Contribution to a history of the workers' movement in Africa (part 2): 1914-28

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1914 - 1928: the first real confrontations between the two classes

Between 1855 and 1914, the proletariat that emerged in the colony of French West Africa (FWA) underwent its class struggle apprenticeship by trying to come together and organise with the aim of defending itself against its capitalist exploiters. Despite its extreme numerical weakness, it demonstrated its will to struggle and a consciousness of its strength as an exploited class. We can also note that, on the eve of World War One, the development of the productive forces in the colony was sufficient to give rise to a frontal collision between the bourgeoisie and working class.

General strike and uprising, Dakar 1914

At the beginning of 1914, the discontent and anxiety of the population, which had been building up since the preceding year, didn’t immediately express itself in the form of a strike or demonstration. But by May the anger exploded and the working class unleashed an insurrectionary general strike.

This strike was first of all a response to the crass provocations of the colonial power towards the population of Dakar during the legislative elections of May, when big business[1] and the Mayor threatened to cut credits, water and electricity to all those who wanted to vote for the local candidate (a certain Blaise Diagne, of whom more below). At the same time an epidemic of plague broke out in the town and, under the pretext of preventing its spread to the residential quarters (of Europeans), Mayor Masson of Dakar (a colonist) quite simply ordered the burning down of all the dwellings (of the local population) suspected being infected.

This fanned the flames, resulting in a general strike and a riot against the criminal procedures of the colonial authorities. In order to respond, a group of youths called the “Young Senegalese” called for an economic boycott and filled the streets, putting up posters throughout Dakar with the slogan: “Let’s starve those that starve us”, taking up the slogan of the candidate and future black deputy.

Barely concealing its own disquiet, big business launched a violent campaign through the newspaper L’AOF (in its pocket) against the strikers: “Here our stevedores, carters and other workers are deprived of their wages... How are they going to eat? ...your strikes which have affected the life of the port will only make the problem much more cruel to the unfortunate than it will to those well off: they will paralyse the development of Dakar by discouraging those that want to come here from doing so.[2]

But it didn’t work and the strike couldn’t be prevented. On the contrary, it spread, affecting all sectors, notably the port and the railway, the lungs of the colony’s economy, as well as trade and services, both private and public. The following is related in the secret memoirs of the Governor of the colony, William Ponty: “The strike (added the Governor General), by the abstention fomented from below, was perfectly organised and a complete success. It was...the first event of its kind that I had seen so unanimous in these regions.[3]

The strike lasted 5 days (between the 20th and 25th of May) and the workers ended up by forcing the colonial authorities to put out the fire that they themselves had lit. In fact the strike was exemplary! The struggle marked a major turning point in the confrontation between the bourgeoisie and the working class of FWA. It was the first time that a strike spread beyond occupational categories and brought together workers with the population of Dakar and the region in the same combat against the dominant power.

This was clearly a struggle that abruptly changed the balance of forces in favour of the oppressed, compelling the Governor (with the approval of Paris) to cede to the claims of the striking population, expressed in these terms: “The cessation of the incineration of dwellings, the restitution of bodies, reconstruction of the buildings and dwellings destroyed using solid materials, the complete removal from the entire town of all the dwellings built in sub-standard wood or straw and their replacement by buildings in cement for low-priced habitation.[4]

However, this same Governor said nothing about the number of victims burnt inside their dwellings or cut down under a hail of bullets from the forces of order. At best, the local authorities of the colony only raised the question of “the restitution of the bodies” and said not a word about the killings and their extent.

But, despite the censorship of the words and actions of the working class at that time, one can imagine that the workers who saw their homes burnt down and those of their families, did not remain inert and put up a fierce fight. Clearly, although few in number, the working class was without doubt a decisive element in the confrontations that made the forces of colonial capital give ground. But above all the strike had a very political character:

Certainly it was an economic strike, but it was also political, a strike of protest, a strike of sanction, a strike of reprisals, decided upon and put into effect by all the population of Cape Verde... The strike thus had a very clear political character and the reaction of the authorities was something quite different... The administration was both surprised and disarmed. Surprised because it had never had to face up to a manifestation of this nature, disarmed because there was no presence at all of a classical union organisation with offices, rules, but a general movement taken in hand by the whole population and whose leadership was invisible.[5]

In accord with the author above, one must conclude that it was indeed an eminently political strike expressing a high degree of proletarian consciousness. An even more remarkable phenomenon given the unfavourable context for the class struggle: one dominated from the outside by the sound of marching boots and, from the inside, by struggles for power and the settling of accounts within the bourgeoisie through the legislative elections, whose main issue, for the first time, was the election of a deputy from the black continent. This was a mortal trap that the working class turned against the dominant class by unleashing, along with the rest of the oppressed population, a victorious strike.

