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

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


Forts and trading posts acquired in the seventeenth century on the coast of West Africa became the springboard for French territorial conquests in Senegal in the mid-nineteenth century. From Senegal, a generation later, French explorers and military adventurers began a remarkable advance inland into the Western Sudan and southward toward the Gulf of Guinea. In the 1880s, after the French naval officer Savorgnan de Brazza had laid claims to parts of the Congo for his country, the French at the same time began a push northward which culminated at the turn of the century in the connection of the sub-Saharan empire with the colony of Algeria. That accomplishment fulfilled a dream which several generations of French officials had entertained. And in 1895 a French military expedition seized the island of Madagascar.
In France several ministries and several colonial services administered the French overseas possessions. By 1914—a convenient date since the French had by then acquired virtually all their empire—the French ruled their possessions through three different ministries: the ministry of colonies, the ministry of foreign affairs, and the ministry of interior. These divisions of authority were not along functional lines; they had been determined by particular historical circumstances. For example, the protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco had been put under the authority of the ministry of foreign affairs because the international situation had made it undesirable to declare them outright colonies. But Laos and Cambodia, also protectorates, were administered by the ministry of navy and later transferred to the ministry of colonies when it was established in 1894. Algeria, although considered a colony when its conquest began in the 1830s, was first administered by the ministry of war and later was transferred to the ministry of interior. Finally, the large European population in that country had succeeded in having it integrated with metropolitan France, thus placing it, like any other metropolitan department, under the responsibility of the ministry of interior. Various proposals were made to combine the administration of all the different dependencies into a single ministry of overseas France, but until its disintegration the empire remained divided among the three separate ministries: colonies, foreign affairs, and interior.
French control of the overseas possessions was further decentralized through five colonial services. Tunisia and Morocco were each administered by a Corps of Civil Controllers, while Algeria had a Corps of Administrators of Mixed Communes; later, prefects sent out by the ministry of interior administered Algeria. The ministry of navy employed two corps to administer the areas under its jurisdiction—the Civil Services of Indochina, established in 1887, and the Corps of Colonial Administrators, founded in the same year, which administered the remainder. The naval ministry transferred its responsibilities of colonial rule to the ministry of colonies when it was established in 1894, so that both the Corps of Civil Services and of Colonial Administrators were under the jurisdiction of the ministry of colonies after that year.
This study is the history of the Corps of Colonial Administrators, the great bulk of which served in Africa; only a small number were dispatched to the minor French possessions in India, the Pacific and Indian oceans, the Antilles, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and Guiana. But the emphasis of the book is on the vast majority of the Corpsthe men who served in Black Africa and Madagascar.
Since French colonial administration was in actual practice a decentralized system giving nearly full authority to the men in the colonies, the understanding of French rule requires a study of the men who exercised that authority overseas. Their class background, geographical origins, formal training, and ideological outlook had a bearing on the manner in which the French overseas bureaucracy functioned. In its turn, of course, the nature of the overseas administrative structure set a framework within which the French administrators could perform.
Methods of recruiting and training French colonial officials developed gradually after a number of experiments. When, finally a regularized method had been instituted on the very eve of World War I, the French continued to be faced with the problem of attracting men into the colonial service who would accomplish the tasks which the mother country had set for its colonial mission. The increased stress on recruiting men with a certain bureaucratic training ensured that after 1920 a more pliable service than had existed before developed. Nevertheless, the factors of distance and the relative lack of interest which both government and Parliament evinced in overseas problems meant that until 1945 only a minimum of external control was exerted on the colonial service.
While the first generation of colonial administrators did much to destroy the traditional political structures overseas, the generation that followed in the interwar period was often reluctant to create that full assimilation of the colonies with the motherland which was often proclaimed as the colonial program in Paris; so that French colonial rule, like its other European counterparts, while destroying much of the traditional fabric of the colonial world, did not form it into a Western image.
The colonial service did not operate in a vacuum. Colonialism, which was an example of the global nature of modern history, was profoundly affected by the two world wars which succeeded each other within a generation. And the rise of nationalist movements created a new challenge to colonialism and changed the very context within which colonial rule could be regarded. The Corps of Colonial Administrators perhaps reached its nadir of power in 1920 when the numerous reforms and changes had streamlined it into an efficient arm of French control. But the profound social and political changes unleashed by World War I, the spread of education, and at least rudimentary economic growth transformed the colonial service into something of an anachronism on the eve of the second global war. In spite of constitutional and administrative adjustments the French after 1945 never completely regained control over their empire. The last fifteen years of colonial rule found the Corps challenged by a growing opposition both at home and in the colonies and it no longer possessed the kind of authority it had had in the pre-1939 era. Independence opened yet another chapter for the activity of the members of the Corps—a phase of the final pages of their history.

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