Contribution to a history of the workers' movement in Africa (part 1): Pre-1914

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For many generations Africa has been synonymous with catastrophes, wars and permanent massacres, famine, incurable sicknesses, corrupt governments; in brief, endless absolute misery. At best, when its history is talked about (outside of folklore or “exotic” aspects), it is to point out its “worthy” Senegalese or Maghrebi sharpshooters, the celebrated auxiliaries of the French colonial army during the two world wars and the time of the maintenance of order in the old colonies. But never are the words “working class” used and still less are questions raised concerning its struggle, quite simply because it has never really entered the heads of the masses at the world or African level.

However, the world proletariat is very much present in Africa and has already shown by its struggles that it is part of a working class that bears a historic mission. However its history has been deliberately obscured by the old colonial bourgeoisie and then smothered by the new African bourgeoisie after “decolonisation”.

Consequently, the main aim of this contribution is to provide some elements to attest to the very real living history of the workers’ movement in Africa through its combats against the exploiting class. Admittedly, this is the history of a working class contained within a historically underdeveloped continent.

But how and why has the history of the proletariat in Africa been concealed?

Has Africa a history? Not so long ago, this question would have been answered in the negative. In a now famous passage written in 1965, the English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper compared the history of Europe to that of Africa and basically concluded that the latter didn’t exist. The African past, he wrote, presented no interest outside ‘the tribulations of barbaric tribes in a certainly picturesque part of the globe, but without the least importance’. To be sure Trevor-Roper could be termed as a conservative, but at the same time the Hungarian Marxist, Endre Sik, more or less defended the same point of view. In 1966 he wrote: ‘Before making contact with Europeans, the majority of Africans still led a barbaric and primitive existence and a number among them hadn’t even gone beyond the most primitive stage of barbarity.[...] Is it also pointless to talk of their “history” – in the scientific meaning of the word – before the arrival of the European invaders?

These are particularly blunt remarks but they were shared up to a point by a majority of historians.”[1]

This is how, through their racist contempt, the thinkers of the colonial European bourgeoisie decreed the non-existence of the history of the black continent and, consequently, why the working class here had no history in the eyes of the world.

But above all, what is still striking reading these remarks, is to see the unity in the a-historical prejudices regarding Africa from these “renowned thinkers” of the two ex-imperialist blocs; the “democratic” bloc of the west and the “socialist” bloc of the east. In fact the one described as a “marxist”, Endre Sik, is nothing other than a dyed-in-the-wool stalinist whose arguments are no less fallacious than those of his rival (or colleague), the Englishman Trevor-Roper. Through their denial of the history of Africa (and of its class struggle), these gentlemen, representatives of the dominant class, express a yet more barbaric vision than that of the “barbarity of the tribulations of the African tribes”. In reality, these authors are part and parcel of the group of “scholars” who gave their “scientific benediction” to the overtly racist theses of the colonising countries. This isn’t the case with the author Henri Wesseling who criticises their words and distinguishes himself from his “historian” colleagues in these terms:

“[...] The truth is quite different. A certain number of Africans, such as the Khedive of Egypt, the Sultan of Morocco, the Zulu King Cetshwayo, the King of the Matabeles, the Almami Samori and King Makoko of the Batekes, had considerable influence over the course of things.”

Certainly by his reaction, Henri Wesseling gains some distinction in re-establishing the real history faced with well-intentioned falsification. Nevertheless,, other “scientists” who, having admitted to the reality of the history of Africa and that of the working class, persist with a very ideological vision of history and in particular of the class struggle. In fact they exclude any possibility of a proletarian revolution on the continent with arguments no less dubious than those used by the racist historians.[2]

“[...] Obstinate, the African workers are the same with proletarianisation: the fact of their permanent resistance to full wage labour [...] expresses the fragility of the imported theory of a working class bearing a historic mission. Africa is not a terrain for proletarian revolutions and the somewhat catastrophic copies of this model have all been, more or less, a violent affront to the living, social dimension of the ‘proletariat,’

