Louis Gustave Binger
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
Louis Gustave Binger (1856-1936)
There was no lucky star over Louis Gustave Binger when he was born at Strasbourg on October 14, 1856. His father’s profession is unknown, and he died shortly afterward. His widowed mother, Salomé Hummel, settled in the little village of Niederbrorm, where Louis Gustave was placed with a teacher who instructed the youngster along with his own son and two other students. Binger managed to complete the third class of the secondary school curriculum without attending a lycée, and when he was fifteen his mother apprenticed him to an ironmonger. The year was 1871, in which France was compelled to sue for peace and cede Alsace to the newly formed German Reich. Binger was still too young to choose his citizenship, but after a short stay at Pont-A-Mousson he decided in 1872 to remain a Frenchman. The following year he moved to France and took a job with an ironmonger at Sedan while waiting to join the French army
On his eighteenth birthday Binger signed on for five years with the Twentieth Battalion of the chasseurs a pied at Mézières. He made rapid progress; within two years, on July 28, 1876, he was promoted to sergeant major and in 1878 was sent to the Ecole des sous-officiers at Avord. He graduated ninth on the list of 167 noncommissioned officers and was commissioned to the infanterie de marine regiment at Toulon. His personnel report at Toulon, dated 1881, states: “conduct, good; general education, average; family background, obscure; military service, satisfactory.” Binger volunteered for service in a penal battalion at Senegal, a position little sought after in the army, and left for Dakar on January 19, 1882
Binger was a nobody—an impoverished subaltern who had never known the comfort of an affectionate family, friendship, religious faith, or a woman’s love. His personnel file indicates that he was a Protestant; but neither biographical studies nor his own published works give the slightest evidence of religious belief. Some of his biographers suggest, without giving evidence, that he was a Jew. Constantly haunted by poverty—an orphan, an apprentice, a poorly educated, non-commissioned officer who tried his best without being recognized by his superiors—Binger was stimulated by the ideal shared at the time by Frenchmen of all social conditions: a deep love for his defeated country. Much later, when he had reached the age of seventy-five and was invited to sit at Lyautey’s right hand at the inaugural banquet for the colonial exhibition at Vincennes (1931), Binger responded to a journalist’s question, “I was an Alsatian. France welcomed me, and to prove my gratitude I tried to win for her a worthwhile slice of Africa.”
An Alsatian patriot, commissioned at the age of twenty-five and dreaming only of martial glory, might normally be expected slowly to rise by seniority to the rank of major, at best lieutenant colonel, before retiring. Or there was the Ecole de guerre and a brilliant career on the general staff. But to get there he would have to overcome two major obstacles: a second-rate education and a modest social background.
The mainspring of Binger’s personality was his will to survive his resolve to make his way into the elite—to direct his energy, his tenacity, his patience against the injustices of fate. In order to reach the top, he braved a tough apprenticeship and the harsh reality of military discipline to serve a greater good—patriotism. Binger like Brazza had opted for France. But the Corsican Brazza was wealthy, well educated, well connected, and noble-born; Binger had none of these advantages.
On his arrival in Senegal, Binger was ready to shoulder any risk and accept the most dangerous assignments. He volunteered for a post at the yellow fever ridden camp des Madeleines near Dakar. Again he volunteered for an expedition to Casamance (February-April 1882), and then for a topographical mission in Upper Senegal. On May 25, 1883, he advanced by seniority to the rank of full lieutenant. He returned to Toulon in May 1884 but departed in October with an expedition under Captain P. L. Monteil to map the area between the Senegal and Niger rivers and to study the route for a proposed railway from Kayes to Bamako. On his return in August 1885, Binger obtained a temporary appointment to the general staff. Together with Monteil he compiled the standard map of French settlements in the Senegal (published by Challamel in 1886).
During his long stay in Africa Binger had taken a great interest in the indigenous people, especially the Bambara, and learned their language. He wrote a monograph on the subject and sent it to Faidherbe, now grand chancellor of the Legion of Honor, who published it under the title Essai sur la langue Bambara. Faidherbe, working at the time on his book Les Langues sénégalaises, appointed the young lieutenant as his aide-de-camp (January 1886) and sent him on a “linguistic mission” to study Woloff (July-August 1886). Binger did not become a captain until 1888, but he had gained an academic reputation and the violet ribbon of the Palmes acaderniques conferred upon him by the ministry of public instruction.
The way now seemed open to a new profession. Binger had learned to approach the indigenous Africans not as a commandant, but as an ethnographer. Moreover, he had witnessed the rise of a new profession both in France and in Europe as a whole—the métier of an explorer. In 1886 the partition of Africa had begun. The scramble in turn introduced new legal concepts into international law. The ideas of “spheres of action” and “zones of influence” had long been rejected and were still unacceptable to the diplomats at the Berlin conference; but the 1886 Anglo-German and Anglo-French agreements of October 29 and November 1 regarding East Africa introduced them into international public law, and they were accepted in the Anglo-German and Anglo-French agreements of July 1 and August 5, 1890. The boundaries traced upon the map of Africa in turn presupposed exploratory work and treaties of commerce, friendship, or protectorate status signed by African rulers. The new breed of “explorers”—Paul Soleillet used the title on his visiting card—concluded such agreements as a matter of course, with or without the consent of their governments. The Quai d’Orsay was left free to ratify these accords.
There were many new explorers. Olivier Pastré de Sanderval, who had already advocated “peaceful conquest” in his book De l’Atlantique au fleuve Niger par le Fouta-Dialon (1882), strongly praised the new vocation in his study Soudan français: Kahel (1893). During the period 1880-1890 Bayol, Noirot, Monteil, and others all were seeking fame. They looked to the explorer’s crown rather than martial glory, drawing their inspiration from Brazza’s triumphal career, which had begun in 1880. The aspiring explorer usually left on his first journey unknown and almost alone. He faced unexpected dangers and risked his life daily. Either he foundered or he brought back to France a bundle of treaties and new scientific findings of value to humanity as a whole. Within a short time he was famous—the Legion of Honor, gold medals from geographical societies, receptions in the great hall of the Sorbonne, his name inscribed in gilt on leather-bound tomes—prizes given by lycées anxious to honor the energy and patriotism of the author, an expert and prophet journeying on the road that would benefit his country, science, and humane civilization. Brazza, now commissioner for French West Africa, had succeeded. Binger’s ambition stirred.
