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The French in West Africa

by Jim Jones (Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved)
Go to the syllabus , the reading on Egypt or the reading on British imperialism.


  1. Introduction
  2. Algeria
  3. Senegal
  4. Soudan
  5. Ivory Coast
  6. Dahomey
  7. French Motivation for Imperialism


France's experience in Africa was conditioned by two things. First, France had a longstanding interest in the region bordering the Mediterranean Sea thanks to its own coast line between Italy and Spain, its active role in the Crusades and its incorporation into the Roman Empire. Second, France lost most of its original overseas empire in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the Napoleonic Wars (1790s-1815) and it suffered a major setback in its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Thus, French imperialism was an effort to regain lost power rather than a continuation of previous successes, and its African empire grew out of developments along the North African coast.

map of locations in West Africa mentioned in this reading
Locations mentioned in this reading


The French first occupied African soil in Algeria in 1830. Relations between France and Algiers had long been adversarial, such as when Louis XIV ordered the bombardment of Algiers in 1684 as part of an effort to retrieve Christian slaves. The French launched raids against the cities of North Africa's "Barbary Coast" after the Napoleonic Wars, charging that they harbored pirates. Although the piracy stopped after peace was restored in 1815, relations with France remained very tense.

In 1828 Hussein, the Dey (Ottoman governor) of Algiers, struck French consul Pierre Deval with his fly whisk. Whether it was an accident or not, Deval reported it back to his king as an insult and two years later, Charles X used it as a pretext to invade Algiers on 5 July 1830. The French quickly occupied the city, but that ignited resistance in the Algerian interior. During two wars fought between 1832 and 1837, rural Berbers united behind a Berber leader named Abd al-Qadir (alternate spelling: Abd el-Kader) to oppose the French.

After a third war against al-Qadir's forces failed to defeat him in 1840-1841, the French began to use terror tactics. Besides destroying wells and crops, on two occasions French military forces pursued al-Qadir into land claimed by Morocco--an independent country--and finally captured him in 1847. To quiet Moroccan protests, France signed the Treaty of Tangier on September 10, 1844 which provided French recognition of Moroccan independence and promises not to invade Morocco again.

Berber uprisings continued in central Algeria until 1873 when the French occupied the strategically-located oasis of El Golea (modern name El Meniaa), 540 miles south of Algiers. Resistance continued deeper in the desert and in 1880-1881, the nomadic Tuaregs wiped out an expedition led by the French Colonel Paul Flatters as it tried to survey a railroad route across the Sahara Desert. Resistance continued in the desert until 1932 when the use of airplanes, radios and trucks made it possible to locate and pursue nomads. [NOTE: Resistance by desert dwellers against outsiders flared up occasionally after that, and led to guerilla warfare against the independent governments of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger as recently as 2012.]


The French invasion south of the Sahara began place along the Senegalese coast in 1843 under the leadership of Governor General Bouet Willaumez. He initiated a period of expansion by capturing the port of St. Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River and allowing privately-owned trading companies (mostly from Bordeaux) to handle the administration of the town. That ended in 1848 when the new French government of the Second Republic took over the local administration.

After the Second Republic gave way to the Second Empire in 1852, French expansion in Senegal resumed during the administration of Governor Louis Faidherbe, a military officer. From 1854 to 1863, he directed a series of expeditions that established a line of French forts along the lower Senegal River as far east as Médine. During the same period, the French government took complete control over the local administration of the port city of St. Louis from the Bordeaux merchant firms.

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) interrupted French exploration by producing a budget crisis after France was forced to pay Germany for the costs of the war. French exploration resumed in 1875 when a naval officer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, began to lead the first of three expeditions intended to find a route to the Congo River. Savorgnan de Brazza's efforts resulted in French claims to land along the right bank of the Upper Congo River (as seen from a boat headed downstream) from Lake Chad to the mouth of the Congo.

The French post at Bakel on the Senegal River in 1887.
Source: Joseph Gallieni, Deux campagnes au Soudan Francais


The "French Soudan" or "Western Sudan" should not be confused with the modern country of Sudan, or with the colony that was known as "Anglo-Egyptian Sudan" during most of the 20th century. Although similar in climate and latitude, the British Sudan was located on the east side of Africa near the Nile River while the French Soudan was located west of Lake Chad. The French viewed the Soudan as the link between their holdings in Algeria and Senegal, as well as the gateway to the Congo via Lake Chad. Consequently, the French exhausted an enormous amount of effort to claim it even though its economic value was small.

