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Materialities of Early Colonial Domination in the Sahel and the Sahara Niger: 1898-1906

Talk by Camille Lefebvre

In the 19th century, a few clueless foreign soldiers with violent behaviour, 80 French militaries, arrived in the central Sahara and Sahel. A few years later, they had managed to take control of large parts of the area and especially of two powerful states and societies: the Sultanate of the Damagaram with its capital Zinder and the Sultanate of Agadez, today both in Niger. To understand how colonial occupation imposes itself and how societies collapsed you have to look closely at the materialities of colonial domination, and how it enters in the everyday life of people and pushes them to take a side and to act on it. Extreme violence and military defeat can make a city fall, but it cannot alone allow to establish colonial domination, take over states, and build an empire. To grasp the everyday practices of colonial occupation and how despite numeral inferiority colonization had imposed itself implies through violence, but also through materialities and discourses, you need to look at it both from inside the palace of the sultan and from the tirailleurs’s camp, through colonial archives and in the people’s own narratives and languages. But, in societies, like the one of Zinder and Agadez, highly organized by social hierarchies and inequalities, not everybody had the same understanding of what was happening when unknown armed strangers arrived in the area with unclear motives, and most of all, not everybody had the same interest. French army was too an unequal institution organised by social and racial hierarchies. This is why it is crucial to capture the diversity of experiences in this moment of crisis and to grasp all the points of view in presence, the one of French officers, but also of the tirailleurs and tirailleur’s wives, the one of the Sultan, but also of court slaves and eunuchs, the one of renowned Muslim scholars but also of pagan peasants and enslaved people. To understand what happened on the eve of colonial occupation, we must take an interest in the societies in presence on their terms, according to their historicity and narratives, which means using documents in their languages (French, Arabic, Hausa, Kanuri, and Tamacheq), to write a polyphonic history of colonial occupation.

Camille Lefebvre is a historian Research Professor at the CNRS and at the EHESS in Paris France, specialist of the central Sahara and Sahel in the nineteenth and the twentieth century. She received the CNRS Bronze Medal in 2016 and is the PI of ERC-Langarchiv project. She has published three books Frontières de sable, frontières de papier: histoire de territoires et de frontières, du jihad de Sokoto à la colonisation française du Niger, xixe-xxe siècles (Publications de la Sorbonne, 2015), Des pays au crépuscule. Le moment de l'occupation coloniale (Fayard, 2021) and A l'ombre de l'histoire des autres (Éditions de l'EHESS, 2022). In 2022, her second book Des pays au Crépuscule was awarded by the Prix du livre d'histoire du Sénat/French Senate History Book Prize.


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This event is part of the lecture series:
ZMO Colloquium Winter Semester 2023/2024
Materialities of Empire and Nation-State: Experiences in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East