Founding an Overseas Administration

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

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

I. — Founding an Overseas Administration

French colonization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries achieved domination over land but usually not over the indigenous populations. Upon the arrival of the first settlers in North America, the French established an administration, but though it maintained close control over the settlers’ lives, it made no attempt to establish administrative control over the Indians, with whom its relations were limited to trade and quasi-diplomacy.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, France had lost its continental empire in North America. Its remaining overseas possessions were now modest in size and sparsely populated; they consisted of plantation colonies such as the Antilles, which were inhabited by white plantation owners and their imported Negro slaves, and small trade forts on the coastline of West Africa and India, which were occupied by a small number of French traders and officers. As in North America, relations with the indigenous populations in these regions were usually limited to trade and the establishment of some form of diplomatic relations with the local states.
Only Britain and Holland, the two powers that emerged with empires at the end of the Napoleonic era, administered the indigenous populations of their empires. In the northeastern part of India the British East India Company had begun as early as 1772 to assume the direct collection of revenue and the administration of justice. Britain increasingly limited the prerogatives of the private company, and by the middle of the nineteenth century the government took over the responsibility of administering most of the Indian subcontinent. The Dutch in the East Indies were the second European power to follow this procedure. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Dutch East India Company had established a few posts which conducted trade relations with the surrounding populations. In 1798 the company lost its administrative control to the Dutch government, which in turn lost the islands to the British during the Napoleonic Wars. When the Dutch government regained the colony in 1816, it attempted to establish effective rule over the countryside by sending Dutch officials into the interior of the colony. Like the British, these functionaries ruled indirectly, that is, they controlled the local populations through existing political and social institutions.
Once the British and the Dutch had founded an administration over their empires, they began to establish regular methods of recruiting colonial officials. In 1806 a college was founded at Haileybury, near London, which anyone who wished an appointment to the Indian service was required to attend. In 1853 the Macaulay Commission introduced entrance examinations for the Indian Civil Service, with the main emphasis on classical studies; those who passed the examinations were also trained in Indian and Oriental affairs before being sent abroad. In Holland, the Dutch appointed officials from among the men who had passed the required courses in Javanese affairs at the Royal Academy of Delft. In 1864 attendance at the school ceased to be a prerequisite for appointment to the Dutch East India Service, and a rigorous examination on the history and the institutions of the Dutch possessions was substituted. Most candidates, however, still prepared for the examination by attending the school at Delft
The British and Dutch established a fairly elaborate system of recruitment and training of officials for India and Indonesia, but they found no pressing need to establish such methods for their other colonial possessions, which at the time were small and insignificant. Both countries had established territorial control by appointing functionaries overseas to administer specific regions, for which they were accountable to a central authority, the colony’s governor. The French did not need to imitate their imperial competitors, for in France itself, of course, this kind of administration had a long history: under the ancien rdgime the monarchy had dispatched its intendants to the various provinces, and from the time of Napoleon the new territorial divisions, the departments, were administered by prefects. Only when French control began to extend over larger areas overseas was it necessary to establish a full-scale administrative system and to devise methods of recruiting and training colonial officials. The first French territorial administration overseas appeared in Algeria, a direct by-product of the attempt to secure military control over the colony. In 1830 the first French soldiers landed in that country, but by the following decade, in spite of several difficult military campaigns, they had not achieved mastery over the North African territory, because of Algerian resistance
The year 1840 brought a turning point for Algeria and important innovations in the field of colonial administration. The newly appointed governor, General Thomas Bugeaud, was determined to strengthen the precarious French position by decisively putting down the Algerian opposition. He was a tough-minded soldier who had gained a fearsome reputation for crushing the popular uprising of 1834 in Paris. Bugeaud achieved military victory over the Algerians, but realized that successful battles were less important than was permanent control over the local population. As long as that control was not assured, groups or individuals might foment an uprising at any time against the French and challenge their rule. In every occupied region Bugeaud established an administrative unit, the bureau arabe, which had previously existed at the military headquarters in Algiers from 1832 to 1835; it was made up of officers advising the French military leaders on policy toward the local inhabitants. The various bureaux simultaneously attempted to maintain control over the local population by supervising the activities of the local chiefs. The original bureau arabe had collected Arab documents, translated them, and attempted to exercise some control over the chiefs in the conquered areas; its responsibilities had covered the entire colony. In resurrecting this institution, Bugeaud made an important innovation &emdash;he established an individual bureau for each region.
The officers belonging to Bugeaud’s bureaux knew Arabic, they had made some study of the local customs, and were supposed to maintain close relations with the populations whose affairs they were administering. Traveling around their military districts, the officers gave orders to the chiefs and supervised the collection of taxes raised to help defray the costs of the colonial administration. The. somewhat limited functions of the bureaux arabes were soon extended to include, in the words of an ex-member, responsibility for fulfilling « all the needs, all the demands, all the initiative which a conquering race has in a conquered territory .»
The military imprint of French rule long remained in Algeria; several decades later, for example, the officers of the bureaux were being selected as before from among the infantry officers serving in the colony. At first they seem to have been relatively satisfactory as administrators, but in the 1850s the officers became notorious alike for brutality toward the local populations and for insubordination toward their administrative superiors
The small French possessions in West Africa, considered as little more than convenient bases for French naval power, were originally administered by the ministry of the navy, a control which was to last, with minor exceptions, until the creation of a ministry of colonies in 1894. In the meantime the West African possessions had grown to the extent that they became the base for further territorial expansion, both in Senegal and beyond &emdash;an advance that created problems similar to those that had existed in Algeria. The French therefore had to develop a system that permitted them to exercise unchallenged control over their new acquisitions. The first stage was the establishment of a territorial administration in Senegal, France’s first West African colony.

