Beginnings of the Ecole Coloniale

William Cohen
Rulers of Empire: the French Colonial Service in Africa

Hoover Institution Press. Stanford University. 1971. 279 p.

III. — Beginnings of the Ecole Coloniale

Until 1914 the Ecole Coloniale played a very modest role in the training of colonial administrators, furnishing only one out of every five members of the Corps. Nevertheless, its development before World War I is important because the achievements of its graduates led the ministry of colonies in 1912 to restrict membership in the Corps to those who had been trained at the school.
The establishment of a specialized training program for French colonial administrators was begun in Indochina. The French had founded the Collège des stagiaires at Saigon in 1874 to train the administrators for Cochin-China. Admission to the school was open to all young Frenchmen possessing one of a series of diplomas; after taking a one-year course and passing an examination, they were eligible for the lowest rank of administrator. The students, however, seem to have learned little at the school, partly, it was said, because the torrid weather in Saigon discouraged them from studying, and partly because there was no library
The governor of Cochin-China discontinued the school in 1878, but many higher officials in Indochina favored special training to prepare future colonial administrators; they argued that a school similar to the college could be successful if it were established in a more benign and intellectual climate. Paul Bert, the anticlerical fanatic who was made governor-general of Indochina to get him out of France, became the spokesman of those officials. Bert proposed an Ecole d’administration annamite, located in Paris. No stranger to nepotism, he also suggested that his son-in-law, Joseph Chailley-Bert, the colonial publicist, be made the first director of the school. Undersecretary of State for Colonies Eugène Etienne rejected the son-in-law but favored Bert’s general proposal relative to the location of the school.
Parliament also proved sympathetic to a training program for administrators for Indochina; during a tempestuous debate on colonial policy which broke out at the beginning of 1888, Félix Faure, then undersecretary of state for colonies, managed to calm parliamentary hostility for a time by promising to found an Ecole d’administration indochinoise. Faure, however, did not describe it as a separate institution, but simply as a curriculum of courses drawn from the law faculty, the Ecole libre des sciences politiques, the Institut des langues orientales, and a few new ones particularly concerned with colonial affairs
It was Etienne, however, who actually established a program of colonial studies. In this he was probably influenced by the experience of other colonial nations, especially the Dutch . After the 1880s Leroy-Beaulieu’s De la colonisation chez les peuples modernes introduced to his countrymen the subject of comparative colonization while Chailley-Bert, through newspaper columns and two travel accounts, publicized British and Dutch methods of administration in India and the East Indies . In 1856 the British had closed their training school for men belonging to the Indian civil service, but the Dutch maintained a very active school at Delft.
Rather than found an Ecole d’administration annamite, as Bert had suggested, Etienne decided in 1889 to set up classes in colonial administration at the already existing Ecole Coloniale. The Ecole Coloniale had its roots in an informal school established in Paris during the 1880s for young Asians brought from the colonies to study French. In 1885 the French explorer Auguste Pavie, who had trudged barefoot through Laos exploring that country for France, returned to his homeland with thirteen young men, sons of mandarins and other important personalities in the French protectorate of Cambodia. The boys were housed in a hotel rented by the undersecretariat of state for colonies and were taught not only the French language but also French civilization. Felix Faure, then undersecretary of state for colonies, named the hotel and its inmates the Ecole cambodgienne. As one provincial paper put it, the aim of the improvised school was to bring young men of noble birth and high intelligence to France and thus “consolidate the tie” between France and her possessions in Indochina. The paper assumed that “the sight of the marvels of our nation and particularly of the capital … would inculcate in these younj people an admiration that certainly would turn to our advantage.”
When Faure founded the Collège cambodgien in 1885, he probably envisioned a worldwide role for the school, and intended that it should train sons of chiefs from all over the empire . In 1886 the son of the king of Porto Novo (in later Dahomey) was admitted to the school. The following year Etienne changed the school’s name to the Ecole Coloniale, as if to indicate the expanded role which he intended for it. No other Africans were admitted, but the Ecole Coloniale recruited many young men from French Indochina outside Cambodia. Approximately twenty Indochinese students attended yearly.
