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Writing Sovereignty in Invisible Ink? Autochthonous Sovereignty and Territorial Appropriations in Nineteenth-Century Franco-African Treaties

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 April 2017

Isabelle Surun*
Université Lille 3 / IRHiS


This article focuses on the modes of territorial appropriation that characterized the transition from the old to the new colonial regime, when Europeans built their empires in Africa. It analyzes the juridical construction of colonial territorialities based on a corpus of treaties concluded between agents of the French colonial authority and African chiefs, an instrument of legal appropriation that has to date been little explored by historians of international law. Studying the terminology used in these treaties reveals the instability of these categories and the uncertainty of European negotiators regarding the meaning of the legal frameworks they sought to impose on African chiefs. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the protectorate emerged as the most common legal arrangement for regulating the sharing or transfer of sovereignty, based on a distinction between its external and internal dimensions. The consent of African chiefs to such arrangements therefore hung on whether they considered their territorial sovereignty to be divisible or indivisible.

Sovereignty and Territory in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
Copyright © Les Éditions de l’EHESS 2014

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1. See, for example, Philpott, Daniel, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

2. Anghie, Antony, “Finding the Peripheries: Sovereignty and Colonialism in Nineteenth-Century International Law,” Harvard International Law Journal 40, no. 1 (1999): 1–71 Google Scholar; Anghie, , Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

3. Alexandrowicz, Charles Henry, “Treaty and Diplomatic Relations between European and South Asian Powers in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Recueil des cours de l’Académie de droit international, vol. 100 (Leiden: A. W. Sijthoff, 1961), 207–320 Google Scholar; Alexandrowicz, , “Le droit des nations aux Indes orientales aux XVIe, XVIIe, XVIIIe siècles,” Annales ESC 19, no. 5 (1964): 869–84 Google Scholar; Alexandrowicz, , An Introduction to the History of the Law of Nations in the East Indies (16th, 17th and 18th Centuries) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967)Google Scholar.

4. Alexandrowicz, , “Le rôle des traités dans les relations entre les puissances européennes et les souverains africains. Aspects historiques,” Revue internationale de droit comparé 22, no. 4 (1970): 703–9 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Alexandrowicz, , “The Partition of Africa by Treaty,” Proceedings of the Symposium of the Colston Research Society 25 (1973): 129–57 Google Scholar; Alexandrowicz, , The European-African Confrontation: A Study in Treaty Making (Leiden: A. W. Sijthoff, 1973)Google Scholar.

5. For a recent collection of articles that takes a similar approach to these questions, see Belmessous, Saliha, ed., Empire by Treaty: Negotiating European Expansion, 1600–1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6. “Against the grain” refers to the techniques for analyzing colonial categories employed by the leading historian of subaltern peoples in India, Ranajit Guha, in order to extricate the facts reported in the archive from their discursive envelope and thereby reconstitute the figure of the subaltern: Guha, Ranajit, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983)Google Scholar. On Guha’s approach and that of subalternist historians in general, see Pouchepadass, Jacques, “ Les Subaltern Studies ou la critique postcoloniale de la modernité,” L’Homme 156 (2000): 161–86 Google Scholar. The “along the grain” approach was developed more recently by Ann Stoler in her study of the colonial state and its workings in the Dutch Indies: Stoler, Ann Laura, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)Google Scholar. For an example of how these methods apply in a West African context, see Robinson, David, Paths of Accommodation: Muslim Societies and French Colonial Authorities in Senegal and Mauritania, 1880–1920 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000)Google Scholar. Robinson reveals the ways in which French knowledge about West African Muslim societies was constructed, the reliance of this knowledge on local informants, and the limits of the colonial archive (pp. 37-57).

7. Bertrand, Romain, L’Histoire à parts égales. Récits d’une rencontre Orient-Occident, XVIe-XVIIe siècle (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2011)Google Scholar.

8. The corpus of texts studied includes more than 400 treaties. The former Choiseul database of items from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs archive, now incorporated into the database “Traités et Accords de la France,” listed 170, available online: A manuscript register, preserved in the National Archives of Senegal (hereafter “ANS”), lists and summarizes 300 for West Africa and Gabon between the end of the eighteenth century and 1879, indicating their main clauses without providing the full texts: ANS series D Senegal, Affaires politiques et administratives, 10D1/59. Finally, the National Archives of Senegal and the French National Archives of Overseas Territories in Aix-en-Provence (hereafter “ANOM”) contain other items, some of which are not listed in any of these resources, and for which it was not possible to establish an exhaustive inventory.