The French experience in Senegal was to be of great significance, for it influenced subsequent administration in all of Black Africa under French control. It was largely the work of Louis Faidherbe, who had served as an officer under General Bugeaud in Algeria.
Faidherbe, with his steel-rimmed glasses, gave the impression of a dour authoritarian. A convinced republican and the son of a volunteer in the revolutionary wars, he was to win his renown in the service of Emperor Napoleon III. In Senegal, the thirty-six-year-old officer found an outlet for the ambivalence he felt between his personal authoritarianism and his republican ideals. Like the Jacobins of his father’s generation, he believed that through conquest he could impose more enlightened and humane institutions on the subjugated regions. « Our intentions are pure and noble, our cause is just; the future cannot fail us, » She proclaimed at the end of his mission.
Mediocre as a garrison officer in France, Faidherbe demonstrated in Senegal remarkable skills as an officer and as an administrator. In 1854 he was appointed governor of Senegal, a post he occupied longer than had any of his predecessors (there had been eighteen during the fourteen years prior to his appointment). Except for an interval between 1861 and 1863 he served continuously until 1865. During his governorship Faidherbe made sizable new territorial acquisitions. In 1854 the West African colony had included only the Island of Gorbe, Saint Louis, the capital, and some fortified posts farther up the Senegal River. Until Faidherbe’s appointment the French position in Senegal was relatively precarious; in Saint Louis, for instance, the French were required to pay annual tribute to the Moors. Faidherbe destroyed much of the Moorish control over Saint Louis, and through his successful military conquests, he secured the base from which a unified contiguous colony could later be established. With remarkable foresight the young governor also anticipated by more than half a century the French domination of the Niger River and set out to create in Senegal the territorial base from which his successors could spread their conquests over the land that later became French West Africa.
Faidherbe’s conquests brought under French control relatively large expanses of territory inhabited by a variety of peoples. Permanent French authority over these areas required some sort of control over the local populations, which, according to Faidherbe’s estimate in 1856, numbered 50,000 people . The governor assigned three officers from the Bureau des affaires exMrieures-the office in charge of maintaining diplomatic relations with the nearby African states-to keep an eye on the newly annexed regions. The officers were expected to tour the countryside and to supervise the activities of the local chiefs, but they always seemed to find more pressing desk work at the Bureau in Saint Louis, and generally neglected their travels.
In 1857 Faidherbe created an alternative system which would pen-nit more effective control over the annexed regions, drawing on his experience in Algeria, always his model. Senegal, he wrote, needed an administration modeled after that of the North African colony: « In Algeria and Senegal the aim is the same: to dominate the country at as low a cost as possible and through commerce get the greatest advantages; the difficulties to be overcome are analogous-the means to reach them the same .» Like Bugeaud in Algeria, Faidherbe established a territorial administration, a system whereby officials were permanently assigned to specific regions and charged with supervising the local chiefs. The function of the French officials, he declared, was to « maintain tranquility so that the natives may work and produce in all security to feed our posts with their products and so that they may recognize the advantage of our domination . »
Faidherbe divided the colony into regions known as arrondissements; these divisions varied in number between two and seven. Over each arrondissement he placed a military officer known as a commandant d’arrondissement. In the first years following 1857, there seem to have been no clear guidelines determining the duties and responsibilities of the officers. Guidelines were first established in 1862 when Faidherbe’s successor, Governor Jauréguiberry, defined the functions of the commandants d’arrondissements in a special decree, which declared that each officer was entrusted with « the safety and tranquility of the arrondissement » and instructed him to make sure that the inhabitants of his territory demonstrated « the fidelity and obedience that they owe France. » The officer was to report regularly to the governor an incidents that « might disturb the peace of his arrondissement. » He was to listen to the complaints and grievances of the local populations and to inform the governor of all actions taken to redress those grievances . The decree was influenced by traditional rules of military hierarchy, which tended to limit the powers of the local field commanders and leave the ultimate responsibility for all actions to the superior officer behind the fighting lines, for it circumscribed the powers of the commandants by requiring them to consult the governor prior to act on all important questions which do not need an immediate decision! 10 » In the system that Faidherbe established, an important administrative role was assigned to the local rulers, the bracks, burs and damels. He subdivided the arrondissements into cercles, each of which was headed by a traditional ruler known as chef de cercle. These chiefs transmitted orders to the local village chiefs. Obedience was ensured by the fact that the village chiefs often owed traditional allegiance to their superior rulers, who had now become chefs de cercles. This system of administration was built in a pyramidal shape; at the apex was the governor, at a lower echelon two to seven commandants, under each of these four or five regional chiefs, and finally the village chiefs; it was the system that was to be characteristic of French rule in West Africa, as the cercle itself was to become the unit of French territorial administration in West Africa.
