Article

‘Our Strike’: Equality, Anticolonial Politics and the 1947–48 Railway Strike in French West Africa

The Journal of African History (Impact Factor: 0.38). 02/1996; 37(01):81 - 118. DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700034800

ABSTRACT This essay is both a reinterpretation of the place of the French West African railway strike in labor history and part of an exploration of its effects on politics and political memory. This vast strike needs to be studied in railway depots from Senegal to the Ivory Coast. Historians need both to engage the fictional version of the strike in Ousmanne Sembene's God's Bits of Wood and avoid being caught up in it. Interviews in the key railway and union town of Thiès, Senegal, suggest that strike veterans want to distinguish an experience they regard as their own from the novelist's portrayal. They accept the heroic vision of the strike, but offer different interpretations of its relationship to family and community and suggest that its political implications include co-optation and betrayal as much as anticolonial solidarity. Interviews complement the reports of police spies as sources for the historian. The central irony of the strike is that it was sustained on the basis of railwaymen's integration into local communities but that its central demand took railwaymen into a professionally defined, nonracial category of railwayman. The strike thus needs to be situated in relation to French efforts to define a new imperialism for the post-war era and the government's inability to control the implications of its own actions and rhetoric. Negotiating with a new, young, politically aware railway union leadership in 1946 and 1947, officials were unwilling to defend the old racial wage scales, accepted in principle the cadre unique demanded by the union, but fought over the question of power – who was to decide the details that would give such a cadre meaning? The article analyzes the tension between the principles of nonracial equality and African community among the railwaymen and that between colonial power and notions of assimilation and development within the government. It examines the extent to which the strike remained a railway strike or spilled over into a wider and longer term question of proletarian solidarity and anticolonial mobilization.

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    ABSTRACT: The history of a complex social movement is probably unknowable. Eyewitnesses provide the most vivid impressions, but they lack the broad perspective that places individual events in a wider context. Scholars who examine history “after the fact” benefit from a broader perspective, but are forced to select from the “facts” that eyewitnesses choose to record or remember. Neither approach combines first-hand knowledge of events with a complete understanding of how those events are interconnected. With that in mind, this article examines various accounts of the 194748 railroad strike in French West Africa. The 1947-48 strike was a watershed event in colonial history that ended in victory over the colonial administration. The struggle furthered the formation of mass movements to fight for independence, and the settlement consolidated social changes that rendered colonialism unstable. The events of the strike have been preserved in colonial archives that contain French administrative records on legal and economic aspects of the strike, by eyewitnesses who provided their own recollections to interviewers in the early 1990s, and in the form of a historical novel by Ousmane Sembene entitled God’s Bits of Wood. God’s Bits of Wood is not only a staple of world literature classes in the West, but it is also widely read in Senegal and Mali where the strike occurred. Its popularity in those countries creates problems for oral historians who wish to study the strike (Cooper, “Our Strike” 81). This article compares the two versions of the strike presented by Sembene and the French colonial authorities using archival documents, interviews with Sembene and strike participants, and new scholarship by historians of French West Africa. The purpose of this comparison is to describe points of convergence and divergence between the two accounts, and to evaluate discrepancies in light of events that occurred at the time Sembene’s book was published. In order to present a complete narrative of the struggle from oppression to equality, Sembene condenses fourteen years of labor history into a single year (see Bouta-Guèye). Nevertheless, Sembene’s narrative conforms to the official record in most important aspects. There has been a railway linking Dakar to the Niger River at Koulikoro and the Senegal River at Saint Louis through a junction at Thiès since 1923. The Chemin de Fer Dakar-Niger became the centerpiece of French development efforts in the interwar period (Jones 230-35). Although the steam locomotives are gone and some of the smaller stations are closed, the arrival of a train in Bamako, at Thiès, or in any of the lesser stations is still an important event. A 1944 administrative reform combined the Dakar-Niger with the Conakry-Niger, the Abidjan-Niger and the Benin-Niger (Lakroum 300-01) into the Chemins de Fer de l’Afrique Occidentale Française, which employed more than 17,000 African workers, making it the largest industrial enterprise in French West Africa (Suret-Canale 21). The work force is not as large as it once was, but
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