(1924) Prince Marc Kojo Tovalou Houènou, “The Problem of Negroes in French Colonial Africa”

George Marke, Prince Marc Kojo Tovalou Houènou, and Marcus Garvey, 1924
Public domain image

In the years immediately following World War I, Prince Marc Kojo Tovalou Houènou was one of  a small number of French Speaking Africans to openly  challenge French rule on that continent.  In his short book, L’Involutjon Métamorphoses et des Métempsychoses de l’univers, which was published in 1921, he attacked the European colonisation of Africa.  Three years later he created the  Ligue Universelle pour la Defense de la Race Noire while he lived in Paris, France.  In the following address given  at the Inter-Allied School of Higher Social Studies, University of Paris  in 1924, Houènou describes the situation facing the residents of French Colonial Africa.

I regret very much at a time when France is passing through such a critical period, to be obliged to make a strong denunciation of her Colonial Policy, which today encompasses almost entirely every phase of the problem of the Negro race.

It is a second Battle of the Marne in which France is engaged. It is being fought in peace, therefore it pacific; it is financial, therefore economic; but it is violent—it is terrific and we are ignorant of the outcome.

To begin with, I must completely absolve France from the policies of some of her children. We who have been reared in the Motherland—we know her, we love her, and we have unshakeable confidence in her. But, I regret to say, though I say it fearlessly, that the representatives whom she sends to her colonies fail to perform their duties. More than that, they betray the interests of France and compromise her future. They betray the interests of Africa, and thereby compromise the future of a people who has the right to exist.

My sympathy, my affection, my love for France cannot be doubted; for in the critical hours of 1914, without compulsion of any sort, I assumed spontaneously the duty of all citizens and exposed my life like all Frenchmen.

Moreover, it will soon be 24 years that I have lived in France. I have lived the life of the French entirely. My childhood, my youth were passed with companions who, today, for the greater part, are asleep over there, on the battle-fields, and who have been so quickly forgotten after the Armistice.

That is to say that I have a profound and sincere attachment for France; and that if, during the period of danger, of great risk, I had military courage, today with reluctance, and in spite of the apparent unreasonableness of my intervention, I wish to have the civic courage to declare publicly that, in the Colonies, the representatives whom you send us from the Motherland betray you, compromise your future and foster such rancour, such hatred, that it would not be just and equitable that this be allowed to burst forth some day and wound mutilated France—so beautiful, so grand, so generous.

And, being aware that at the present time, when you are surrounded by enemies of all sorts, at the time when the Allies of yesterday, by the ambiguity of their attitude are raising numberless difficulties for you, the extent of which you cannot measure, you are wrong to disown and to torture simple, primitive, warmhearted and faithful human beings who have attached their fate to yours, and who wish to live your life. Since they have lost their patriarch, the ancient, dethroned and exiled kings, they have believed ingenuously that their Governors would be their benevolent protectors.

What bitter and cruel disillusion!

Europe has inaugurated in the Colonies an area of veritable savagery and real barbarism which is carried out with science and premeditation—with all the art and all the refinement of civilization. The unfortunate natives have mingled their destinies with yours. They are always ready to fight by your side. They are truly the moral and material capital on which you have the right to depend, and which will never fail you if you know the precise moment to break with those intermediaries who deceive you and deceive them.

The speakers who have preceded me were to have stated the problem of the Negro race and my role was to find the solution and offer practical conclusions.

By reason of the unfortunate indisposition of Mr. René Maran, Mr. Alfred Aurousseau, with his lyric fervour, has offered to speak in his place. I myself replaced Mr. Maran at the second conference. I have studied the problem of the Negro race which Europeans only have presented, because Blacks, or Negroes, are perfectly ignorant of it.

For us, all races are as welcome as the magnificent bloom of spring. We do not understand that colour enters into intellectual or moral expositions; we do not understand that colour intervenes in economic questions; we understand nothing of the egotistic and barbarous aims sought by certain civilized people who believe that civilization can only reach its zenith by ignoring original laws, and by debasing and enslaving men who have the natural right to live, to evolve, and to attain the full expression of their being.

I am ignorant of the problem as a whole, otherwise I should have presented it. But I shall content myself with giving you a history of its successive phases in Europe and shall content myself with telling you rapidly and briefly that the problem arose at the moment of the discovery of America when Europeans intoxicated by glory, adventure, and above all by rapine, sought to conquer new territories which did not belong to them. They destroyed the aborigines—exterminated them! Then, terrified at the void they had created around them and being themselves incapable of labour, they turned to Africa for workmen. It was Africa that furnished contingents for penal labour—this Africa with whose unhappy history you are unacquainted but which some day, one of her sons will outline for you in darts of fire,—a monument of shame for that civilization of which you boast.