1917-1918: strike movements seriously concern the bourgeoisie

As we know, the period 1914 to 1916 was marked, in the world in general and Africa in particular, by a feeling of terror and dejection following the outbreak of the first global butchery. Certainly, just before the conflagration, we saw a formidable class combat in Dakar in 1914; similarly there was a tough strike in Guinea in 1916.[6] But on the whole a general state of impotence dominated the working class even though its living conditions deteriorated on every level. In fact, it wasn’t until 1917 (by chance?) that we saw new expressions of struggle in the colony:

The accumulated effects of galloping inflation, the screwing down of wages, all types of worries, at the same time as they threw light on the tight links of dependence between the colony and the Metropole and the increasing integration of Senegal into the capitalist world system, all provoked a rupture of social equilibrium in which the consciousness of the workers and their will to struggle was clearly affirmed. From 1917, political relations were signalling that in a situation of crisis, stagnation of business, crushing taxation, the growing pauperisation of the masses, more and more workers were incapable of making ends meet and were demanding increases in wages.[7]

Strikes broke out between December 1917 and February 1918 against the misery and degradation of the conditions of life of the working class, and this despite the installation of a state of siege throughout the colony, accompanied by an implacable censorship. Nevertheless, even with little detail on the strikes and their outcomes at this time, we can see here, through some confidential notes, the existence of real class confrontations. Thus, in regard to the strike movement of coal miners working for the Italian company Le Senegal, one can read this in a note sent from the Governor William Ponty to his minister: “…Satisfaction having been given to them immediately, work was resumed the following day...” Or again: “A small strike of two days occurred during the quarter on the sites of the firms Bouquereau and Leblanc. Most of the strikers have been replaced by Portuguese.[8]

But without knowing what the reaction of the workers replaced by the “blacklegs” was, the Governor General indicated that: “The workers of all occupations are due to strike on the 1st of January”. Further, he informed his minister that the builders, spread out over a dozen worksites, struck on February 20th claiming an increase in wages of 6 to 8 francs per day, and that “satisfaction [of the claim] put an end to the strike.

As we can clearly see, between 1917 and 1918, workers’ militancy was such that confrontations between the bourgeoisie and proletariat often ended up with victories for the latter, as is attested in quotes from diverse secret reports or observations from the colonial authorities. Similarly, workers’ struggles of this time couldn’t be separated from the historic context of the revolution in Russia in particular and in Europe in general:

The concentration of wage-earners in the ports, on the railways, created the conditions for the first manifestations of the workers’ movement... Finally, the suffering of the war – the war effort, the hardships suffered by the combatants – created the need for a respite and hope for a change. The echoes of the October revolution in Russia had reached Africa; there were Senegalese troops stationed in Romania who refused to march against the Soviets: there were black marines in the naval units who mutinied in the Mediterranean; some of those who took part in the mutinies of 1917 experienced the revolutionary strides of the years at the end of the war and of the period immediately after the war in France.[9]

So the Russian revolution of 1917 did have echoes in Africa, particularly amongst the youth, a great part of who were enlisted and sent to Europe by French imperialism as cannon fodder for the war of 1914-18. In this context, we can understand the well-founded concerns of the French bourgeoisie at that time; they were to become even more worried as the wave of struggle continued.

1919: a year of struggles and attempts to build up workers’ organisations

1919, a year of intense workers’ struggles, was also the year of the emergence of many associations of an occupational character, despite the fact that the colonial authority continued to ban any union organisation or any coalition of more than twenty workers within FWA. However, there were many workers who took the initiative to create occupational associations (“friendly societies”) that had the potential for taking up the defence of their interests. But as the prohibition was particularly aimed at native workers, it fell to their European comrades – as it happened the rail workers – to take the initiative of creating the first “occupational friendly society” in 1918; in fact the rail workers had already been the origin of the first (public) attempt in this area in 1907.