Prior to the 1850s, there was no French presence in the Soudan, although French explorer René Caillié passed through the area enroute to becoming the first European to visit Timbuktu and return to tell about it in 1827-1828. In 1855 Faidherbe's troops began their advance towards the Upper Senegal River and built a fort at Médine, just below the Félou waterfall. Beyond that lay the empire of Ahmadu Tall with its capital at Ségou on the Niger River, and the empire of Samory Touré to the south east, with a capital at Sanankoro on the south side of the Niger River.

For a time, the French felt no need to formalize their presence, but as the British began to move inland from the mouth of the Niger River, the French began to fear that the British would seize the Middle Niger Valley and perhaps even reach the Upper Senegal Valley. That fear inspired a new episode of French expansion from 1876-1881 when Governor Brière de l'Isle authorized the construction of a railroad to the Niger and the creation of a military government of Haut Senegal et Niger (literally "Upper Senegal and Niger"), an area encompassing the modern states of Mali and Niger. [For more on this episode, see Kanya-Forstner, 1969, 55.]

The African empires offered resistance, so it took a decade for the French to conquer Ségou and almost twenty more years to defeat Samory. Resistance continued in the region around Lake Chad until 1900 and in the Sahara Desert until the 1930s. But by 1899, the French were able to place the Soudan under its own administration.



The campaign against Samory Touré dragged on much longer than expected, and by 1887, the French began to send military expeditions north from the "Ivory Coast" in hopes of outflanking Samory. The Ivory Coast, located between the Gold Coast and Liberia, received its name from 16th century traders who knew it as a good source of "elephant teeth." French merchant firms operated long-established trading posts on the coast at Bassam and Assinie, but neither became particularly large or important due to the climate, which Europeans detested, and the lack of adequate port facilities.

Samory Toure, African
resistance leader
Samory Touré, leader of the last major
anti-French resistance in the western Sudan
Source: Gallieni, Deux campagnes ...

After the Berlin Conference, the French government used Bassam and Assinie as bases from which to establish claims over as much of the interior as possible. In 1887, an expedition headed inland from Bassam along the Comoe River and in December 1888 at the interior trading town of Kong, it met up with a second detachment sent from the Soudan. In 1891, the French managed to send another column all of the way from the coast to the Soudan and in 1892, Colonel Gustave Binger, recently retired from the military, was named governor of the new colony of Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast).


By the time the "Scramble for Africa" ended the French had more territory in West Africa than any other European nation. In addition to the places already discussed, the French acquired Tunisia in 1881, the territory surrounding the "three rivers" (French Guinea) in 1893, Morocco in 1911 and even part of German Kamerun (Cameroon) and all of Togo after World War I. But one last acquisition deserves special mention because of the attention it received in France--the conquest of Dahomey.

Dahomey was located between British Nigeria and German Togo along what Europeans called the "Slave Coast." French merchants began to trade there in the 17th century and in 1851, traders from Marseille signed a treaty of protection with King Guezo of Abomey which gave the French the right to build a permanent base on the coast at Ouidah. Another French trader named Daumas signed a similar treaty with King Sodji of Porto-Novo in 1863. Sodji's successor (Mekpu) tried to renounce the treaty with the French, but after he was defeated by a rival with French assistance in 1883, the French government became confident enough to make Porto Novo the capital of their possessions in the Gulf of Benin.

This was an affront to the kings of Abomey, who considered Porto Novo to be part of their realm. King Glegle of Abomey revoked his father's treaty in 1884 and the French sent a military expedition to restore their control. Glegle's death in 1889 placed his son Behanzin on the throne, and when Behanzin appeared likely to continue his father's opposition, the French responded by occupying Cotonou, a coastal village near the Abomey capital.