Originally the regional chiefs were entrusted with rather extensive power. They were of course assigned the responsibility of executing in their own regions all orders received from their commandant, but in their own right they were also left with important responsibilities. At the outset the chefs de cercles had full judicial and police powers over their cercles, and they were also ordered to encourage trade and agriculture in their districts.
Faidherbe, faced with the immediate problem of establishing control over large areas, had originally used the existing local political structures when he had transformed the burs, bracks, and damels into chefs de cercles. He initiated the process, later completed by his successors, of transforming the chiefs from independent political forces into subordinate instruments of the French administration. He did not hesitate to dismiss those who failed to perform effectively; in 1857 he deposed a chief who was a drunkard. Also, he purposely appointed submissive chiefs who would comply with French orders. In one case he appointed a chief solely because the latter was « an agreeable man without initiative who will act only according to our instructions 11. »
In 1863 Faidherbe significantly reduced the powers of the chefs de cercles by transferring their administrative, judicial, and police powers to French officers who now became known as commandants de cercles. These commandants de cercles, placed under the supervision of the commandants d’arrondissements, supervised the regional chiefs who, now endowed with fewer powers, also found their authority restricted to a smaller ‘region known as a canton. These regional chiefs, called chefs de cantons, in their turn commanded and supervised the village chiefs. In yet another change, the office of commandant d’arrondissement was abolished, and the commandant de cercle became the principal territorial representative of the French administration. Although the administrative units in French Equatorial Africa and Madagascar were given different designations, territorial administration within the two areas was closely patterned after the Senegalese model.
Once the basic organization of territorial administration was established, the French faced the far more difficult problem of finding qualified men to serve in the colonies. Each governor handled the recruitment of administrators for his own colony; it was only after 1887, when all the administrators serving in the various colonies were pooled into a single corps, that a central administration in Paris took over recruitment.
When studying the recruitment of administrators prior to 1887, one should examine the practices of the governors in the individual French possessions. Most colonies faced problems similar to those of Senegal. The administrative system in that colony is the best documented and the logical example of early recruitment practices, since it was to have the greatest impact on the development of colonial administration as a model for the rest of Black Africa under French control.
All the colonies faced the difficult problem of attracting qualified men to distant and unhealthy regions which had gained the reputation of being the white man’s grave. Shortly after becoming governor of Senegal, Faidherbe expressed concern over the manpower situation. He infon-ned his superior in Paris that even the highest officials in the colonies, the governors, were usually incompetent men. He therefore advised the minister of the navy in 1856 to discontinue the habit of appointing by chance and for personal convenience, without considering the needs of the country, an officer from such and such a service; and have him occupy for a year, eighteen months, or two years the government of Senegal, [a colony] which he has never seen, just in the same manner as one would give him the command of a naval vessel, a frigate or a regiment 12
His predecessors, Faidherbe asserted, had not only arrived unprepared and totally ignorant of colonial affairs, but they had also shown so little zeal for their work that they left the colony as ignorant as they had been on the day of their arrival. In addition to improving the quality of the governors, he went on, the ministry would have to find for the governors worthy subordinates who could act as advisers and fill administrative posts in the interior of the colony— « six or eight young men who will adopt this country, decide to make their career here, work with ardor to understand it and be well-informed about the conduct of native affairs 13. » These men, Faidherbe suggested, should be recruited from the young military officers who were already stationed in the colony and thus had at least a rudimentary knowledge of the situation. In order to encourage these officers to enter and remain in the territorial administration, he advised « rewards and promotions, for the profession is tough, and hardly attractive 14. »
Three years later, in 1859, Faidherbe wrote the minister of Algeria and colonies that « it is time seriously to introduce the civilian element into the government of the colony. 15 » But civilians were not appointed; instead naval personnel continued filling administrative posts in Senegal, and second-rate officers at that. An admiral later claimed that he reserved these positions in Senegal and Gabon for those of his officers who « are needy and without a future 16. » As a result, Faidherbe’s successor, Governor Jauréguiberry, wrote of his administrative staff:

The commandants d’arrondissements are generally far from possessing the rich knowledge and special qualities indispensable to the positions with which they are entrusted. Many among them have lost the habit of work and have no inclination to study, and as a result fail to perform at their best. In short, they are only good enough to command a company 17

As early as 1855 two writers, Frédéric Carrère, a minor French official, and Paul Holle, the mulatto explorer and soldier from Saint Louis, had remarked on how unsuitable the naval personnel was for administrative positions. Neither the officers’ studies nor their practical experience, they wrote, prepared them to be administrators 18. Even though himself a naval officer, Governor Jauréguiberry demonstrated the same lack of confidence in the military administrators. « As far as I know, » he wrote, « the love of order, the respect for law, education, … agriculture and commerce have never been propagated by the power of bayonets 19. » An additional disadvantage of naval personnel was that often shortly after arriving in the colony they could be commandeered back to ship service. Civilians, Jauréguiberry thought, would be less brutal than the military, would remain for longer periods in the colony, and would carry on a more enlightened administration.
But the naval ministry ignored Jauréguiberry’s advice to recruit civilians; in any case it would have been most difficult to attract qualified civilians to posts in the African bush. As a memorandum of the naval ministry stated in 1869,

Who then is the intelligent man with good education and liberal ideas … who would consent to exile himself to Saldé or Matam [in remotest parts of Senegal], with ten black soldiers under his orders and a village of a hundred huts to survey; and how will he find the occasion to apply his intelligence 20

