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Failing to Stem the Tide: Lebanese Migration to French West Africa and the Competing Prerogatives of the Imperial State

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 June 2011

Andrew Kerim Arsan*
Princeton University


In the years before 1939, the functionaries of Afrique Occidentale Française, or AOF, as France's West African possessions were known, consistently failed to introduce effective legislative controls upon Eastern Mediterranean migration under their purview. This was not for lack of trying; from 1905 onwards, administrators both in the territorial government of Guinea and in the Government-General of the Federation in Dakar repeatedly attempted to close their gates to these interlopers of empire, most of them from present-day Lebanon, who first began to venture into West Africa in the last years of the nineteenth century. By the late 1930s, some six thousand citizens of the Mandatory states of Lebanon and Syria resided across AOF. Most worked as produce brokers, shopkeepers, and traders, buying up groundnuts, palm oil, or kola nuts from African producers, and supplying them in turn with consumer goods such as textiles and clothes, processed foodstuffs, alcohol, and matches. Despite their attempts to channel and stem this flow of men and women, AOF administrators proved unable to impose effective legislative checks upon their movements.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2011

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1 The Federation of Afrique Occidentale Française was created in 1895 as a union of Senegal, Soudan, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire. In 1902, its separate territorial administrations were subordinated to a Government-General, whose seat lay first in Saint-Louis, then from 1904 in Dakar. It was also in 1904 that Dahomey was included in this group of colonies. Mauritania and Niger remained territoires militaires, administered by military men answering to the Ministry of Defence until the 1920s and the 1940s, respectively, while the colony of Haute-Volta (present-day Burkina Faso) was created only in the 1920s. For accounts of the shifting makeup of AOF, see Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine and Goerg, Odile, eds., L'Afrique Occidentale au Temps des Français: Colonisateurs et Colonisés, c. 1860–1960 (Paris, 1992)Google Scholar; and Conklin, Alice, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930 (Stanford, 1997)Google Scholar.

2 Jean-Gabriel Desbordes provides the aggregate figure of 5,792 for 1936, in L'Immigration Libano-Syrienne en Afrique Occidentale Française (Poitiers, 1938), 18Google Scholar. Robert Delavignette estimates that 6,235 Lebanese and Syrians were dwelling in AOF at the close of the 1930s, in Les Vrais Chefs de l'Empire (Paris, 1939), 37Google Scholar. The slight discrepancy can be explained by lax methods of enumeration and the fluidity of this community.

3 On the history of these communities, see Andrew Arsan, “Lebanese Migrants in French West Africa, 1898–1939,” PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 2009; Saïd Boumedouha, “The Lebanese in Senegal: A History of the Relationship between an Immigrant Community and Its French and African Rulers,” PhD thesis, Centre for West African Studies, University of Birmingham, 1987; Salma Kojok, “Les Libanais en Côte d'Ivoire,” PhD thesis, Université de Nantes, 2002.

4 For broad surveys of these changes, see McKeown, Adam, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders (New York, 2008)Google Scholar; and Torpey, John, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State (Cambridge, 2000), esp. chs. 45Google Scholar.

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11 Zolberg, “Matters of State,” 71.

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50 Andrew and Kanya-Forstner, France Overseas, 27–28.

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55 Desbordes, L'Immigration, 53–54.

56 Paris, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Turquie/Syrie-Liban/Nouvelle Série (hereafter MAE T/SL/NS), 115, Couget to Minister of Foreign Affairs (MFA), “a/s de l'Emigration Syrienne vers la Guinée et de la mission de M. Poulet,” Damascus, 18 Apr. 1911.

57 MAE T/SL/NS 108, Delcassé, Paris, 29 Jan. 1902.

58 MAE NS/Haïti/10, “Note pour la Direction des Affaires Politiques. Mesures prises contre les Syriens par le Gouvernement Haïtien,” Paris, 12 Sept. 1903. On the Eastern Mediterranean communities of Haiti, see Nicholls, David, “No Hawkers and Pedlars: Levantines in the Caribbean,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 4, 4 (1981): 415–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Plummer, Brenda Gayle, “Race, Nationality and Trade in the Caribbean: The Syrians in Haiti, 1903–1934,” International History Review 3 (1981): 517–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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60 MAE T/SL/NS 108, Boulard-Ponqueville to MFA, Bogota, 25 Mar. 1902.

61 On France's cultural policies in Latin America in this period, see Daughton, J. P., “When Argentina Was ‘French’: Rethinking Cultural Politics and European Imperialism in Belle-Epoque Buenos Aires,” Journal of Modern History 80 (2008): 831–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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63 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 36, GG to Lieutenant-Governor (LG) of Guinea, “a/s d'arrêtés-relatifs à l'embarquement et au séjour des étrangers en Guinée,” Dakar, 14 Jan. 1906.

64 Desbordes, L'Immigration, fn. 3, 55.

65 Ibid., 58; Bulletin du Comité de l'Afrique Française 21, 6 (June 1911): 202Google Scholar.

66 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 33, Angoulvant to MC, Dakar, n.d. (1918).

67 Guy, Camille, L'Afrique Occidentale Française (Paris, 1929), 74Google Scholar.

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69 Desbordes, L'Immigration, 59.