Binger had studied the route of the projected railroad from Kayes to Bamako. Once this line was completed, there was the question of linking Sudan to the coast. From the Lambert mission sent out by Faidherbe in 1860 to the more recent journeys of Olivier Pastré de Sanderval and Bayol (1880-1881), the French had sought a connection by way of Fouta Djallon between the Rivières-du-Sud and the upper Niger. Binger’s plan was more daring; he wanted to leave Bamako for Sikasso, Tingrela, and Kong, where he would explore the Mossi country before going on to Grand Bassam. Faidherbe backed the scheme. Arthur Verdier, the largest and most restless of the European merchants and settlers on Côte d’Or, was alerted to the project. Between 1878 and 1885 Verdier had served as French résident, and he still claimed this function after a brief tenure by Charles Bour as commandant particulier . Verdier was living at La Rochelle and had delegated his power to agents. He met Binger in the office of Jean de La Porte, a French cabinet minister, and tried to modify the scheme so that the Côte d’Or would serve as point of departure. But the secret leaked out. Verdier promised his cooperation; his agent, Marcel Treich-Laplène, would start from the Côte and join Binger at Kong. Both would conclude treaties of friendship and protection along the way. Verdier offered “generous financial assistance” amounting to half the 20,000 francs to be allotted to Treich
Binger was taking an enormous risk. He was not sure he would return. In February 1888 there was even a rumor of his death. Before departing, however, he settled to the last detail the financial conditions of his assignment. He obtained 35,000 francs, half from the ministry of foreign affairs, and 17,500 francs from the “missions” account of the colonial budget, the latter to be spent before his departure on “barter goods and equipment.” He was authorized to draw the funds from the ministry as a “personal subsidy” of 560 francs a month; his stay in Africa would last twenty-six months; and on his return he found 14,560 francs waiting for him. An order of February 15, 1887, authorized Binger to pursue during his entire journey the official functions of ordnance officer of the grand chancellor of the Legion of Honor. His military pay of 556 francs a month would continue to come from naval funds, bringing him an additional 14,456 francs . If he ever saw France again, he would be rich.
He left Médine at the end of April 1887, the only European in a team of twenty-seven men. After July 8, having sold or distributed his barter goods, he was left with ten donkey drivers, a cook, a groom, and a personal servant; only the last two were armed with rifles . I shall not summarize Binger’s detailed reports concerning his ventures or assess his contribution to geography and other sciences. Suffice it to say that his expedition disproved the notion that the Sudanese heartland was isolated from easy access to the West African coast by a chain of high mountains paralleling the litoral, the mythical mountains of Kong—an important discovery from a strategic standpoint.
Binger’s work made him one of the champions of modern colonization. As he saw it, France had to intervene in the loop of the Niger for the sake of establishing peace, that colonial peace which was indispensable for a colonial development (mise en valeur). Slave raiding prevented “the normal development of the population” and therefore had to be stopped. From the Gold Coast roads must be built and railroads constructed to open up the area’s great supply of gold, wood, rubber, palm oil, pineapples, tobacco, indigo, and cotton and to export Mossi textiles and coffee from Liberia and from local plantations.
According to Binger, the mise en valeur could be brought about only under the auspices of a state that would abstain from meddling with minute administrative details of the incipient colonies.
We believe that direct state intervention will always be bad. Before Frenchmen come to settle, the infant colony will be overloaded with administrative, judicial, prison, and military services, etc.; private initiative will no longer be able to set up a single trading post or wharf, build a road, or fell timber without meddling from government officials.
The colony will be shackled; its development will be strangled by administrative regulations. Merchants will refuse to establish themselves in our colonies and will prefer to settle abroad under British or German protection.
This is not to say that there is no place for state intervention. But its proper object is to favor, by all possible means, the settlement of French citizens in the French colonies.
Why not entrust the development of the Côte d’Or to private companies or to individual concessionnaires, subject to specific guarantees?
The state will have everything to gain without a heavy drain on its budget; it will have a prosperous colony whose tax revenues will greatly exceed its expenditures.
There is no need to rely solely on large companies; the state can also accommodate new enterprises. In return for specific privileges, the state can require various forms of compensation; for example, the setting up of supply depots for food and coal, the construction of wharfs to facilitate the landing of men and supplies, the building of schools, the organization of postal services, assistance to our brave missionaries.
Above all, the state must not demand too much. Pioneer enterprise in these regions is often painful; the beginnings are apt to be followed by years of laborious gropings, fruitless experiments. …
The Côte d’Or is admirably suited to the concessions system; we have nine rivers, each of whose valleys, together with its corresponding coastline, could become a concession. …
Gradually each company would expand its territory inland, would create new trading posts with schools—civilization would thus advance like a wedge into the center of the Niger bend.
Missionary activity would parallel the work of trading companies. On the basis of common interests, it would be easy to reach a peaceful understanding with the indigenous people of the interior
The native policy put forward by Binger reflects notions current at the time. In his work Esclavage, islamisme, et christianisme (1891) and later in Le Péril de l’Islam (1906), Binger, relying on Faidherbe’s authority, rebuked those who believed that black Islam was hostile to Christianity; he stressed the humane nature of slavery as practiced in African societies and preached tolerance. There was nothing original in these views. They had all been put forward by Verdier in his 35 Années de lutte aux colonies (1896). Most contemporary explorers shared them. In his travel notebook, Soudan français: Kahel, Olivier Pastré de Sanderval had written:
It is said that the colonist should follow the customs official, the tax collector, and the subprefect, and in fact these worthies always precede the colonist, whenever they arrive in time. They lead, but no one follows; hence our colonies develop but slowly. A colony, more than any other community, certainly requires an organized authority that will protect infant enterprise against adventurers and even against itself. But there is no need for this authority to belong directly to the state; it should certainly not be accompanied from the start by the restrictions of a rigorous administration 10
And it was well known that the undersecretary of state for the colonies, Etienne, a most influential politician, favored the great companies—though in the absence of an enabling law he did not dare to establish them by decree.
