The French colonial empire in 1931

The French colonial Empire was at its height during the inter-war period. The very valiant participation of colonial soldiers in the French armies during World War 1, and the recruitment of thousands of colonial workers, had reinforced the idea that the colonies were useful, and even necessary, if France were to keep its rank as a great political and military power and be able to resist another conflict. The African infantryman, whose image used to feature on Banania cocoa tins, was a popular figure, reflecting the image of the “good black soldier” fighting for France.

An Empire at its height

From a territorial viewpoint, the French Empire increased in size in 1919, absorbing a part of the German colonies in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles. This is how, under the guise of being League of Nations “mandates” — in practice, they were still in fact colonies — a part of Togo and Cameroon fell into French hands. The Belgians recovered Rwanda and Burundi, neighbours of their huge colony of the Congo, while the British helped themselves to Tanganyika, the other parts of Togo and Cameroon, the African South-West (managed by the Union of South Africa), and New Guinea.
Just like the French empire, the British and Belgian empires were at their height, while the Dutch were holding on to their possessions (essentially the Dutch East Indies, future Indonesia), and Mussolini’s Italy was attempting to expand its empire by attacking Ethiopia in 1935. In 1931, the French empire stretched over 12 million km2, with some 60 million inhabitants.

In addition, from an economic viewpoint, colonial products contributed to large sectors of the French trading and industrial worlds. The Empire was seen as a means to lessen the effects of the Great Depression, a shield against unemployment and poverty. In 1931, France fell into an economic slump, and more than ever there was a need to show – particularly to the workers heavily represented in the working-class districts of eastern Paris – that the colonies were bringing the country much more than they were costing it. And that was factually accurate. The French colonies represented France’s leading trading partner: in 1930 they absorbed 50% of cotton fabric exports, 60% of cement, one third of machines, tools and automobiles, and exported 80% of its rice, 56% of its cocoa and 65% of its olive oil. As historian Jacques Marseille put it: “the empire was a good deal”.


The civilising mission

In support of this, narratives designed to justify colonisation were flourishing: as a result, decisive progress was reputed to have been made in far-off regions. Medicine, education, the building of roads and railways like the Congo-Ocean line, this was all celebrated as a magnificent illustration of the French Empire’s civilising mission. Likewise, the modernisation of cities like Dakar or Conakry, with their new European-style neighbourhoods and recent port installations, were an example of the benefits of the empire. The reality was somewhat darker however: the construction of the 511 kilometres of the Congo-Ocean railway (1921-1934) cost thousands of workers their lives (including Chinese workers), who had been recruited by force and were working in frightful conditions, a fact denounced by André Gide in his book Travels in the Congo (1927).

If the empire seemed to be triumphing in the early 1930s, it was not without discord. This was because the voices of colonised people were being heard increasingly clearly, and the narrative coming from them was very different from the self-satisfied tone of government authorities. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution had sparked revolutionary hopes across the world, including in the colonies. As a result, in the 1920s, a large number of political associations and movements existed in imperial centres like Paris or London, revolving around communism, denouncing the very principle of colonisation, and not just its excesses. Lenin referred to the imperial conquests as “stolen property that must be returned”, including those of Tsarist Russia. Political and union activism could be observed among colonised people and was causing alarm among the ministries concerned, to the point of banning the circulation of seditious newspapers and pamphlets in the colonies

Les mouvements anticoloniaux

It was in India that the anti-colonial movement was the best organised and most advanced. Led by Gandhi, the Congress party symbolically proclaimed India’s independence in Lahore in 1929, before Mahatma began his famous “salt walk” in 1930, forcing the British government to negotiate with him. On the French side, the Rif War in 1925 came as a brutal wake-up call that demonstrated the strength of nationalism in the Rif region, a movement that was mercilessly repressed by the French expeditionary force under Pétain’s command. Sporadic unrest was also occurring throughout North Africa at this time. The revolt of February 1930 in Indochina, which started with a mutiny among soldiers that quickly spread, showed the strength of Vietnamese nationalism and cast a bleak light on the deep injustice of the colonial system, favouring the big industrial and trading societies in France, partnering with local elites in the colonised country.

So much so that when the International Colonial Exposition opened in Spring 1931, the skies over the empire were not as serene as the political authorities would have people believe. In the shadow of the exposition, anger, resentment and disappointment were accumulating, a development that more realistic observers and administrators could sense with increasing clarity.

Pap Ndiaye, 2022