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16th century
France and Britain
     French and British in Africa
     French West Africa
     French Equatorial Africa
     The French in Algeria
     Tunisia as French Protectorate
     France and Spain in Morocco
     Citizenship and independence
     Nationalism in Algeria
     De Gaulle's moment
     Algeria and independence

To be completed

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French and British in west Africa: 15th - 19th century

After the Portuguese open up the African coast to trade, in the 15th century, the other European nations of the Atlantic coast are soon sending their ships into the region. The first motive is piracy. As on the Spanish Main in America, ships returning to Europe laden with booty are attractive prey.

As early as 1492 a French vessel arrives off Elmina, a fortress built ten years earlier by the Portuguese in what is now Ghana, and seizes a shipment of gold setting off for Lisbon. During the next few centuries the Portuguese face competition on these coasts from the Danes, the Dutch and the British as well as the French.


Increasingly these rival European nations sail south not to plunder Portuguese vessels but to win a share in the rich trade which the Portuguese have pioneered - in gold, ivory, gum and above all slaves. To do so they need to build their own fortified trading stations, or (a more frequent course) to seize such places already established by rivals.

The story of European involvement in west Africa, from the Senegal river down to the Cape, is one of small markets and harbours along the coast tenuously held and frequently changing hands. The only settlement of any real permanency, and the only one where the settlers penetrate any distance inland, is the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope.


Elsewhere a great deal of ruthless and profitable trade is carried on, including the eventual export of some twelve million slaves to the Americas. Nevertheless the Europeans do little more than scratch the surface of the continent. They thrive like leeches, attached to the outer skin. Where they first choose to bite is often accidental. Yet the eventual pattern of colonial Africa, from the 1880s, depends very largely on where each nation's representatives happen to be located.

The estuaries of the great rivers are the natural place for these European trading posts. Captives, brought from the interior of the continent in canoes, can here be transferred to ships for the Atlantic crossing.


Fluid though the situation often is, various coastal regions of northwest Africa gradually become a particular sphere of interest of one nation or another. And by the 18th century the main rivals are France and Britain, the two greatest colonial powers of the time.

The Senegal river becomes associated with the French, who build their first trading station on its estuary in 1638. Further along the coast a 17th-century settlement at Ouidah begins a lasting French presence in Dahomey. Beyond this again, the Niger becomes of particular interest to the British - as evidenced in the late 18th century by the explorations of Mungo Park.


It is the 19th century which brings a consolidation of French and British interests in west Africa, and the reason is no longer slavery. It is the very opposite, the campaign to end slavery.

The first early step in this direction is the British establishment of Freetown in Sierra Leone as a settlement for freed slaves. Subsequently the French adopt a similar scheme, and the same name, in founding Libreville on the estuary of the Gabon river in the 1840s.


Meanwhile British merchants have been pressing inland from the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) and up the Niger river in search of economic ventures to replace the slave trade. The result, in both regions, is increasing British involvement at an official level - to protect the legitimate traders and to discourage the clandestine activities of the slavers.

These various semi-accidental events create the final placing of the French and British pieces in the African board game. When the scramble begins (after the great explorations of Livingstone, Stanley and others), each nation presses inland from its own sections of the coast to stake out its colonial claims.


French West Africa: 1880-1918

The French rivalry with Britain in west Africa intensifies from the 1880s. One element is the race to secure territories along the coast. To this end France declares a protectorate in 1882 over part of Dahomey, by agreement with the local ruler (the rest of the territory is added by a military campaign in 1892-4).

Similarly one of the African kings in Guinea is persuaded to accept French protection in 1881. His neighbours take rather longer to appreciate the advantages on offer. Not till 1918 does France fully subdue the whole of what becomes French Guinea.


In the Ivory Coast French traders and military expeditions press north in tandem during the 1880s. By 1893 France is well enough placed to claim the area as a colony. Borders are agreed with other European powers in 1898. But again it is not until after World War I that the colony is fully secure from internal resistance.

While these piecemeal annexations are continuing, a far greater race is taking place inland. With France already well established on the Senegal river, and Britain trading far up the Niger from the coast, there is intense competition as to which power will control the upper waters of the Niger - flowing in a great curve from near the source of the Senegal.


This is a race in which the French make dramatic progress. As early as 1855 they establish a fort far up the Senegal river at Médine. By now a valuable crop of peanuts is already travelling down the Niger each year to Saint Louis (soon to be linked by rail, in 1885, to a deep-water harbour at Dakar).