9. Unless otherwise specified, the treaties mentioned in this article appear in ANS 10D1/ 59, here p. 44. Hereafter only the subseries will be cited for the treaties collected in series D.

10. ANS 10D1/59, manuscript sheets inserted in the register.

11. Diouf, Mamadou, Le Kajoor au XIXe siècle. Pouvoir ceddo et conquête coloniale (Paris: Karthala, 1990), 123–24 Google Scholar; Barry, Boubacar, La Sénégambie du XVe au XIXe siècle. Traite négrière, Islam et conquête coloniale (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1988), 196–98 Google Scholar; Hardy, Georges, La mise en valeur du Sénégal de 1817 à 1854 (Paris: É. Larose, 1921)Google Scholar.

12. ANS 10D1/59, p. 27.

13. The French word “coutume” (more often plural, “coutumes”) in this context describes the duties paid to an indigenous sovereign for the right to land and to trade in his or her territory. It is both a gift and a traditional usage, both material and symbolic. In this translation we use “custom” and “customs” when the meaning is clear, and “customary payments” when disambiguation is needed.—Les Annales .

14. Cissoko, Sékéné Mody, Le Khasso face à l’Empire toucouleur et à la France dans le Haut-Sénégal, 1854–1890 (Paris: ACCT/L’Harmattan, 1988)Google Scholar.

15. ANS 10D1/59, p. 135. The epithet “Barbessin” could be an erroneous transcription of the title Bour (king) of Sine, or Bourba Sine.

16. ANS 10D1/59, p. 131, treaty entered into by the commander of Gorée and Wagam Faye, king of Sine, on February 17, 1837.

17. ANS 10D1/59, p. 131.

18. This intervention represented a turning point in treaty policy: Faidherbe had clearly announced that his goal was “to declare null treaties and conventions passed in recent years for the regulation of customs to be paid to chiefs of the country in exchange for security promised by the latter ... and to establish our future relations on new and more dignified terms.” Cited in Klein, Martin A., Islam and Imperialism in Senegal: Sine-Saloum, 1847–1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1968), 55 Google Scholar.

19. Annales sénégalaises de 1854 à 1885, suivies des traités passés avec les indigènes (Paris: Maisonneuve frères and C. Leclerc, 1885), 406–7. Only the Cayor treaty is reproduced, but the others are similar. On the military expedition, see Saint-Martin, Yves, Le Sénégal sous le Second Empire. Naissance d’un empire colonial, 1850–1871 (Paris: Karthala, 1989), 416–23 Google Scholar.

20. ANS 10D1/65, convention between governor Charmasson and the chiefs of the villages of Bisséri (Yabou), Dingavare (Sébéti), and Sandignéry (Dhiénou) in Upper Casamance, signed on board the Érèbe on December 21, 1839; ANS 10D1/62, sleeve 12, “Casamance 1838–1897,” file 1, 1838–1839, various treaties and conventions concluded with the chiefs of Casamance and Rio Nunez. Unsigned verbatim copies.

21. ANS 10D1/65. In two other villages, Somboudou and Pacao, the concession only extended to a depth of one hundred meters.

22. ANS 10D1/65. The barre, or iron bar, served as a monetary unit. It was subsequently converted into merchandise ranging from cotton loincloths of varying quality to gunpowder, specially made “trade guns,” eau-de-vie, and tobacco. An alcaty was a local dignitary, often someone who knew how to read and write serving as a secretary. At the bottom of these treaties, the chiefs affixed their marks in the form of a cross, while the alcaty signed their names in Arabic. See figure 1, p. 210.

23. ANS 10D1/65, Sandignéry copy.

24. Traités et Accords de la France, TRA18380013/001, convention with the brothers Blackwill, chiefs of Garroway, December 14, 1838; ANS 10D1/59, p. 157, convention signed with King Denis on February 9, 1839.

25. Traités et Accords de la France, TRA18420007, treaty relating to sovereignty over the territory of Garroway, February 7, 1842.

26. ANS 10D1/59, p. 157, treaty concluded between the delegates of Commander Bouët and King Peter of Grand-Bassam, and the chiefs of the country, February 19, 1842.