These occupational friendly societies were the first union organisations recognised in the colony: “Little by little, coming out of the narrow framework of the company, the coalition of the workers was growing, going first of all through a Union at the level of a town like Saint-Louis or Dakar, then a regroupment at the level of the colony, of all those whose occupational obligations subjected them to the same servitude. We find examples of them among teachers, postal workers, women typists, trade employees. [...] Through these means, the nascent union movement strengthened its class position. It enlarged the field of its framework and action and it disposed of a powerful striking force, which showed itself to be particularly effective faced with the boss. Thus, the spirit of solidarity between workers little by little gained flesh. Convincing indications even show that the most advanced elements were engaged in becoming conscious of the limits of corporatism and laid the basis of an inter-occupational union of workers from the same sector, covering a wider geographical space.[10]

In fact, in this context we learn later, in a police report taken from the archives, of the existence of a federation of associations of colonial state workers of FWA.

But, becoming aware of the size of the danger from the appearance of federated workers’ groups, the Governor ordered an enquiry into the activities of the emerging unions. Subsequently, he instructed his Secretary General to break the organisations and their responsible leaders in the following terms: “1) see if it’s possible to get rid of all the natives reported; 2) look into the conditions under which they were taken on; 3) don’t let the joint note go into circulation and keep it in your drawer; I’ll personally put my memo with it.[11]

What vocabulary, and what a cynic is this Monsieur le Governor! With total logic he carried out his dirty “mission” through massive dismissals and by hunting down any worker who might to belong to one union organisation or another. Clearly the attitude of the Governor was that of a state police chief in his most criminal works and, in this sense, he also carried out the segregation between European and “native” workers, as this archive document shows:

That the metropolitan civil laws extend to citizens living in the colonies is understandable, since they are members of an evolved society or else natives who have been habituated for a long time to our customs and our civic life; but to extend these to races still in a state bordering on barbarity, who are almost completely foreign to our civilisation, is often an impossibility, if not a regrettable error.[12]

We have here a Governor who is contemptuously about to carry out his policy of apartheid. In fact, not content with deciding to “liquidate” the indigenous workers, he goes one better in justifying his actions through overtly racist theories.

Despite this anti-proletarian political criminality, the working class of this time (European and African) refused to capitulate and pursued the best possible struggle for the defence of its class interests.

Railworkers’ strike in April 1919

1919 was a year of strong social agitation. Several sectors came into struggle around diverse demands, whether wages or concerning the right to set up organisations for the defence of workers’ interests. But it was the rail workers who were the first to strike this year, between April 13th and 15th, first of all sending a warning to their employer: “April 8th 1919, or hardly seven months after the end of hostilities, a movement of demands broke out in the rail services of Dakar-Saint-Louis (DSL) on the initiative of European and local workers in the form of an anonymous telegram drawn up and addressed to the Inspector General of Public Works:rail workers of Dakar-Saint Louis, are unanimously agreed in presenting the following demands: raising of pay for European and indigenous personnel, regular increases and maintenance allowances, improved sick pay and allowances ... we will stop all work for one hundred and twenty hours, from this day, 12th April if there’s no favourable response on all points: signed, Rail workers of Dakar-Saint Louis.’[13]

This is the particularly strong and combative tone with which rail workers announced their intention to strike if their demands weren’t met by the employers. Similarly, we should note the unitary character of the strike. For the first time, in a conscious fashion, European and African workers decided to draw up their list of demands together. Here we are dealing with a gesture of the internationalism which only the working class is the bearer of. This is the giant step taken by the rail workers – knowingly striving to overcome the ethnic barriers that the class enemy regularly sets up in order to divide the proletariat and lead it to defeat.

Reaction of the authorities faced with the rail workers’ demands

On receiving the telegram from the workers, the Governor General summoned the members of his administration and army chiefs to decide at once on the total requisitioning of personnel and administration of the Dakar-Saint Louis line, placing it under military authority. The decree of the Governor even states: “Troops will first of all use their rifle butts. An attack by small weapons will be met with the use of bayonets [...] It will be indispensable for troops to shoot in order to assure the security of personnel of the administration is not put in danger...” And the French authorities concluded that the laws and rules governing the army became immediately applicable.

