Gaiaye Diagne, Senegal: Rise of a Nation (Dakar: Nouvelle Presse Africaine, 1931)
Louis Brière de l’Isle
… When the Toucouleur war of succession broke out in 1868, Louis Brière de l’Isle had been governor of Senegal for a year. Brière de l’Isle was a career military officer like most colonial governors of the time, and unlike many of them, he didn’t adapt well to the nuances of civilian government. He was a man of great energy and dedicated to the development of the colony, improving the Dakar and St. Louis harbors and beginning construction of a railroad between the two cities. But he also did his best to govern Senegal as if it were an army camp, acting dismissively toward the elected councils and unapologetically favoring metropolitan French interests over the Wolof groundnut planters or the Creole trading houses. He also treated the coastal rulers as subjects rather than citizens; at one point, he alienated Lat Dior, the young king of Cayor, to the point of forbidding his people to enlist in the tirailleur
regiments, a decree that was only rescinded upon the intercession of the colonial ministry in Paris.
Brière de l’Isle was also dedicated to expanding France’s African empire inland, which he viewed as completing the mission that Louis Faidherbe had embarked upon before his untimely death. To him, the Toucouleur civil war was a golden opportunity. Ahmadu Sekou Tall, who sought to take the throne from his cousin Tidiani, had a strong base of support in the French client kingdom of Futa Toro, and had recruited troops from there in preparation for his rebellion. Brière de l’Isle argued that France should use its alliance with Futa Toro as a basis to support Ahmadu Sekou’s claim, and that it should secure concessions - including, ironically, full cession of Futa Toro to France - in exchange for placing him on the throne.
In Paris, the Senegalese populist leader Abdoulaye Diouf, who was then an undersecretary in the colonial ministry, was against this plan. He also believed that the French flag should fly throughout West Africa, but opposed expanding the rule of France through conquest. Diouf contended that France should offer alliance and protection to inland states, grant French citizenship to their leading men, encourage the spread of French culture and the use of French as a trading language, and that eventually, the inland kings would ask, or be forced by their people, to join the French empire. In the case of the Toucouleur, Diouf argued that France should stay out of the civil war, and instead cultivate the growing urban merchant class who chafed at the reactionary scholar-peasant empire that Umar Tall had created.
Diouf’s program for French expansion was the more idealistic of the two, but Brière de l’Isle’s was, for the most part, the more practical. Diouf believed that the interior peoples would want to belong to France when the advantages of French culture were shown to them. He was speaking as a French patriot and a Wolof, and to be sure, after two centuries of French rule and increasing co-option into the French state, most Wolof in 1868 did
consider themselves part of France. Two hundred years of shared history, for good or ill, will foster such feelings. But the interior peoples, with no such history, forcibly resisted being incorporated into the French empire. Everywhere that France was attempting to expand inland at the time - Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, the western Sudan, and ultimately the Congo basin - it would encounter military opposition. The Diouf and Brière de l’Isle models would be in tension throughout France’s period of colonial expansion, and Diouf’s policies would often be enacted after
territories were brought into the empire, but in nearly all instances where African kingdoms were brought under French rule, it would be by conquest.
This proved to be the case along the upper Senegal. Although Brière de l’Isle was initially instructed to stay out of the succession war, he obeyed these instructions only reluctantly, and he continued to look for a pretext for the colonial garrison to become involved. He found one in December 1868, when Tidiani Tall, after suppressing the rebellion of the Bambara who had supported Ahmadu Sekou, raided into Futa Toro to cut off his cousin’s supply of recruits. Without orders from Paris, Brière de l’Isle decided that the attack on Futa Toro was an act of war against France, and marched from St. Louis with a regiment of French regulars and three regiments of tirailleurs
. As he did so, he made contact with Ahmadu Sekou and offered formal support for his claim to the Toucouleur crown.
The offer was perfectly timed from Brière de l’Isle’s standpoint. Ahmadu Sekou’s back was to the wall; his troops were far outclassed by Tidiani’s professional army, his Bambara allies had been crushed, and French backing was now his only hope to prevail. He was thus willing to agree to nearly any terms Brière de l’Isle proposed, including the cession of Futa Toro as well as trade and military concessions that would make him little short of a French puppet.