Let’s say immediately that the authors of this quote are university sociologists comprising Anglophone and Francophone researchers. Moreover, the title of their work, The working classes of black Africa, says a lot about their fundamental preoccupations. On the other hand, if it’s clear that they don’t deny the history of the African continent as do their historian colleagues, their approach comes from the same ideology which takes its point of view from “scientific proof” without it confronting real history. Already, by talking about “catastrophic copies of this model”, they (involuntarily?) confuse the proletarian revolution of 1917 in Russia with coup d’états of the stalinist type or with the “national liberation” struggles that appeared throughout the world following the second imperialist world butchery under the labels “socialist” or “progressive”. It’s these same models that violently confronted the working class which put up a resistance to them; whether in China, Cuba, in the old countries of the Soviet bloc or in the “Third World” in general and Africa in particular. But above all, these sociologists squarely turn to the counter-revolution when they warn against an “imported theory of a working class bearing a historic mission”, their logical conclusion from which is that Africa is not a terrain for proletarian revolutions. Thereby, these groups of “scholars”, in denying any possibility of revolutionary struggle on the African continent, seem to exclude the extension of any other revolution (“exported”) in Africa. Straightaway they close the door to any perspective of emerging from the capitalist barbarity of which the exploited classes and the African populations in general are victims. Finally, they shed no light on the real history of the working class.

What concerns us, with all due deference to “our” sociologists, is that the working class remains the only class bearing a historic mission faced with the bankruptcy of capitalism which worsens every day, including in Africa as the historian Iba Der Thiam[3] attests when he gives an account of workers’ struggles from the beginning of the 19th century to the start of the 1930s:

In the union domain, the period 1790-1929 was, as we’ve seen, a decisive stage. A period of rousing and awakening, and then affirmation, it was a new occasion for the working class to demonstrate its determination and its spirit of struggle and self-sacrifice.

From the appearance of a pre-union consciousness, up to the eve of the world economic crisis, we’ve followed all the phases, from a development of consciousness whose speed of progress compared to the long road of the French working class in the same domain, appears quite exceptional.

The idea of the strike, that’s to say a means of struggle, a form of expression consistent with refusing to work and provisionally interrupting the normal run of economic life in order to assert one’s rights, forcing the bosses to be concerned over wage claims for example, or to accept negotiations with the strikers or their representatives, made, over some fifteen years, considerable progress, even acquiring rights of freedom, notwithstanding the dispositions of a restrictive legislation and was recognised, if not as a legal practice, then at least a legitimate one.

“[...] The bosses’ resistance, apart from some exceptions, only rarely showed an extreme intransigence. From the base of a lucid realism, the owners of the means of production did not, in general, show any reticence in advocating and seeking dialogue with the strikers, but even managed to push the Governor to speed up the procedures for mediation, and were quite ready, when their interests were seriously threatened, to make common cause with the workers, in the conflicts which opposed them to the railways for example, where it is true, the role of the state in the capital was considerable.”

Not only is this exposé sufficiently full enough to characterise a working class bearing hope, but it has a history in Africa that it shares moreover with the bourgeoisie through the historic confrontations of classes, just as happened throughout the world since the proletariat was constituted as a class under the capitalist regime.

Before pursuing the history of the African workers’ movement, we draw the attention of readers to the fact that we are going to come up against difficulties linked to the denial of the history of Africa by historians and other scholars of the old colonial powers. In fact, this was shown, for example, by the colonial administrators with their policy of systematic censure of the most important events and movements of the working class. Due to this, we are reduced to basing ourselves on rare sources of more or less famous authors whose rigour of work seems to us globally proven and convincing. On the other hand, if we largely recognise the seriousness of the researchers who provide these reference sources, we do not necessarily share some of their interpretations of historic events.

Some elements of context

Senegal was the oldest of the French colonies in Africa, France having been established there from 1659 to 1960.

A historian has located the beginning of the African workers’ movement at the end of the 18th century, hence the title of his work History of the African union movement 1790-1929.

The first professional workers (artisans, carpenters, joiners, masons, etc.) were Europeans settling in Saint-Louis Senegal (the old capital of the African colonies).

Before the Second World War, the working population of the Francophone colony of French Western Africa (FWA) was essentially based in Senegal, between Saint-Louis and Dakar which were respectively the capital of FWA and the capital of the federation which brought together FWA, French Equatorial Africa (FEA), Cameroon and Togo. Dakar was the “economic lungs” of the FWA colony, with the port, the railway and the greatest number of state workers and service employees.