In the early 1880s a combination of military force and local treaties brings the French sphere of influence steadily further inland, until in 1883 the town of Bamako is captured to give France a presence on the Niger. Timbuktu is reached in 1894. By the end of the century the southern Sahara is patrolled by a French camel corps. Mali, known at the time as French Sudan, now links up with French Algeria to the north.


Meanwhile the area to the south of Mali, below the great curve of the Niger river, has also become a French protectorate in successive stages between 1895 and 1897. Its southern border with the Gold Coast is agreed with Britain in 1898. It is subsequently known as Upper Volta.

By this time all these French colonies are grouped together (since 1895) as French West Africa, a vast but unbroken territory administered by a single governor general with his headquarters in Dakar.


To the six colonies already constituting French West Africa in the late 1890s - Senegal, French Sudan, Upper Volta, French Guinea, Ivory Coast and Dahomey - two more will soon be added.

During the first two decades of the new century French armies bring under control Mauritania (extending north to link with Morocco) and Niger (carrying the French writ further east to a point half way across the continent). This is an extraordinary swathe of land, stretching unbroken from the Mediterranean to the Bight of Benin and assembled in just two decades. It is about to be extended even further, to the Congo, with the addition of French Equatorial Africa.


French Equatorial Africa: 1885-1918

When the scramble for Africa begins, in the mid-1880s, France is well placed to extend her influence inland between the Gabon and the Congo. There has been a French fort on the estuary of the Gabon since 1843. A settlement for freed slaves is established nearby in 1849 and is given the name Libreville. In 1880 Brazza acquires a valuable French foothold on the north bank of the Congo, at the place which becomes Brazzaville.

Between 1885 and 1891 French troops and political agents, operating from these bases, secure for France the regions now known as Gabon and the republic of Congo.


From here French pressure eastwards continues as part of a grand plan. Just as some British imperialists dream of an unbroken stretch of colonies from the Cape to Cairo, so the French see a distinct appeal in an African empire linking the Atlantic with the Red Sea.

In the 1890s this French vision seems far from impossible. A vigorous push up the Ubangi river (making this the continuation of the border between French territory to the north and the Belgian Congo to the south) brings the French by 1896 as far east as the Bahr el Ghazal. Between here and the Red Sea there remains only the Sudan, an area at the moment in turmoil and surely ripe for imperial control. A small French contingent reaches Fashoda in 1898.


Unfortunately the Sudan is also a crucial piece of the jigsaw in Britain's grand strategy. If it can be brought back under control (after the disaster at Khartoum in 1885), Egypt will be linked with Uganda. The northern half of the Cairo to Cape blueprint will be in place.

French and British forces meet at Fashoda in 1898 in one of the most tense and dangerous confrontations between the imperial powers competing for Africa. In the event the French back off (see the Fashoda Incident). As almost everywhere else in the continent, the issue is resolved diplomatically. The Sudan becomes British. The French divert their attention to the northwest, where there remains a huge unclaimed area between the Sudan and the French colony of Niger.


Almost continuous warfare over the following years brings gradual French control west to Lake Chad and north to the Sahara. Meanwhile the French hold is consolidated over the forested regions south to the Ubangi river. This vast area is administered as one colony, called Ubangi-Shari-Chad. From 1910 it is grouped with Gabon and Middle Congo (previously known as French Congo) in the new French Equatorial Africa, with its capital at Brazzaville.

In 1920 Chad is separated from Ubangi-Shari to become a fourth colony within French Equatorial Africa.


The French in Algeria: 1827-1936

In 1827 the French consul in Algiers has an audience with the dey, the Turkish governor of the province. The subject under discussion is the bill for a consignment of wheat, payment for which is now overdue by some thirty years. An invoice was first submitted to the French government by two Algerian citizens in the 1790s. The dey threatens to withdraw certain French concessions in Algeria. The consul becomes heated in response, whereupon the dey flicks him with his fly whisk.

Charles X, the French king, takes this as an insult to French national pride and orders a naval blockade of the Algerian coast. When this has little effect, a military expedition is prepared.


A French army, landing in June 1830, easily overpowers the forces of the dey. But this success brings France only a small region round Algiers, for the dey himself has long lost control of his subordinates in the provinces.

The city of Constantine, in the east, holds out against the French for seven years. Meanwhile the invading force is also under threat in the west from the powerful emir of Mascara, Abd-el-Kader. In 1839 Abd-el-Kader proclaims a jihad, or holy war, against the Christian intruders. Not until 1847 does he finally surrender. He is promised a safe conduct to a Muslim country. Instead he spends the next five years in French gaols.