In establishing a training program for French colonial personnel, Etienne was primarily concerned with providing instruction for the men belonging to the Civil Services of Indochina, a colony which in the late 1880s was the largest and most important single French possession under his authority. Indochina had been recently conquered, and after 1879 naval personnel had been replaced by civilian officials and administrators. Etienne recognized that for a long time to come the administrative services would require a steady supply of able young Frenchmen and he hoped that his new training program would fulfill that need.
Etienne affiliated the training program with the Ecole Coloniale so that the Indochinese students of the Ecole could furnish language practice to the future administrators, who were required to learn Vietnamese and Cambodian. A further reason for the affiliation was that the school’s director, Etienne Aymonier, was an experienced man who had run the former Colge des stagiaires in Saigon.
Etienne intended that the Ecole Coloniale should give courses in colonial administrative theory and in Indochinese languages which would prepare the young officials to take on important responsibilities as soon as they arrived in the colony. The old system, he declared, had two disadvantages. On the one hand, because the young administrators were ignorant about the colonial scene, they were required to serve in unimportant and subordinate positions until familiar with their regions, but by then they had become so enervated by the climate that they had to be repatriated. On the other hand, if they were given important posts immediately upon their arrival, “their inadequacy resulted in failures, [which] are sometimes deplorable for the work of colonization.” By giving the young men a sound grounding in principles of colonial administration before appointing them, Etienne hoped he would be able to make a substantial improvement in the quality of the colonial administrators.
Very quickly the Ecole Coloniale expanded its scope beyond training personnel for Indochina. An African training section was opened in 1892. For a time other sections were created to train French personnel as custodians for colonial penitentiaries, as naval pursers, and commercial agents, but these were soon discontinued. In 1905 a section to train colonial judges was established, in 1914 another, to prepare students for administration in North Africa and, after World War II, still another, to train labor inspectors for the overseas territories.
Indochinese students had originally constituted the entire student body of the Ecole Coloniale, but after 1889 they constituted only what was called the “native section.” This section continued to enroll approximately twenty Indochinese students a year until the outbreak of World War I, but the school had become predominantly an institution to train Frenchmen for service overseas. It was so identified in the public mind after 1889 and so regarded by the administration of the school, which increasingly neglected the students of the “native section.” For example, during the 1890s only two teachers were employed for their benefitone in mathematics and the other in French. And the school came finally to serve the Indochinese students primarily as a place of residence while they pursued their studies elsewhere. Where before 1890 the Indochinese students had received an education very similar to that given in French secondary schools, thereafter their education was technical, and they were trained to become telegraph operators, accountants, engineers, or forest rangers. This change stemmed in part from the change in policy toward the Asian colony. In the 1880s control over Indochina had still been somewhat tenuous, and therefore French doctrine had stressed the benefit of indirect rule. By educating the sons of mandarins and other dignitaries in a metropolitan school, Etienne and his immediate predecessors had hoped to build up a pro-French party through which to tighten control over the country. As direct rule was consolidated in the early 1890s, the French administrators no longer needed friendly intermediaries and could concentrate on educating Indochinese as technical auxiliaries to their administration.
In the 1890s many colonial officials no longer favored giving the elite of the colonial populations a French education. At the International Colonial Congress of 1889 in Paris the well-known sociologist Gustave Lebon claimed that the British had transformed members of the Indian elite into agitators against colonial rule by giving them a European education. He predicted that if the British continued this practice they would probably lose their colony. Educating the native populations might similarly subvert French colonial rule
Ideas much like those held by Lebon were put forth in 1900 when the administration of the Ecole Coloniale considered whether it should continue the « native section. » Its report asked:

Are there not more inconveniences than advantages in giving natives needs, tastes, and aspirations which they will find difficult to satisfy when they return to their country? Even more, is it not dangerous to mix them through everyday life with young Frenchmen in schools, in cities, in our discussions, in all our interior struggles

The report went on to say that the students from the colonies had become so absorbed into the stream of French life that they had “abandoned their native costumes and were wearing European clothes.” As a result of this experience, young men from the colonies would acquire “sentiments which, if spread to a larger number of natives, might create a hindrance to our domination.” 10 In spite of this negative judgment, officials of the school decided to retain the “native section,” but with the outbreak of war in 1914, it was discontinued. The reservations which Ecole Coloniale officials were beginning to feel toward Western-educated Indochinese foreshadowed the ambivalence with which French overseas functionaries in the future viewed the emergence of a Westernized elite.

The founding of the administrative section of the Ecole Coloniale is a great milestone in the history of French administration. Except for the short-lived Ecole nationale d’administration, founded after the revolution of 1848, the administrative section of the Ecole Coloniale was the first government program specifically established to train men for civil service positions. Not until over half a century later was the prestigious Ecole nationale d’administration founded in Paris to train upper civil servants for metropolitan France.

When founding the administrative section of the Ecole Coloniale, Etienne did not ask Parliament for a budgetary appropriation. Realizing the chamber’s hostility toward colonial expenditures, he chose to finance the training program from the proceeds of a private bequest to the government. Once the program had been in effect for a year, however, he could call for an appropriation on the grounds that the administrative section had proved its usefulness.
The funds were granted, but some legislators believed that Etienne had deliberately misled Parliament; the influential Journal des débats wrote of the government officials:

… from subterfuge to subterfuge they have managed to give a semblance of respectable existence to a hybrid institution which should be prevented from further development; it endangers the good order of our finances and the future of our colonial power 11

The journal was skeptical of the abilities of men who lacked practical experience in the field; the Ecole Coloniale, it feared, would be a costly means for producing inefficient administrators. One Radical paper claimed that it had been founded simply to provide employment for Louis Vignon, the son-in-law of Prime Minister Maurice Rouvier, who taught at the school 12
This skepticism and open hostility toward the school was in part justified, for the administration recruited students with no concern for their academic abilities. All young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five with a secondary school degree (baccalauréat) were eligible without any entrance examination. Only after attending the school for a year were the students required to take a test, which determined whether they should continue their studies. Presumably the officials of the school adopted this procedure because it allowed the poorly prepared students from the lycees to catch up with their more advanced comrades. An entrance examination would have favored the sons of the upper classes, who usually had a better secondary school training; in the words of the school’s director, the procedure followed made it possible to recruit “from the mass of the public.” 13
Despite the general liberality which the school exercised in its admission policies, it tended to discriminate against some students because of their political beliefs. In the 1890s the republican regime still felt threatened and therefore wished to ensure that only men favorably inclined toward republicanism would be employed as government functionaries. Before admitting a student, the school checked on “the past political life of [the candidates’] families, their personal convictions, and morality.” 14 This practice led a later critic to note that all that was necessary to enter the Ecole Coloniale in the 1890s was “to be a bachelier and a republican.” 15

