Louis Faidherbe, one of the leading figures of the French colonial conquest of West Africa, still has statues celebrating him in Senegal and France. The Faidherbe Must Fall campaign is fighting for them to be removed. In this interview with Florian Bobin, Khadim Ndiaye and Salian Sylla argue for the emancipation of public spaces from the glorification of a hideous past.
Khadim Ndiaye, in your recent article ‘The disturbing presence of the statue of Faidherbe in Saint-Louis [Senegal’s northern city],’ you write: ‘Faidherbe laid the ideological foundations for the French occupation of Senegal and West Africa. He was the great actor in this colonial enterprise that ushered in an era of oppression and subjugation.’ What was Louis Faidherbe’s role in the French colonization of Africa?
Faidherbe was a French colonial soldier sent to Guadeloupe and then to Algeria, where Marshal Thomas Bugeaud committed the worst atrocities, burning entire villages and killing resistance fighters, in defiance of all humanitarian rules. It was in Algeria that Faidherbe was introduced to violent repressive methods. He arrived in Senegal, where he was appointed battalion commander and then governor of the colony at the end of 1854. One of Faidherbe’s first actions was to put erudition at the service of colonial conquest. Knowledge of the men and the country was necessary to succeed in his mission. Faidherbe is also considered to be the ‘true founder of the French Africanist school.’ History, ethnology, anthropology, linguistics, topography, were the instruments at the service of hegemony. This mass of knowledge also conveyed the worst racist ideas maintained at the time by the ‘scholars’ of the Paris School of Anthropology, of which Faidherbe was a correspondent. This is what President Senghor did not understand when he said that Faidherbe was a friend of the Senegalese because he had got to know them and made himself Senegalese with the Senegalese. Of course, Faidherbe did not want to get to know them just to know them; he wanted to understand their living environment, habits, and customs to better subjugate the people.
Faidherbe organized the military conquest of the territory and established the principle of cultural assimilation. It was he who created the famous Hostage School in Saint-Louis where the sons of village chiefs and notables, brought back from tours in the interior of the country, were forcibly enrolled and ‘civilized’ to the core. He created the corps of ‘Senegalese tirailleurs’ in 1857, motivated mainly by racist ideas. Blacks make good soldiers, he said in 1859, ‘because they don’t appreciate danger and have very poorly developed nervous systems.’ Faidherbe advocated union with indigenous women. Such a union, made without priests and with its share of illegitimate children, also served the colonial cause by re-motivating the soldiers who had come from the metropole and were threatened by loneliness and depression. Faidherbe made young Diokounda Sidibé, a 15-year-old girl, his ‘country wife.’ Pinet-Laprade, his right-hand man, took Marie Peulh, whom he presented in France as his maid.
For Faidherbe and his collaborators, any action must serve the colonial cause. Nothing was done to please the people. And it was by the force of bayonets and gunboats that ‘pacification’ was carried out by Faidherbe and his successors. Thousands of people were killed, and dozens of villages burned down. Faidherbe himself took part in several military expeditions. This ‘pacification’ is a ‘tranquillity’ and a ‘peace’ obtained at the price of a ferocious military conquest. It was the condition for the establishment of the trading economy, forced labour, colonial education, cultural assimilation and the placing of the colony in dependence.
Until the end of the 1970s, a statue of Faidherbe still stood in Dakar’s presidential palace. His statue in Saint-Louis stands on a square that still bears his name, where French President Emmanuel Macron chose to deliver his speech during his official visit to Senegal in 2018. Already in 1978, director Sembene Ousmane wrote to President Senghor: ‘Is it not a provocation, an offence, an attack on the moral dignity of our national history to sing the Lat Joor anthem under the pedestal of Faidherbe’s statue? Why, since we have been independent for years in Saint-Louis, Kaolack, Thiès, Ziguinchor, Rufisque, Dakar, etc., do our streets, our arteries, our boulevards, our avenues, our squares still bear the names of old and new colonialists?’ After heavy rains in September 2017, Faidherbe’s statue in Saint-Louis fell, but the authorities quickly put it back up. What explains, to this day, this deep attachment to Faidherbe’s figure in Senegal?
There is an attachment to Faidherbe because he was presented by colonial propaganda as a saviour. For example, in Jaunet and Barry’s 1949 history textbook for schoolchildren in French West-Africa, Faidherbe is portrayed as an honest and upright man who loved to protect the weak, the poor, and who punished the oppressors. There are also, among the Senegalese authorities, some who presented him as a ‘friend.’ For example, Senghor used to say: ‘If I speak of Faidherbe, it is with the highest esteem, even friendship, because he got to know us.’ In an interview in 1981 with French diplomat Pierre Boisdeffre, who was passing through Senegal, Senghor insisted on the conqueror’s sympathy: ‘Faidherbe became a Negro with the Negroes, as Father Liberman would later recommend. He thus became Senegalese with the Senegalese by studying the languages and civilizations of Senegal.’