At the numerical level, the working class has always been historically weak in Africa generally, evidently due to the weak economic development of the continent, which is explained in its turn through the weak investment made by the colonising countries. In 1927, the Governor of the colony estimated the number of workers to be 60,000. Certainly, some say that half the numbers of workers were excluded from this figure, not least the day-workers and other apprentices.

Since the first struggles up to the 1960s, the proletariat has always systematically confronted the French bourgeoisie which holds the means of production alongside the colonial administration. That means that the Senegalese bourgeoisie was born and evolved in the shadow of its “big French sister” (at least up to the 1960s).

Class struggle in Senegal

The history of the African union movement has yet to be totally written [...] The fundamental reason for this failure seems to us to lie, on one hand, in the lack of research into the different segments of the African working class in a perspective which is both synchronic and diachronic; and on the other hand, in the absence of a systematic study of the different social conflicts which have been recorded, social conflicts each one of which shows the layers of information on the preoccupations of the workers, their forms of expression, the reactions of the colonial administration and the bosses, those of the political class, all the consequences that these events have had on the domestic history of the colonies at the four levels of the economic, social, political and cultural [...].”[4]

As Iba Der Thiam emphasises, several factors explain the difficulties of writing a history of the workers’ movement in Africa. Otherwise, the major obstacle which researchers have come up against is undoubtedly linked to the fact that the real holders of the information on the working class, that is the French colonial authorities, have for a long time been cautious of opening up the state archives. And for good reason: they have an interest in hiding things.

In fact, with the partial release of the colonial archives of FWA (following the fall of the Berlin Wall), we learnt that not only had the working class existed in Africa since the 19th century but, quite naturally, it had undertaken often victorious combats against its class enemy. 1855 marked the first expression of a workers’ organisation where, at Saint-Louis Senegal, a group of 140 African workers (carpenters and masons) decided to fight against the demands of their European masters who were imposing unacceptable working conditions on them. Similarly, one can read in the archives of the existence of a (clandestine) union of “Carpenters of the Haut-Fleuve” in 1885. Above all a number of important strikes and tough confrontations took place between the working class and the colonial French bourgeoisie, like the general strike accompanied by riots in 1914 at Dakar where, for 5 days, economic and social life was totally paralysed and the Federal Governor of FWA , William Ponti, recognised (in his secret notes) that “The strike was perfectly organised and was a total success. There were also numerous other successful strikes, notably that of April 1919 and 1938 by railworkers (European and African united) but also where the state had recourse to police repression before being forced to meet the demands of the strikers. And we can add the example of the six month-long general strike (October 1947 to March 1948) by the railworkers of the whole of FWA, where the strikers were fired on by the PS (SFIO) government before ending up winning the fight.

Finally, there is also the famous world-wide “May ‘68” which spread in Africa and to Senegal, abruptly breaking the patriotic or “national consensus” which had reigned since the “independence” of the 60s. And where, through their struggles on a proletarian terrain, workers and young schoolchildren violently confronted the pro-French regime of Senghor demanding an amelioration of their conditions of life and study. After this the workers’ movement again took the road of struggle that it had known since the beginning of the 20th century but which had been blocked by the triumphant perspective of “national independence”.

These are some examples to illustrate the real existence of a combative working class that is often conscious of its own class interests, while certainly meeting immense difficulties of all sorts since its birth.

Birth of the African proletariat

We should straightaway make clear that this is a proletariat emerging under a colonial capitalist regime and that, without having accomplished its own revolution against feudalism, the African bourgeoisie also owes its existence to the presence of European colonialism on its soil.

In other words, what we are seeing is the birth of the proletariat, the motor of the development of the productive forces under the reign of capitalism triumphant over the feudal regime, the old, dominant system, the residues of which are still quite visible today in many areas of the black continent.

During the course of the centuries preceding the arrival of the colonisers onto their continent, African societies, as all the other human societies, used labour and manpower in conditions that were peculiar to them [...]

