Mar 12, 2006

Review: The Conquest Of The Western Sudan


Left: 1792 map of Western Africa by Guillaume de L’Isle, Paris

Kanya-Forstner, Alexander S. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969, 297 pages.

Kanya-Forstner’s work examines the French exploration, occupation, and subjugation of the area of West Africa known in antiquity as the Western Sudan, which encompasses such modern states as Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The author focused primarily on the second half of the nineteenth century, and concentrated his research on the French military. However, this is not true military history, as little space is devoted to battles and tactic. The author argued that the primary force behind French expansion in the Western Sudan was the military leadership in the colonies, and that, unlike the British, the French tended to subvert traditional indigenous political structures – especially Muslim- by supporting neighboring rivals.

France’s initial fascination with the region, according to Kanya-Forstner, was the myth of a “Sudanese Eldorado.” The author traced the origin of this myth to Mansa Musa, the fourteenth-century Emperor of Mali whose legendary wealth filtered into Europe from both trans-Saharan traders and Levantine travelers. Early colonization efforts along the Senegal helped the French position themselves for exploitation of African riches; unfortunately, French colonial holdings never panned out. Kanya-Forstner estimated that colonial expenses in the Western Sudan cost France 130 million francs in the period from 1879-1900.

There are some fascinating sections dealing with French schemes to connect disparate sections of the Western Sudan through the construction of railroads. While some ideas were practical, such as the plan to link the Senegal and Niger Rivers, others were fanciful dreams. The plan to create a trans-Saharan railroad connecting Algeria and Senegal, for example, borders on the fantastic. The creators of this plot gave little thought to the extensive engineering and logistical hurdles inherent in such a bold move; this portion of the text demonstrated just how out of touch were many European colonial administrators from the lands to which their authority extended.

The author took pains to distance his work from that of Robinson and Gallagher, arguing that the “official mind” hypothesis did not fit the experience of the French in the Western Sudan. On the surface, Kanya-Forstner is correct, since the French military made many of the colonial decisions in the field, and the Colonial Office of the Western Sudan was for many years a department of the military; he termed this to be a form of “military imperialism.” However, it could be argued that the “official mind” need not be limited to civil servants, and that military administrators and their policies could also be representative of an bureaucratic impetus to French imperialism. The author himself noted that the officers soudanais were “drawn to the Sudan by the opportunities it afforded for faits de guerre and for the rapid promotions that went with them.”

The author’s research relied almost exclusively on French government documents. This is unfortunate, as the result is a text nearly devoid of an indigenous perspective. While African sources are rare for this period, this should not be an excuse for one-sided analysis. Kanya-Forstner thus reduced African groups in conflict with the French to passive actors, waiting to react to the colonial activity of the French. The author devoted very little space to political changes within and between the numerous states of the indigenous populations. While not quite Ethnocentric, the book more accurately should be called Afro-deficient.


Hooda Thunkit said...


It is nteresting to me that you find and read old history books like this.

Do you ever have to wait to get any of these books? I would think that waiting lists are very few and very short ;-)

As usual, another interesting report!

Dariush said...


If you're looking for casual ethnocentrism, look no further than old (I mean really old) issues of National Geographic.

University libraries tend to have a good collection of these some going all the way back to its first year of publication (1908, if memory serves).

A dozen years or so ago, when I was in college, I was flipping through one of these bound volumes and just found all sorts of stuff that was inappropriately hilarious, but probably just considered par for the course and perfectly acceptable back then when they were published.

For example, a feature on the people of the Caucasus showed a portrait of a Georgian lady reclining on a sofa of some sort. The caption read something like "Georgian women are renown for their beauty in the Caucasus and in the Near East... As you can see, standards of beauty are slightly different here than in the West."

I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.

You can find similar stuff in articles dealing with Africa, Asia, Latin America, you name it. The Beja people of Eastern Sudan, Eritrea and Southeastern Egypt are actually referred to as "fuzzy-wuzzies" -- the only place I've come across that particular pejorative aside from the writings of Kipling.

In any case, I second Hooda's remarks. A very informative post. Thanks.