Without humanity there is no civilization!

If the monsters, full of vice, sodden with alcohol, contaminated by disease, whom you send to us, have nothing else to offer than what they have already given us, then keep them yourselves, and let us revert to our misery and our barbarity. The whole fatality that burdens Eschyllian tragedies cannot compare with the blackness of the African tragedy.

Under cover of civilization, men are hunted like deers, plundered, robbed, killed; and these horrors are presented afterwards in eloquent orations as blessings. Hypocrisy and knavery are added to crimes!

Since, regardless of the Africans, regardless of the Negroes, much more civilized than themselves, Europeans have presented the problem of races, and particularly that of the Negro race, what can be the solution?

What do we want in the Colonies—we subjects—or, by special favour and grudgingly made, citizens? We want the laws that concentrate and codify despotism repealed. There are no half- measures! A new constitution is needed in the Colonies.

When a member is gangrenous, it is necessary to intervene quickly; remove the member by amputation. That’s what the surgeon does. If it happens that he hesitates, lingers, delays, ignorant pain is aggravated—the disease gains ground, then an ignorant adventurer takes a scalpel and wounds the healthy organ, while attempting to remove the affected member.

It is thus that the Government who should aid in the evolution of the people—for evolution implies full liberty of movement, is driving the natives to an ignorant, unskillful and awkward intervention—that which, after all, is the first stage of evolution: revolution. And, in the exercise of this revolution, in the execution of these rights of the people to act in stead and place of technicians, regrettable incidents occur. We must foresee and arrest all gestures that are luckless and fatal for the common weal.

Now, if we are not careful, unfortunate events will occur in the Colonies.

The conclusions that we must draw from the examination of the present conditions in the Colonies are the following:

First of all, it is necessary that the Colonies should have the possibilities of making their voices heard in the affairs of the Government.  What I may say of the Administrators would seem to be exaggerated, but the Governor of the Colonies, Mr. Augagneur, Governor of Equatorial Africa, has often intervened at the Ministry for the Colonies to point out the daily abuses of the Colonial Policy, and in particular, of the Policy called Native Policy.

This Policy is a source of perpetual vexations. Let me illustrate: A European passing along the highways can arrest a native and condemn him to 15 days imprisonment for the sole reason that he did not take off his hat to a white man.

You will say to me that these are insignificant matters; but the arbitrariness goes much farther. The power of the Administrator is enormous. Contrary to that which happens in Europe, it is the accumulation of all powers; it is the accumulation of legislative and executive powers; it is the accumulation of judicial and administrative powers,—it is despotic power without control.

Sometimes the Administrator—often a rudimentary, vicious man—indulges in all the base fancies that cross his imagination. These acts—and I should have wished that Mr. René Maran whose preface to his ‘Batouala’ has been so much criticized— could have recounted them to you himself; for with his clearness of vision and moreover his realistic style, he would have known how to depict them in their horrible crudity. I shall not approach his realism, and I do not wish to linger at these repulsive pictures.

It is sufficient to say that even today, in the Colonies, there are Administrators who insert like suppositories, cartridges of dynamite in the natives, and order them to run; then suddenly the dynamite explodes and the natives are blown to pieces.

This happens in the French Colonies!

You see, I regret to say these things publicly. And there are so many others! I have assumed a painful task. It is repugnant to me to insist.

I commenced at the opening of this conference by absolving France from the acts of her functionaries. If was necessary to do so. I have felt the reflected indignation which passed through the audience, and feel the same sensation of horror.

These are facts so far removed from our mentality that I should like to tell them as if they were ancient legends. But I assure you that they are exact, and that they happen, even today, alas, in the Colonies.

This is why we wish—contrary to that which you are told, either in Parliament or at the Ministries, particularly at the Ministry of the Colonies, which is a veritable Bastille to take— that you should be convinced that with such a clique so backward—more backward than the peoples whom they pretend to civilize, there can be no compromise. It is an imputation that is necessary to make. It is dynamite that must be thrown at them to save a part of humanity! And what part of humanity? That which is as important as Europe, since it concerns a Continent: Africa!

Is necessary that you should no longer allow yourself to be put to sleep by this chloroform in strong doses—in doses in bulk—which from time to time, in flights of oratory, members of Parliament, and sometimes their supreme chief, the Minister for the Colonies, administer you.

These men have opportunities for information. They can draw at the sources, and, notwithstanding that, they pretend to be ignorant of what we others, who speak the African language, of what we, children of Africa, feel and suffer.