The educational requirements were later to be raised, but there seems to have been continued interest in admitting republicans to the school. The applicants were required to have a certificate of previous good conduct from their local prefect; and until about 1905 the prefects, in addition to certifying that the candidate had no criminal record, would usually add a comment about the political beliefs of the candidate and of his family. Thus in 1904 a prefect wrote of one candidate: “The information gathered on M … is excellent from all points of view. He belongs to a family which is very devoted to the Republic.” 16 The agents also were appointed largely as a result of political patronage and thus two of the main sources of recruitment to the Corps-the graduates of the Ecole Coloniale and the agentswere almost all reliable republicans.
The low standards of admission had been instituted to democratize the recruitment of the school, but there is little evidence that it attracted many candidates from other than middle-class families, which have traditionally served the French state. It is certain, however, that the absence of entrance examinations drew students unfit for academic studies. So many poorly qualified students attended the school that, in the words of a later school publication, they “gave their imprint and their original character to the Ecole Coloniale.” 17 Under pressure from a parliamentary commission headed by the reporter of the colonial budget, André Lebon (later minister of colonies), the Ecole Coloniale by decree adopted entrance examinations in 1896. The same decree also brought about curriculum changes. The training program was shortened from three to two years, and at the same time a oneyear preparatory program was instituted. This preparatory year was needed because the school’s entrance examinations were so specialized that it was very difficult to pass them without preliminary training. Between 1896 and 1914 approximately one out of three applicants was admitted to the school. And of those admitted, nearly all came from the preparatory section; of the ninety-seven students admitted from 1897 to 1899, eighty-two came from that section 18
The examinations were in the form of a concours, a competition for a restricted number of positions. They were divided into three stages. The first part of the concours dealt with the subject matter taught in the first two years of law school, with the exception of Roman law and the history of French law. Those passing the law examinations were then tested on the general history of French and foreign colonization, geography, and English or German. The final part was an oral examination in which the candidates were tested on their knowledge of road and building construction, hygiene, practical accounting, and a foreign language.
The oral examination was exclusively concerned with testing the candidate’s knowledge; the French examiners, unlike those for the British colonial service 19, made no attempt to judge a candidate’s poise or personality. This was in line with the traditional French procedure for hiring civil servants, the concours. Designed primarily to test a candidate’s ability to express himself in written French 20, yet it was considered an objective and nearly infallible means for selecting capable men. While the British colonial service identified ability with the possession of certain character traits, such as leadership ability, sportsmanship, and self-reliance 21, the French colonial service identified both professional ability and character with passing the concours. The French even now regard their education as a “formation,” contributing to the shaping of the total individual. As W.R. Sharp observed, “To the Frenchman it is intelligence, or what is sometimes merely supposed to be intelligence, which marks off par excellence the elite from the rank and file.” 22 In passing his examination, an applicant not only was accepted in the school but was given access to the Corps of Colonial Administrators, for the cadets upon graduation were almost automatically appointed to it. To be sure, a slightly higher grade average was required for entrance than for simple graduation, but by 1914 only a few graduates had failed to qualify for the Corps.
Until the entrance examination was introduced in 1896, the Ecole Coloniale had not been regarded as a serious institution in France. Up to that time a relatively large proportion of the students (one-fifth) coming from the “old colonies,” the West Indies, were either creole or colored.
Beginning in 1897, when entrance became more difficult, a smaller proportion of students than before applied from overseas 23. When, after World War I, the school’s graduates had sole access to the Corps, the number of administrators who were indigenous to the colonies diminished further (although there always were a few coming from the French Antilles). The decrease apparently occurred as an effect of raising the standards of the Ecole, rather than from deliberate government policy. It is of historic interest that, simultaneously with the French experience, in the British colonies there was also a decrease in the number of local inhabitants appointed to higher administrative posts. In both empires this change occurred as a result of the progress of pacification and the improvement of health standards, which increased the ability and willingness of white men to go overseas for longer periods of time. The change also reflected the increasing desire by the imperial powers to exercise full control over their colonies.
The new examinations which were reputed to be so rigorous did not immediately silence complaints about the poor quality of the cadets. A report of 1899 observed of the students that “one does not find among them minds accustomed to speculation and nourished by advanced studies.” The future administrators needed such qualities, the report continued, because “they . . . are called upon to spread out influence and to make our national genius loved.” 24 Among those entering the school in 1899 none could read a map properly, and none was well prepared in foreign languages 25. Two years later however the quality of the candidates had improved, for in 1901 the admissions committee noted that an increasing number of the young men seeking entrance were now proficient in English (except for pronunciation) and in highway and building construction. The candidates were generally ill-prepared in geography, but to the displeasure of their examiners they knew more about the geography of non-French colonies than about France’s empire. By about 1905 the new entrants seem to have improved in quality so much that the examining committee no longer complained about them.
From its founding until 1931, the administrative council of the Ecole Coloniale was presided over by Paul Dislère, former head of the colonial department at the naval ministry and a noted expert in French colonial jurisprudence. Dislère was an important member of the prestigious Conseil d’état; in 1905 he was the lawyer who received the delicate task of drafting the laws concerning the separation of church and state. Dislère’s important political connections, together with his personal initiative and energy, assured the new school the necessary financial and moral support of government authorities. In his earlier career Dislère had opposed colonial expansion, arguing that it was an economic waste, but he gradually changed his mind and even became an ardent proponent of French imperialism.
Dislère also was an impassioned assimilationist; he believed that the colonies should be endowed with institutions identical to those in France and that the natives should be transformed into full-fledged French citizens 26. Etienne Aymonier, a former administrator in Indochina and director of the Collège des Stagiaires in Saigon and then of the Ecole Cambodgienne, became the first director of the Ecole Coloniale. He concerned himself with the daily administrative problems of running the school, while Dislère as president of the school’s administrative council was responsible for school policy; indeed, until the late 1920s Dislère tended to dominate each succeeding director. In both its organization and its curriculum the Ecole Coloniale reflected to a large extent Dislère’s personal views, especially by its emphasis on legal studies.
While attending the school, students were expected to obtain a licence en droit from the law faculty in Paris. Traditionally the upper civil service in continental Europe has required legal training of its members 27. In preparing men for the colonial service, the directors of the Ecole Coloniale saw no reason why they should receive substantially different education from that being given to higher government employees serving in France. Thus they trained the cadets in law, assuming that legal studies would transform them into effective civil servants who would respect government regulations and bureaucratic hierarchy. The study of law, it was also presumed, gave a certain sense of right and wrong and a respect for the rule of law 28. In addition, of course, overseas functionaries would need legal training, since one of their main tasks was to administer and enforce law. In effect the student spent more time at the study of law than in attending the special courses of the Ecole.
The teachers at the school assumed that Roman law had universal validity and that its basic principles could be applied anywhere regardless of climate, topography, or inhabitants. M. Leveillé, a professor of colonial law at the Ecole, wrote:

law is … a universal language…. He who has studied it will immediately recognize constant principles underlying superficial variations between different local laws…. There cannot be ten different ways to organize a family, to conceive of property or of a contract. For example, marriage, sales, borrowing, and salaries are not a question of [local] customs but are, rather, basic to life 29