In July 1888 Binger obtained his captaincy; he was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor in March 1889. He had become a great Frenchman, renowned, sought after, admired. The four years between his return to France in May 1889 and his appointment as governor of the Ivory Coast in March 1893 are essential to understanding his personality. He was undoubtedly a great explorer. But to him was Africa a passion, a need, an ideal, as it was to Brazza? Was he impatient to return, now that he had found his vocation and the requisite authority for its exercise?
In September 1889 he resumed his functions as aide-de-camp to Faidherbe, who died two months later, and then to his successor, General Février. In 1890 Binger consolidated his personal fortune; his avarice again is surprising. At the end of his expedition he had convoyed five Africans from Grand Bassam to Gorée without spending the full sum provided for their needs. He asked what he could do to avoid returning the remainder of the money. Haussman, Etienne’s cabinet head, replied on February 24.
Monsieur Deloncle has referred to me the letter in which you ask to be excused from repaying the 256.25 francs remaining from the 1,000 francs remitted to you by the treasurer at Grand Bassam. I regret to inform you that this is impossible. The money entrusted to you was a subsidy paid for the purpose of completing your mission. … The 1,000 francs were destined for a specific purpose, to meet the expense of your journey and that of the five Africans who accompanied you. We cannot pay you more than you have actually spent for this purpose [to do so would require a decree on the part of the president of the republic]. … Don’t you agree, since we have justification on our side, that this would set in motion a very large undertaking for such a petty sum? 11
Binger subsequently had recourse to expedients of a similar kind. In 1894 he was called to Paris from Vichy, where he was taking the baths, and asked to study administrative questions regarding the Ivory Coast. He put in a claim for a special reimbursement for the period from August 30 to October 20. The auditors found the length of his stay excessive, and Delcassé agreed to pay him 600 francs for a month. Binger, who was about to leave Marseilles for Africa, refused to sail unless he were immediately paid the money owed him. The head of the colonial service wired the ministry, who replied on October 24: “Pay.” In the following year Binger was censured for having met the cost of his wife’s passage from Marseilles to Grand Bassam from official funds, on the ground “that she had exceeded her free travel allowance.”
He was paid well for the many expeditions that he led. On December 30, 1898, he was called to Senegal to delineate with the governor-general the boundaries between Senegal, Guinea, and Dahomey. In addition to travel expenses by land and sea, he received for this assignment a special allowance of 3,000 francs charged to the colonial budget—this for a tour of about a month. In January 1900 he was appointed French delegate to a London conference meeting in April to safeguard wild birds and fish; he insisted upon and was granted an allowance of 1,500 francs. He obtained 352.53 francs in 1902 for going to Bordeaux to receive the ashes of Governor Ballay, who had died at Saint-Louis 12
By now Binger had become a wealthy man. On July 12, 1890, he had married Noémie Lepret, whose father owned a “large and prosperous iron foundry.” She brought him a dowry valued at 40,129 francs, with “the hope of inheriting later something between 800,000 and 900,000 francs. ”13
Verdier, after declining to glorify the career of an officer “who might one day rise to the highest ranks,” offered Binger the presidency of a major concessionary company controlling more than 20 million hectares. He was acting on behalf of “a reputable and wealthy financial group” and commented that “Binger accepted the offer without objection, much to my surprise.” Etienne, however, was unwilling to approve a charter as long as the legislature had not authorized the minister to sanction chartered companies. The matter rested there. After a few days, however, Binger called on Verdier to suggest that the two of them, and perhaps other capitalists, might “set up an exploratory company rather than a development corporation.” 14 Verdier’s evidence is perhaps suspect. But, as will be seen, Binger later sought to retire on pension in order to go into business; in 1907 he succeeded in becoming chairman of the Compagnie de l’Ouest africain français 15
It is certain that in 1891 Binger was wavering between several possible choices. He studied for the entrance examination of the Ecole de guerre, took it in September, but failed. Disappointed, he gladly accepted an offer to preside over the French boundary commission for the Côte d’Or. On October 24 he sailed for Africa and soon quarreled with Captain Lang, the head of the British mission. Negotiations were broken off in April 1892. Binger then traveled through the northern territories of the Ivory Coast, concluded a number of protectorate treaties, and returned to Paris in September 16. In the meantime, General Février had placed him once more at the disposition of the navy and in December 1891 had recommended that he be promoted to battalion commander. But Binger failed to secure advancement because he lacked seniority 17
On his return to Paris, Binger was busy with his report on the work of the boundary commission. His future seemed uncertain. There were no prospects for him either in the army or in the world of chartered companies. He had prestige, however—the publication of the two-volume Du Niger au golfe de Guinée further added to his reputation—and had acquired wealth and connections. But he was at an impasse until Delcassé, the minister for the colonies, decided to reorganize the administration of French West Africa. A decree dated March 10, 1893, set up three separate colonies: Ivory Coast, Dahomey, and Guinea. Binger was offered the governorship of the Ivory Coast; on March 20 he was appointed governor third class and a week later he resigned his commission in the army 18
On July 20, 1893, Binger left Bordeaux for the Ivory Coast to take up residence in the government house just completed at Grand Bassam, the capital. His new domain did not amount to much. The skeleton administration consisted of the résident (replaced by the governor), an administrator, a secretary, a treasurer, a physician, a teacher, some occasional interpreters, 200 African soldiers, and 10 policemen headed by a European commissioner 19. Inland penetration had only just begun, but the customs posts set up from 1890 to 1893 at Grand Bassam, Assinie, Half Jack, and Lahou provided sufficient revenue to balance the budget 20
This tiny administrative establishment faced an enormously complex task. The modern republic of Ivory Coast, successor to Binger’s colony, covers an area larger than Western Germany and the Benelux countries. Only a very small portion of this region was under French control when Binger arrived. Inland penetration was difficult. The country was ridden with sicknesses whose causes were still unknown—malaria, blackwater fever, and other tropical diseases.
