Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2016

Document Type

Thesis

Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors

Department

History

First Advisor

Dr. Martha Hanna

Second Advisor

Dr. Brian Quinn

Third Advisor

Dr. Mithi Mukherjee

Abstract

Historically, France has garnered a reputation for being one of the most enlightened nations due to its progressive policies and having produced so many enlightenment thinkers. In imperial historiography, a similar assertion is often made about French West Africa. Historians and Frenchmen alike often make claims about the altruistic nature of the French empire and frequently point out efforts undertaken in French West Africa to significantly develop the federation and aid the Africans in need. In this thesis I will provide a much more nuanced look at the condition of French West Africa as it existed from 1870-1930. In this examination, I will uncover what was particular to France that allowed it to create an empire in West Africa that saw infrastructure that both respected African institutions and simultaneously imposed French ideals on the Africans themselves. Ultimately, I will argue that this empire was a result of two often contradictory ideas born of the French Revolution: A strongly held nationalism that saw France as the world’s foremost nation and carried an obligation to spread the greatness of France, as well as a republican political tradition that sought to provide the tenets of liberty, equality, and fraternity to French West Africa. In doing so I will examine the many ways that Africans under the French enjoyed more rights than anywhere else on the continent, but not attempt to ignore the many illegitimate assertions of power and paternalism as well as the human rights abuses committed by Frenchmen in the federation.

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