With Algeria now under a reasonable degree of control (though outbreaks of rebellion continue until the 1880s), the French government sets in place the process of colonization. European settlement is actively encouraged. By the 1880s the European population of Algeria is more than 350,000. Half a century later this figure has doubled.

In the same period, from 1830 to the mid-20th century, the Muslim population also increases greatly, from 3 million to about 9 million. As in any such situation, the settlers ensure that economic and political power is exclusively theirs. And as elsewhere, the underprivileged majority begins to make itself heard during the 20th century.


The early leaders of Algerian nationalism see a solution in integration rather than separation. Muslim Algerians, they argue, should enjoy equal status with the settlers as French citizens. Ferhat Abbas (a future president of an independent Algerian parliament) writes in 1931: 'Algeria is French soil and we are French Muslims.'

In 1936 the French socialist government of Léon Blum sees the force of this argument. The so-called Blum-Violette plan proposes that 21,000 Muslims should immediately have the vote on the same terms as European settlers. But this provokes an outcry from the settlers in Algeria. The proposal is dropped. The problems of the future, though postponed by World War II, are prefigured in this clash.


Tunisia as a French Protectorate: 1881-1934

French control over Tunisia, achieved in 1881, brings to an end several decades of diplomatic jockeying between three colonials powers, France, Britain and Italy. All three are officially involved in the region from 1869.

The local dynasty of beys (technically subordinate to the Turkish sultan but in practice independent) have in recent decades spent lavishly to modernize their country, using funds borrowed in Europe. The programme, accompanied by necessary attempts to increase taxes, creates profound local resentment. By 1869 it is clear that the province is bankrupt. France, Britain and Italy are placed jointly, by international agreement, in control of Tunisian finances.


This arrangement is inevitably a platform on which three rival colonial powers jockey and trade for position. France and Britain stand together in 1871 when the Italians begin to press vigorous claims (justified in the sense that Italy has more investment and more nationals settled in Tunisia than either other contender).

By 1878 France and Britain come to a quiet agreement that the British will allow Tunisia to be a French sphere of influence in return for French acceptance of the recently established British presence in Cyprus. This still leaves the Italians as the chief claimants for a colonial presence in Tunisia, until the French make a pre-emptive strike in 1881.


Using the pretext that some Tunisian tribesmen have strayed into the neighbouring French colony of Algeria, a French army of some 36,000 men is sent across the border. As they advance upon Tunis, the bey decides it will be prudent to come to terms. The 1881 treaty of Bardo (also known as Al Qasr as Sa'id) guarantees French protection for the bey's territory and dynasty, but it also limits his authority to internal affairs. All other aspects of Tunisian policy are henceforth to be dealt with by the French.

This sudden lapse into colonial status brings many material benefits to Tunisia. But it provokes, through the following decades, a crescendo of resistance.


The Young Tunisian Party is formed in 1907 to agitate for Tunisian autonomy. In 1920 a more aggressive group calling itself Destour ('constitution') puts forward a demand for full independence. From 1922 Destour has the support of the bey. But the French, by a judicious blend of repression and concessions, ensure that there is little progress.

By 1934 the younger nationalists are again impatient. They break away from Destour, calling themselves Neo-Destour. This event brings into prominence a politician destined to play the central role in the future relationship between France and Tunisia and then in the affairs of independent Tunisia. The secretary-general of the new party is Habib Bourguiba.


France and Spain in Morocco: 1900-1912

The process by which Morocco drifts into the colonial care of France (and of Spain, in the northern regions) provides a notable example of how the European powers jockey for position in Africa.

In 1900 France and Italy make a secret agreement assigning Morocco to France and Libya to Italy. In 1902 a similar arrangement between France and Spain provides for the proposed division between them of Moroccan territory. In 1904 France and Britain make a pact: Britain will allow France freedom of action in Morocco (provided that the coast opposite Gibraltar is not fortified) in return for France's acceptance of Britain's role in Egypt.


Meanwhile, as these arrangements are being made round polished tables, Morocco is still ostensibly an independent country ruled, albeit inefficiently, by its own Alaouite dynasty of sultans (on the throne since capturing Fès in 1666).

The colonial consensus, amicably agreed between France, Italy, Spain and Britain, is rudely interrupted in 1905 when the German emperor William II makes a flamboyant and provocative visit to Tangier, Morocco's most international city. Ostensibly visiting the local community of German merchants, he uses the occasion to emphasize that Morocco's independence must be maintained.