However, neither this terrible decision for a decidedly repressive response, nor the arrogant uproar accompanying its implementation, succeeded in preventing the strike from taking place: “At 18h 30, Lachere (civil chief of the network) cabled the boss of the Federation that, odd number trains not leaving today; trains four and six have left, the second stopped at Rusfique...’ and urgently insisted on advisability of giving in to the demand of the workers. Rail traffic was almost completely paralysed. It was the same thing at Dakar, Saint Louis, Rusfique. The entire network was on strike, Europeans and Africans... ; arrests were made here and there, attempts to oppose the workers on racial grounds came to nothing. Otherwise, some personnel went to the stations without working, others purely and simply defected. In the morning of April 15th, there was a total strike in Rusfique. No European or African worker was present. Consequently the order was given to close the station. The centre of the strike was found here. Never has Senegal known a movement of such breadth. For the first time a strike has been undertaken by Europeans and Africans and has succeeded so vividly, and at the level of the territory. Members of the ruling elite were going mad. Giraud, President of the Chamber of Commerce, has made contact with the rail workers and tried to conciliate. Maison Maurel and Prom warned its management in Bordeaux. Maison Vielles sent its Marseille headquarters this alarmist telegram: ‘Situation untenable, act!’ Giraud went on the offensive, going directly to the President of the Syndicate for the Defence of Senegalese Interests (i.e. the bosses) in Bordeaux, criticising the nonchalance of the authorities.[14]

Panic gripped the leadership of the colonial administration faced with the flames of the workers’ struggle. Following pressure from the economic leadership of the colony, both on the bosses in France and on central government, the authorities in Paris had to give the green light to negotiations with the strikers. Following this, the Governor General convened a meeting with representatives of the latter (on the second day of the strike) with proposals favouring the demands of the strikers. And when the Governor expressed his wish to meet railway worker delegates made up solely of Europeans, the workers replied by refusing to agree to the plan without the presence of African workers on the same equitable footing as their white comrades. In fact, the workers on strike distrusted their interlocutors and not without reason, because after giving satisfaction to the rail workers on the main points of their demands, the authorities continued their manoeuvres and hesitations regarding some demands of the native workers. But that only increased the combativity of the railway workers, who quickly decided to go back on strike, giving rise to new pressures from the representatives of the French bourgeoisie in Dakar on the central government in Paris. This is what’s shown in the following telegrams:

“It is urgent that satisfaction is given immediately to the personnel of DSL and the decision is notified without delay otherwise we risk a new strike” (the representative of big business);

“I ask you straightaway... to give approval to arbitration by the Governor General transmitted in my cable of the 16th... very urgent before May 1st, if (as seems probable) we are going to have a new work stoppage on this date” (Director of the Railways);

“Despite my counsels, the strike will resume if the company doesn’t give satisfaction” (the Governor General).[15]

Visibly, there was general panic among the colonial authorities at all levels. In brief, in the end, the French government gave its approval to the arbitration of its Governor by validating the agreement negotiated with the strikers. Work restarted on April 16th. Once again, the working class pulled off a great victory over the forces of capital thanks notably to its class unity and above all to the development of its class consciousness.

But in addition to the satisfaction of the demands of the rail workers, this movement had positive consequences for other workers; in fact the 8-hour day was extended throughout the colony following the strike. What’s more, faced with the bosses’ resistance in accepting it and faced with the dynamic of struggle created by the rail workers, workers from other branches also went into struggle to make themselves heard.

The postal strike

After this, in order to obtain increases in wages and better conditions of work, workers of the PTT (postal service) of Saint-Louis went on strike May 1st 1919. It lasted for 12 hours and ended up with the postal services almost paralysed. Faced with the breadth of the movement, the colonial authority requisitioned the army to provide a specialised force for ensuring the continuity of public services. But this military body was far from being able to effectively play the role of blackleg. The administrative authority thus had to agree to negotiate with the postal strike committee, which was offered a wage increase of 100%. In fact: “The duplicity of the colonial authorities soon restarted the strike movement which took off with renewed vigour, braced without doubt by the enticing perspectives that it had glimpsed for a moment. It lasted up to May 12th and ended in total success.[16]

Once again, here was a victory gained by the PTT workers thanks to their militant stance. Decidedly, the workers showed themselves more and more conscious of their strength and their class affiliation.

In fact all public services were more and more affected by the movement. Numerous occupational categories were able to benefit from the fall-out of the struggle unleashed by the workers of the PTT: after they had obtained substantial wage increases, it was the turn of workers in the public sector, farm workers, teachers, health workers, etc. But the success of the movement didn’t stop there: again the representatives of capital refused to surrender.