From the geographical and ethnographical standpoint, the colony was immensely diverse. The Atlantic littoral was flanked by a coastal plain that stretched forty miles or so inland; in the interior the terrain rose gradually to the rain forests. Dense woods, with their lush tropical vegetation, ran from 50 to 200 miles north, broken only by river valleys and clearings; this forest belt contained all manner of valuable timber—mahogany, African teak, and other woods. Staple crops included oil palm, bananas, cassava, and yams. Precipitation decreased in the far interior until a traveler found himself in dense savanna country changing to dry bush toward the distant north.
Ethnically, the country was divided into some sixty different tribal groups. The western part of the forest belt contained Bandama people linked to the Kru of Liberia; they were subdivided into small patrilineal groups scattered through the forests. The eastern forest-savanna region was equally mixed: matrilineal communities famed for craftsmanship and agricultural skills were organized into small states including, among others, the Agni and the Baoulé. The most numerous savanna group was the Mande (Mandigo): Malinke farming communities lived by cultivating millet and keeping cattle; in the so-called Dioula (Dyula), a social more than an ethnic category, the natives made their living mainly from trade, traveling over great distances in search of profit. The Mande people had developed considerable skills as blacksmiths, potters, and artists working in wood and leather; many of them had been influenced by the islamic religion, upon which they imposed their own peculiar stamp. They also achieved political prominence. One of their greatest warriors and state builders was Samory (c. 1830-1900), a leader who used Islam as an instrument of conquest. Samory appealed to the more mobile groups within Sudanic society—traders, wandering scholars and poets, men who had visited European settlements, as against the more traditional chiefs. He was an outstanding soldier and one of the most formidable local rulers encountered by the French. The northeastern region of the country contained a variety of Voltaic peoples, including the Senufo and other groups who lived widely scattered in small communities.
From the French administrator’s standpoint, the country’s ethnic diversity posed both advantages and disadvantages. There was no sense of cohesion. There was no concerted resistance to French penetration. Thus, there was no single powerful state that the French might have used as an intermediary to dominate the country. The colonial establishment headed by Binger had neither railroads nor modern ports. Workshops, repair facilities, hospitals, schools—the entire infrastructure of modern civilization had to be built from scratch.
Only a handful of Europeans—a few settlers, merchants and planters—had come to live in the country; the most active of these was Arthur Verdier, the merchant résident at La Rochelle who had supported Binger’s expedition in 1887. Verdier was always eager to secure monopolies and privileges for the purpose of ousting his competitors. Of these, the most enterprising was an Englishman named Swanzy, who, like Verdier, owned a number of trading posts in the country, a flotilla of river steamers, and some coffee plantations. Some whites were also interested in timber; in 1890 Etienne had ratified agreements concluded by eight Europeans with indigenous chiefs on the subject of cutting mahogany 21. Other entrepreneurs hoped to set up large-scale companies and never tired of submitting unacceptable requests to the ministry. One Monsieur de Beauchamps demanded in 1890 “the right to exploit for a period of fifty years the natural wealth of the territories placed under French protection between the left bank of the Niger and the French settlements on the Côte d’Or … with freedom to operate in the as yet unexplored regions beyond this perimeter.” 22 Another, J. Montet, asked for “a commercial monopoly” within “the entire region from the French posts at the Côte d’Or, from the Tanoe river to the Liberian frontier”; if his request were not granted, he threatened “to settle abroad, with all the capital and goodwill that we still enjoy.” Other companies quarreled over prospecting rights, firms such as the Société frangaise de la Côte-d’Ivoire, supported by the Comte de Fels, the Compagnie Fraissinet, and Société Despagnat; in 1897 the two groups merged under the name Société civile frangaise d’études et d’exploration des gisements aurifères de nos possessions d’Afrique occidentale 23
Verdier continued to step up his demands. On September 20, 1893, he succeeded in obtaining from Delcassé for his Compagnie de Kong a monopoly over the timber rights between Tanoe and Bandama for a period of thirty years, including customs privileges respecting imports for trading posts to be set up at Kong and Bettié. Binger supported the protests of Verdier’s competitors. On September 4, 1895, the company had to be liquidated as it was unable to raise its required capital of 2 million francs 24
The new governor did not stay long in his fief. He arrived at the beginning of August 1893 and departed nine months later with his wife and their small daughter to take a three months’ furlough. Physicians at the military hospital at Vichy examined him on July 27, 1894, and granted him “an additional sick leave of three months” on the ground that he had malaria, aggravated by congestion of the liver and the spleen, anemia, and dyspepsia. These ailments had been contracted on Binger’s various campaigns in Senegal, in the Sudan, and the Ivory Coast; they required a lengthy and expensive treatment. The diagnosis did not prevent Binger from spending nearly three months in Paris (August 30 to October 20). He returned to the Ivory Coast in November 1894 to stay until September 1895. Again in Paris, he asked for convalescent leave, granted by a delgate of the Conseil supérieur de santé des colonies on the grounds of “congestion of the liver and endemic diarrhea” without specifying a time limit. At the end of the year he asked to be retired early for health reasons. The professors of Val-de-Grâce who examined him on October 29 diagnosed
intestinal dyspepsia with frequent attacks of diarrhea. Diminution of the liver and slight enlargement of the spleen. General condition good but requires a period of regular and specific diet. According to information furnished by the patient and that available in his medical file, the patient’s condition began several years ago. The patient took mineral water treatment at Vichy from 1894 to 1896. We therefore conclude that his condition does not appear to be incurable.
