Cultivating Knowledge: Land, Narrative, and Power in Colonial-Era French West Africa, 1913-1959

O'Donoghue, Meghan, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Horne, Janet, AS-French (FREN), University of Virginia
Sessions, Jennifer, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia
Levine, Alison, AS-French (FREN), University of Virginia
Burrill, Emily, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia
Drame, Kandioura, AS-French (FREN), University of Virginia

French colonial rule in the federation of eight territories known as French West Africa (1895-1958) hinged upon the extraction of agricultural goods for use in metropolitan France and an ideological discourse that facilitated this extraction. The colonial government coerced West African farmers to abandon subsistence agricultural practices for the cultivation of cash crops through heavy taxation, forced labor, and economic incentives, actions that drastically altered the physical and human landscape of West Africa. To justify and enable these coercive practices, the colonial government deployed a discourse that gave the French not just material power over West African economies, but epistemological authority over the land itself. Yet in their efforts to claim authority over agricultural and environmental knowledge, colonial discourse inadvertently disclosed the various ways that African agricultural knowledge continued to hold sway in colonized communities and challenge colonial power.

In three case studies spanning fifty years of colonial history, I use methodological tools informed by literary studies to explore the intersections of colonial discourse, agricultural knowledge systems, and colonized resistance in French West Africa. In its early years, the French colonial education system used textbooks and other pedagogical resources to teach African children the “value” of cash crop cultivation. Through didactic stories designed for a young audience, the colonial government sought to ensure successive generations of farmers who would continue to produce millions of tons of primary agricultural goods for French industrial use each year. In World War Two-era Senegal, the colonial government violently suppressed a series of localized revolts of Casamance communities who refused to comply with colonial agricultural and military demands. A young Senegalese prophetess was blamed for the revolts, yet the regional government’s internal correspondences and public-facing reports reveal the various ways that colonial powers manipulated her story to assure geopolitical and economic control in wartime West Africa. With decolonization on the horizon in the late 1950s, African scholars in France created their own discourse on land and agriculture. West African students of the ENFOM, the French institution designed to train colonial administrators, reckoned with the systems of agricultural knowledge that had defined their homelands’ colonial pasts while considering their post-colonial futures.

By merging environmental humanities and colonial history with discursive analysis, my project illuminates the various ways that French and African men and women laid claim to knowledge over West Africa’s land. For both colonizing and colonized writers, to know the land meant to claim the right to determine its future.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Agricultural Knowledge, Narrative, Colonial-Era French West Africa
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