That would, ironically, prove to be the undoing of the French campaign. When word got out that Ahmadu Sekou had promised Futa Toro to France, its people renounced him and rose in rebellion against him and France both. What Brière de l’Isle had envisioned as an easy march through allied territory turned into a military conquest of Futa Toro, and it took more than four months to overcome the last resistance. By that time, Tidiani Tall had learned of the French invasion and was able to shift troops from the Niger valley to confront the new threat.
Bakel, looking toward the fort
This was not immediately apparent to Brière de l’Isle as he continued his advance up the Senegal; in fact, for a while, his progress grew easier as he scored easy victories against the irregular forces that stood in his way. In May 1869, however, he reached the fort at Bakel, a French redoubt that had been taken over by the Toucouleur during the 1850s and was now garrisoned by Tidiani’s troops. The Fulani, Tuareg and Songhai soldiers in the fort had rifles and eight artillery pieces, and were well provisioned for a siege. Brière de l’Isle could not leave the fort alone lest it become a focus for military resistance to his rear, and the fort was too strong to take by assault, so he was forced to invest it and undertake the lengthy task of creating a breach.
The fort was still holding out on June 18, when Tidiani Tall reached the upper Senegal with 25,000 troops. Even reinforced by what was left of Ahmadu Sekou’s forces, Brière de l’Isle had little more than half that, but he was not concerned; he assumed that he would quickly see off what he believed to be a disorganized native force and then return to reducing the fort. But Tidiani was no savage war chief; he had inherited a professional army from his uncle, and if he lacked Umar Tall’s reckless courage, he was a more careful planner and a better logistician. Much as the French had done to Umar Tall at Dagana thirteen years before, Tidiani was able to pin Brière de l’Isle’s troops between the river and the fort, using cavalry screens to prevent flanking maneuvers while he brought his infantry to bear against the French lines. By the evening of June 24, Brière de l’Isle had abandoned all hope of victory and sought only to escape; by concentrating his troops against the Toucouleur left, he forced an opening in Tidiani’s lines and was able to retreat to the north.
The French were not totally defeated; as they fell back on the redoubts they had built during their advance, their resistance stiffened and Tidiani’s momentum stalled. It was clear, though, that Brière de l’Isle couldn’t go back on the offensive without major reinforcements, and given France’s military commitments elsewhere and the rising tensions with the North German Confederation, such reinforcements were not forthcoming. In October 1869, Brière de l’Isle was recalled to Paris to take command of a conscript brigade at Metz, and Diouf was dispatched to Senegal to make peace with Tidiani.
By the end of the year, the Second Toucouleur War was officially ended. Tidiani agreed to recognize France’s dominion over Futa Toro, which French troops still occupied, and to return all French and allied prisoners of war; in return, France recognized the independence of the Toucouleur Empire and agreed to a joint commission to demarcate the border. Tidiani lost nothing in the peace, as Futa Toro had never been part of his kingdom; Ahmadu Sekou, for his part, had to be content with a pension and a villa in St. Louis.
The right-wing press in Paris saw the peace as an ignominious one, and it would prove fragile in the years ahead, but it was probably the best that could be achieved given France’s need to extricate itself from the situation, and it solidified French control over the middle Senegal valley. Now, France faced the task of undoing the damage that Brière de l’Isle’s term as governor had done to its relations with its African citizens, and pacifying its newly-won territory…
Marzieh Esfandiari, The Traders: Merchant Minorities and the Making of the Twentieth Century (New York: Popular Press, 1985)
… Mention the term “merchant minority” to a random group of people, and you’re likely to get many of the same answers: Jews, Armenians, overseas Chinese and Indians, Afro-Brazilians, Syrians. Few will mention the Wolof. But although the Wolof don’t have the reputation, they do have the reality; as traders, and ultimately bankers, to the French empire and beyond, they are one of the world’s great mercantile peoples by any measure.