In so reasoning, Leveillé showed his faith in the basic unity and equality of mankind, an idea common to his times. Based in part on generous universalist principles, this doctrine also evinced a certain naive ignorance of colonial social and economic structures.
The formal structure of the curriculum at the Ecole Coloniale reflected the assimilationist trend; it neglected not only differences between France and her empire but also variations among the colonies themselves. Thus all administrators, regardless of where they were destined to serve, received identical training during the preparatory period and the first year at the school 30: law, French and foreign colonization, administrative organization of the colonies, colonial policy, and accounting.
Only just before their last year of studies did the students indicate whether they wished to enter the Indochinese or the African section. A student’s destination depended on his academic ranking. Until the 1920s, with a few notable exceptions, the top half of the class tended to choose the Indochinese section; the student at the bottom of the class invariably entered the African section. The Indochinese administration was more attractive -especially to those with fan-dlies-because it offered higher salaries and faster promotion 31, as well as better transportation, school, and hospital facilities. Interestingly enough, physical comfort was not the sole criterion for choosing a post, for the graduates of the Ecole Coloniale did not consider the positions in the central administration in Paris to bechoice appointments 32
In the second year of studies, all the students took courses in colonial administrative law and topography and continued their study of foreign colonization policies, but they spent relatively few hours acquiring specialized knowledge pertaining specifically to either Indochinese or African administration. The cadets in the African section studied African geography and the administrative and legislative organization of North Africa and of French West Africa. A general ethnology course covering the entire empire was instituted in 1890, dropped five years later, and finally restored as colonial anthropology. The language requirements in the African section, as established in 1897, had very little relevance to existing fact. Both Malgache and Arabic were required-yet the first was spoken only in a portion of Madagascar and the latter virtually limited to the Islamized regions of French Africa.
Upon graduation ftom the school, the cadets of the African section were ranked by academic standing, and in that order they were permitted to choose the area to which they wished to be sent. The preferred region was sometimes AOF and at other times Madagascar; AEF was invariably considered the least desirable assignment. Within each federation certain colonies were preferred because they had more material comforts and a better climate than others; this was the case with Senegal in AOF and Gabon in AEF. The new officials, however, could not choose a particular colony within the federation and did not even learn their exact post until they arrived in Africa. British colonial officials knew where they would be sent and could prepare for service in a specific region, but the French graduates of the Ecole Coloniale were assigned at first only to a federation.
In many ways the school was divorced from the realities of colonial life, for it tended to stress a highly theoretical, rather than a practical knowledge of overseas affairs. Legal studies were overemphasize d-indeed the students had to spend most of their three years at the Ecole Coloniale poring over legal treatises. They learned irrelevant minutiae to recite, instead of acquiring a well-rounded knowledge of the empire. Rather typical is a question from an examination in French administrative organization: “Describe the financial regime instituted in the Antilles and Réunion by the Senatus Consultus of 1866. Criticize it and discuss the reforms of 1900.” 33 That kind of infon-nation was of little importance for the colonial administrators, very few of whom served in the Antilles or Réunion. None of the administrators served in North Africa, but they were all required to take courses concerning that region. The impracticality of the language training in the African section has been mentioned; the cadets in the Indochinese section also found their training in Cambodian and Vietnamese useless when the arrived in Indochina, for they had been trained in the classical variant 34
The organization and curriculum of the Ecole Coloniale continued to reflect many of the assimilationist attitudes, which had been supported by Dislère, but in the early 1900s, the school ceased to be an advocate of pure assimilation and instead adopted in part the doctrine of association. The latter doctrine advocated respect for local traditions and political structures, particularly the chief-system. The associationists stressed the uniqueness of colonial societies and their need for special institutions different from those of France, whereas the assimilationists favored the spread of French institutions overseas. The theory of association was especially strongly advanced by colonial officials, whose overseas experience impressed upon them the dissimilarity between France and the empire in terms of social, economic, and political developments 35
An element of humanitarianism in the doctrine of association was its announced desire to spare colonial societies from being forced into a French mold. But the theory of association never entirely freed itself from some of its racist origins. In the beginning the distinctions between the French metropolis and French overseas possessions had been entirely postulated on the inferiority of the overseas populations and the desirability of preserving an indefinite French domination over the colonies 36. It was not only a tender regard for local institutions that converted so many French colonial officials to the policy of association; just as important was the fact that by stressing the differences between colonial societies and France, they hoped to prevent the introduction of locally elected political officials who would as in France-exercise control over administrative rule.
After 1900 the many colonial officials who taught at the Ecole Coloniale made it the main-indeed, almost the onlyintellectual center advocating the policy of association and denouncing that of assimilation. The school introduced its logical co rrelative- courses on the colonial societies; obviously, if colonial institutions were to be respected, they would have to be understood. Since its foundation, the administrative section of the Ecole Coloniale had offered such courses but, at least in the beginning, it had failed in its aims. The noted publicist Chailley-Bert observed in 1901 that the graduates of the Ecole Coloniale “have an imperfect knowledge of the customs and institutions of the peoples they administer … and they do not speak their languages fluently.” 37
Until about 1905 Chailley-Bert’s criticism of the Ecole Coloniale was valid, for much of the training was useless and even scientifically inaccurate, and many of the courses seemed to reflect the current anthropological racism. A Paris newspaper reported in 1894, for example, that the instructor in administrative methods, Vignon, told his students that “the black races are backward races which should be treated like wild animals” and that “these races are stagnant.” 38 In 1905 a student received eighteen out of twenty points on an examination about the peoples of Africa in which he had stated, “The young Negro is quite intelligent, but his brain ceases growing at an early age, and thus stops developing.” 39 The student was only repeating an assertion that the sociologist Gustave Lebon had made at the international colonial congress meeting in Paris in 1889 40
After about 1905, the curriculum at the school underwent serious change, and despite slim scientific resources, it soon began to give impressive training in African customs, institutions, and history. In addition, by 1910 Manding languages were taught at the school. Arabic ceased to be required of the students in the African section, although special credit was given to those who knew it.
These curriculum improvements compare favorably with special courses that other colonial powers instituted for their colonial personnel. The Dutch trained their overseas officials in Javanese affairs, while the Germans required that candidates for administrative service in German East Africa study African languages, geography, ethnography, hygiene, tropical agriculture, and trade-courses that were offered at the Seminar für Orientalische Sprachen of Berlin, founded in 1887. The British lagged behind; it was only in the 1930s that they instituted special courses for their colonial personnel assigned to Africa.
The Ecole Coloniale was especially well served by those of its professors who were former colonial officials. In teaching courses on methods of administration and history and institutions of the overseas empire, they drew on their own experiences and research. Not only did they reinforce the new curriculum in giving a more accurate picture of the colonial societies; they imbued the school with a new spirit.
One of the best known officials, whose course was later remembered as the highlight of every cadet’s education at the Ecole Coloniale, was Maurice Delafosse. First a bush administrator and later a governor, he taught courses in African customs, language, and history. He was one of the greatest ethnologists of his time, and his teachings were far ahead of any others then taught in France. As Robert Delavignette has remarked:

[While Seignobos at the Sorbonne was declaring that the blacks were mere children and had never formed nations … Delafosse at the Ecole Coloniale was teaching his students that they were men and in pre-colonial times had even founded empires 41

By teaching the future administrators that Africa had had its own history and political and social institutions, the teachers were imparting a certain respect for indigenous African ways and they denounced complete assimilation. Louis Vignon, who was presumed to have made the unfortunate comment about the inferiority of the black races, although he still believed in the superiority of Europeans, now declared that the colonial societies had their own unique value and had to be respected by the French administrators. In 1904 the outline of his course on French colonization read:

The policy to follow toward native societies: Necessity of studying the religion, customs, traditions, laws, social and administrative organization of the conquered native societies.

Profound differences between the mentality of Europeans and that of Africans and Asians…. Opposition between the principles of 1789 and the conservatism of non-European populations. The advantage dgained by respecting their ideas and social forms 42

As the viewpoint of the colonial officials had influenced the school’s curriculum, it was also to affect the attitude of the Ecole Coloniale toward physical fitness. Ever since 1890 the school had offered riding classes and fencing lessons. Indeed, the school’s fencing team was one of the finest in the nation. From the beginning physical education was stressed, but proficiency was not required. But in 1909, influenced by the old bush administrators, the school officials decided that since the importance of physical fitness “for colonial administrators is beyond doubt” students would not be allowed to graduate if they did not have a passing grade in physical education 43. In 1910 three students of the Ecole Coloniale received their air-pilot licenses, even though only one of them was to find practical use for his training 44