Threat of a new railworkers strike and the political manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie

Following the movement of the postal workers and six months after the victorious end of their movement, the indigenous rail workers decided to strike without their European comrades by addressing the authorities with new demands: “In this letter, we ask for an improvement of pay and modifications of the rules regarding indigenous personnel... We take the liberty of saying to you that we can no longer lead the life of the galley and we hope that you will avoid it by taking measures of which you alone will be responsible... and we would like, just like the fixed personnel (formed almost exclusively of Europeans), to be recompensed. Act on our regard as you would act on their regard and everything will be for the best.[17]

The indigenous workers wanted to benefit from the material advantages that some workers had acquired following the strike of PTT workers. But above all they wanted to be treated the same as the European workers, the key being the threat of a new strike.

The initiative of the indigenous workers of the DSL had, quite naturally, aroused the lively interest of the bosses. Given that the 13th to 15th April movement had been a crowning success because of the unity of the action, it was necessary to do everything to ensure that this new trench opening up between European and African workers would be reinforced. The best way to weaken the movement of workers would be to let them exhaust themselves in fratricidal rivalries, which would undermine any future coalition.

The network’s administration thus worked to accentuate the disparities in order to increase the frustration of the indigenous workers’ milieu in the hope of rendering definitive the rupture that was opening up.”[18]

Consequently the colonial authorities moved cynically into action, deciding not to adjust the income of the natives in relation to those of the Europeans, but, on the contrary to noisily increase the earnings of the latter while holding back on the demands of the local rail workers. The evident aim was to deepen the gap between the two groups, setting one against the other to neutralise both.

But fortunately, sensing the trap being laid by the colonial authorities, the indigenous rail workers avoided a strike in these conditions, deciding to wait for better days. We can also note that while they gave the impression of having forgotten the importance of the class unity they had previously shown in allying with their European comrades, the indigenous rail workers were still able to decide to widen their movement to other categories of workers (public and private services, European as well as African). In any case, they were able to recognise the uneven character of class unity, to see that class consciousness develops slowly in ups and downs. Let’s also remember that the colonial power institutionalised racial and ethnic divisions from the first contacts between Europeans and Africans. This did not mean there would be no other attempts at unity between African and European workers.

The revolt of Senegalese sailors at Santos (Brazil) in 1920: strike and repression

We learn from the recollections of a French consul of the existence of a struggle undertaken by some sailors on the Vapeur Provence (enlisted in Marseille) at Santos around May 1920. This was an example of workers’ solidarity followed by fierce police repression. Here’s how this diplomat relates the event: “Undisciplined acts occurred on board the Vapeur Provence... I went to Santos and, after enquiries, I punished the main guilty parties... 4 days in prison and I led them to the town’s prison in the interest of the security of the navy... All the Senegalese stokers showing solidarity with their comrades took a threatening attitude despite my formal defence... And the Senegalese tried to release their comrades, following the police agents and making threats and insults, and the local authority finally had to proceed with their arrest.[19]

In fact, these were worker-sailors (stokers, greasers, seamen) some of whom were registered in Dakar, others at Marseille, employed by big business to ensure the transport of goods between the three continents. The problem is that the diplomat’s notes say nothing about the cause of the revolt. It seems however that this movement had links with another that happened in 1919 when Senegalese sailors, following a struggle, were disembarked and replaced by some Europeans (according to police sources). Following that, after the strike, many of the Senegalese union members decided to quit the CGT, which had approved this decision, and join the CGTU (the latter being a split from the former).

In any case, this event seems to have seriously concerned the colonial authorities as is shown in the following account:

The consul, fulminating more than ever, vehemently demanded that when they arrived at Dakar, the guilty were handed over to the competent tribunal, and showed his surprise and indignation in these terms: ‘The attitude of these individuals is such that it constitutes a real danger for the ships on which they will sail in the future and for the general security of the general staff and crew. They are animated by the worst spirit, have lost, or never had, the least respect for discipline and believe they have the right to give orders to the commandant’.

They discovered, without a doubt and for the first time, the state of spirit of the Senegalese after the First World War and were evidently scandalised by the mood of contestation and their determination not to accept without reacting what they considered as an attempt on their rights and liberties. The working class was developing politically and on the trade union level.”[20]

This was a magnificent class combat by the maritime workers who, despite an unfavourable balance of forces, were able to show the enemy their determination, achieving self-respect by showing solidarity in the struggle.

1920: the re-launch of the rail workers’ action ends in victory

We’ve already seen that, following the victorious movement of workers of the PTT (in 1919), the indigenous rail workers wanted to rush into this breach by going on strike, before finally deciding to cancel their action due to the lack of favourable conditions.