The physicians recommended that Binger stay in France for at least a year.
Binger, now forty years old, on November 30, 1895, had been promoted to the rank of governeur de 2e classe. From March 1893 to June 1897 he had spent no more than nineteen out of fifty months in Africa 25. His unwillingness to live on the Ivory Coast did not prevent him from effectively governing the colony but seems to indicate that he was no longer passionately dedicated to the vocation of explorer or frontiersman.
Like all new governors of French West Africa, Binger was concerned principally with running affairs in his own fashion. He preferred to deal with a problem, or a regulation, or a tax, in a manner that would differ from the pattern adopted by his neighbors. The Garde indigène of Ivory Coast was reorganized by an arrêté dated October 29, 1894; the force had its own hierarchy, its own salary scale, and its own uniform. The “interpreters’ corps” set up in July 1898 had a pay scale much lower than those of neighboring territories. Concessionary regulations differed widely from those in the remainder of French West Africa. On his return to Paris, Binger protested against the establishment of a government-general for the whole of French West Africa (by decree of June 16, 1895)—the first attempt at political integration of the entire region. In the following year another decree (September 25, 1896) separated the Ivory Coast; its governor thenceforth corresponded directly with the ministry, required only to forward copies of his reports to the governor-general.
The first problem calling for the attention of Binger and that of his colleagues concerned land and mining concessions. In 1894, for example, Lieutenant governor Cerisier of Guinea republished his regulation of January 18, 1890, which “while awaiting instructions requested from the department,” provided for “temporary permits” of a year in the Tumbo (Conakry) peninsula. He specified in article 10 that “the regulation is solely temporary and will be supplemented by permanent regulations … now being studied.” 26 At Dahomey, Jean Bayol, lieutenant governor of the Rivières-du-Sud, similarly countersigned a regulation issued on February 18, 1890, by Victor Ballot, résident of Porto-Novo, stating that the local government would receive applications for provisional concessions; the relevant documents “will then be transmitted to the proper undersecretary of state for the colonies to determine their acceptance or rejection.” 27
Binger did not bother with such formalities. He drew up his own regulation during the four months he spent in Paris before returning to the Ivory Coast and submitted the draft to Delcassé. The latter replied on June 21, 1894, that on the whole he had no objection but added that “I cannot as yet sanction your scheme in its present form and I cannot permit you to put into effect a measure that does not fall within your functions. Once experience has proven the value of the proposed regulation, I reserve the right of approving the final version that you will then submit to me.” 28
Binger took immediate action on surveying the settlements. Without waiting for approval by the minister, he encouraged development of all commercial, mineral, forestry, and agricultural resources within his colony. Article 7 of the Arrêté concernant les diverses concessions de la Côte d’Ivoire, published a few days after his arrival in the colony, announced: “The governor will have final decision regarding the guidelines according to which concessions will be granted or rejected, as well as on the extent of their territories.”
Permanent land concessions for trading posts and other structures were immediately granted free of charge. Renewable forest concessions for the purpose of felling mahogany were accorded for a year, their size ranging from 10,000 to 100,000 hectares, at a cost of ten centimes a hectare. Cleared lands were granted for agricultural development at half a franc a hectare, and the cost was even lower for livestock farms. Mineral research permits on parcels of 10,000 to 100,000 hectares cost 10 centimes per hectare. If the venture succeeded, developers could apply for annual concessions of 5,000 to 10,000 hectares at three francs per hectare 29
Binger’s legislation was on the statute book well before ministerial commissions had examined the matter in Paris; the commission on mines did not complete its work until 1899, and that on land in 1904. His regulations reflected the philosophy of a professed champion of “modern colonization.” Binger and his friends, however, miscalculated; few capitalists came forward to take advantage of the proffered opportunities 30. Reasonably exact statistics are available only from the date concessions were officially registered in the Journal officiel de la Côte d’Ivoire, started in January 1895. In 1896 and 1897 fifty-six small-scale concessions were granted (private dwellings, shops, trading posts, a mechanical sawmill, and two kilns); twenty-six of these went to Africans, one to a Catholic mission, and seven to agricultural enterprises ranging in size from 20 to 1,000 hectares. The concessionnaires were mostly firms already operating in the Ivory Coast at the time. Newcomers were concerned mainly with mineral prospecting. Eleven annual permits, most of them 10,000 hectares in size, were delivered or renewed. Forestry concessions, other than the eight granted to indigenous chiefs and ratified by Etienne in 1890, were not in demand until 1906 31
While Binger was away, decisions were made by Pascal and Cousturier, his secretaries-general (1894 and 1895), and by Eugène Bertin and Louis Mouttet, acting governors (1896 and 1897). Binger was interested primarily in commercial development and in occupation of the coastline up to Cavally; thus, he extended the existing chain of customs posts, providing the colony with needed financial resources. Inland penetration was a matter for military expeditions organized by the ministry. Captain Marchand intervened in the Baoulé country by way of Bandama, and clashed with Samory. Contrary to his principle of peaceful penetration, Binger yielded to the requests of Delcassé, who dispatched a column under Colonel Monteil into the Kong region. This action reflected badly on Binger’s authority within the colonv, and commerce suffered. Monteil’s reverse did not displease the governor. Yves Person, who studied the military details of these operations 32, concluded that they contributed to Binger’s lack of enthusiasm for returning to the Ivory Coast after September 1895.
