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A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 Paperback – 1997

ISBN-13: 978-0804740128 ISBN-10: 0804740127 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press; 1st edition (1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804740127
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804740128
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #895,577 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Conklin brilliantly traces the interconnections and linkages between the three critical sites of political, cultural, and ideological interchange in France's civilizing mission in Africa: the imperial center, the colonial edifice sur place in West Africa, and the Africans themselves. This is scholarship that will eventually provoke a significant change in the way modern French history is conceived, researched, and written." —Julia Clancy-Smith,University of Arizona

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This book addresses a central but often ignored question in the history of modern France and modern colonialism: How did the Third Republic, highly regarded for its professed democratic values, allow itself to be seduced by the insidious and persistent appeal of a “civilizing” ideology with distinct racist overtones? By focusing on a particular group of colonial officials in a specific setting—the governors general of French West Africa from 1895 to 1930—the author argues that the ideal of a special civilizing mission had a decisive impact on colonial policymaking and on the evolution of modern French republicanism generally.
French ideas of civilization—simultaneously republican, racist, and modern—encouraged the governors general in the 1890’s to attack such “feudal” African institutions as aristocratic rule and slavery in ways that referred back to France’s own experience of revolutionary change. Ironically, local administrators in the 1920’s also invoked these same ideas to justify such reactionary policies as the reintroduction of forced labor, arguing that coercion, which inculcated a work ethic in the “lazy” African, legitimized his loss of freedom. By constantly invoking the ideas of “civilization,” colonial policy makers in Dakar and Paris managed to obscure the fundamental contradictions between “the rights of man” guaranteed in a republican democracy and the forcible acquisition of an empire that violates those rights.
In probing the “republican” dimension of French colonization in West Africa, this book also sheds new light on the evolution of the Third Republic between 1895 and 1930. One of the author’s principal arguments is that the idea of a civilized mission underwent dramatic changes, due to ideological, political, and economic transformations occurring simultaneously in France and its colonies. For example, revolts in West Africa as well as a more conservative climate in the metropole after World War I produced in the governors general a new respect for “feudal” chiefs, whom the French once despised but now reinstated as a means of control. This discovery of an African “tradition” in turn reinforced a reassertion of traditional values in France as the Third Republic struggled to recapture the world it had “lost” at Verdun.

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A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 by Alice Conklin argues that the colonial civilizing mission of France in West Africa was carefully crafted by political elites and implemented for French material gain. Central to this colonial mission was the idea of French superiority over indigenous Africans. Employing this ascendant view, the French exploited their African colony for rational economic development, or mise en valeur. Charged with an economic mission, the successive Governor Generals of French West Africa modified their efforts with their own personalized approach to colonial management. The French illusion of superiority enabled enactment of colonial policy contradictory to republican ideals.

The ideals of the French Republic led its constituents to believe that they were the conquerors of all tyrannies and injustices. Conklin posits that the French “remained convinced that certain aspects of French civilization were not only superior to anything that existed in West Africa but also had universal applicability.” (p. 94) Accordingly, the French claimed their language was the optimal conveyor of republican concepts. As such, the language was mandatorily taught in schools throughout West Africa in order to indoctrinate Africans on French superiority. Furthermore, Conklin advocates the French mandated instruction of their language “not because of its inherent superiority, not because they wanted all Africans… to speak French, but because there were simply too many African dialects to master.” (p. 84) She summarizes the French position best: the West Africans were “obviously barbarians, in need of civilizing.” (p.
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