27. ANS 10D1/59, p. 157, treaty concluded between Commander Bouët and King Louis, chief of the right bank of Gabon, March 18, 1842.

28. On the decision and campaign to establish forts, see Schnapper, Bernard, La politique et le commerce français dans le golfe de Guinée de 1838 à 1870 (Paris: Mouton, 1961)Google Scholar. Schnapper demonstrates that the chiefly political decision was essentially motivated by British competition in the region, clearly emphasized by Bouët. The trading companies of Bordeaux and the merchants of Gorée were far less enthusiastic about the project, since the new establishments were too far removed from their commercial circuits.

29. ANS 10D1/59, p. 157, treaty with the king and chiefs of Assinia, March 16, 1844.

30. Schnapper, La politique et le commerce, 69–70.

31. ANOM FM SG SEN/III/5B, Broquant report, p. 96, cited in Schnapper, La politique et le commerce, 21, n. 1.

32. ANS 10D1/0060, p. 12, treaties and conventions with various chiefs from the Southern Rivers, February 8, 1785 to August 16, 1849.

33. Alexandrowicz, The European-African Confrontation .

34. Ibid., 14–17.

35. Saint-Martin, Le Sénégal sous le Second Empire, 126–27.

36. Bertrand-Bocandé, , “Carabane et Sédhiou. Des ressources que présentent dans leur état actuel les comptoirs français établis sur les bords de la Casamance,” Revue coloniale 16 (1856): 398–421 Google Scholar; Bertrand-Bocandé, , “Notes sur la Guinée portugaise ou Sénégambie méridionale,” Bulletin de la Société de Géographie, 3rd ser., 11 (1849): 265–350, and 12 (1849): 57–93Google Scholar.

37. Saint-Martin, Le Sénégal sous le Second Empire, 265–66, 402–5, 454, and 458–59.

38. ANS 10D1/62, sleeve 12.

39. ANS 13G2, treaty concluded with the chiefs of Cagnut on March 25, 1851, cited in Kebe, Moustapha, “La domination coloniale française en Basse Casamance, 1836–1960,” (PhD diss., Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, 2006)Google Scholar.

40. Saint-Martin, Le Sénégal sous le Second Empire, 186.

41. Ibid. Lower Casamance was particularly difficult for the French to grasp due to its political fragmentation, with each village constituting an autonomous political unit: Mark, Peter, A Cultural, Economic and Religious History of the Basse Casamance since 1500 (Wiesbaden/Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1985)Google Scholar; Roche, Christian, Histoire de la Casa-mance. Conquête et résistance, 1850-1920 (Paris: Karthala, 1985)Google Scholar; Dalberto, Séverine Awenengo, “Les Joola, la Casamance et l’État au Sénégal (1890–2005),” (PhD diss., Université Paris 7-Denis Diderot, 2005)Google Scholar.

42. ANS Senegal 10D1/65 and 13G4, treaty concluded with the village of Thiong on May 5, 1860. The treaties signed between 1860 and 1865 in Lower Casamance bear the mark of a conflictual situation: villages had risen up against previously accepted territorial encroachments, lashed out against European traders, and been subject to punitive expeditions in retaliation. See Kebe, “La domination coloniale française,” 107–8.

43. ANS 10D1/59, pp. 149–52.

44. ANS 10D1/59, pp. 163–66.

45. ANOM, Gabon I/9h, letter from Admiral Bourgois to the minister of the Navy, June 29, 1870, cited in Schnapper, La politique et le commerce, 60.

46. Alexandrowicz, The European-African Confrontation, 62 (“Legal terminology was obviously not a significant weapon in the colonial officer’s professional armory”), and 80 (“It has been often maintained that the Africans did not understand international law in detail but we may wonder whether European colonial negotiators had grasped the meaning of the law.”)

47. Gairal, François, Le protectorat international. La protection-sauvegarde, le protectorat de droit des gens, le protectorat colonial (Paris: A. Pédone, 1896)Google Scholar.

48. ANS 10D1/59, p. 157, treaty between Bouët and the Blackwill brothers, signed on December 14, 1838 aboard the brigantine La Malouine, and listed as a “protectorate” in Traités et Accords de la France, TRA18380013.

49. Traités et Accords de la France, TRA18420007, treaty signed aboard the Nisus, anchored at Garroway, on February 7, 1842, by Bouët and King Guillaume (known as Will), the elder of the Blackwills, along with his younger brother. I have already described the context in which the treaties with Bouët were established between 1842 and 1844—there is little doubt that military pressure played a part in their acceptance.

