—show he did not successfully cope with all the contradictions in his life.
But these tensions, a superior intelligence, honesty, and ambition made Eboué an innovator within an authoritarian system. It is no coincidence that he is the only black and the only colonial official to rest in the Panthéon. He is both a symbol of the contribution ethnic groups have made within the nation and a symbol of the creative role of the colonial administrator in the unfolding of European, Caribbean, and African history.
Most of my research was conducted in Africa, France, the West Indies, and Guiana between 1967 and 1970 thanks to generous grants from the joint Committee on African Studies of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council and from Howard University. (See Brian Weinstein, Eboué [New York, 1974].) Another grant from Howard University permitted me to examine British documents from World War II in the Public Record Office in 1975. 1 am grateful for this support and for the cooperation of the Eboué family and others who helped me obtain information.
1. Paul Prévot to Brian Weinstein, 6 April 1968. Unfortunately, Mr. Prévot (a notary) found he was unable to give me further information.
2. Nouveaus libres avec tables alphabétiques de prétiques de prénoms (Roura, Fr. Guiana, 1948), p. 32, items 411-414, Archives nationales, section outre-mer (hereinafter cited ANSOM), Paris.
3. E. Maugat, “La Traite clandestine à Nantes au XIXe siècle,” Bulletin de la Société archéologique et historique de Nantes 93 (1954): 162-169.
4. Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison, 1969), p. 258; data are based on British foreign office records.
5. Eboué to Félix Gratien, 10 May 1924, Félix Eboué Papers, Asnières.
6. Notebook, 1929(?), Eboué Papers.
7. République française, journal officiel du Congo-francais 7, no. 1 (1 January 1910): 5-6.
8. Félix Eboué, “Les sociétés d’initiation de l’Afrique noire comparées à la franc-maçonnerie moderne,” Eboué Papers.
9. Catherine Coquéry-Vidrovitch, Le Congo au temps des grandes compagnies concessionnaires, 1898-1930 (Paris, 1972), p. 15.
10. “Rapport densemble pour l’année 1914,” unclassified, Afrique équatoriale française, Oubangui-Chari, ANSOM, Aix-en-Provence, n.p.
11. “Rapports mensuels,” Kouango, 1915, 1916, Archives de la République centrafricaine.
12. “Relevé des exportations,” Contrôle des concessions, Afrique équatoriale française 8 and 12 May 1917, ANSOM.
13. “Rapports mensuels,” Kouango, October 1916, Archives de la République centrafricaine.
14. The governor-general opposed letting him join.
15. Mildred J. Headings, French Freemasonry under the Third Republic, Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Series 66, no. 1, vol. 66 (1948):190, 93.
16. “Rapport économique pour l’année 1925,” 20 April 1926, pp. 6-7, ANSOM, Aix-en-Provence.
17. Coquéry-Vidrovitch, Le Congo, pp. 473-479.
18. Gilles Sautter, “Notes sur la construction du chemin de fer Congo-Océan (1921-1934),” Cahiers d’études africaines 7, no. 26 (1967):259.
19. Telegram no. 28c, 31 August 1928, Archives de la République centrafricaine. Archives for Kémo-Gribingui were located in Bangui in the Ecole nationale d’administration in 1968.
20. He had already published a glossary of African languages, and he was working on other manuscripts.
21. Félix Eboué to René Maran, 21 November 1933, René Maran Papers, in the possession of Madame Camille René Maran, Paris.
22. Eboué Papers.
23. For a study of Antillean society see Brian Weinstein, “The French West Indies: Dualism from 1848 to the Present,” in The African Diaspora, ed. Martin Kilson and Robert Rotberg (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 237-279.
24. Félix Eboué to Eugénie Eboué, 22 October 1936, Eboué Papers.
25. Maurice Satineau to Félix Eboué, 9 October 1936, Eboué Papers.
26. The date was 2 December 1936. The news of the nomination was known a few days before the actual decree. Other governors had African ancestry but were fair in color.
27. République française, Colonie de la Guadeloupe, Bulletin mensuel d’information, January 1938.
28. Telegram, 3 August 1940, FO/371/24329/6291, Public Record Office, London.
29. Cypher telegram from governor of Nigeria, 31 July 1940, FO/371/24329/6291, Public Record Office, London.
30. Telegram, 31 July 1940, FO/371/24329/6291, Public Record Office, London.
31. Telegram from governor of Nigeria, 6 August 1940, FO/371/24329/6291, Public Record Office, London.
32. Note by W. Mack, 27 August 1940, FO/371/24330/6295, Public Record Office, London.
33. According to René Pleven, the choice of Marchand had nothing to do with Eboué’s color. Interview, Paris, 20 June 1969.
34. Telegram from military mission to war office, FO/371/24331/6291, Public Record Office, London.
35. Martial Sinda, Le Messianisme congolais et ses incidences politiques: Kimbanguisme—matsouanisme—autres mouvements (Paris, 1972), pp. 230-231.
36. On a photo dedicated to Eboué, 11 December 1942, Eboué Papers.
37. See D. Bruce Marshall, The French Colonial Myth and Constitution-Making in the Fourth Republic (New Haven, 1973), pp. 102-115.