Then in 1879, Jauréguiberry became minister of the navy, and in his new role was able to encourage the replacement of military by civilian officials overseas. He ended the « regime of the admirals » in Cochin-China by appointing civilian governors. In Senegal on his insistence governors appointed only civilians to the territorial administration, and by 1880 eight out of ten commandants de cercles in that colony were civilians. But although the origin of recruitment may have changed, the colonial administration was by no means improved. If the civilians did not have the particular vices which Jauréguiberry thought characteristic of military officers, most of them were as brutal toward the local populations and as negligent of orders from their superiors as the military had been. Many civilians who entered the colonial administration were men with questionable pasts who for various reasons had decided to leave France and seek their fortunes elsewhere.
The unhealthy and uncomfortable life in the colonies did not attract the best Europeans of any nationality. In 1837 Sir George Cornwall complained that the scum of England was being « poured into the Colonies 21. » Twenty years later, while the British civil service sought to appoint only top Oxbridge men for service in India, the lack of candidates forced it « to be content with first any men from Oxford and Cambridge, and finally from any university at all 22. »
The French seem to have fared even worse; for their lack of candidates was so serious that they could impose neither educational nor character qualifications upon aspirants for the overseas service. The governor of Senegal noted in 1879 that the colony drew « persons who if not compromised at home were at least incapable of making a livelihood in it. » The only men attracted into the colonial administration, he wrote, were « the lost children of the mother country 23. » For nearly half a century to come, the French colonial administration continued to attract the rejects of French society-those unable to pursue a promising career in France for lack of education or other handicaps. In some cases the recruits were men who had gone afoul of the law. One of the administrators serving in Senegal in 1879 was a « bankrupt who had spent considerable time in jail »; predictably, he was a poor administrator who did « only what he wished to do and even worked for policies contrary to those of his superiors 24. »
The poor quality of the commandants was noticed from the beginning, but complaints became especially marked in the 1880s. The administrators, it was said, tended to ignore their administrative superiors and ruled their cercles according to their personal whims. In 1885 the Governor of Senegal noted that in spite of repeated instructions forbidding the commandants to impose penalties without seeking his prior consent, they were levying « severe fines on the natives without serious cause » and without the governor’s permission 25
Administrators with initiative, struggling against red tape, may well have drawn upon themselves the criticisms of governors who preferred subordinates with bureaucratic habits and outlook. Thus not all of the criticisms should be taken at face value. But the governors were not always complaining that their subordinates were overactive. On the contrary, commandants, because of laziness, it was alleged, failed to maintain effective control over their regions; as early as 1874 a report declared that the commandants had ceased to administer their cercles and were leaving all important functions to the local chiefs 26. A decade later, when Joseph Gallieni arrived in Senegal (which was to become the springboard for his military conquest of the area later known as French Sudan), he noticed the idleness into which the commandants had fallen:

They never visited the surrounding villages, they limited themselves to accepting without verification the information of their interpreters, and thus permitted the neighboring chiefs and inhabitants to escape from our authority and join our enemies 27

Gallieni advocated the « method of Faidherbe » which had emphasized the need for remaining in constant touch with the local inhabitants.
From the middle of the 1850s until 1887, the date of Gallieni’s observation, the Faidherbe method had remained only an ideal. To be sure, Faidherbe had managed to establish a workable administrative organization which remained unchanged and indeed lasted with few modifications until the very end of French colonization; but the problem of recruitment with which he and his successors had grappled still remained unsolved.
An examination of eighteen personnel files belonging to men who served overseas before 1887 reveals that their superiors rated only three as capable; eleven were described as definitely unreliable and even brutal functionaries; and four files give insufficient information. Senegal’s problems in this respect were, however, not unique. An administrator who had entered the service in New Caledonia was sent away in 1886. His governor wrote: « This functionary has left nothing but bad memories; as incapable as some of his colleagues, he did not possess their honesty 28. » A man who had been administrator in the Comoro Islands in 1886 behaved so « strangely » that he was sent on leave. When he returned he was sent to administer another island, but according to his superior his « ridiculous and brutal behavior » made it necessary to transfer him again. This time he was to be sent to the Congo, but the governor of that colony heard about him in time to refuse his services. He went to Bénin instead, but he was also not wanted there. Finally he landed in Senegal, but soon after his arrival he was murdered 29
There were a few good officials, but they proved to be exceptional cases. A marine infantry officer in Gabon entered business and then the administration. A conscientious, hard-working, and popular official in his district, he stood out from his colleagues; and his governor wistfully remarked, « I wish Gabon had many functionaries like him 30. » One of the most important causes for the poor recruitment of administrators can be found in the nature of the central administration of colonies. Until the 1880s it was an insignificant undersecretariat in the naval ministry, with little prestige and only limited authority over the growing empire. The absence of a strong central administration meant that there were few common bonds among the far-flung possessions of the empire. The individual governors, rather than the central administration in Paris, appointed the colonial administrators. Also only a few men were needed for each colony—in Senegal, perhaps three or four new commandants annually. For such a modest number it was obviously impractical to devise intricate methods of recruitment or training as had been done in England and Holland for the India and Dutch East India services.
It became possible to enlist more highly qualified French colonial personnel when a central institution began to recruit for the entire empire or at least larger parts of it; the undersecretariat of colonies assumed the task, and a turning point was reached. After that time the problems were not over, but at least an attempt could be made to recruit and train better officials for overseas service.



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
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