50. The majority of chiefs from the Muslim states of West Africa bore the title almamy, the equivalent of the Arabic al imam.

51. Peace treaty with the chief of Dimar, June 18, 1858; peace treaty with the chief of Toro, April 10, 1859; peace treaty with the Damga, September 10, 1850. All of these treaties, signed by Faidherbe, are reproduced in Annales sénégalaises, 425–26 and 428.

52. Peace treaty with Fouta, August 15, 1859, reproduced in Annales sénégalaises, 426–27.

53. Annales sénégalaises, 428 (for Dimar), 431–32 (for Toro), and 432 (for Damga). See also ANS 13G5.

54. Saint-Martin, Le Sénégal sous le Second Empire, 489–90.

55. Ibid.

56. Scheffer, Christian, ed., Instructions générales données de 1763 à 1870 aux gouverneurs et ordonnateurs des établissements français en Afrique occidentale, vol. 2, 1831–1870 (Paris: Société de l’histoire des colonies françaises, 1927), 364 Google Scholar.

57. Saint-Martin, Le Sénégal sous le Second Empire, 330 and 524.

58. Treaty of January 12, 1871, reproduced in Annales sénégalaises, 411.

59. Saint-Martin, Le Sénégal sous le Second Empire, 592–95.

60. Letter from the minister of the Navy and colonies to the governor of Senegal and its dependencies, Paris, May 26, 1870, in Scheffer, Instructions générales, 2:401.

61. ANS 10D1/59, pp. 67 and 69, treaties from October 24, 1877, with Irlabé and Lao.

62. Treaty with the teigne of Baol, March 8, 1883, reproduced in Annales sénégalaises, 419–20; also available in Traités et Accords de la France, TRA18830015.

63. Traités et Accords de la France, TRA18910025, trade and protectorate treaty with the chief of the city of San, January 14, 1891. A mimeographed copy of this treaty can be found among Monteil’s papers in the French National Archives: AN 66 AP 4.

64. Ibid.

65. Gairal, Le protectorat international.

66. Diaries of Lord Lugard, vol. 1, East Africa, November 1889–December 1890 (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 318, cited in Touval, Saadia, “Treaties, Borders, and the Partition of Africa,” Journal of African History 7, no. 2 (1966): 279–93 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here p. 283.

67. Diallo, Thierno, “La mission du Dr Bayol au Fouta-Djalon (1881) ou la signature du 1er traité de protectorat de la France sur le Fouta-Djalon,” Bulletin de l’Institut fondamental d’Afrique noire 24, series B, 1 (1972): 118–50 Google Scholar; Barry, Ismaël, Le Fuuta-Jaloo face à la colonisation. Conquête et mise en place de l’administration en Guinée (1880-1920) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1997), 1:116 Google Scholar.

68. Declaration cited in Alexandrowicz, The European-African Confrontation, 47.

69. Ibid.

70. Touval, “Treaties.”

71. In a treaty signed in Boussa in 1897, the king’s mark thus appears along with that of his nephew Daoudou, heir to the throne, as well as the Arabic signature of the imam of Boussa. Traités et Accords de la France, TRA18970022.

72. As in 1895 in Say, where three notables inscribed their sign under that of the king. Traités et Accords de la France, TRA18950040.

73. Treaty of May 20, 1858, reproduced in Annales sénégalaises, 397–99. The consent to this treaty was denounced by Mohamed El-Habib’s nephews, who assassinated him in 1860.

74. Peace treaty with Fouta, August 15, 1859, reproduced in Annales sénégalaises, 427–28.

75. ANS 10D1/62, sleeve 5, file 3, treaty with Cayor, January 12, 1871.

76. During the 1870s, the signature of the governor of Senegal was generally preceded by the phrase “Ratified except for ministerial approval.” This was the case for the treaties signed with Lat Dior in 1879: ANS 10D1/62, sleeve 5, folders 4 and 5. The treaties sent to the Depot for Public Papers Concerning the Colonies, and published in the Journal officiel, were ratified by decree.

77. This is the expression used by Robinson, Paths of Accommodation, 27. On Cayor and Lat Dior, see Diouf, Le Kajoor au XIXe siècle .