The story begins with the army: specifically, with the tirailleur
regiments recruited from Senegal beginning in the 1850s. For at least a generation, military service was the primary means of social mobility for the Wolof. In addition to French citizenship and the privileges it brought, tirailleurs
received steady (albeit modest) cash pay, bonuses upon enlistment and discharge, and the possibility of promotion to noncommissioned or even commissioned officer rank. Although commissions were generally reserved for those who were literate in French and had a working knowledge of mathematics – which initially meant, in practice, middle-class originaires
from the Quatre Communes – noncommissioned officers and exceptional line troops had access to education, and upon completing the necessary coursework, were eligible for promotion to sous-lieutenan
t. For those who wanted more opportunity than traditional clan society or menial work in the Communes could provide, the army provided an outlet, and during the 1860s and 1870s, with only a few interruptions during times of political tension, an extraordinary percentage of Wolof men of military age took service with the tirailleurs
As colonial soldiers, the tirailleurs
served in most of the French overseas expeditions of the time, and also provided garrison troops in newly absorbed by the French empire, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and even Cochin-China. For those who mustered out at their duty station – as many did – their French citizen status, and their access to goods from inland Senegal as well as merchandise transshipped at St. Louis or Gorée, gave them an advantage setting up in business. The same occurred in certain countries, such as Brazil, that were outside the nominal French empire but were within France’s sphere of influence.
Even after the successful completion of the Third Platine War in 1869, in which the rebellious coronels
of São Paulo and Minas Gerais were subdued and the Paraguayan threat alleviated through a negotiated peace, the Brazilian monarchy stood on shaky ground. Princess Regent Isabel’s “liberty of the womb” proclamation was unpopular, her centralization of administration and taxation were widely resented, and she depended on French troops to keep rebellious landowners in check and offset the Brazilian army’s uncertain loyalty. The price of French support was mineral concessions and preferential trading status: the mining consortiums and large importers were nearly all from metropolitan France, but many of the smaller importers were discharged Wolof tirailleurs
. Like many merchant minorities – the Indian diaspora and the Krio being two prominent examples – their position within an overseas empire provided them with a ready-made commercial network.
At the same time, the Wolof soldiers provided remittances to their families at home, who also received French citizenship under the law of 1857. By 1870, the remittances totaled more than two million francs a year. Much of the money was spent – the Wolof became major consumers of imported goods, to the great benefit of the Creole trading houses in St. Louis – but the Wolof, as a coastal people, had been middlemen between the inland peoples and overseas traders for centuries, and a significant amount was invested in commercial goods.
Many of these new merchants were women, who were often left in charge of family finances while the men were away in the army. Just as military service was a way out for young men who chafed at life in a conservative rural society, commerce was a way out for the women. The rising commune of Dakar, in particular, became a destination for Wolof women seeking to establish themselves as merchants; it was they (and the Frenchmen and Creoles some of them would marry) who would provide the Senegalese anchor for the overseas Wolof trading networks, and it was due to their efforts that Dakar would rival and ultimately surpass St. Louis.
Religion also added energy to the growing Wolof merchant community. The dominant form of Senegalese Islam during the early nineteenth century was the Tijaniyyah Sufi brotherhood, whose vision of an “Islam for the poor” inspired many populist leaders including Abdoulaye Diouf. In 1867, however, Lamine Fall, a marabout from Tivaouane who had moved to Dakar, broke with the Tijaniyyah school and founded a new brotherhood called the Muridiyyah, or “those who desire.” Fall’s theology didn’t abandon the Tijaniyyah doctrines of social justice, but leavened them- with a healthy respect for hard work and profit, preaching that labor and business were done in service to God and emphasizing both self-help and mutual aid. The Mourides, as they were known, formed networks in both the cities and the countryside, usually united by loyalty to a particular marabout, which pooled resources for investment and provided their members with business loans, jobs, and support in the event of disability or legal trouble.
In time, there would be Mouride brotherhoods everywhere the Wolof lived, and their tight communal structure would make them a political counterweight to Diouf‘s Abacarist-inspired populism. But even in the 1870s, they had staked out a claim as Senegal’s fastest-growing sect and a driver of economic growth along the coast, and were knitting the groundnut and cotton-producing regions of the Wolof countryside with the trading houses in Dakar and abroad.