Until World War I and even later, the Ecole Coloniale did not enjoy the prestige of the grandes écoles like Saint-Cyr or Polytechnique 45. In fact, it remained a relatively unknown institution, for in 1909, during a debate on the colonies, a senator proclaimed that what France needed for its colonial officials was a colonial school, whereupon the minister of colonies explained that such a school had existed for twenty years 46
To some people, however, the Ecole and careers in the colonies had become sufficiently well known by 1900, so that some considered the colonial service an acceptable alternative to the metropolitan civil service or to liberal professions in France. A graduate of the Ecole Coloniale described how his father chose a career for him; the father called him into his office and addressed him in the following terms:

You are eighteen years old, you have your baccalauréat. You must now choose a profession and start a career. I know you would like to be a journalist and enter politics. But this is not a profession-especially at the age of eighteen. We must think of something else. You are blind as a bat, which rules out a military career. You have told me you dislike medicine and teaching. That is your right. You are neither stupid enough nor elegant enough to be a diplomat. You haven’t the disposition for business … that limits the possibilities rather narrowly. There’s still the colonies 47

The colonies attracted a class of men who found career opportunities in France too limited. Since overseas service—despite its obvious hardships—offered quick promotions, it made an admirable career for ambitious young men who wanted a government post without the drudgery and slow promotion of the metropolitan administration. The Corps was still new, the top positions readily accessible. In 1904 a newspaper advising parents to send their children to the Ecole Coloniale wrote:

… in a society like ours, so ancient and so exceptionally complex, a young man is caught like a cog in a machine…. Years and years may pass before he can have a position of responsibility. Everyone knows how slow promotion is in administrative careers, both military and civilian. That is not the case in the colonial service 48

Many of the young men entering the Ecole Coloniale had brilliant expectations. Joost Van Vollenhoven, while a student at the school, wrote his uncle:

If one distinguishes himself in this post [of colonial administrator] one can … eventually be named governor-general. The administration has a future, as you can see. Add to this that the French colonies are hardly explored and you will understand immediately the future there is in such a position for an active and ambitious man 49

By his drive and brilliance Van Vollenhoven was to fulfill his goal of becoming governor-general within ten years of entering the administration. Even after the 1920s, when the top posts of the Corps were no longer so easy to attain, the myth remained that colonial service provided a quick means of rising to the top.
Patriotism—a desire to strengthen France by spreading her civilization abroad—was also influential in drawing men to the Corps. One of the abiding ironies of the colonial venture was that many of the men who went overseas to spread European rule and civilization were tired of Europe. Thus, while the overseas areas had their own charm, the interest in the colonies was to a significant degree an outcome of the dissatisfaction that many Europeans felt with their own culture and society. Lyautey fulminated against French parliamentarisin and bureaucracy. France’s salvation, her hope of rejuvenation lay overseas, he declared. The colonies were “the most glorious school of energy in which our race is being retempered and recast as if in a crucible.” 50
The colonial literature which emerged at the turn of the century—writings by Pierre Loti, André Demaison, Robert Randau—presented imperialists as “brimming over with life, will, intelligence, and, of course, heroism.” 51 The literature was filled with examples of white men performing noble tasks among primitive peoples. But the French novelists were less influential in this respect than was Rudyard Kipling. The British author’s preeminent influence was best described by André Maurois:

From 1900 to 1920 Kipling influenced French youth as few French writers have been able to do. His mannerisms became French mannerisms; his legends and stories (Just So Stories, The Jungle Book) inspired the games and shaped the thoughts of French children.

Kipling’s impact, Maurois thought, lay in the message that he and other novelists sought to convey, and which the lives of the French colonial figures embodied:

I found above all in his books (Kim, Stalky & Co., and The Bridge Builders) a heroic conception of life. It was neither exclusively British nor exclusively imperial. His heroes, no matter what their nationality or their job conquered disorder by overcoming laziness, envy, ambition, and desires 52