The economy was essentially agricultural; predominately made up of provisions and supply, because in using rudimentary techniques there was only rarely any great surplus to be made. Equally an economy based on hunting, fishing and gathering, to which we could add in some cases exchange activities of a relative breadth unfolded, because of the weakness and want of the means of communications, inside the group, the region, and more rarely the kingdom, in the markets at regular intervals.

In such a context, the methods of production were often handed down and rarely secreted sufficiently vigorous and conflictual antagonisms in order to determine the existence of real social classes in the marxist sense of the term.

“[...] As much as possessions in pre-colonial Senegalese-Gambian societies were different from the European notion, so that of work was even more so. In fact, if in modern societies based on industrial development and wage labour, labour is negotiated as economic wealth, and as such, greatly submits to the ineluctable laws of the market where the relations between supply and demand determine the price of services, in pre-colonial negro-African societies, work appears to us not to have an autonomous function, independent of the person. It is a sort of community activity logically unfolding from the laws of collective life, an activity imposed by social regulation and economic necessities [...].

The colonial conquest, essentially based on the spirit of power, the quest for the accumulation of profit through the exploitation of human, material and mineral resources, largely had recourse to indigenous labour and did not hesitate to call on the means put at its disposition of the exercise of state power in order to use the work of local populations, first of all free before introducing wages and thus creating the conditions and new relations as much for work as for the worker.[5]

On the whole, the author’s account is sufficiently clear and relevant in its theoretical approach and in describing the historic context of the birth of the proletariat in Africa. Indeed, it is convincing in its argument to demonstrate that labour in pre-colonial negro-African or Senegalese-Gambian societies did not have the same meaning as in modern western societies. Similarly, in relation to wage labour, we can actually say that the notion of wage labour was without doubt introduced into Senegal by the French colonial system the day it decided to “wage” the men it exploited in order to assure its profits and spread its domination over the conquered territory. Thus it started up the first agricultural and industrial depots, mines, railways, waterways, roads, factories, print works, etc. In other words, this is how French colonial capitalism introduced new relations of production in its first African colony creating accordingly the conditions for the birth of the working class. But it was first of all under the regime of obligatory work (the monstrous “corvée system”) that the workers were exploited. That is to say at this time they were not able to negotiate the sale of their labour, as this quote shows:

Regarding civil works, Blanchot for example required the Mayor of the corvée of the workers to be responsible for assuring the construction of the quays from January 1st 1790, then the landing-stage at Saint-Louis. The numbers needed were originally composed of ‘20 persons with food and a resident who will be responsible for mustering them, taking them to work and making sure that they stay there.’ First of all it was an obligatory requisition which no-one could escape from, once designated, under pain of sanction. Then the work was almost free. The workers were chosen, summoned, used and supervised without any condition of price, wage or any sort of discussion on the modalities of their utilisation, even of challenging the circumstances of the choice of which they’d been the object. This dependence of the worker on his employer was attested to by Order number 1 of December 18 1789 instituting the corvée assigned to the construction of the quays and the landing-stage, which set no time limit and could, consequently, last as long as necessary. Further, allusion was made to a ‘gratuity’ of two bottles of spirits and, to clearly show that there was no question of a wage attached to the remuneration or simply compensation for the work furnished, the text makes it clear that it is a simple favour due to the good will of the authorities to the exclusion of any obligation moral or otherwise and which could be denied when the work was late through negligence.[6]

Obligatory requisition with no negotiation, on price or on conditions of work, in brief a total dependence of the employee on the employer who, mostly, offered his exploited, as “food”, a gratuity in the form of bottles of spirits. Such were the rules and conditions in which the proletariat, future wage labour, emerged under French colonial capitalism in Senegal.

Four years later, in 1794, the same Blanchot (now the commanding officer of Senegal) decided on a new “gratuity” by giving the order to furnish the requisitioned workers with “couscous and the lash”. Certainly we can see “some amelioration” of the gratuity going from two bottles of spirits to couscous, but it still wasn’t a question of “compensation” and still less a proper wage to speak of. It was necessary to wait until 1804 for remuneration as compensation for work done to officially exist. That was the year when the economy underwent a serious crisis due to the war effort then sustained by the colonial system for the conquest of the empire of Fouta (the neighbouring region of Saint-Louis). In effect, the war meant the provisional halt of river commerce, which led to shortages of products and price speculation on basic necessities, which in turn caused a rise in the cost of living, and with it, strong social tensions.