The diplomatic flurry caused by this intervention results in a conference held in Algeciras in 1906. With the active encouragement of the internationally minded US president, Theodore Roosevelt, representatives of the European powers and the USA gather to discuss France's relationship with Morocco.

All the powers except Austria-Hungary side with France rather than Germany. The conference affirms the independence of the sultan of Morocco, but at the same time puts in place international supervision of his affairs with the leading role taken by France. This is tantamount, in the long run, to accepting the region as a French colony.


Outbreaks of unrest in Morocco soon make necessary the posting of more French troops, thus increasing the degree of French control. There is a brief international crisis in 1911 when the Germans send a gunboat to Agadir, but the situation is defused in the fashion of the time. France cedes some territory in central Africa to Germany's colony of Cameroon. In return Germany accepts France's role in Morocco.

By 1912 the sultan is powerless to resist this gradual encroachment on his sovereignty. He signs the treaty of Fès, accepting a French protectorate over his entire country - except such regions as the French may themselves decide to allocate to Spain, in recognition of Spanish interests on the Mediterranean coast.


In a separate agreement, later in 1912, France and Spain settle this issue. Spain becomes the colonial power for approximately the northern tenth of the country, including its own historic enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta (in Spanish hands since 1497 and 1580 respectively). It is proposed that Tangier should become a neutral port with an international administration, but the onset of World War I delays the implementation of this.

The effect of the agreements of 1912 is that Morocco becomes, for four decades, a region divided into two very different colonies, French and Spanish, each in many ways more closely linked to the colonial power than to each other.


Citizenship and independence in French Africa:. 1946-60

Under the new constitution of the fourth republic, passed in 1946, France's colonial subjects in Africa are given the status of French citizens. The immediate difference is not great, since the colonial administration in each territory remains much the same (though with the addition now of an elected territorial assembly). But in political terms the change is enormous. Each colony now also elects deputies to the national assembly in Paris.

A postwar generation of leaders in French Africa grows up with intimate experience of the French political system and with close friendships in France. Known as the French Union, this new relationship with the colonies is a subtle first step towards a post-colonial future.


But this concession is not enough to stifle demands for full independence. In the 1950s these become vociferous in France's North African colonies, leading to a crisis which coincidentally brings freedom to French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa.

The Algerian crisis of 1958 brings de Gaulle to power. The new constitution of his fifth republic offers the colonies a choice - to sever immediately all links with France, or to remain members of the French Union (now renamed the French Community) with the prospect of a more gradual move towards independence.


Of the twelve colonies in French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa, only Guinea votes in the 1958 referendum to leave the French Community. But freedom for the others follows more quickly than might have been expected. They all win internal autonomy during 1958-9 and full independence in 1960.

The reason is that the French government needs to focus on the much more dangerous situation confronting it in Algeria, where a dramatic conflict between Algerian nationalists and French settlers becomes extremely tense during the late 1950s. The coming crisis has been all too evident since 1945.


Nationalism and reaction in Algeria: 1945-1958

The demands of Algerian nationalism become unmistakable immediately after the end of the war in Europe. In May 1945 demonstrators carrying Algerian Nationalist flags appear at victory celebrations in the town of Sétif.

Scuffles with the police spark an impromptu uprising in which eighty-eight French settlers are killed. Subsequent French reprisals result in at least 1500 Muslim deaths (the official French figure), though other estimates place the death toll as high as 10,000.


In the aftermath of this crisis the National Assembly in Paris passes, in 1947, a Statute of Algeria. This makes provision for an Algerian assembly, with Muslims forming part of the electorate. The assembly is duly elected, and there is much talk of wide-ranging reforms in the administration of the colony.

Several years later the delegates have delivered little in the way of effective legislation, when Algerian life is suddenly transformed by a wholly unexpected uprising. During the night of 31 October 1954 several coordinated terrorist attacks are carried out on French police and military establishments.


A manifesto issued on November 1 declares them to be the work of the recently formed FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), stating also that the political aim of the FLN is a fully independent Algeria. Every resident in the country is promised citizenship of the proposed new republic, with full rights, if willing to adopt Algerian nationality.

Terrorist violence and French reprisals now become an established pattern in Algeria. There is a vast build up of French troops, and the army forcibly resettles some two million villagers to try and deprive the FLN of rural support.


Meanwhile the FLN, joined by nearly all the other Algerian nationalist groups, establishes an extremely sophisticated government in exile, first in Cairo then in Tunis. Diplomatic representation is maintained at the UN and in friendly capitals around the world. From September 1958 this body is known as the GPRA (Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne), with the veteran nationalist Ferhat Abbas serving as prime minister.