70 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 36, GG to LGs, “a/s de l'arrêté du 1er mai 1911, règlementant l'immigration étrangère en AOF,” Dakar, 24 May 1911.

71 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 34, GG to LG of Guinea, Dakar, 24 May 1918; and GG to LGs, Dakar, 24 May 1918.

72 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 33, GG to MC, “a/s des Syriens,” Dakar, 9 Nov. 1918.

73 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 33, GG to LGs, Dakar, 13 June 1918; and LG of Senegal to GG, “a/s des étrangers,” Dakar, 11 Nov. 1918.

74 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 33, GG to MC, “a/s de la prochaine campagne d'arachides,” Dakar, 1 Aug. 1918.

75 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 33, GG to MC, Dakar, 15 Aug. 1918.

76 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 33, GG to MC, Dakar, 2 Mar. 1918.

77 Stoler, Along the Archival Grain, 40.

78 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 33, MC to GG, Paris, 13 Nov. 1918.

79 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 39, MC to GG, Paris, 25 May 1917.

80 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 34, Direction des Affaires Politiques et Commerciales, MFA, Paris, n.d. (Nov. 1918).

81 CARAN AOF/AS/21 G 34, MC to GG, Paris, 23 Nov. 1918.

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87 Lewis, Boundaries of the Republic, 21–22.

88 MAE Nouvelle Série, E, Syrie-Liban (hereafter NS/E/SL) 129, High Commissioner to MFA, “a/s Protection consulaire des Syriens et Libanais en Guinée Portugaise,” Beirut, 22 June 1929.

89 Simon Jackson, “Mandatory Development: The Political Economy of the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon, 1915–1939,” PhD diss., New York University, 2009, 394–95, 397.

90 MAE NS/E/SL 413, answer attached to Peytaud, Monrovia, 26 Mar. 1928, Paris, n.d.

91 “French Mandate,” 179.

92 MAE NS/E/SL 413, answer attached to Peytaud, Monrovia, 26 Mar. 1928, Paris, n.d.

93 Desbordes, L'Immigration, 63, 65; Journal Officiel de l'Afrique Occidentale Française (JOAOF) (1921): 676–78Google Scholar; and JOAOF (1923): 458–59.

94 Desbordes, L'Immigration, 66–80; JOAOF (1925): 219–20Google Scholar; JOAOF (1927): 300–1Google Scholar; JOAOF (1932): 297302Google Scholar.

95 JOAOF (1925): 634Google Scholar; JOAOF (1926): 773Google Scholar.

96 By Article 3 of the decree of 5 Mar. 1927, which stipulated that the caution could be replaced by a document attesting that the government of the indigent migrant's country of origin was prepared to provide the costs of repatriation. JOAOF 1177 (9 Apr. 1927): 301Google Scholar.

97 JOAOF (1925): 634.

98 CARAN AOF/Nouvelle Série (NS)/21 G 61, GG to Minister of Colonies, “a/s immigration libano-syrienne,” Dakar, 2 Dec. 1936.

99 CARAN AOF/NS/21 G 142, “Résumé relatif à la question de l'immigration libano-syrienne en AOF,” Dakar, 17 Nov. 1937.

100 Ibid.

101 CARAN AOF/NS/21 G 61, DAPA, “a/s immigration libano-syrienne,” Dakar, 13 Oct. 1936.

102 CARAN AOF/NS/21 G 61, “Compte-rendu de la réunion du 25 novembre 1937 au sujet de la question de l'immigration libano-syrienne en AOF.”

103 “Modus Vivendi relatif à l'établissement des Libanais en France,” (accessed 25 Jan. 2008).

104 CARAN AOF/NS/21 G 61 [200 Mi 3039], “Compte-rendu de la réunion du 25 novembre 1937 au sujet de la question de l'immigration libano-syrienne en AOF.”

105 These were, as in metropolitan law, distinct offences, the one punished by expulsion, the other by refoulement. See Gordon, Daniel, “The Back-Door of the Nation-State: Expulsion of Foreigners and Continuity in Twentieth-Century France,” Past & Present 186 (2005): 201–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

106 MAE T/SL/NS 114, Bompard to MFA, Therapia, 20 June 1910; MC to MFA, Paris, 19 Oct. 1910; Bompard to MFA, Paris, 31 Dec. 1910.

107 Jackson, “Mandatory Development,” 398, 402. See Saada, Emmanuelle, “The Empire of Law: Dignity, Prestige and Domination in the ‘Colonial Situation,’French Politics, Culture and Society 20, 2 (2002): 98120CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

108 Aix-en-Provence, Centre des Archives d'Outremer, Ministère des Colonies, Fonds Ministériel, Affaires Politiques (hereafter CAOM MC/FM/AP) 1432/1, Fighali to MC, Paris, 31 Dec. 1936.

109 CAOM MC/FM/AP 1432/1, Fighali to GG, Paris, 3 June 1936.

110 CAOM MC/FM/AP 1432/1, Fighali to GG, Paris, 29 June 1936.

111 CAOM MC/FM/AP 1432/1, GG to Fighali, Dakar, 13 July 1936.

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