1804: the establishment of the proletariat and the first expression of class antagonisms

To deal with the deterioration of the social climate, the commanding officer of the town of Saint-Louis issued the following order:

“[...] as a consequence of the decree of the Council of the Colony on complaints regarding the high price of the workers who have successively provided their days of work at exorbitant and intolerable prices for a long time [...]. The foremen, workers, carpenters or masons must henceforth be paid a salary of one bar of iron per day or 4 francs 16 sols; the mates, three-quarters of a bar or 3 francs 12 sols, the labourers, a quarter of a bar or 1 franc 4 sols.

In this document, which is one of the oldest written that we possess on wage labour, we learn that the town of Saint-Louis had at this time, that’s to say in 1804, ‘workers, carpenters, caulkers and masons’ employed by private individuals, according to the norms and in circumstances which are unfortunately not indicated, aside from the growth of salaries paid to these personnel.”[7]

To avoid arbitrating conflict between employers and employees, the state decided to regulate their relations by fixing the total amount of wages according to categories and level of qualification. Let’s note moreover that this act of the colonial state was first of all directed against the employees because it responded to the grievances lodged with the Chief of the colony by the employers who complained about the “exorbitant price” of a day’s work by the workers.

In fact, to cope with the effects of the crisis, the workers had decided to raise the price of their work to preserve their reduced purchasing power resulting from the increased cost of living. And before this time, the establishment of working conditions was still a purely private affair, exclusively in the hands of socio-economic negotiators, that’s to say, without any formal state legislation.

Still, this open intervention of state authority was the first of its kind in a conflict between employers and employees. More generally, this time (1804) attests to the reality of the first open expression in the colony of an antagonism between the two principal historic social classes that confront one another under capitalism: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This date also marks the history of labour in Senegal, which was formally recognised by the establishment of wages, finally allowing the workers to sell their labour “normally” and be paid as such.

Concerning the “ethnic composition” of the (qualified) workers, they were overwhelmingly of European origin, and similarly, the employers were almost exclusively from the metropole. Among the latter figured Potin, Valantin, Pellegrin, Morel, D’Erneville, Dubois, Prevost, etc., who were the “cream of the commercial bourgeoisie” of the colony. Finally, let’s note in passing the extreme numerical weakness of the working class (some thousands) as a consequence of the low level of economic development of the country; and this a century-and-a-half after the first arrival of colonists in this zone. Furthermore, this was essentially a colonial trading post based on trade in raw materials and ebony.[8]

The manpower crisis of the colonial trading post

The principal activity of Senegal was the slave trade and the exploitation of products such as gum, ivory, gold, yellow wax, hides drawn by the Saint-Louisian and other merchants on the river or along the west coast of Africa but as long as its economic importance remained secondary the availability of manpower was never a concern. In order to carry out the rare works of fitting out equipment or summary infrastructures, the Governor, at his own discretion, could call on extra assistance from the military or civilian sectors and, in work that didn’t need specialised workers could often, if not always, call on the workers in the most servile conditions.

But the suppression of slavery had profoundly changed the givens of the situation. The principal economic resource of the colony was henceforth threatened with drying up. France had further lost some of its agricultural colonies with the attempted European colonisation of Cape Verde having failed and the Government of the Restoration then thought it necessary to initiate the development of agriculture in Senegal by growing a certain number of local products likely to feed French industry, turning around the commercial activities of the colony and giving work to the indigenous free labour force.[9]

It is necessary to underline straightaway that the suppression of slavery responded first and foremost to an economic need rather than any humanitarian consideration. In fact, the colonial bourgeoisie lacked a workforce due to the fact that a large proportion of the men and women of working age were slaves in the hands of their local masters. The suppression of slavery took place in two stages.