The final ingredient of the Wolof merchant network was the increasing number of Africans who lived in France itself. There had always been a small African community in Paris – Diouf’s political prominence rested in part on his status as its unofficial mayor – but as French citizenship became more widespread among the Senegalese, more and more came each year to try their luck in the capital. The Wolof living in France were eligible to enlist in the regular French army and even attend the military academy at St. Cyr (although only two of those who applied to the academy before 1870 were admitted), but the majority worked as laborers until they had saved enough to open small businesses. These, in time, would also grow into trading houses and become a hub of the Wolof mercantile empire, even as they introduced the groundnut and yassa
chicken to French cuisine.
This growing diaspora would be impacted profoundly by the onset of the Franco-Prussian War…
Mathilde Loisel, No Victor, No Vanquished: The War of 1870 (Paris: Flammarion, 1964)
… By the time the Franco-Prussian war ended, everyone involved claimed to have opposed it from the beginning. Nearly all of them, two years earlier, had been for it.
Bismarck, the canny Ministerpräsident
of Prussia and Chancellor of the North German Confederation, saw conflict with France as both inevitable and necessary. In order to complete the unification of Germany, he needed to detach the Catholic states of southern Germany from their Austrian and French protectors; he had accomplished half this goal with the defeat of Austria in 1866, but the French nut had still to be cracked. France, for its part, feared a united Germany, was concerned about growing German agitation among the small Alemannic separatist movement in Alsace, and wanted to redeem its military reputation after several humbling overseas adventures. Although only one of these expeditions - the disastrous fall of the Second Mexican Empire - had been a total French defeat, it still rankled that France had had to come to terms with Tidiani Tall, and that the allied governments of Entre Rios and Brazil had forced it to accept a negotiated peace with Paraguay rather than marching into Asunción. A smashing victory against a European opponent - and one which furthered French regional political interests - was just what the doctor ordered.
The tinder, therefore, was dry. The spark would occur in Strasbourg on August 17, 1870, when a young member of the Alemannic movement fired three shots at the prefect of Bas-Rhin département
, killing him and his twelve-year-old son. Bismarck disclaimed responsibility and sent his condolences to Paris, and it is likely that he never approved the assassination, but few in France at the time believed him. Right and left united in clamoring for immediate war, and on August 22, France declared war on Prussia. Although the declaration was against Prussia only, the remainder of the North German constituent states - even Hannover, which was considerably less eager for war than Prussia was - declared their belligerency within days and joined the Prussian mobilization.
The French army at this time consisted of some 600,000 regular troops - 200,000 of them short-term conscripts - and about 400,000 reserves. A number of reforms, including limited conscription and modernization of equipment and tactics, had been enacted between 1866 and 1869, but both political and fiscal factors had reduced their impact. The many foreign expeditions of the 1850s and 1860s had left France financially strapped, and it lacked the funds to modernize all its units or enforce conscription throughout the country; in addition, political opposition to conscription had forced the government to grant liberal exemptions and, in many cases, to turn a blind eye to local defections. Still, the army had a large core of battle-seasoned veterans - including more than 30,000 colonial tirailleurs
- and the majority of the experienced units had been equipped with the new chassepot
rifle. Against them was a North German force composed primarily of conscripts, with somewhat dated small arms but a total strength of more than 1.2 million.
On paper, the French forces considerably outclassed the Prussians. The beginning of the war was marked by French missteps, however; the French high command was inexperienced at general mobilization and had been taken aback by the speed of events, which meant that many reserve units took weeks to mobilize and that even some of the conscript brigades arrived at the front late and incompletely equipped. In contrast, the Prussians - who had conducted a general mobilization four years earlier against Austria - were able to get their reserve units to the front quickly and, through use of the railroads, had a pronounced mobility advantage over the invading forces.
