mann on understanding the indigénat in french west africa


Gregory Mann, “What was the Indigénat? The ‘Empire of Law’ in French West Africa”, The Journal of African History (2009), 50:331-353


What was the indigénat, that obscure core of the French colonial state? In approaching this deceptively simple question, this article will make three intertwined arguments. First, a study of the indigénat – the regime of administrative sanctions applied to colonial subjects – disrupts the argument that French West Africa was part of an ‘empire of law’, as historians of French colonialism in Africa and Southeast Asia have argued. Particularly in the absence of European settlers and the accompanying anxieties around race and ‘dignity’ that they provoked among colonial administrators, law as such was neither the heart of the imperial project nor the cornerstone of colonial authority in French West Africa. Second, until its abolition in 1946, an ever-expanding and contracting spectrum of political statuses, exemptions, and privileged categories developed around the indigénat in both meanings of that term – the regime of sanctions and the status of the native (indigène). This spectrum is potentially more revealing and surely no less significant than one of its poles taken alone, namely the narrow category of colonial citizens on which a rich literature exists. Indeed, susceptibility to or exemption from the indigénat represented both marker and motive for the proliferation of political statuses in French colonial Africa. Third, attention to the workings of the indigénat allows a reassessment of the role of violence in the practice of colonial authority. In contrast, studies focusing on colonial law tend to diminish the role of such violence – whether enacted or potential – and to privilege legal institutions and procedures over day-to-day practices revealed, however imperfectly, via other sources. Rather than traversing an analytical terrain of which agency and structure mark the coordinates and law the terra firma, or invoking the indigénat as anti-structure, I place it at the center of an analysis of the ‘colonial situation’, not as the luminous essence of colonial ideology but as its inverse, a kind of black hole that represents a center of gravity into which it is difficult to peer but which defines the space around it.

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