Six months after this episode, they decided to re-launch their protest action in earnest. The movement of the rail workers was first of all motivated by the general degradation of living conditions due to the disastrous conditions of the Great War, which accentuated the discontent of the workers and of the population in general. The cost of living in the main towns underwent dizzying increases. Thus, the price of a kilo of millet, which in December 1919 was 0.75F, tripled in the space of four months. And a kilo of meat went from 5F to 7F, chicken 6F to 10F, etc.

A note from the Inspector General of Public Works of April 13th, in which he asked his superiors not to apply the law on the 8-hour day in the colony, was the last straw. It immediately revived the latent discontent smouldering among the rail workers since their protest movement of December 1919. The workers on the railway went into action on June 1st 1920: “It was the first strike movement undertaken at the ethnic level by the workers on the railways, which explains the rapidity and unanimity with which the business community received the event and decided to remedy it... From the first of June, they called on the States General of Colonial Trade in Senegal, addressing their concerns to the Federation Chief, and inviting him not to stand by during the deterioration in the social climate.[21]

The indigenous rail workers thus decided to launch a new showdown with the colonial authorities in order to achieve the same demands. But this time the African rail workers seemed to have drawn the lessons of the aborted action by enlarging the social base of the movement with several delegates representing each trade, fully entrusting them to negotiate collectively with the political and economic authorities. As a matter of fact, from the second day of the strike, unease grew among the main colonial authorities. Thus alerted by the Dakar economic decision-makers, the Minister of the Colonies sent a cable to the Governor in the following terms: “It has been pointed out to me that following the strike 35,000 tonnes of uncovered grain awaiting delivery is held up in different stations of Dakar-Saint Louis”. From here, pressure mounted on the Director of the Rail Network, pushing him to respond to the demands of the wage earners. And this “station master” responded to his superiors in the following way: “We fear that if a new increase in wages, so high and so little justified, was granted, it could have a general impact on the demands of all personnel and encourage them to present us with new demands.

Straightaway, the network’s management tried hard to break the strike by playing black against white (which had previously succeeded). Thus, on the third day of the movement, it managed to get together a train of goods and passengers, thanks to the co-operation of a European engine driver and stokers from the navy under escort from the forces of order. But when the management tried to play this card again, it couldn’t find any worker ready to play its game because this time, following strong pressure exerted on them by the indigenous strikers, the European rail workers decided to remain “neutral”. Afterwards, we find in a report of the Deputy Governor of Senegal:[22]The workers of Dakar-Saint Louis have declared that if they have no satisfaction at the end of the month, they will leave Dakar to work on farming in the lougans[23] in the colony’s interior.

At this point (the sixth day of the strike), the Governor of Senegal convened a meeting of all his social partners to notify them of a series of measures, elaborated by his own services, to meet the strikers’ demands; at the end of the day, the strikers got what they were asking for. Clearly the workers gained a new victory thanks to their combativity and a better organisation of the strike, and it is this that enabled them to impose a balance of force over the representatives of the bourgeoisie: “What appears certain however is that the workers’ mentality, grew stronger through these tests and more refined about the stakes involved, with more widespread forms of struggle and attempts at union co-ordination in a sort of broad class front faced with combative bosses.[24]

But even more significant in this development of a class front was June 1st 1920, the day the rail workers started their strike: “the tugboat crews stopped work a few hours later, despite the promise they had given, noted the Deputy Governor, to await the outcome of the talks that Martin, Chief of the Maritime Inspection Service, had been responsible for leading. We have here the first deliberate attempt to co-ordinate strike movements simultaneously unleashed by... rail workers and port workers, that is, personnel of the two sectors that constituted the lungs of the colony whose concerted paralysis blocked all economic and commercial activity, in and out... The situation appeared even more worrying (for the Administration), since the bakers of Dakar had also threatened to strike on the same day, and would certainly have done so if immediate increases in their wages had not been granted.[25]

Similarly, at the same time, other strike movements broke out at the Han/Thiaroye yards and yards on the Dakar-Rufisque route. Police sources reporting this event say nothing about the origin of the simultaneous explosion of these different movements. However, by putting together several pieces of information from this same colonial police source, we can conclude that the extension of this struggle movement was not unconnected with the Governor’s attempt to break the maritime transport strike Without saying so openly, the colonial state representative first of all called in the navy with some European civilian teams to provide transport services between Dakar and Goree[26] and this seems to have provoked solidarity action by workers in other sectors: “Did this intervention of the state on the side of the bosses arouse the solidarity of other occupational branches? Without being able to decisively confirm it we can note that the strike broke out almost simultaneously with the attempts to break the movement of the crews in public works.[27]

In fact, we know that after five days the movement was crumbling under the double impact of state repression and rumours of the bosses’ decision to replace the strikers with blacklegs.