In the first stage, a law dating from April 1818 forbade only the maritime commerce of slaves and their transportation to America, but not inside the territories which remained free for the colonial merchants. However, it was quickly realised that this was still insufficient to remedy the shortage of workers. So the Chief of the colony personally asked the head of the First Battalion to provide “men of the corvée on request who would be used for diverse purposes”. Thanks to these measures, the colonial authorities and merchants could temporarily overcome the labour shortage. For their part, the available labourers became aware of the benefits they could derive from the scarcity of labour by becoming more demanding towards the employers. And this provoked a new confrontation over the price of labour between the workers and their bosses, resulting in a new intervention by the colonial authorities who proceeded with the “regulation” of the market in favour of the merchants.

In the second stage, in February 1821, the Minister of the Navy and the Colonies, while considering a policy of active immigration by people of European origin, ordered the end of slavery in “all its forms”.

In fact, once again for the colonial authorities it was a matter of finding the necessary hands for the development of the agricultural economy:

For the Governor, it was a question of the redemption of individuals kept in slavery in the regions close to the west African possessions; of their emancipation by a certifiable act on the condition that they worked for the contractor for a certain period of time. This would be [...] a sort of liberty apprenticeship, familiarising the native with European civilisation, giving him a taste of new industrial cultures while reducing the number of captives. One thus obtained [...] labour while keeping in with the plans of the abolitionists.[10]

In other words, it was above all a question of “civilising” to better exploit the “emancipated” and it was in no way liberation in the name of a humanitarian vision. Moreover, as if that wasn’t enough, two years later in 1823, the colonial administration set up a “regime of time-serving”, that’s to say a sort of contract linking the employee to the employer for a long period.

The time-servers were used for a period which could go up to 14 years in the public workshops, in the administration, the agricultural plantations (there were 300 out of 1500 used by Baron Roger), in hospitals where they worked as messengers, nurses or domestics, in local security, and in the army; in the regiment of Marine Infantry they numbered 72 in 1828, 115 four years later, 180 in 1842, while the numbers of those redeemed counted 1629 in 1835, 1768 in 1828, 2545 in 1839. At this time the village of Saint-Louis alone counted about 1600 time-servers among its inhabitants.”[11]

In this regard, let’s underline the beginning of the formal existence of long-term contracts (14 years) similar to a CDI (contract of indeterminate length) of today. We see here the permanent need for workers that corresponds to the rhythm of the economic development of the colony. Similarly, the regime of time-servers had been conceived with the aim of the accelerating agricultural colonisation and this policy is shown in the consequent start of the development of the productive forces and more generally of the local economy. But the balance-sheet was very contradictory because, if it allowed a real increase in commercial traffic (import/export), which went from 2 million francs in 1818 to 14 million in 1844, the policy of agricultural industrialisation on the other hand hit a brick wall. In fact the plan initiated by Baron Roger for the development of agriculture was abandoned by his successors (three years after it was launched) because of differing economic orientations within the state. Another factor weighing on the decision to cancel the plan for the development of agriculture was the refusal of a great number of the previous farmers, who had become paid employees, to return to the land. However, the two aspects of this policy, i.e. the redemption of slaves and the “regime of time-servers”, were maintained up to 1848, the time of the decree for their total suppression.

Such was the situation towards the middle of the 19th century, a situation characterised by the now established wage labour, the attribute of a defenceless proletariat with almost no rights, which, if it was aware of any unity or combination, if it thus had a pre-union consciousness, had never yet dared to assert itself in a conflict with its employers who were backed up by an authoritarian government.”[12]

Thus was constituted the basis of a waged proletariat, evolving under the regime of modern capitalism, the precursor of the African working class and which, henceforth, would make its apprenticeship in the class struggle at the beginning of the second half of the 19th century.