The statue of Faidherbe, the bridge of Ndar and the streets that bear his name, reflect a certain ‘Faidherbe myth’ that has long existed in Senegal. Some even place him in their lineage. One speaks of ‘Maam Faidherbe’ (the Faidherbe Ancestor). They have made him a kind of tutelary genius that must be commended at every entrance or exit of the city of Saint-Louis. But this myth is now shattered. Thanks to excellent awareness-raising work on social media, young people are aware of the negative impact of his action. And they can’t believe it when they discover that the native of Lille has hands stained with the blood of their ancestors.
In the letter cited above, Sembene Ousmane goes on to ask: ‘Has our country not given women and men who deserve the honour of occupying the seats of our high schools, colleges, theatres, universities, streets and avenues, etc.?’ In fact, the Faidherbe High School of Saint-Louis was renamed Cheikh Omar Foutiyou Tall High School in 1984. You explain that ‘Faidherbe’s statue in Saint-Louis means, for all of Senegal’s students, the torturer honoured and glorified. Toppling such a statue is, therefore, to free oneself from the coloniality of the being and space.’ Many cities in Senegal, and more broadly in Africa, still bear the marks of glorification of the former colonizer. These street names, schools, avenues or statues generally bear no clear inscription of the role of such characters in the history of the country. To ‘free ourselves from the coloniality of the being and space,’ who should be celebrated in the public space in Senegal, in place of figures like Faidherbe?
Sembene Ousmane is right, in my opinion. I think it’s important to celebrate the memory of the resistance. That was Algeria’s option after independence. The people of that country were terrified of someone whom Faidherbe considered to be his master. This is the opinion of the historian Roger Pasquier who studied Faidherbe’s Algerian influence on the conquest of Senegal. Bugeaud killed thousands of Algerians and burned many villages. He is the initiator of the burning of Algerian resistance fighters. His statue, like that of Faidherbe in Senegal, was erected in Algiers by the colonizers to immortalize the memory of the conquest. After independence, the Algerians removed the statue and, instead, installed a statue of Emir Abdel Kader with the sword raised as a sign of resistance. The Algerians give their point of view on history with this demonstration which serves to inculcate the memory of the resistance.
In Senegal, we cannot continue to give the point of view of the oppressors. Moreover, the Gorée City Council, in response to citizen demand, understood what was at stake when deciding to rename the ‘Europe Square’ as the ‘Liberty and Human Dignity Square.’ It is important to respect the memory of the oppressed.
The colonizers did not erect the statue of Faidherbe in 1887 by chance. It was when the power of the gunboats defeated all the resistance fighters that Faidherbe’s statue was erected in the middle of Saint-Louis as a sign of rejoicing. Lat Dior [who organised resistance to French occupation in the late 19th century] was assassinated in 1886, and the statue was inaugurated on March 20, 1887, to celebrate the victory over the resistance fighters; to show the greatness of the metropole. This colonial statue is therefore a symbol. It is an attribute of domination. It is the consecration of a murderous ideology based on supremacy. For someone whose ancestors lived through the misdeeds of military conquest and the torments of the Code of the Indigenate, it is good to honour historical figures who reinvigorate lost pride and esteem. It is important to make decisive choices that give meaning to the present and the future when the time comes to celebrate historical figures in a former colony.
At the call of the Faidherbe Must Fall collective, 200 people mobilized on 20 June in front of the Faidherbe monument in Lille to demand its removal. Salian Sylla, what does the figure of Louis Faidherbe represent to you?
At the time, in 2018, when this campaign was launched, it was to draw attention to the fact that Faidherbe occupied a special place in the public space in Lille. The city of Lille, which is twinned with the city of Saint-Louis, is a city where the figure of Faidherbe can be found in many places. There is a high school that bears his name, a very large avenue that goes to the very heart of the city, the Gunnery Museum where you have a number of figures, usually military men, who are on display and where Faidherbe occupies a central place. In Lille, you also have a site which is quite central, Place de la République – which is not an ordinary place in the collective memory in France – and in front of this place, a huge equestrian statue of Faidherbe. You can’t come to Lille without being confronted with this character.
At the time, there were many French personalities who distinguished themselves for their support to French colonialism. Jules Ferry, who marked the history of France having established compulsory schooling, notably declared that ‘colonization was a daughter of the industrial revolution’ and that ‘the superior races had the duty to civilize the inferior races.’ It was indeed a commercial project put forward to annex other territories and convert them to their way of life and economic system. It represents a whole aggregation of illustrated, documented, written thoughts throughout the years, which was very decisive in the perception that the French had of Africans at the time. There was also Joseph Gallieni, who distinguished himself in the massacres in Madagascar; Hubert Lyautey, who was also Gallieni’s discipline.