French newspapers helped drum up support for this effort with descriptions of human sacrifices that accompanied Behanzin's coronation. They also lavished attention on the troops who fought for the French including Foreign Legionnaires from Algeria and Tirailleurs (African troops in the French colonial army) from Senegal. The use of new technology such as the telegraph, repeating rifles, steam gunboats and machine guns also attracted interest, while reports of Dahomeyan "Amazons"-- military units composed entirely of women--titillated the French public's imagination.

The climax came in 1892 when an expedition led by a Senegalese mulatto, Colonel Alfred Amédée Dodds, marched from Ouidah to Abomey with four thousand soldiers. Following a series of battles in September and October, including several that pitted Legionnaires against Abomey's Amazons. the French reached the capital on November 17. King Behanzin had already fled, so the French amused themselves by collecting souvenirs including a white parasol decorated with human jawbones that received a great deal of attention from the press. Behanzin remained on the run until January 1894 when he was captured and exiled to Martinique. The French finished the campaign with 81 dead, 436 wounded and about 2,000 other casualties due to illness.

The 1892 French campaign in Dahomey affected European attitudes about Africa. It seemed to confirm that even a prosperous and well-organized state like Dahomey depended on practices--human sacrifice, women soldiers--that scandalized Victorian Europe. When the British launched the Third Anglo-Ashanti War in 1894, they received help from newspaper correspondents who wrote unconfirmable accounts of African cruelty and barbaric acts. Since the only Europeans in a position to verify such reports were soldiers, the public never heard anyone defend African culture.


Scholars debate the motivations that led to the Scramble for Africa and conclude that the French acted for different reasons than the British. The British motivation seems fairly clear-- first to safeguard their passage to India and secondly to profit from economic opportunities. French expansion, which led to the annexation of huge areas of unprofitable desert and jungle, was motivated by a more complex mixture of interests that included deliberate efforts on the part of soldiers, merchants, geographic societies and groups like the Comité de l'Afrique Française and Union coloniale française to promote the idea of empire.

Supporters of French expansion proposed both practical and idealistic goals. Practically speaking, French imperialists hoped to enhance the French economy to help pay the Prussian indemnity and to recover from the Great Depression of the 1870s. They also wanted to block British expansion in West Africa. On a more idealistic level, French imperialists envisioned the creation of a Greater French Empire that would promote what they considered to be the universal ideals of the Enlightenment. Coincidentally, such an empire was expected to extend and glorify French culture.

Philosophy professor Albert Memmi wrote in The Colonist and the Colonized (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1967) that the French had to have a grandiose concept of their own culture in order for expansion to succeed because the colonial system attracted only the most mediocre Europeans. Memmi argued that the colonizers were aware of their own mediocrity, so they bolstered their position with respect to colonized Africans by extolling the virtues of the French civilization. Coincidently, they viewed themselves as the best representatives of that civilization.

Writing about French politics in Jules Ferry and the Renaissance of French Imperialism, (London: King's Crown Press, 1944), Thomas Power agreed with Memmi that the economic motive was secondary and argued that France's principle motivations were strategic and ideological. Power wrote that the economic arguments advanced by Jules Ferry to justify expansion, were created after the fact as a way to obtain financial support from the French legislature for projects that were already underway. [Power, 1944, 198.]

Once treaties were signed and French administration put in place, the French tried to convert Africans into citizens who understood the ideals of French civilization. To create citizens from uneducated Africans, the French employed a policy of assimilation which relied on white Frenchmen as teachers and models for African pupils whose object was to mimic French culture.

Not only did this serve the French government's need to demonstrate high moral purpose by "raising up the heathen," it also offered cost advantages. Africans who wanted to become French were not likely to revolt, so the French could do without expensive military garrisons to maintain order. Assimilated Africans also served in the lower levels of administration, saving the cost of bringing Europeans to Africa to fill their positions.

Viewed as an episode in French history, the conquest of Africa was a continuation of expansion of power that began under Louis XIII. In roughly three centuries, French governments extended their control from the Ile de France (surrounding Paris) to the North African coast. The conquest of West Africa was just the next step in this long process. From the perspective of other Europeans, France's expansion was seen as a form of opposition to Great Britain. The British felt threatened by it, the German prime minister Bismarck encouraged it and the rest of the European nations tried to imitate it.

Go to the syllabus , the reading on Egypt or the reading on British imperialism .