A few months earlier the Algerian crisis has caused a major political upheaval within France itself - as a result of direct action by the settlers (known as the pieds-noirs, black feet).


In May 1958 angry French Algerians become alarmed that the government in Paris may come to terms with the FLN. They seize government buildings in Algiers and establish a Committee of Public Safety to ensure that Algeria remains French. Senior officers of the French army in Algeria side with the insurgents, while right-wing groups in Paris become equally agitated. With the danger of nation-wide disturbances, or even perhaps civil war, there is clearly need for a change of government.

A French general in Algeria expresses the mood of the moment, and the apparent best hope for the pieds-noirs, when he declares: 'We appeal to General de Gaulle to take the leadership of a Government of Public Safety.'


De Gaulle's moment: 1958

Charles de Gaulle, the war hero, waiting in retirement for his country's call, drives a hard bargain when the moment comes. He will resume the leadership of the nation only if he is given unrestricted powers for a period of six months and the authority to draft a new constitution for a fifth French republic. On 2 June 1958 the national assembly accepts his terms.

De Gaulle turns his attention first to the crisis which has caused his return to power. On June 4 he visits Algiers, to be received by an ecstatic crowd of settlers who greet him as their saviour. But as they listen to his speech, from the balcony of Government House, their enthusiasm becomes muted.


Far from taking the expected right-wing line, De Gaulle talks of equal rights for Europeans and Muslims. He praises the Algerian nationalists as courageous fighters, and holds out the prospect of an amnesty. 'To these men I, de Gaulle, open the door of reconciliation.'

But the immediate next step is the preparation of a new constitution and the holding of a referendum to win the approval of French citizens around the world. When the details are announced, the constitution gives a much greater executive role to the president than under the previous republic. He may even assume emergency powers in a crisis.


The referendum is ready for the voters in September 1958. In addition to seeking approval for the proposed constitution, it asks voters in overseas territories whether they want to sever all links with France or to be part of the French Community (known as La Communauté). All the territories except Guinea vote to remain within La Communauté, and the constitution of the Fifth Republic is approved by a large majority of 78% of the votes cast.

The most pressing task facing the new president remains Algeria. In the short term the situation there becomes worse rather than better. But within four years it is solved, with the precisely opposite result from the settlers' hopes of de Gaulle. The expected defender of French Algeria presides over Algerian independence.


The thorny path to independence: 1959-1962

In September 1959 de Gaulle offers Algerians a choice once violence in the colony has ceased. Within four years of the return of peace they are to have a free vote on three possible options for their future: full political integration with France; association with France as an independent entity; or complete secession as an independent nation.

The immediate effect of this proposal is even greater unrest in Algeria, where the settlers are outraged at any suggestion that the link with France might be severed. In January 1960 there are barricades in the streets of Algiers in an uprising which lasts ten days until the army, loyal to de Gaulle, brings it to an end.


In April 1961 a more serious revolt is led by four senior generals in the French army in Algeria. It too collapses after four days, when de Gaulle reacts with great firmness and assumes special emergency powers. But the failed uprising prompts the final escalation of terrorist violence in the colony.

Two of the generals surrender when the uprising fails. The other two, Raoul Salan and Edmond Jouhaud, go underground to continue their resistance. They form the extremist OAS (Organization de l'Armée Secrète) to engage in a campaign of terror against Muslims in Algeria and against political targets in mainland France. In September 1961 an attempt is made to assassinate de Gaulle.


With FLN terrorist activity also continuing in Algeria, the colony by now requires the permanent attention of some 500,000 troops. The only practical solution is discreetly acknowledged when the French government, in the autumn of 1961, begins secret negotiations with the provisional Algerian government in Tunis (the GPRA). In March 1962 a cease-fire is agreed at Évian-les-Bains, to be followed by a referendum on Algerian independence.

This agreement sparks off an immediate escalation of OAS terrorist activity, but in April 1962 the people of France endorse the Évian terms with a 90% vote of approval. Two weeks later the OAS leader, Raoul Salan, is captured in Algiers.


During the summer of 1962 about three quarters of the French colonists flee from Algeria to France, leaving only some 250,000 (reduced by the end of the 1960s to fewer than 100,000).

The departure of the predominantly right-wing element among the settler population is reflected in the referendum held in Algeria on 1 July 1962. Nearly six million votes are cast in favour of independence, less than 17,000 against. Two days later de Gaulle formally recognizes Algeria as an independent nation. In October the new state becomes a member of the United Nations.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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