The Emergence of Black Politics in Senegal: 1900-1920

G. Wesley Johnson, Jr.
The Emergence of Black politics in Senegal;
The Struggle for Power in the Four Communes, 1900-1920

Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press. 1971. x, 260 p. ill.

  1. The Colonial political situation by 1900
    1. The Historical Background
      1. The Unity of Senegalese Geography
      2. The Traditional States of Senegal
      3. The Toucouleur states of the Fouta Toro
      4. The empire and states of the Wolof
      5. The Serere states of Sine and Saloum
      6. The Lebou republic on Cape Verde
      7. The Structure of Traditional Senegalese Society
        1. The nobility
        2. Freemen
        3. Artisans
        4. Slaves
      8. Islam and Traditional Society
      9. French Contact and the Growth of the Communes
      10. French Expansion in the Nineteenth Century
      11. The Urban Consolidation, 1857-1914
    2. The Evolution of Local Government in the Communes
    3. The Structure of French Rule
    4. The Political Rights of the African Electorate
  2. The emergence of black politics, 1900-1920
    1. The French Attempt to Dominate Local Politics
    2. The Creole Attempt to Dominate Local Politics
    3. The African Political Awakening, I
    4. The African Political Awakening, II
    5. The First African Political Victory
    6. The Quest for Political Assimilation
    7. The African Accession to Power in the Four Communes
    8. The Significance of African Local Rule

Note on Names and Terms


I did not create the voters, as has been charged; I found them … and I want them to keep the full measure of their rights.
Blaise Diagne

The Four Communes of Senegal occupy a small but important place in the modern political history of Black Africa, for it was in these settlements, France’s oldest African holdings, that Western politics first took root in the eighteenth century. Saint-Louis and Gorée had African mayors by the time of the French Revolution and elected
a deputy to the National Assembly in Paris in 1848. The addition of a General Council (colonial assembly) in 1879 gave the Four Communes effective institutions of local government controlled by the urban inhabitants.
True local democracy was thwarted for decades because the great majority of the electorate, the indigenous black Africans, were dominated by a small clique of French and Creole politicians until 1900.

After the turn of the century, the African voter began to assert himself and take a greater interest in communal politics-just as French colonial authorities decided that the policy of assimilation, which had created black voters, had gone too far and was a dangerous example for France’s newer African colonies. A campaign was launched to deprive the Senegalese voter of his political rights, which set the stage for a complex struggle between French colonial officials, French colonists, Creoles, and indigenous Senegalese for the mastery of local political affairs.

How these urban Africans, called originaires, obtained political rights before 1900 and expanded them by 1920 is the subject of this study. It was this group of political mavericks that Blaise Diagne found upon his return to Senegal in 1914; and under his leadership they won a series of electoral victories that confirmed the Africans’ right to vote and hold political office and enabled them to replace the French and Creole elite as arbiters of local politics. The fact that this took place several decades before 1945, the generally accepted date for the beginning of African nationalistic movements, is significant.
And the fact that neither French nor African scholars have
written about the creation of the first African-elected and African-led government in a French colony is an omission that deserves to be filled.
In approaching this study, I was originally interested in the postwar period of Senegalese history-in Leopold Senghor, negritude, and the movement toward political independence. But when I found that Senegalese politics had started long before 1945, and that the first crucial period for gaining independence had come decades earlier, I changed the focus of my investigation. Research in the archives of
Senegal and France, and my interviews with Senegalese participants in early urban politics, indicated that the significance of this first African political awakening in 190o-1920 had not been fully perceived by French scholars and authorities, and that little had been written about it.

Perhaps the perspective of post-independence Africa
makes it easier to look back and fit a number of events and occurrences into a meaningful historical pattern.
Whether or not the political pattern of 190o-1920 was incipient nationalism (which I was originally looking for) is difficult to say.

My research suggested that nationalism was not necessarily the key factor in explaining the political past; and that other influences, such as assimilation, urbanism, elitism, and religion, were equally important in Senegal’s political beginnings. Historians have now moved beyond the nationalistic parameters set by political scientists in the late 1950’s and have analyzed the messianism, protests, and rebellion that make up the background of African political activity all over tropical Africa. The Senegalese case was probably unique, however, because in the Four Communes political activity was allowed rather than being proscribed.