Embryonic forms of class struggle in 1855

The emergence of the working class

According to available sources,[13] 1855 saw the appearance of the first professional organisation aiming to defend the specific interests of the proletariat. Its constitution followed a movement launched by a native carpenter (a habitant of Saint-Louis) who led 140 workers to draw up a petition against the European master craftsmen who were imposing unacceptable conditions of work. In fact:

The first artisans who undertook the great colonial works were European or military engineers who were assisted by auxiliaries and indigenous workers. These were carpenters, joiners, masons, blacksmiths and shoemakers. These were the technically more qualified personnel benefitting, in a certain number of cases, from a more or less elementary training. They prevailed in the existing corporations of which they made up the leading elite; it was without doubt these who decided the markets, fixed the prices, allocated the tasks, chose the workers that they hired and paid a tariff largely inferior to that they claimed back from the employers.” [14]

In this clash we see that the first expression of the “class struggle” in the colony opposed two fractions of the same (working) class and not the bourgeoisie and proletariat directly; in other words, a so-called base fraction of workers (dominated), in struggle against another so-called “ruling elite” (dominant) fraction of workers. Another feature of this context is the fact that the exploiting class was derived exclusively from the colonial bourgeoisie, due to the absence of a “native bourgeoisie”. In brief, we have a working class constituting itself under a developing colonial capitalism. Therefore it is understandable why the first expression of working class struggle could not avoid being marked by a triple connotation, “corporatist”, “ethnic” and “hierarchical”. This is illustrated in the case of the leader of this group of indigenous workers, himself a master carpenter, and as such a trainer of numerous young apprentice workers under him, while at the same time working under the European master joiners who decided everything (cf. the preceding quote).

In this context, the decision of the native leader to join with the rank and file African workers (less qualified than him) in order to face up to the arrogant attitude of the western master artisans is understandable and can be interpreted as a healthy reaction in defence of proletarian interests.

Moreover, according to archive sources, this same indigenous master craftsman was later involved in the constitution in 1885 of the first African union, even though the 1884 law of Jules Ferry authorising the creation of unions had excluded their establishment in the colonies. For this reason the union of native workers had to exist and function in clandestinity, leading to a lack of information on its history, as the following passage shows:

The K30 series of the Archives of the Republic of Senegal include an unpublished manuscript which hasn’t previously been quoted by any source and which was filed in a folder on which someone had written: union of the carpenters of the Haut-Fleuve. Unfortunately, this extremely important piece of the archives on the history of the union movement in Senegal is unaccompanied by any other document likely to throw some light or understanding on the question.[15]

So, despite the ban on any form of proletarian expression and despite the systematic censure of the real history of the workers’ movement in the colonies, this record could show the existence of the first embryonic organisations of class struggle of a union type. Admittedly, this was a “corporatist union”, of carpenters, but in any case the capitalist state at this time forbade any sort of inter-professional association.

This is what investigations into the writings related to this theme and period allow us to understand today about the expressions of working class struggle in this period from 1855 to 1885.

Immigrant Senegalese struggles in the Belgian Congo in 1890/1892

Let’s recall first of all that when the suppression of the regime of time-servers was enacted in 1848, this system, which was far from having completely disappeared, tried to adapt to the new situation by progressively transforming itself. But this solution in no way resolved the thorny issue of labour.

The colonial economic milieu could thus not buy slaves that they could work into the ground and the plantations risked being abandoned because of the lack of hands, pushing the administrative leadership and the political authorities to authorise the immigration of recently liberated African workers towards regions where their services would be appreciated, on a salary and with conditions discussed in agreement with the bosses. In order to effect this request, the Governor published the decree of March 27 1852, reorganising the emigration of workers in the colonies; thus on July 3 1854, a ship named ‘Le cinq freres’ chartered to ensure the transport of 3000 workers destined for the plantations of Guyana, cast anchor at Dakar and made contacts with the aim of hiring 300 Senegalese. The conditions stated were the following: “an expatriation of six years against a gift to the value of 30 to 50 francs, a wage of 15 francs per month, lodgings, food, medical care, the pleasure of a small garden and free repatriation at the end of their stay in the Americas.’”[16]

We see here, with the case of the 300 Senegalese destined for the plantations of Guyana, that the working class really existed, to the point of constituting “a reserve of labour”, a part of which the bourgeoisie could export.

Indeed, having demonstrated their competence and efficiency, for example in undertaking (in 1885) the hard work of constructing the Dakar/Saint-Louis railway, the workers of this French colony aroused a particular interest among the colonial economic milieux, either as exploitable labour on site, or as a labour force to be exported to foreign competitors.

In this same context and in similar conditions, a great number of Senegalese workers were recruited and sent to the Belgian Congo to work in various sites and depots, notably on the Congolese railway of Matadi.