During this period of his life the famous explorer was decidedly more interested in economic development than in the exploration of unknown country. The onetime “bush basher” who had learned the Bambara tongue in the Sudan had lost his zeal; Binger had grown wary of the bush—he was to live to be an octogenarian, yet he constantty worried about his health. But competition between major capitalists like Fraissinet and the Comte de Fels, both sponsored by the Prince d’Ahremberg, led him to dream of future financial prospects. He might retire at the age of forty, work for a private consortium, where his prestige, his African experience, and his associates could help him to stake out yet a third career. After the patriotic soldier and explorer, why not the promoter of a new El Dorado?
In 1896 Binger had a stroke of good fortune. Guyesse, minister for the colonies and not one of his friends, fell from office and was replaced by André Lebon (April 1896-june 1898). Binger asked to be retired on pension, but his request was not granted.
Because of your state of health, you have asked to apply for retirement on pension.
I have the honor to inform you that the army medical officers at the Place de Paris, in accordance with orders dated 2 July 1831 and 26 January 1832, respectively, have examined you several times; they consider that the disabilities from which you suffer are not incurable.
It is therefore not possible to grant you retirement on pension under present circumstances.
But it was possible to stay in Paris, and Binger did not want to go back to the Ivory Coast. The Direction des Affaires politiques au Ministère des Colonies, set up on March 20, 1894, had been separated in July from the cabinet du ministre and placed under Ernest Roume. Lebon divided the department into two sections, Affaires d’Afrique and Affaires d’Asie Amérique et Océanie (May 23, 1896). On June 18 he signed the decree naming Binger to African affairs and wrote him, in a personal letter dated September 17,
I have the pleasure to inform you that, by an arrêté dated 11 September, I have set your salary at 14,000 francs a year. Your remuneration will be paid from the account established under section 1 of the colonial budget; it will become effective from 27 August 1897, the date on which the journal officiel de la République will publish the décret appointing you Directeur des Affaires d’Afrique au Ministère des Colonies.
The pay of a governor second class in Europe amounted to 12,500 francs. The two colonial ministers who succeeded Guyesse, Antoine Guillain and Albert Decrais, successively raised Binger’s salary to 15,000 francs (October 1899) and to 16,000 francs (December 1899) 33
Binger thus was promoted to a central position from which he kept in touch with everything relating to Africa, including matters that concerned other departments or technical services. He was hardly required to intervene in running the colonies. The centralization of French West Africa proceeded under the auspices of Ernest Roume; land and mining concessions were regulated in 1896, 1899, and 1904 by commissions attached to the Directions des Affaires économiques and the Services des Travaux Publiques. He was not directly concerned with military operations such as the expedition against Rabah (1900) or with investigations like the inquiry handled by Brazza in the Congo in 1905. Binger’s role was that of a staunch lieutenant. He was a “brilliant second,” supplying the minister with information rather than advice on final decisions, writing few dispatches and official letters, but aware of everything and in touch with all who counted within his field.
The director’s job was essentially diplomatic. During the decade in which Binger held office, France was run by ten ministerial cabinets under seven different colonial ministers. Senior civil servants like himself provided the administration with an element of continuity that it otherwise would have lacked. His job was exacting. He left Paris eight times on official trips, three of them of negligible importance: a conference in London on the protection of wild animals in Africa (1900), a second to Bordeaux to receive Ballay’s ashes (1902), a third to negotiate financial compensation due British merchants in the Congo (1906). And there was fieldwork to protect French interests during the last stages of the partition of Africa. France had no greater expert on West Africa than Binger, and his government justly appreciated the mixture of subtlety and tenacity that he displayed during the course of these negotiations.
In 1897 he was appointed French delegate to the Franco-German boundary commission to define the limits of Dahomey, Sudan, and Togo; a convention was concluded on July 23, 1897. He then took part in the Franco-British boundary commission appointed to determine the eastern and western borders of Niger; a convention was signed on June 14, 1898. Later he left for a secret mission to Senegal during the political tension engendered by the Fashoda affair. In 1905 and 1906 Binger was sent to London to establish the frontier of Niger at Lake Chad and conclude an agreement on May 29, 1906. He finally took part in the Franco-Liberian boundary commission whose work resulted in the treaty of September 18,1907.
Whether Binger was a diplomat would be a good subject for a historian interested in perusing the files concerning the partition of Africa, from the failure of negotiations with Lang in 1892 to the successes attained between 1897 and 1907. A scholar would have to study Binger’s methods and assess the degree of initiative allowed by the government to the man on the spot in order to carry out its instructions. That margin of action was narrow. Final decision rested with the ministry of foreign affairs. Their delegates in the field resolved the relevant geographical, economic, and ethnographic problems. However well Binger accomplished his task, it seems that it did not inspire in him a more passionate interest than most of his preceding work.
What was it, then, that motivated this great Frenchman, now in his fifties, a man covered with glory that none dared to dispute? A curious document, a handwritten note, survives in the Binger file in the Direction du Personnel et de la Comptabilité du Ministère des Colonies; the note, anonymous and undated, makes mistakes as to details of Binger’s career, yet it may provide the answer
Monsieur Binger, colonial governor second class on special assignment, has asked the minister to be placed on retirement pension in order to enter private industry.
Monsieur Binger’s long and brilliant career makes it incumbent on the government to provide him with a reward upon leaving the administration that will suitably acknowledge his excellent work.
Monsieur Binger, born in Strasbourg on 14 October 1856, entered the army as a
private soldier in 1874. In 1876 he was promoted to sergeant. Sublieutenant in
1880, lieutenant in 1882, captain in 1888 and as such appointed ordnance officer to the grand chancellor of the Legion of Honor, chevalier of the Legion of Honor. …
After numerous expeditions and military campaigns in Senegal and the Sudan from 1882 to 1889, he accomplished his remarkable mission to the Ivory Coast (1891-1892), which resulted in giving France a new and wealthy colony. Monsieur Binger accomplished this mission with the most scanty means and without firing a single shot.
The government then recognized Monsieur Binger’s services by naming him to be an officer of the Legion of Honor (1892) and governor of the colony that be had set up (1893).