Thomas Bugeaud, the invader of Algeria, declared that ‘the aim is not to run after the Arabs, which is useless; it is to prevent the Arabs from sowing, harvesting, grazing, enjoying their fields. Go every year and burn their crops, or exterminate every last one of them.’ Detached in Algeria under his leadership at the beginning of his career in 1844, Faidherbe was a great admirer of Bugeaud. Having fought in Algeria, Faidherbe came to Senegal in the 1850s and did much of the same. ‘You see a war of extermination, and unfortunately, it is impossible to do otherwise,’ he said when he was in Algeria, ‘we are reduced to saying: one Arab killed is two fewer Frenchmen killed.’ So, there is a historical continuity in the work of these generals, which later earned them the tributes and honours of France, in defiance of all the massacres they committed in Africa.
Why the Faidherbe Must Fall campaign? There are several events that have taken place over the years. In 2015, in cities like Pretoria and Johannesburg, people continued to celebrate figures like Cecil Rhodes, the father of British colonization in South Africa, and the Rhodes Must Fall campaign decided to put an end to that and make sure his statues were removed in the country. Leopold II, also considered a great character who did many things in terms of infrastructure in Belgium, has his dark, violent side; he was a bloodthirsty king. The massacres in Congo constitute one of the greatest genocides in Africa: we are talking about ten million people who lost their lives. It was in 2017 that statues of Leopold II were dismantled and toppled in Belgium. Also, in 2017, we have Charlottesville, where there was a demonstration by right-wing extremists who refused to allow the statue of General Robert Lee, who led the Confederate troops during the Civil War, to be toppled by the town council. There was a counter-demonstration led by antifascists, which resulted in the tragic death of a lady, crushed by a far-right extremist who ran into the crowd.
It was during this period that in 2018 the municipality of Berlin decided to rename a series of streets that bore the names of several personalities who distinguished themselves during German colonization in Africa. Namibia, in particular, resisted German colonization between 1904 and 1908, which led to what has been named ‘the first genocide of the 20th century,’ i.e. the extermination of the Hereros. This Berlin municipality decided to give these streets the names of African resistance fighters, such as Rudolf Manga Bell and Anna Mungunda. It was the first time that, symbolically, a city decided not to give the names of those who massacred African populations but of those who resisted.
We get to 2020, with the assassination of George Floyd in the United States, which sparked chain reactions all over the world. This is what has revived Faidherbe Must Fall. Today, what we are told when we talk about Faidherbe is that: ‘He is someone who defended Lille when the Prussians invaded us in 1870. While the whole of France was on its knees, he managed to stand up to them.’ That may be true. Except that Faidherbe’s resistance during this period lasted only three months, whereas what I’m telling you about him is a whole career during which he massacred without remorse, killed, exterminated, pillaged, imposed an economic system through groundnut cultivation, central to the colonizing project. In Africa, the specialization of the colonies (Senegal with groundnuts, what would become Ivory Coast with cocoa) and the gradual disappearance of food crops still pose a problem today because we have an economic system based on a model that was oriented towards the metropole. We still have the consequences of this phenomenon, i.e. an extraverted economy geared towards outside needs rather than self-sufficiency to meet local demand.
On several occasions already, the Faidherbe Must Fall collective has questioned the authorities about the Faidherbe statue in Lille. For the bicentenary of his birth, the city council decided to restore the monument erected in his memory. In an open letter to Mayor Martine Aubry in 2018, you called for ‘the removal of the statue of Louis Faidherbe and all symbols glorifying colonialism from public spaces in Lille.’ Elsewhere in France, avenues, streets, subway stations still celebrate him. In your opinion, what explains this reluctance to discuss the permanence of symbols honouring slave traders and colonialists in the public space, both in Lille and in the rest of France?
We had, at the time, written an open letter to Martine Aubry. We had asked for a reflection on the presence in Lille of figures who represent a racist and xenophobic vision of the world. Unfortunately, we did not find any interlocutor. That goes to show the ambiguity that part of the left in France has with regard to colonialism. And it’s a shame because if we are still, in 2020, talking about this subject, it’s because in 2018 we weren’t heard. We are still in a situation where the left, which has always been, at least in its principles, on the side of the dominated, has not lived up to its historical role.
It is difficult to establish a dialogue in France in 2020 on certain issues because, as soon as we start talking about colonization, we will immediately come to be the ‘people who are enemies of France.’ We are perceived that way. When we were in the street demonstrating to demand that the local authorities remove the equestrian statue of Faidherbe, who was there against us? Right-wing demonstrators, protected by the police. That’s what the debate in France is all about; when you talk about certain subjects, they caricature you and throw stones at you.