Two weeks into the war, at the high-water mark of the French advance into Prussia, the North German troops at the front effectively outnumbered the French by almost two to one, and their well-organized system of military trains enabled them to shift troops rapidly in response to any French maneuver. By the end of September, the Prussian Seventh and Eighth Armies had encircled and defeated a French force at Trier, and the other invading French armies, which had reached Nohfelden in heavy fighting, had to fall back to prevent the Prussians from cutting off their rear. In October, Prussian troops began advancing into Alsace and Lorraine along a 100-mile front.
Once across the border, however, the Prussian advance slowed. The French reserves had arrived at the front, narrowing the numerical advantage, and the retreating French troops had destroyed railroad tracks wherever they could. And as the French took up defensive positions behind the border fortifications, their Gatling-style mitrailleuses
, which were more advanced than Prussia’s rapid-fire weapons, began to have telling effect. On November 21, Louis-Jules Trochu repelled a Prussian attack on Seltz, and two days later, Patrice MacMahon’s First and Fifth Corps stopped another at Courcelles.
The climactic encounter of the first stage of the war would take place at Gravelotte near Metz on December 7-9. The French forces, under the personal command of Prince Napoleon and with their right anchored by the Moselle, stood off the Prussian assaults during the first two days. On December 9, two corps under François Achille Bazaine moved to meet a dawn Prussian attack against the French left, but due to confusion, they opened the French lines, leaving a mile-long gap that was held only by one brigade of tirailleurs
. At ten in the morning, a Prussian probing maneuver discovered the opening, and within the hour, the brigade was under attack by 40,000 soldiers. After sending a dispatch to inform the high command of the danger, its French colonel, Augustin Lefebvre, gave his officers and men permission to save themselves, but none of them did.
That day, 2,349 Senegalese tirailleurs
died for France, holding the line against the Prussian army. When French reinforcements arrived under Bazaine at three in the afternoon, barely six hundred of the brigade were still alive, and its commander was the young Lieutenant Malamine Camara, all higher-ranking officers having been killed or incapacitated. That night, after the Prussians had retreated from the field, a visibly shaken Prince Napoleon honored them with three words: “They were Frenchmen.”
France was not yet out of danger. The French armies were still outnumbered, and the Prussians had adapted to the French defensive posture by concentrating cannon fire on weak points in the line. On December 15, a second Prussian assault on Seltz, backed with Krupp artillery, was successful, forcing Trochu’s corps back toward Soufflenheim, and the main French armies were again at peril of being outflanked. But in the meantime, Gravelotte would prove to be even more a political victory than a military one. Almost since the outbreak of the war, the French diplomats in Munich had frantically sought to convince Bavaria to enter the war on its side, and Gravelotte convinced the Bavarians that the gamble was worth making. At dawn on December 17, Bavaria declared war on Prussia, and hours later, Bavarian forces advanced from the Palatinate toward Trier, with a second Bavarian column marching on the Frankfurt railroad hub.
The Prussian armies, suddenly in danger of being cut off by the Bavarian attack on their rear, retreated from France, and by the new year, French soil was free of German troops. But now Prussia proved that it, too, could fight on the defensive. With its mobility near the front badly damaged, the Prussian army dug in to the south and east of Trier, building a line of entrenched positions supported by artillery and machine guns. What followed was the first example of modern trench warfare, a grinding positional battle often called the dress rehearsal for the Great War.
By spring, the front had scarcely moved, and it was clear that neither side would be shifted without enormous cost. In May, both France and Prussia put out peace feelers, and peace talks convened in Geneva. The negotiations lasted into the following year, with occasional desultory fighting as both parties sought to gain diplomatic advantage through battlefield victory. Finally, in January 1872, the negotiations - and the war - ended where they began, with a peace confirming the status quo ante, although France agreed to grant cultural autonomy and language rights to the Alsatians in exchange for trade concessions and minor border adjustments.
For the North German Confederation, the war would be remembered with great bitterness, not as a defeat but as a stolen victory. In France, which technically had the victory, it was regarded more as a narrow escape. The only real winners were the Senegalese, for whom the war marked a major step toward being recognized as full partners in the French empire.
And for Napoleon III, it was the end. On the very day peace was concluded at Geneva, he suffered a stroke; ten days later, he was dead, and Prince Napoleon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte succeeded to the throne as Napoleon IV…