In service in the French Ivory Coast (1896) (he resigned from the army in 1893), on 18 June 1897 he was appointed Directeur d’Afrique at the ministry of colonies. A decree dated 17 June 1897 promoted him to the rank of commander of the Legion of Honor.
Monsieur Binger continued his brilliant public service at the ministry of colonies, bringing to that department and to its successive ministers the benefit of his vast experience, his common sense, and his faultless knowledge of African affairs.
At a time when Monsieur Binger leaves the public service in order to take up the pension to which he is entitled, the ministry of colonies considers that the government should award to this high official the cross of grand officer of the Legion of Honor.
Binger thus achieved what he had failed to secure in 1896. On October 10, 1897, he was awarded “the pension to which he [was] entitled.” A few months later he was promoted to the rank of commander of the Legion of Honor. He was now able to enter private industry.
Binger was only fifty-one years old; he died at the age of eighty in 1936. How did he occupy his time during the remaining thirty years of his life? Despite a good deal of research, his family papers have not been found. Some documentary evidence discovered by chance during an investigation of African mining concessions and a few notes from the dossier at the Service du Personnel et de la Comptabilité lead to an assumption.
The regulations of 1899 regarding mineral prospecting and development encouraged speculation in gold mines. The number of applications for exploration permits rose rapidly from 1902 and 1903; those for prospecting substantially increased from 1907 and 1908. Hardly had the applicants obtained their permits than they formed companies and sold shares to the public. Speculation was rampant. The ministry, alarmed, lacked information and called for additional data. Governor- general Roume felt that the facts concerning these various societies in the official gazettes of the different colonies were inadequate; he insisted that material concerning these companies must be published in the Journal officiel de la République française as of February 15, 1904. The firms were obliged to provide full details relating to the “number of concessionnaires in possession of valid prospecting, research, and working licenses, the number of enterprises that had actually started development, and, finally, the amount of gold exported.” From then on, lists of applicants were periodically sent to the ministry, which conducted inquiries in France before granting permits.
One of these lists, signed on September 4, 1908 by the acting Governor-general Liotard, contains the name “L. Binger.” On November 12 the director of public works stated that “it appears pointless for me to request information regarding Monsieur Binger, honorary governor of the colonies, whose name and reputation are sufficiently well known.” Governor-general Ponty replied on December 11 that he had been unaware that Binger, the applicant, and Binger, the ex-governor-general, were one and the same person.
Binger, in fact, had financial interests in West Africa. The Relevé des sociétés créées en vue de l’exploitation des mines d’or de l’A.O.F. en juin 1908 lists the Compagnie de l’Ouest africain français with a capital of 3 million francs; the company had issued 30,000 hundred-franc shares as well as 40,000 founders’ shares, registered at the Paris Bourse on December 21, 1907. The founders were granted special privileges in their capacity as grantees of government permits. The board of directors consisted of Binger, honorary governor-general of the colonies, L. Voirin, engineer and chairman of the Banque coloniale française, J. B. Richard, engineer, E. Henry and G. Ardiller, both landowners, and G. Roux, mining and consulting engineer.
A “note on the inspection work carried out by the public works department of French West Africa with respect to the Compagnie de l’Ouest africain français (Côte d’Ivoire)” outlines the history of the firm. It had taken over the Akrizi mine—inefficiently worked by J. B. Richard—and also held five other permits; the note stated that further development work was in progress. During the first quarter of 1908 the company had managed to extract 2 kilos, 355 grams, of gold. Engineer Jordan, however, had doubts regarding the operation’s profitability. Between January and June the company’s shares rose from 325 to 532 francs for each 100-franc certificate issued in December; the founders’ shares rose from 132 to 271 francs at a time when shares issued by most other companies were declining in value 34
Did Binger’s name contribute to this temporary success? Perhaps his continuing fear of poverty derived from financial misfortunes rather than from his habitual parsimony. Between the two world wars salaries and pensions in the French army and administration did not keep pace with the rising cost of living; like many of his colleagues, Binger therefore may have experienced unforeseen difficulties. In 1932 the Val-de-Grâce hospital at Bordeaux requested that the ministry of colonies reimburse hospital authorities for a bill for five days in hospital, at thirty-one francs a day, incurred by the governor-general. The ministry replied that Binger, in his capacity as a retired governor second class of the colonies on special assignment, “should pay his own expenses” and supplied his address. On July 17, 1931, Paul Reynaud, the minister, informed Binger that he had been granted a special annual allowance of 14,500 francs payable from the Ivory Coast budget. “I am happy to inform you,” the minister added, “that the colony thereby acknowledges the eminent services that you have rendered to it.” Binger complained on April 20, 1936, that he had not as yet received anything. He was paid on April 23.
The ministry did not reply to his request that in the event of his death his widow should continue to receive his allowance. By that time Binger was living in l’Isle-Adam. On September 7, 1936, he was admitted for sciatica and a disease of the liver to the Val-de-Grâce hospital as a fee-paying patient 35. He died on November 11, 1936.
In undertaking this study, I thought to find in Binger the man who—in the course of his career—successively embodied the various types of colonial administrators at work in French black Africa between 1871 and 1914. He was an army officer like Brière de L’Isle or de Trentinian, seeking to assure military expansion and a restoration of prestige for la Patrie humiliated by the defeat of 1871; he was an explorer passionately committed like Brazza to geographical discovery and to the peaceful spread of a humane civilization superior to any founded upon war, slavery, and ignorance; he was an organizer like Roume or Ponty, resolved to set up in anarchic Africa great bureaucratic structures that would link complementary regions into larger entities.