Many people have been fighting for a while, particularly against police violence, against unequal policies, for social justice, and all these people have become, overnight, ‘identitarians.’ They are the ones who have become the racists in the end! That’s the irony in France. As long as you’re talking about George Floyd, Michael Brown, police violence taking place in the United States; of course, everyone agrees in France; of course, this phenomenon exists in the United States; of course, the American system is deeply, systemically racist! But as soon as we start saying: ‘Well, now, let’s sit down and look at things in France, what’s happening today,’ when we talk about Adama Traoré, and we start listing, we are told: ‘Ah no no no, the French police is not racist!’
It is a matter of questioning a system that allows people to die. The colonial issue has not been settled. People have been taught to construct a whole imaginary, a whole bunch of representations about the descendants of those from the former colonies in Africa. As long as historical issues are not settled, as long as they are denied, as long as we keep avoiding them, it’s not going to solve the problem. You can’t bring the temperature down just by breaking the thermometer. That is the dynamic we are in today. As soon as questions are raised, people try to caricature, to discredit by using certain words: separatism, communitarianism, anti-white racism.
This Republic has always toppled, named, unnamed, baptized, debaptized; it has always been done. The proof is that one of Lille’s main arteries was called, a few years ago, Paris Road and now Pierre Mauroy Road, the city’s former socialist mayor. To say that we can’t get rid of Faidherbe’s statue is a lie. Because, until 1976, we had the statue of Napoleon III in the heart of the city; this statue was removed and is now in the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1945, the statue of General Oscar de Négrier, another colonizer, was taken down and mysteriously disappeared from the public space. And these are not the only examples.
On 22 June, the Faidherbe Must Fall collective sent an open letter to the candidates of the Lille municipal election held on 28 June. Recalling that ‘the debate on the celebration of figures related to slavery, colonialism or segregationism has resurfaced in many countries,’ you write, ‘for many demonstrators, including us, the racism (and particularly negrophobia) that runs through Western nations has its origins in the criminal history of the slave trade and colonial domination.’ According to you, who should be celebrated in the public space in France, in place of figures like Faidherbe?
This year, I learned from my daughter, who is in middle school, that the city of Lille is organizing a civic week which consists of sending children to visit some historical sites that are part of its heritage to help them discover its history and ‘heroes.’ And these ‘heroes’ are, very often, soldiers. You have a guide who explains that Faidherbe was a great man, who built Senegal, built roads, built hospitals, dug a deep-water port, modernized Senegal and that all Senegalese children are grateful to him today. She reacted by telling one of her friends that she thought it was false. You can imagine; a 9-year-old girl questioning the words of an adult supposed to be a fine connoisseur of Faidherbe’s history. It was all the more shocking because I had been in the Faidherbe Must Fall campaign in 2018, and at the end of 2019, it came back to me through my daughter of Faidherbe as a benefactor to Senegal. It was unbearable for me.
So, we programmed a visit to this Gunnery Museum. Even with the presence of a Black man, this guide reiterated the same words, saying that Faidherbe was a heroic figure, that he had built Senegal through roads and hospitals. We gave him our position, even if we found it difficult to get him to agree to hear us out. He’s in this same narrative; for years, he’s been doing just that, nobody has ever questioned his version of history.
That’s what we’re still presenting in France in 2020 to children who will certainly never, like my daughter, have the opportunity to have someone else say ‘no, it’s not true,’ to have someone who is involved in a campaign to make such a sinister figure disappear from the public space, to have another perception of a part of France’s history in relation to its former colonies. Can you imagine the number of children who have gone through this, who have listened, who have drunk in the words of this gentleman, who have considered that Faidherbe was someone who really did good for the history of Lille, and left the museum enraptured by the fact that they heard he was a hero?
That’s why, measures like ‘we’re going to sort it out, put up an explanatory plaque’ are minor for me. It is better to take our responsibility to entrust a problematic statue to museums that can take care of it, and, with historians, anchor it in a broader history to allow museum visitors to better understand its ins and outs. It is better to place it in a context where people will be able to analyze it and put it into context. As long as I see this equestrian statue, celebrating the power of a heroized man, Martine Aubry will be able to say whatever she wants. Still, for me, she will always be at odds with the principles she claims to defend.
A city that decides to give someone’s name to a street, an avenue, a statue is simply a political act. And only a political act can deal with it. This is what we have been working on for the past few years through this unprecedented mobilization to ensure that the darkest part of Faidherbe’s legacy, which remains unknown, is accessible to everyone.
Khadim Ndiaye is a researcher in history and member of the Senegalese collective against the celebration of Faidherbe. Salian Sylla is an activist at Survie and the Faidherbe Must Fall collective and a scholar.
Featured Photography: Faidherbe’s statue in Saint-Louis after heavy rains in September 2017, courtesy of the Senegalese collective against the celebration of Faidherbe.