The influence exerted by this heroic conception of the colonial life was reinforced at a more philosophical level by the writings extolling the life of action and the cult of energy, such as those of Nietzsche, Charles Péguy, and Ernest Psichari, Renan’s grandson. Psichari, a young mystic who served as colonial officer in Mauritania before his premature death on the battlefield in World War I, was especially popular.
J. F. Reste, who entered the Ecole Coloniale in 1900 and was to reach the very highest ranks within the colonial service, reminisced over half a century later on the spirit that dominated his youth, influencing him and his classmates to choose a colonial career. With his classmates, Reste was stirred by the need for action which was the result of “a mystique of poetry, exoticism, and humanism.” The exoticism which was reflected in the world of art, music, poetry, and fiction influenced a large stratum of French youth. “We, the young, we lived as in a dream; we abandoned ourselves to the gentle reveries of the poems of Leconte de Lisle, José Maria de Heredia, Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud.” The humanist approach played an equally strong role in attracting Reste and his comrades overseas. They were inspired by both Tolstoy and Henri Poincaré; the colonies seemed to provide a place to experiment the marriage of humanism and science. By technical feats human societies could be improved. The great colonials—Garnier, Savorgnan de Brazza, Ballay, and Gallieni—were symbols of French national rebirth, examples of heroism that these young men wanted to emulate.
The colonial experience seemed a method by which France might renew her youth. “France has doubted in its destiny,” but the colonial heroes had created an “unvanquished generation ready to reestablish our country on its eternal foundations.” Reste and his contemporaries at the Ecole Coloniale looked forward impatiently to service in Asia and Africa, where awaited the “promise of a free and independent fife, devoted to the accomplishment of tasks to which we can give the best of ourselves. We lived in emotional times and we were ready to leave for these distant countries, impatiently awaiting the unknown and the marvellous.” 53
Reste’s reminiscences were supported by the survey that André Tarde and Henri Massis (writing under the pen-name “Agathon”) made of French youth before World War I. The prewar generation was preoccupied with the need for heroic action, and some of its members saw overseas a particular opportunity for personal fulfillment. One member of that generation wrote, “We all felt our young blood boil with the fever of departure; we were all drunk with new horizons and unknown oceans.” 54

Most of the young men entering the Ecole Coloniale came from middle or even lower middle class background, from the group that the French traditionally call the classes moyennes 55. Few sons of the French nobility entered the Ecole Coloniale prior to World War I; usually the only aristocratic names in the Corps of Colonial Administrators belonged to former military officers. In serving the republican regime the French nobility as a rule restricted itself to the diplomatic service and the officer corps. Generally speaking, aristocrats opposed colonial expansion. Undoubtedly the initial custom of rejecting young men of royalist families also discouraged sons of the nobility from applying to the school. The relatively low prestige of the colonial career and of the preparatory training was a further deterrent.
Because of the school’s educational requirements, members of the lower classes did not enter it. Few children either of the working class or of the peasantry had a baccalaurgat, the minimal diploma required for entrance. This was due in part to a certain disinclination of the lower classes to give their children a higher education, and in addition, of course, to the material fact that until 1931 secondary schools charged fees. If, in spite of these difficulties, some lower-class children did receive a secondary education, lack of funds and limited ambitions made it unlikely that they would decide to continue their studies. Also, the cost of studying at the Ecole Coloniale must have been prohibitive to many. One administrator estimated that the cost of living three years in Paris (two-year curriculum and an additional preparatory year), together with the tuition fees at the school and at the law faculty, was eight to ten thousand francs 56. Before World War I this sum approximated a common laborer’s full salary for three years, and two years’ earnings for the average government employee 57. It is true that some of the neediest and best students were not required to pay fees, but the school provided very few scholarships, and these were meagre 58. Unless the students’ families lived in Paris their education would be so costly that only the middle classes could afford it; and even for them it represented a substantial sacrifice.

After 1900, the widespread use of colonial officials as teachers marked a definite improvement in the school. The adoption of the doctrine of association indicated a desire to relate more concretely to the colonial reality. A graduate of 1913 undoubtedly overstated the case when he wrote of his education at the Ecole Coloniale, “It gave me a solid theoretical foundation which needed only to be applied practically.” 59
Of course the personnel needs of the colonies underwent significant changes as the administration in the early 1900s became increasingly regularized, needing fewer of the “buccaneer” types and more bureaucrats. The students from the Ecole, ingrained with a sense of duty and prepared for bureaucratic routine by their legal studies, now became invaluable to the new type of service that was evolving overseas. The ministry of colonies recognized that these men were indeed best fit for the Corps; during a parliamentary debate in 1909 on the colonial service, Minister of Colonies Milliès-Lacroix stated that “the best functionaries come from the Ecole Coloniale.” 60 Until World War I the school trained only a small proportion of those entering the Corps (15 percent) but as a result of the changing needs of the colonies, and the progress that the school had made in the generation after its founding, the ministry of colonies made it the only avenue for entrance into the Corps.


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.