You cannot imagine how painful, how frightful it is for a man who has lived the whole period of 1914-1918, to hear his native brothers who are supposed to be ignorant of all social and political questions say, as it happened to me in Dahomey: ‘Belgium has been invaded—so much the better. She has received what she deserved. She has invaded us, robbed us, pillaged us, exploited us shamefully. It is the just reward of things here below.’

In 1914, Belgium was, for me, the Martyred Virgin. She withstood the shock of invasion; she suffered horribly in body and soul. In 1921, when I found myself in my native land, I should never have dared to tarnish her glory. But behold some of my Congolese brethren, groaning under the conqueror’s brutal yo1c, uttered in my presence the words I have just quoted. And I spare you what they sometimes say of France.

Truly, I did not want to be told so much. I reacted against. I did not wish to understand; and suddenly I interrupt them and cried: ‘You have lied! It is false! You are sacri1egjo to wish to impute to those noble countries crimes of which they disapprove.’ But I was obliged to hear the evidence.

We cry, ‘Justice!’ ‘Reparation!’ While We tolerate robbery, rape, brigandage and assassination. In the Colonies, it is the wholesale sabotage of all the institutions and of all the principles that are valued throughout the civilized world. These republicans, who go from France to the Colonies, reject all republican doctrines. They are new Federal lords who arrogate to them selves special privileges, and defend them jealously and fiercely j against the original possessors—the rightful occupants of the land.

Let it be sufficient for me to say to you that not long ago. a circular appeared forbidding the entry into Africa of the history of the French Revolution. Indeed, it is mortifying—above a11 dangerous to teach in the Colonies that which free, hardy and powerful minds have conceived and realized in the period of 1789 and during the various Revolutions that have been, so to speak, the corollaries of this violent explosion. You cannot, with impunity, carry through the world these flaming torches that are the rights of man and which the French Convention has upheld uncompromisingly in the face of all despotism and of all tyranny. Men imbued with such principles must react; and I understand those Governors who had the temerity—since they are republicans—to suppress the pages of history that give to man the sense of his liberty, of his right and of his progress.

All this demonstrates that the Colonies are not yet ready to be governed according to legal methods. Privileges only are defended and not the institutions born of the Convention—the real republican and democratic institutions that France is so proud to have extolled by the world.

They cry ‘Reparations!’ without ceasing. But what reparations will it be necessary to give to men who possess nothing, whose property rights are violated, who have no civil rights before the law, and who, in consequence, are oppressed in their economic, individual and social liberty, and annihilated from all the progress of evolution which they would like to realize in the future?

The balance sheet of colonization shows that depopulated France has lost more than half the inhabitants of her Colonies. These are facts that the chloroforming Ministers dare not communicate to the public.

The conclusions to be drawn are simple. In this matter, there can be no compromise—no half-measures. It is necessary to say this: ‘Absolute autonomy for the Colonies, with imperial relations to the Motherland on general questions; or otherwise total, complete assimilation without frontier—without distinction of race.’

Assimilate! Or, if you avow your weakness, let them go and give them autonomy. There is no shortage of organizing geniuses in Africa. It is feared that Colonial Deputies may invade the Chamber and form the majority since their countries are larger and therefore more peopled.

Will the number of Colonial Deputies submerge those of the Motherland? To begin, a limitation is necessary. It is necessary at first to give to the African citizens a limited number of Deputies, and accord to all, the right to designate their delegates.

How are the Deputies elected in the Colonies? Behold again, one of the manifestations of arbitrary rule-—of Colonial deceit. The delegates are nominated by the Europeans established in the Colonies. They pass for the choice of the natives: Now, the natives have never had the right to these nominations since it is exacted as a preceding condition to possess French citizenship, and to enjoy civil and political rights. No native has this right. He is only a French subject. Again these Byzantine distinctions of which you are ignorant! These delegates of the Europeans—and not the Africans—these delegates of the functionaries, of the traders, they form the Superior Council of the Colonies. What derision! The criminal exploiters have, indeed, the need of advocates to defend them in the Motherland.

It is true that it has been said that the natives are incapable of taking an active interest in politics, that they are incapable of everything. I grant you this and even more. This incapacity is persistently decreed by the same functionaries who are interested in the oppression of a whole people. Inferiority? Incapacity? It is absurd. Let us not insist. Why are the natives not represented? Why are the sick not allowed to say of what they are suffering for we often see peasants or uncultured men say to physicians: ‘Oh, it’s in my arm—it’s in my leg that I feel pain,’ and this fixes or directs the diagnosis, and permits the surgeon to operate with surety? How can you wish to care for the sick, if the patient dares not tell you—’Oh, it’s in my arm—it’s in my leg that I feel pain’? It is an absolute necessity, it is urgent to accord to the natives who have no civil and political rights, the possibility of approaching the Government through their representatives, to discuss the problems whose solution must bring them a slight relief.