But, from their arrival, the immigrant workers came up against harsh conditions of work and existence and immediately saw that the Belgian colonial authorities had no intention of honouring their contracts. In fact, as they noted themselves in a letter of protest addressed to the Governor of Senegal, they were “badly fed, inadequately lodged, underpaid, sick and badly looked after”, they died like flies and they thought that cholera was striking them because “we are burying 4 or 5 people a day”. A petition of February 1892, addressed to the French and Belgian colonial authorities, firmly demanded their collective repatriation to Senegal, concluding: “Now none amongst us wants to stay in Matadi”.

The workers were thus victims of a particularly odious form of exploitation by colonial capitalism which imposed such barbarous conditions upon them that, during this time, the two colonial states passed the buck, or shut their eyes firmly to the fate of the immigrant workers:

Encouraged by impunity, the Belgian authorities did nothing to ameliorate the condition of the unfortunate protesters. The distance between the Belgian Congo and Senegal, arguments over precedence which prevented the representative of the French government in the region interceding on their behalf, the complicities which benefitted the railway company of the Lower Congo at the rue Oudinot (cf. Ministry of the Colonies), the cynicism of some of the colonial milieu that found the bad luck of the poor Senegalese amusing, exposed the Senegalese workers to almost total abandonment and more or less disarmed without any means of defence, taxable and forced, they were at their mercy.[17]

Through their combativity, by refusing to work in the conditions imposed on them and by firmly demanding their evacuation from the Congo, the immigrants from the French colony obtained some satisfaction. Also, on their return to the country, they were able to count on the support of the population and their comrade workers by thus obliging the Governor to engage in new reforms aiming to protect the workers, beginning with the establishment of new emigration rules. In fact, the drama the immigrants suffered in the Congo gave rise to debates and developments of consciousness in relation to workers’ conditions. It was in this context, between 1892 and 1912, that a whole series of measures was taken on behalf of employees, for example a weekly break, workers’ pensions, medical assistance, in short real reforms.

Furthermore, based on their “Congolese experience”, the old immigrants were particularly conspicuous during a new recruitment drive for new railway yards in Senegal by being very demanding over working conditions. In this sense, in 1907 they decided to create a professional association called the “Workers’ Association of Kayes” with the aim of better defending their working and living conditions faced with the appetites of the capitalist vultures. And the colonial authority, taking account of the balance of power at that time which was about to escape their control, agreed to legalise the railworkers’ association.

In fact, the birth of this association among the railworkers is hardly surprising when one considers that, since the opening of the network in 1885, this sector had become one of the most important industrial complexes of the colony, both in its turnover and the number of employees. Similarly, we shall see later that the railworkers are in all the battles of the working class in French Western Africa.

More generally, the period following the return of immigrants to the country (between 1892 and 1913) was marked by strong social unrest, notably in the public sector where clerks and workers of the post and telephone service protested against deteriorating working conditions and low wages. In this context, civil servants and those close to them decided to create their own associations to defend themselves by “all means at their disposal”, soon followed by commercial employees who took the opportunity to demand that the law on a weekly rest period apply to their sector. In short, there was a seething combativity among workers in both the private and public sectors, which increasingly worried the colonial authorities. Indeed, not only could these burning social problems not be settled by the end of 1913, but they reached their climax in the context of the crisis resulting from the First World War.

Lassou, March 2011 (to be continued).


[1]. Henri Wesseling, The division of Africa, 1991, Denoel Editions, 1996 for the French translation.

[2]. M. Agier, J. Copans and A. Morice, Working Classes of Black Africa, Karthala-ORSTOM, 1987.

[3]. History of the African union movement 1790-1929, Editions L’Harmattan, 1991.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Ibid


[7] .Ibid.

[8]. “Ebony” was a euphemism coined by the Negroes to describe the black slaves deported to the Americas (Wikipedia).

[9]. Thiam, op. cit.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. Ibid

[12]. Ibid

[13]. Mar Fall, The State and the Union Question in Senegal L’Hartmattan, Paris, 1989.

[14]. Thiam, op. cit.

[15]. Ibid

[16]. Ibid

[17]. Ibid.