France adds African perspective to colonial period archives

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France’s National Archives have invited people in some 100 cities nationwide to donate memorabilia - such as letters, photos and notebooks - linked to France's role in West Africa in the 19th and 20th century. The operation, known as La Grande Collecte, aims to enrich the memory of the colonial period, adding the personal touch that's currently lacking.


The first two editions of La Grande Collecte in 2013 and 2014 were devoted to family souvenirs of WWI. Around 20,000 people in France dug through their attics and donated memorabilia. More than 350,000 documents were digitalised as a result and can now be consulted on their website

West Africa looking back

This year the French government asked the National Archives to focus on private souvenirs from the colonial period in West Africa (1830s to 1960s).

"It’s very important to be able to have also the testimonies of the real life of people during this period," says Hervé Lemoine, head of the National Archives.

"In the official archives in France we have official data and records, produced by the government but we don’t have the vision of the people of those countries. For historians and for citizens it’s important to understand the relationship between the colonial administration and the people of those countries."

Pupils at the Rufisque school for girls in Dakar, 1940s
Pupils at the Rufisque school for girls in Dakar, 1940s Collection personnelle Pascale Barthélémy

While people weren't exactly queuing up to hand over their souvenirs to be digitalised at the Archives HQ in Paris, there have been several fascinating contributions. 

Historian Pascale Barthélémy -  author of Africaines et diplomées à l'Epoque coloniale, 1918-1957 - donated a collection of audio recordings of the first women primary school teachers trained in French West Africa in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

"They talk about the colonial period, what it was to be a young African girl educated in French school, and then what it was like to teach in villages and small towns, to represent the French authorities and to help in the gradual spread of education for girls," says Barthélémy.

"It helped most of them to climb the social ladder but it was also a confrontational experience," she adds.

Some of the women she interviewed for her book, had gone on to do great things: Guinean Jeanne-Martin Cissé for example became president of the UN Security Council. Several others took an active role in politics.

But photos showing the girls doing activites like cooking, chemistry and sport reveal the tensions generated by this double culture at French boarding school in Dakar.

"They were brought up like French girls in Senegal and at the same time their head teacher, Germaine le Goff, from Brittany, had to try to preserve their African culture," says Barthélémy. "They had to wear shorts and do sport. That wasn’t easy for a young Muslim girl in the 1940s. At the same time, having access to education and a profession was life-changing for them. They all said that, with hindsight, it had been a positive experience, but it’s questionable."

The Migrant experience

"What is mostly of interest to me goes beyond documents," says French historian Pap N'Diaye, author of a book on black identity. "It's also about Africans in France, memories and archives of people living in France post WW1."

Migration to France from West Africa boomed from the 1930s onwards but N'Diaye says that that part of French history has been neglected. The Grande Collecte is therefore important in helping provide this African vision of France: "to make more visible this French society which for many reasons, including this kind of colour blind Republican ideal, is too often swept under the rug."

Beninese men (standing up) have their photograph taken with family before leaving for France circa 1950
Beninese men (standing up) have their photograph taken with family before leaving for France circa 1950 Fonds Manuel Charpy-Souley Hassane Archives nationales

Historian Manuel Charpy has made a rich donation of letters, photos, video and audio cassettes belonging to migrant workers, particularly from Benin and Niger. He gathered the material for the book Lettres d'Emigrés, co-written with Souley Hassane in 2004, and had been looking for a "good home" since then.

He told RFI that from the 1950s onwards, migrant workers often recorded letters on cheap audio cassettes which would then go backwards and forwards between Africa and France. 

"As some people couldn't write in French, the audio cassettes meant they didn't have to resort to public writers or children," explains Charpy.

One of the oldest photos dating back to the 1930s was given to him by a family in Benin. It shows a young man, surrounded by his family.

"It was taken just the day before he left his small village in Benin to work as a docker in Marseille," Charpy says showing me a worn sepia photo, creased and slightly damaged at the edges. 

"The migrant travelled through Algeria, Libya, Italy, a great adventure. And the photo travelled with him throughout. He never lost it.  And when he died, the private archives went back to Benin."

For archivist Yann Potin such donations are invaluable.

"Many people in France were linked to colonial affairs, many families had fathers and grandfathers living in the colonies so we know we'll receive donations from them, but the private papers of immigrants are much more fragile and more rare."

And communication through social media is making them rarer still.

"Now we have Skype relationships and it leaves no trace," Potin says. 

Africa's Archiving Tradition

So digitalising such photos, letters and audio is set to enrich the collections at the National Archives. But it would be a mistake to think there is no archiving tradition on the African continent itself. In a damp, coastal village near Grand Popo in Benin, Charpy met a family who brought out their meticulously archived family souvenirs each year.

"We were really surprised to see people brought out their archives and explained to us that every year they would bring them out to let them breathe, to dry them, and then wrap them up again and put them away. There was real attention paid to the archiving process."

Charpy believed it was part of the French colonial heritage, but soon realised "they’d been archiving in that region long before the colonial period".

In the much drier conditions in Niger he also saw evidence of a long archiving tradition in a tiny village.

"Some archives were from the 18th century: letters and texts in Ajami, the Hausa language translated in Arabic script. So we can find archives, including very old archives, all over Africa."

"It  was striking to see that they have this tradition of archiving. Immigration reinforces both the production of archives, because people are displaced, and the desire to keep them," Charby adds.

Co-operation on archiving

While La Grande Collecte is not about  "re-writing history" it is definitely about providing an African perspective and as such they're keen to work with archivists on the African continent. 

"We need to work with them if we want to build together new sources for this history," says Hervé Lemoine. Its scientific committee now includes Senegalese archivists and they plan to organise a similar Grande Collecte in Senegal in the coming months. 

France also has an international programme for the digitalization and restoration of the archives relating to the colonial period with Senegal, Congo-Brazza and Vietnam, "trying to help those countries keep their archives in better condition".

The Algeria question

In Algeria, the issue of sharing archives is most sensitive. Algeria was not a colony as such but a French-administered départment before gaining independence in 1962.

"It’s not very easy sometimes because the Algerian government wants to take back their archives. For us they are not Algerian but French, so it’s a big political problem," says Hervé Lemoine. "But over the last four years or so we have a new cooperation and relations between our two countries are better."

Lemoine says progress is being made partly because the National Archives are trying to incorporate the African perspective.

"It’s very important to share our sources, our archives, if we want to share our memories. That's the main objective of the Grande Collecte: how to share our memories, how to build together a new history. It's not to rewrite history but build a better knowledge of our common history."

While they expect a flow of documents from colonial memories of French families, it will undoubtedly be a slower process with French people of African descent says historian Pap N'Diaye.

"It’s more complicated when it comes to French persons of African descent, because they're not connected to such an institution," he says.

"You also have a number of people who might fear that their grandfather who was undocumented in France will have problems. There are many issues to be taken care of, many conversations to be had,  so they feel confident in bringing those documents to the archives.

"It's gonna take more than a few weeks to bring those memories which for too long have been neglected by official authorities."

A timely political gesture

However long it takes, given the election of populist Donald Trump in the US, Britain's vote to leave the EU and the growing popularity of the far-right National Front here in France, N’Diaye says La Grande Collecte is timely.

"[Given] this rise of xenophobic populism, the Grande Collecte - with all these documents and which underlines a part of France which the far right and xenophobic populists don’t like - is important. It is a political gesture to affirm the multi-cultural dimension of France and I think that doing so, in the particular political circumstances we’re living in, is of high importance."


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