Willing Migrants: Soninke Labor Diasporas, 1848-1960 (review)

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Africa Today 46.1 (1999) 139-142 François Manchuelle, who died tragically in the crash of TWA flight 800 to Paris in 1996, published on a variety of topics in African and French imperial history. His most important and influential work focused on Soninke migrations within and from former French West Africa during the colonial period. This excellent and thought-provoking book brings together his extensive research on Soninke labor migrations within West Africa and to other parts of Africa and France from the mid-nineteenth century to independence in 1960. It presents a convincing corrective to many previously held assumptions about migrations within colonial West Africa and will undoubtedly spark a series of useful debates on certain critical questions in African history and migration studies. In addition to making a significant and lasting contribution to these fields, the book also demonstrates that African studies has lost one of its best and brightest scholars. The Soninke of the Western Sudan, especially those living in the eastern part of the upper Senegal valley, have a long tradition of labor migration that preceded colonial rule and continues to the present. Previous authors assumed that the Soninke, especially the poorest farmers and serviles, migrated to urban centers to escape local poverty, to avoid taxation or to make money to pay taxes, to escape colonial coercion, and to acquire cash to send back to their impoverished homeland. These factors have also been suggested to explain the migration of other ethnic groups throughout Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Based on extensive and careful archival research and some oral fieldwork, Manchuelle concludes that the internal dynamics of Soninke society and the labor migration process were far more significant than external pressures. He argues most forcefully against the commonly held and rarely contested view that migrations in colonial Africa resulted from taxation and coercion. Although dealing only with the Soninke, he cautions historians studying other areas to avoid accepting the conventional wisdom and to assess more critically the evidence available in taxation and commercial records for the actual causes of labor migrations. Manchuelle begins with an overview of Soninke history and society up to and including the early nineteenth century that is insightful if somewhat static. His most important conclusion in this chapter is that in precolonial times the Soninke homeland in the upper Senegal valley was a comparatively wealthy region of commercial agriculture that also had a well-established tradition of temporary labor migration. Rather than escaping an impoverished region, the Soninke migrated to increase their wealth, a process that continued and then accelerated with the imposition of French colonial rule in the second half of the nineteenth century. Migrants, mostly from noble and well-off families, were not escaping poverty but seeking to increase their wealth. While Manchuelle demonstrates rather convincingly that this was the case for the precolonial Soninke of the upper Senegal valley, scholars should be cautious not to assume that this was necessarily true for other groups in the region. Manchuelle's most compelling chapters focus on the colonial period. He presents strong archival evidence that colonial taxation and labor policies did not create migration in the Soninke heartland, but that it already existed on a comparatively large scale. Migrants sought work in the expanding coastal Senegambian economy to earn an income that would improve their social standing within Soninke society by increasing the number of wives and slaves, and also by circumventing the patriarchal structure. These were goals inherited from the precolonial period, not created by colonial rule. The "pull" factors of opportunities away from home clearly operated more forcefully than the "push" factors of poverty, taxation, or coercion. Manchuelle also presents an interesting discussion of slave emancipation, migration, and patriarchal authority in the early twentieth century. While many ex-slaves migrated, most remained with their masters, renegotiating ties of dependency. Migrants continued to be primarily young nobles and the more wealthy free-born Soninke who followed a well-established network from the upper Senegal to the coast and beyond, especially to the Congo. Manchuelle's discussion of the operation of Soninke...

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