“Crossing boundaries in the study of France and Africa”: study half day report

On Wednesday 18 February 2015, the Francophone Africa cluster at the University of Portsmouth held a study day exploring the theme of “Crossing boundaries in the study of France and Africa”. This half day event, which included papers from scholars based at the University of Portsmouth and institutions in the UK, France and Germany, was aimed especially at second year students in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences registered on the “Guns, glory hunters and greed: European colonisation in Africa” unit, but was also attended by other students and staff from across the Faculty.

IMG_2066Joanna Warson introduces the study day, before Romain Tiquet’s paper forced labour in Senegal

Joanna Warson (Portsmouth) opened the event with a brief introduction to the themes and aims of the event, emphasising especially the importance of adopting a broad perspective when studying relations between France and Africa. The first panel, chaired by Fabienne Chamelot (Portsmouth), focused on the theme of labour and detention. In the first paper, entitled ‘From the civilisation by work to the law of work: political economy and coercive methods of recruitment in (post)colonial Senegal, 1920s – 1960s’, Romain Tiquet (Humboldt) explored the use of forced labour in Senegal. Romain emphasised the importance of the practice for the maintenance of French rule in the region, as well as the ways in which its use was adapted over time. A key argument in Romain’s paper was the continuities, particularly in terms of the rhetoric surrounding forced labour, across perceived chronological divides – such as the 1946 Houphouet-Boigny law abolishing forced labour and Senegalese independence of 1960. The question of continuities between the colonial and post-colonial periods also featured in Ed Naylor’s (Portsmouth) paper on ‘“La salle des Africains”: Immigrant detention in Marseille during the 1960s and 1970s’. Ed addressed how colonial ideas and practices, such as notions of second class citizenship, the by-passing of legal procedures, and the gap between law and practice, were reproduced at ARENC, an immigrant detention centre, which opened in Marseille in the early 1960s to deal with the growing number of immigrants in France, particularly from the former French colony of Algeria. Ed also explored how ARENC provided a precedent and legal framework for France’s approach to immigrant detention, demonstrating how ideas from the colonial period traversed not only the divide between the pre- and post-independence eras but also continue to have legacies for the present day.

IMG_2039Ed Naylor speaks about immigrant detention in Marseille during the 1960s and 1970s

After a short break for tea and homemade cake, the second panel, chaired by Kelsey Suggitt, continued to probe the conference theme, with an exploration of different challenges to geographical and chronological divides in the study of France and Africa. Andrew W M Smith (UCL) opened the panel, with a paper entitled ‘African Dawn: Keïta Fodéba and the imagining of national culture in Guinea’. In this paper, Andrew presented the life and work of this Guinean musician, exploring the transnational development, reception and impact of Fodéba’s writings and music, as well as his role as a representative of the post-independence Guinean government. Through the lens of Fodéba, Andrew demonstrated the important part played by cultural elites in the defining and negotiating of national identity in the era of decolonisation. Roel van der Velde (Portsmouth) moved the geographical focus away from Francophone Africa, with his paper on ‘Crossing borders: French arms trade and South African military strategy, 1955-1970’. Through his exploration of the nature of, and motivations underpinning, Franco-South African military relations, Roel demonstrated the importance of breaking free from a uniquely Francophone focus when exploring France’s presence on the African continent. The panel concluded with a paper on ‘The Franc zone: a successful monetary decolonisation?’ from Vincent Duchaussoy (Rouen/ Glasgow). Vincent began by providing a brief explanation of the Franc Zone, before exploring how and why the system has been maintained after 1960. In particular, Vincent emphasised the importance of the Franc Zone as a source of financial stability in times of uncertainty, as well as the Africanisation of the system.

IMG_2042Andrew W M Smith presents his research on Keïta Fodéba and the imagining of national culture in Guinea

We would like to thank everyone who participated in this study half day for their excellent papers and interventions, which brought to light the multiple possibilities available to scholars of France and Africa by crossing boundaries. We would also like to thank the Centre of European and International Studies Research and the School of Languages and Area Studies for generously supporting this event.




Basil Davidson’s The Magnificent African Cake: 30 years on and still as magnificent as ever

In this post, Dr. Joanna Warson explores Basil Davidson’s classic documentary, The Magnificent African Cake, and considers some of the reasons why, more than 30 years after it was first aired on Channel 4, this film remains such an excellent resource for teaching the partition of Africa.