78. ANS 10D1/62, sleeve 4, convention of September 10, 1879 with Cayor.

79. ANS 10D1/62, sleeve 5, additional act to the convention of September 10, 1879 with Cayor, signed on September 12, 1879. The two texts are reproduced in Annales sénégalaises, 413–17.

80. Cited in Barry, Le Fuuta-Jaloo face à la colonisation, 116.

81. Under the name of Béhanzin, this prince was to became the last king of independent Dahomey, and offered fierce resistance to the French conquest until his surrender in 1894.

82. Letter from Glegle, king of Dahomey, to Dom Luiz I, king of Portugal, July 16, 1887. The file on this affair includes numerous Portuguese documents, analyzed and sent by the French ambassador at Lisbon, Albert Billot, and translated into French: ANOM FM/SG/AFR/VI/67b.

83. “Chacha” was initially the nickname given to Francisco Felix de Souza, a slave trader from Bahia in Brazil who settled on the Slave Coast in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. He allied himself with King Ghezo of Dahomey, who made him an important dignitary in his kingdom and awarded him the title of chacha. This title was later passed on to his descendants, who became one of the powerful Luso-African families involved in trade on the coast of modern-day Togo and Benin. See Verger, Pierre, Flux et reflux de la traite des Nègres entre le golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (Paris: Mouton, 1968)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, cited in M’Bokolo, Elikia, Afrique Noire. Histoire et civilisations, vol. 2, XIXe-XXe siècles (Paris: Hatier/AUPELF, 1992), 112 Google Scholar. Julião Felix de Souza had thus inherited the title of chacha (spelled “xaxa” in Portuguese documents), and in principle enjoyed the king’s confidence. However, his close relations with the Portuguese authorities meant that they sometimes considered him “as a Portuguese functionary”: ANOM FM/SG/AFR/VI/67b, telegram from the secretary general of the government of São Tomé to the minister of the Navy at Lisbon, November 21, 1887, item 89 in the documents reproduced in the Diário do Governo on May 8 and 9, 1888.

84. Letter from Major Curado, governor of Ajuda, to the governor of São Tomé, October 13, 1886, item 46 in the documents reproduced in Diário do Governo, summarized by Billot.

85. Ibid.

86. Ibid.

87. Item 39 in the documents reproduced in Diário do Governo.

88. Nolim’s trip (his name is also spelled as Rolin in other sources) was documented in a report sent on June 9, 1887, which did not reach São Tomé until October. A long letter from Billot to the minister of foreign affairs, dated May 18, 1888, cites large excerpts from it, and summarizes the conclusions the officer drew from the mission. It does not give translations of the documents reproduced in the Diário do Governo and related items, except for the letter from Glegle.

89. Report of Nolim, governor of Ajuda, on his trip to Abomey, June 9, 1887, cited in a letter from Billot, the French ambassador in Lisbon, to R. Goblet, minister of foreign affairs, May 18, 1888.

90. Letter from Glegle, king of Dahomey, to Dom Luiz I, king of Portugal, dated July 16, 1887.

91. Ibid.

92. Ibid.

93. The chacha’s disgrace can also be explained by rivalries between Brazilian merchant families from Ouidah, and by the embezzlement apparently committed by Felix de Souza in the financial transactions related to the treaty. See Law, Robin, Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving “Port,” 1727–1892 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004)Google Scholar, and Djivo, Joseph Adrien, “Le roi Glélé et les Européens. L’échec du protectorat portugais sur le Danhomé (1885–1887),” Cahiers du Centre de recherches africaines 8 (1994): 269–84 Google Scholar.

94. Report from the governor of São Tomé to the minister of the Navy and colonies in Lisbon, cited by Billot, undated (October 1887).

95. Djivo suggests that Glegle’s delegation of the signature to his son and the chacha could have been a ruse to maintain the possibility of denouncing the treaty, or even a governmental practice allowing him to avoid committing his responsibility: Djivo, “Le roi Glélé et les Européens,” 275–76.

96. Treaty of May 20, 1858, reproduced in Annales sénégalaises, 397–99.

97. Saint-Martin, Le Sénégal sous le Second Empire, 336.

98. The phrase “layered sovereignty” is used in Burbank, Jane and Cooper, Frederick, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

99. Zucarelli, François, “De la chefferie traditionnelle au canton: évolution du canton colonial au Sénégal, 1855–1960,” Cahiers d’études africaines 13/50 (1973): 213–38 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

100. Burbank and Cooper, Empires.

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