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Assignment: Forced Labor in French West Africa during the Depression

by Jim Jones (Copyright 2006, All Rights Reserved)

This page contains background information, study questions and links to notes about some documents in the National Archives of Mali on the use of African forced labor during the Depression.

Assignment: Print out this page and the "Notes on Documents" (using the links, below), read everything, prepare your own answers to the "discussion questions" on this page, and come to class prepared to discuss them.

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These notes describe official communications between colonial officials in French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française). All are from the colony of French Soudan (Soudan Français), which was led in that period by a Lt. Governor who served as a representative of the Governor General based in Dakar, Senegal. As the highest-ranking official in the French Soudan, the Lt. Governor issued orders and received reports from various departments.

In the 1930s, the French colonial administration attempted to address the effects of the Depression by financing improvements to the colonial infrastructure, notably port facilities and railroads. The longest railroad in French West Africa connected the Altantic coast port of Dakar with the Niger River port of Koulikoro, located in the French Soudan about 50 kilometers (35 miles) west of Bamako, the capital of the French Soudan.


2ième portion: Military recruits assigned to public works projects. See Travailleurs de la 2ième portion

Ballast: In railroad construction, ballast is the material that goes underneath the tracks to prevent them from sinking into the ground. Usually, it is made from several layers of small stone that is packed together tightly.

Banco: dried mud bricks used to construct houses and walls

Commandant supérieur des Troupes du Groupe de l'AOF : Commander in Chief of the military forces in French West Africa

Galougo: A town located east of Kayes along the oldest portion of the Dakar-Niger Railroad.

Kayes: A town on the Upper Senegal River where construction of the Dakar-Niger railroad began in 1881. After the line was completed to the coast in 1923, the new Kayes station was located at km736, and the original track up from the river bank became a siding that led to the old station, one kilometer away. The track east of Kayes was then oldest in the system, and by the 1930s it needed to be replaced and reengineered to eliminate sharp curves.

Koulouba: This was the plateau overlooking Bamako where the government offices stood. Many official communications were portmarked from Koulouba rather than Bamako.

Millet: a grain that grows in dry areas and provides the staple food for much of the Sahel. It is prepared by grinding it into a powder, boiling it to produce a porridge with the consistency of mashed potatoes, and serving it with a spiced sauce made of meat, fish or peanuts.

p.i.: Abbreviation for par interim, meaning "acting" as in "acting Lt. Governor" (Lt. Gouverneur p.i.) Refers to an official who fills a position while it is temporarily vacant.

Service Temporaire d'Irrigation du Niger: government service set up to expand a provaite irrigation scheme on the Niger River east of Bamako. Along with the railroad, it was one of the main users of forced labor during the 1930s.

Shea butter: Known in French as buerre de Karit‚, this is a vegetable oil extracted from the nuts of a palm tree. It is used in cooking and as skin lotion.

Travailleurs de la 2ième portion: Forced laborers. The name comes from the French system of military recruitment, which assigned draftees in the "1st portion" to military units and those in the "2nd portion" to labor units.


Various documents concerning the use of forced labor

Chemin de Fer Thiès-Niger (1930-1935)

Working conditions observed by labor inspectors (1929)


1. Did the railroad management peovide enough food to sustain men engaged in hard physical labor? Where did management get the millet, rice, meat, fish and other items used to feed its workers? What did the workers think of the food they received?

2. What time of year did forced laborers work? What was the weather like? How did it affect the working conditions?

3. How dud the conditions experienced by forced laborers change between 1928 and 1935?

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