Consequently, I have thought of this study as a political history rather than an investigation into nationalism or Senegalese resistance to the French. The French assimilation policy in Senegal offered Africans a stake in the French state as their ultimate political reward. The quest for political assimilation was the theme of the early political struggles in Senegal, and the word “independence” was rarely spoken in public. This does not mean that early Senegalese leaders were collaborators with the colonial government, for most were not. Their style of militancy, methods of opposing the regime, and strategies for gaining power were not those of the 1970’s, but they were effective, audacious, and ambitious for the times. Political activity within the colonial system, in fact, was an attractive opportunity for the Senegalese in a day when most colonial subjects were deprived of political and human rights. The African awakening of 1900-1920 should, in my opinion, be understood and analyzed within its historical context.

This is the first of two planned volumes on the rise of politics in Senegal before World War II, when that colony was almost the only one in Africa to have local political institutions.
The second volume will examine the consolidation of African politics from 1920 to 1945.
Most materials on Senegal concern the French conquest, French administration, or French concern with colonial development. Little attention was paid in most of the colonial literature to the problems of local politics unless these greatly affected the plans of the Governor-General or Governor. Consequently, much of this study is based on oral history. Some private material, both oral and written, was given to me with the understanding that it would not be cited. However, there is a substantial body of archival and published material that reinforces evidence from both these sources.

I received excellent cooperation from the two primary archives used during this study. In Paris, Monsieur Carlo Laroche, Mlle. Menier, and the staff of the former Ministry of Colonies archives (now filed by the French National Archives) were most helpful, and allowed me to see certain materials not yet classified that contributed greatly to my knowledge of Blaise Diagne. (Diagne died in 1934, and
much of the material relating to his career has not yet been processed for research; hence I have not always been able to give specific references.)

In Senegal, Monsieur Jean-François Maurel of the Republic
of Senegal Archives was invaluable in furnishing materials on African politics. His Senegalese assistants, Oumar Ba, Fily Ba, and Gambi N’Diaye were extremely helpful in locating specific unclassified materials and in locating odd bits of information that helped to piece together gaps in the archival documentation.

Research for this study was made possible by grants from the Foreign Area Fellowship Program, the Hoover Institution, and the Committee on International Studies of Stanford University. It is impossible to acknowledge all the persons who helped and lent assistance to the project, but I should like to mention a few. A special note of thanks to my mentors at Columbia University, who first encouraged me: Shepard B. Clough, L. Gray Cowan, and Immanuel Wallerstein.

A term spent at the UCLA African Studies Center with Leonard Thompson and James Coleman was invaluable. And in Paris, Henri Brunschwig, Albert Charton, François Crouzet, Hubert Deschamps, Roger Pasquier, and Robert Delavignette were particularly helpful.

In Senegal, a number of friendly and interested persons contributed information and ideas to help flesh out the skeletal outline furnished by the archives and newspapers. The late president of the National Assembly, Lamine Gueye, and the former vice-president, Andre Guillabert, were particularly helpful; so were Louis Legros, Felix Brigaud, Robert Delmas, Aby Kane Diallo, Armand Angrand, A. Kader Diagne, Charles Graziani, Maurice Gueye, and a number of other Senegalese and Frenchmen who are listed among the interviews in my Bibliography. Moussa N’Diaye of Dakar deserves a special note of thanks for his personal support and encouragement.
Once research in the field is over, analysis and interpretation follow.
For this stage of the volume I owe a special debt to the following persons for their advice, counsel, and criticism: Peter Duignan and Lewis Gann of Stanford, Martin Klein of Toronto, and William Foltz of Yale. Also Graham Irwin, Robert Griffeth, Robert July, H.O. Idowu, Michael Crowder, Jacob Ajayi, Boniface Obichere, Denise Bouche, John Ballard, Mercer Cook, Sheldon Gellar, Donald Easum,
Cheikh Tidiane Sy, David Gelsanliter, and the editorial staff of the Stanford University Press. I am responsible for the interpretation, of course, and for any possible inaccuracies.
At Stanford, I have been greatly helped by my students and research assistants, in particular Sue Malone, Meredith Barker, Elizabeth Groff, and John Zarwan. And my.wife and fellow Africanist Marian A. Johnson has been a continual source of enthusiasm and ideas since the inception of this study.