The workers, feeling that the length of their action and the intervention of the military could change the balance of forces and jeopardise the successful conclusion of their action, had, on the seventh day of their strike softened their initial demands by formulating their platform based on the following... The Administration and the bosses were united in rejecting these new proposals, forcing the strikers to continue their movement in desperation or else end it on the local authorities’ conditions. They opted for the latter solution.”[28]

Clearly, the strikers had to return to work effectively on their old salary plus the “ration”, with the balance of forces squarely in the bourgeoisie’s favour and recognising the dangers of pursuing their movement in isolation. We can say here that the working class suffered a defeat but the fact of having retreated in good order meant that it wasn’t so profound, nor did it wipe out the workers’ understanding of the more numerous and important victories that it had gained.

To sum up, the period from 1914 to 1920 was strongly marked by intense class confrontations between the colonial bourgeoisie and the working class emerging in the colony of French West Africa; and this in a revolutionary context at the world level. French capital was fully conscious of this because it felt the full force of the proletarian struggle.

The activities of the world communist movement, during the same period, underwent an uninterrupted development, marked notably by the entry onto the scene of the first expression of African marxism;[29] breaking with the utopian approach that his brothers had adopted towards colonial problems, he developed the first native explanation of this question we know, the first serious and profound critique of colonialism as a system of exploitation and domination.[30]

Among the workers who were at the front of the strike movements in Senegal in the period from 1914 to 1920, some were close to the former “young infantrymen” demobilised or survivors from the First World War. For example, the same sources tell us of the existence at that time of a handful of Senegalese unionists, one of whom, a certain Louis Ndiaye (a young sailor of 13) was a militant of the CGT from 1905 and the representative of this organisation in the colonies between 1914 and 1930. In this respect, like many other “young infantrymen”, he was mobilised in 1914-18 into the navy where he managed to survive. Both he and another young Senegalese, Lamine Senghor, who was close to the PCF in the 1920s, were clearly influenced by the ideas of the Communist International. In this sense, and along with other figures of the 1920s, we can consider that they played a major and dynamic role in the process of politicisation and the development of class-consciousness in the ranks of the workers of the first colony of French West Africa.

Lassou (to be continued).



[1]. This term designates trade other than local at the time, essentially the import/export business controlled by a few families.

[2]. Quoted in Iba Der Thiam, Histoire du mouvement syndical africain 1790-1929, Editions L’Harmattan, 1991.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. See Afrique noire, l’Ere colonial 1900-1945, Jean Suret-Canale, Editions Sociales, Paris 1961.

[7]. Thiam, op.cit.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Suret-Canale, op. cit.

[10]. Ibid. It’s worth recalling here what we said at the time of the publication of the first part of this article in International Review n° 145: “…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. It’s the same for certain ideas, for example when they talk about ‘union consciousness’ instead of ‘class consciousness’ (of workers), or again ‘union movement’ (instead of workers’ movement). Otherwise, up to another order, we have confidence in their scientific rigour as long as their theses don’t come up against historical facts and don’t prevent other interpretations.” In a more general way we want to underline again that during a period of the life of capitalism, the unions effectively constituted real organs of struggle of the working class in defence of its immediate interests within capitalism. They were then integrated into the capitalist state and with that lost any possibility of being used by the working class in its combat against exploitation. [NB. Part of the section quoted above was omitted from the version of the article published in the English language edition of International Review n° 145.]

[11]. Quoted ibid.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. Ibid.

[18]. Ibid.

[19]. Ibid.

[20]. Ibid.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. The Governor of Senegal was subordinate to the Governor General of FWA.

[23]. Cultivation areas created by burning down forests.

[24]. Thiam, op. cit.

[25]. Ibid.

[26]. A Senegalese island situated in the Bay of Dakar.

[27]. Thiam, op. cit.

[28]. Ibid.

[29]. This reference is to Lamine Senghor, see below.

[30]. Thiam, op.cit.