Complete assimilation, representation, home-rule or autonomy, these are the things we put forward as some of the conclusions for a solution of the Colonial problem.

During the conferences, we have discussed the problem of property. The native possesses nothing. Thanks to the regime of despoiling concessions, he has been expressly forbidden to own property. The land, conceded to him for the cultivation of corn, manioc and other crops, is taken away as soon as the European disembarks.

We wish to have the property of the native assured to him. It is necessary that he should have the right to exploit the land and its resources. Do not forget that the land is his own; that the blood of black men has conquered distant possessions for France; and that the sweat of Negroes has cleared, ploughed, sowed and fertilized them as it had fertilized that of ungrateful America.

Do you wish to hear the series of inconsistencies? Senegal has conquered Dahomey. Dahomey has conquered Madagascar. It was black men who conquered Guinea, the Ivory Coast, the Sudan and Morocco; and all these conquered peoples have rushed in throngs to save their conqueror at Charleroi, at the Marne, at the Yser, in Champagne, at Verdun, at Chemin des Dames, and at last, at the second Marne where they have won a decisive victory for right, justice and liberty which have been systematically denied them.

Homeless, expatriated, famished, overwhelmed by suffering and misery, under the ardent tropical sun, it behooves them to plough and water with their sweat a soil confiscated and reserved as the property of their executioners.

We, Negroes of Africa, we raise our indignant protestation against the fate of our brothers in America. Shame to those Americans who feign to be civilized, but who have not yet condemned, by law, the outrage of lynching, and who continue to torture 15 millions of our brothers! Let the so-called civilized nations stop wholesale trade of Negroes by the purchase and sale of Colonies, after having condemned the slave trade in detail! No more transfer of territories with their inhabitants, as that recently effected by Denmark! This is the most modern, the most monstrous form of the slave trade.

Since the label of a nationality has been attached to us, we do not wish to change it with every treaty, unless it is to resume our complete independence.

We demand respect for the territorial integrity and the national independence of the rare African states, or states of African origin, which still possess their autonomy. Abyssinia, Liberia, Haiti and St. Domingo are striking proofs of the organizing and political genius of Negroes, notwithstanding the persistant sabottage by nations eager for conquest.

We claim the right to judge and to be judged,—a judicial court should be instituted, and above all, we claim the right to be educated. It is necessary to organize compulsory education in the Colonies. The education of the native is the best means of assuring his evolution and his adaptation to European civilization. It is necessary to develop Africa for the benefit of the Africans and not exclusively for the profit of the white man, and to assure freedom of commerce and industry.

The problem of the Negro race first came into being in America, by the extermination of the aboriginal Red Skins, then by the transplantation of natives of Africa to fill the void created, and at present it is confounded with the Colonial problem which is its ultimate phase and which is now shown by the absolute negation of the rights to property by Negroes, by the negation of their civil rights—since their civil personality is not recognized, by the negation of their possibilities of evolution, by deceit, by calumnies which induce the world to believe that this race is irremediably condemned to inferiority, to stagnate in ignorance, brutality, and violence—all of which is contrary not to experience, since you have never attempted, in good faith, this experience, but to that which we know—we who have lived with our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, our sisters—we who know that they are also men and women.

They have less instruction, education and adaptation to European civilization, but they have kept, more than we have, the true and solid qualities of which human worth is formed, and we benefit by their conscience, their knowledge and their experience. They have lived in simple surroundings where human sentiments bloom spontaneously. They know nothing of your complications, of your mixed conceptions of life. They understand nothing of your economic cares, of your worries, your irritations and your nervousness.

They have conserved all the simplicity, all the sweetness, all the joy of life. They are like the fish in that historic and legendary river which descends from the towering St. Gothard to the North Sea—the Rhine—river of glaucous waters, the history of which you are certainly cognizant, and whose waters you have often made scarlet with your blood. The fishes of the Rhine know not whether they have two or three countries. They live in peace. Less wise than they, you have battled for centuries on the two banks of this river, while the simple creatures live in its depths disdainful of your quarrels.

This is what we do in Africa. We care not whether you have two or three countries, or whether you have none. We wish simply, that since you have come and conquered us, that you should live in peace with each other, and that we be not always called upon to become your cannon fodder. We wish that you recognize our rights to citizenship—the elementary rights of man—and that living your life, suffering your sorrows, and rejoicing in your joys, we might be called to share your destiny, good or bad, but which we accept sincerely, loyally and faithfully.