These concepts were certainly not alien to a man who served as soldier, explorer, governor, and Directeur des Affaires de l’Afrique. But Binger does not seem to have been deeply committed to any of his successive assignments. The soldier did not like war. The explorer, eager to profit from the risks that he took, did not try to continue his work of discovery in a continent as yet largely unknown. The governor, though determined to assert his authority, preferred to run his colony from Paris. The Directeur des Affaires d’Afrique maintained those rights that his government had won during the course of negotiations in which Binger himself had not taken part; but in his capacity as a senior public servant he failed to link his name to any particular aspect of imperialist policy. These various personae who had worked in Africa had but one ideal in common—a visceral nationalism common to most Frenchmen at the time.
To understand the secret man on guard behind the roles he so perfectly played, we have to leave the stage and consider the psychology of the actor. We then expose a deprived adolescent threatened by numerous economic and social handicaps; a brave and tenacious fighter who did not shy away from any effort. Binger rose in life; he passed from one role to another; he acquired a new post and went on to the next. At a time when money rather than birth or knowledge meant power, he dreamt of becoming one of the great capitalists of his time. Within the French administration, Binger was an exceptional character. In retrospect, he ranks as one of those self-made men ever more dominated by the lust for power, like Rastignac, a figure who might have stepped out from the pages of Balzac.
Notes on Sources
Career. Biographical information on Binger is scattered. There are two personal dossiers: the military dossier bears the number 1235 (always cited); that concerning his career as a colonial official is identified as “ANSOM Personnel Binger.”
The Missions des ANSOM series contains a large box of administrative correspondence, here identified as “ANSOM Missions 12. ”
Binger Publications. Published works by Binger, apart from a few brief prefaces and short articles are listed herein.
“Considérations sur la priorité des découvertes maritimes sur la côte occidentale d’Afrique aux quatorzième et quinzième siècles.” Bulletin du Comité de l’Afrique française. Paris, n.d.
Essai sur la langue bambara parlée dans le Kaarta et dans le Bélédougou, suivi d’un vocabulaire. Paris, 1886.
“Transactions, objets de commerce, mormaies des contrées d’entre le Niger et la Côte d’Or.” Paper presented at the conference of the Société de géographie commerciale de Paris, 26 January 1890. Notes d’information et statistiques 179 (December 1970), Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique de l’Ouest.
Esclavage, islamisme, etchristianisme. Paris, 1891.
Du Niger au golfe de Guinée par le pays de Kong et le Mossi, 1887-1889. 2 vols. Paris, 1892.
“La Côte-d’Ivoire (son passé, son présent, son avenir). Conférence.” Bulletin de la Société de géographie de Marseille 19 (1895):380-399.
Le Péril de l’islam. Paris, 1906.
AN Archives nationales
ANSOM Archives nationales, Section outre-mer
1. Michel Elbaz, “Quelques Notes sur l’origine de 1’exploration de Louis Gustave Binger” (handwritten manuscript, Université de Paris, Centre d’études africaines).
2. AN, Ministère des armées, Troupes de la marine, personnel dossier 1235.
3. L. G. Binger, Une vie d’explorateur, carnets de route (Paris, 1938), préface.
4. L, G. Binger. Essai sur la langue bambara parlge dans le Kaarta et dans le Bélédougou, suivi d’un vocabulaire (Paris, 1886).
5. Paul Atger, La France en Côte-d’Ivoire de 1843 à 1893: Cinquante ans d’hésitations politiques et commerciales (Dakar, 1962), pp. 109 ff.
6. ANSOM Missions 12, 31 July 1888; Arthur Verdier, 35 Années de lutte aux colonies: Côte occidentale d’Afrique (Paris, 1896), pp, 173-178.
7. ANSOM Missions 12, 5-15 February 1887, 26 April-7 June 1890, “Le Sous-secrétaire d’Etat au président de la Cour des comptes.”
8. L. G. Binger, Du Niger au golfe de Guinée par le pays de Kong et le Mossi, 1887-1889, 2 vols. (Paris, 1892), 1:29.
9. Ibid., 2:347.
10. Aimé Olivier Pastré de Sanderval, Soudan français: Kahel (Paris, 1893), pp. 417-418.
11. ANSOM Missions 12, 11 and 24 February 1890.
12. Ibid., Ministère des colonies, Direction du personnel et de la comptabilité, minister’s report, 27 December 1898, on the congress of London; memorandum from J. Decrais, 25 April 1900; memorandum from Binger, May 1900.
13. AN dossier 1,235.
14. Verdier, 35 années de lutte, pp. 246, 249.
15. Binger, Une Vie d’explorateur, p. 185.
16. Yves Peson, Samori: Une Révolution Dyula (Dakar, 1975); 3:1644-1646.
17. AN dossier 1,235.
18. ANSOM Personnel Binger.
19. Atger, La France en Côte-d’Ivoire, pp. 133-134; ANSOM, Côte-d’Ivoire, 11a; Journal officiel de la Côte d’Ivoire 1 (January 1895).
20. Atger, La France en Côte-d’Ivoire, pp. 138-150.
21. Ibid., pp. 162-163.
22. ANSOM, Soudan, 15,4.
23. ANSOM, Côte-d’Ivoire, 15, 5, 8.
24. Verdier, 35 Annees de lutte, pp. 344-347, 353.
25. ANSOM Personnel Binger, passim.
26. ANSOM, Guinée, 15, 1; Bulletin officiel administratif de la Guinée française, 1894, p.80.
27. Journal officiel des établissements et protectorats français du golfe du Bénin, 1 March 1890.
28. ANSOM, Côte d’Ivoire, 15, lb.
29. Ibid., 15, 7.
30. Ibid., 15, 8.
31. Journal officiel de la Côte d’Ivoire for 1895-1898.
32. Person, Samori, 3:1646-1684.
33. ANSOM Personnel Binger, 14 November 1896. Cf. ibid., the request of Binger to Lebon of 11 September 1896, his nomination to the Direction d’Afrique, the list of his missions, and his retirement in 1907,
34. ANSOM Travaux publiques, 149, dossiers 12, 14, 19, 21,
35. ANSOM Personnel Binger.