Over the past few weeks, in our second year unit, ‘Guns, glory hunters and greed: European colonisation in Africa’, we have been exploring the partition of the African continent by the European colonial powers. Taking as our starting point the Portuguese exploration of Africa’s coastline in the 15th century, we have traced the development of relations between Africa and Europe, from these early, primarily trade-focused encounters to the violent, territorial conquest that took place in the final three decades of the 19th century, seeking to present the “Scramble for Africa” as a long term process, whilst also exploring in detail the particular late 19th century context that enabled formal partition to take place.

We dedicated one of the first sessions dealing with this topic to watching The Magnificent African Cake, episode six of Basil Davidson’s award-winning series, “AFRICA: A voyage of discovery”. Despite being more than 30 years old, for a number of different reasons, this documentary remains a first class resource for teaching the partition of Africa, both to students with little prior knowledge of the theme and to those who have studied the “Scramble for Africa” before.

A long-term perspective

This documentary carefully situates the “Scramble for Africa” in its long-term context. Davidson begins by referring to the pre-history of partition, emphasising the existence of long-standing trading relations between Europe and Africa, before explaining succinctly the reasons behind the shift towards a greater European territorial presence on the continent. The documentary also successfully moves beyond key turning points in this transition from commerce to conquest, notably the Berlin Conference, to show how the European colonisation of Africa did not take place overnight. Davidson aptly distinguishes between conquest and colonial rule, highlighting the challenges Europeans faced in imposing and maintaining power over their claimed African possessions.

 An African perspective

It is perhaps unsurprising in a series entitled “AFRICA”, written and presented by one of the greatest Africanists of our time, that a strong African voice is present throughout this documentary. In contrast to the European ignorance of Africa’s native population during the colonial period and the failure to ask permission before partitioning the continent, something highlighted on numerous occasions throughout the film, Davidson pays particular attention to African agency. Davidson weaves into his analysis accounts of Africans as both resisters and collaborators, discussing, for example, the respective positions of Amadu Bamba and Samory Touré towards French colonial rule, as well as details of nascent nationalist movements in Africa in the early twentieth century. Alongside this discussion of the African role in the process of partition and its aftermath, there is a thoughtful and balanced assessment of the impact of the European conquest in Africa in both the short and the long term, which goes beyond a Western-centric explanation. In addition, the documentary contains various interviews with Africans who actually experienced colonial rule. These first hand accounts provide an invaluable and irreplaceable insight into how Africans experienced colonial rule, not least because, as the European colonial period becomes more remote from the present day, the number of people who lived through and remember European colonial rule grows ever smaller.

 An international perspective

One of the best things about The Magnificent African Cake, and a factor at the heart of the continued utility of this documentary as a resource for teaching the “Scramble for Africa”, is its international approach. Davidson acknowledges at the outset of the documentary that Britain and France were the leading powers in the “Scramble for Africa”. Yet, considerable attention is also given throughout the film to the role played by other European powers, including Germany, Belgium and Portugal. There is, for example, a strong discussion of the violence that characterised King Leopold’s rule in the Congo Free State, as well as analysis of the use of forced labour by the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the latter of which, in particular, might less well known to an English-language audience. Moreover, and related to this latter point, Davidson’s perspective of the “Scramble” is most definitely a pan-African one, revealing the full diversity of the causes and consequences of the different European colonial powers’ activities in Africa across the continent as a whole. Davidson succeeds, therefore, in presenting the partition of Africa, and its aftermath, as an international and interconnected process. This, in turn, enables The Magnificent African Cake to remain a highly applicable teaching tool in the current historiographical context, notably the growing popularity of global, connected histories of empire.


Inevitably, in 55 minute television documentary aimed at a mass audience, The Magnificent African Cake does not cover everything there is to know about the partition of Africa. Davidson’s broad temporal and spatial perspective, alongside the attention given to African agency, although key strengths of the film, also mean that many elements require further elaboration and explanation. Yet, for the reasons discussed above – and many others – this remains an excellent and relevant teaching tool, not only as a way of introducing the “Scramble for Africa”, but also as means of synthesising the numerous themes and debates surrounding the European conquest and colonisation of the African continent. 30 years on, therefore, Basil Davidson’s The Magnificent African Cake is certainly still as magnificent as ever.