French Colonial Slavery, Genocide and Torture

A central focal point of left wing activism today is looking at the notion of white imperialism, colonialism or simply human rights abuses. Whether its Winston Churchill being a hero or mass murderer, or whether or not Southern Confederate Statues in the US offend peoples sensitivities, in the history of colonialism, imperialism, slavery and racism, this is something strongly considered, sometimes authentically, sometimes disingenuously, with other agendas at hand. Despite this being prominent in the US, in Britain, and other parts of the Anglo speaking world, with so much focus being upon their colonial and imperial history, with much of the United States conduct being rightly criticised for its horrific actions in so many cases, which will be talked about in another blog on this site, other western nations don’t often get the same level of critique on an international level. Partly this is because the United States and Britain hold the position of global hegemony, particularly after being the Victor powers during World War Two.

A country which seems to demonstrate such consistently overt examples of unapologetic racism, slavery, and colonial atrocities however, and which perhaps due to its collaboration with Nazi Germany, partly reducing its global influence and hegemony, and in not being a victor power, is that of France in the 20th century. Whilst some in the media will claim Vichy as France’s darkest hour, or its shame, there are so many such examples that can be utilised with the same headline, as is often seen amongst an array of news story headlines and articles. From the Algerian massacres, to its complicity in the Rwandan genocide, there are many examples of extreme human rights abuses in the 20th century, which are often lost on the western Anglo speaking mindset.  Another prominent example, as illustrated by a number of French as well as other foreign historians and academics is that of slavery or forced labour akin to slavery existent in its colonial possessions in the 20th century.

Beginning in the early 20th century in French Equatorial Africa as well as the Congo Free State, overseen originally by the King of Belgium, rubber plantations led to excruciating work being subjected to the native populations. It was after World War One more so, that particularly France which had over one third of Africa under its possession, found a great shortage in a labour force, with land cultivated in a subsistence level going on to profit the colony but then by extension to benefit economically the state of France itself. As such, in perceiving the lack of incentive of local inhabitants in working as a labour force, given the subsistence and sustainable nature of their farming, combined with the incentives of using a cheap labour force for the benefit of France and the plantation owners themselves, the French government and colonial administration utilised coercive measures; essentially forced labour.

The idea for this was driven by the notion that Africans were lazy, with no real work ethic or concept of time commitments, so as such it was seen as justifiable to use coercion and punitive measures to simply force them to work, essentially as slaves. The legality of this and criticisms were mitigated by the banner of free wage labour it was under, but in all reality, as historians will state, workers simply had no choice, whether they wanted to work or not, they were coerced, in often inhuman conditions. The circumstances could be demonstrated by reflection by the similarities of systems carried out by the Portuguese and Spanish, who with much smaller colonial possessions in Africa, were no better than the French in their treatment of Africans, and in being observed by Britain in the 1950’s and 1960’s, were heavily criticised for utilising forced labour which was essentially slavery.

In France, to make matters worse, the treatment of colonial inhabitants in Africa was informed by an 1884 law, decreeing that colonial inhabitants did not have the same rights as those of their colonists. This law was not just an abstract example of blatant racism, it essentially justified the treatment that would occur, in French colonies throughout North Western and Equatorial Africa. This practice of coercive forced labour intensified in the 1920’s through until the 1930’s and was only officially ended in 1946. However, despite the 1946 law banning forced labour slavery, it in all reality continued in French colonies through to the 1960’s. This was the same with Spain until the 1950’s, and with Portugal, which had no pretences of ending it early at all, officially ended it in the 1960’s.

Brutal punitive measures were in place to keep slaves in line, such as whippings, and other tortures as late as the 1960’s. To illustrate the extreme nature of slavery existent in French Equatorial Africa, in many instances slaves were worked to death. This occurred consistently from Madagascar to Mali, with Rubber plantations in central Africa often eliciting the most brutal labour conditions, others such as working in mines and constructing roads and railways were also horrific. As one small example during the construction of a railway in the 1920’s and 1930’s in which 12 000 workers died over a period of ten years, essentially over a thousand per year or roughly one hundred per month died of being worked to death. Overall according to some sources, the number in totality of forced slaves reached a few million, with as many as 3.5 million being a statistic cited.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, many of the African colonies subjected to this brutal exploitation sought independence, in a movement that spread through the world, beginning significantly in India in 1947. For Britain, the independence movements following the independence of India were met with concession, but nonetheless the commonwealth of nations was created. In Spain and Portugal, as well as Belgium, exploitation finally ended when all colonies became independent within two decades. In France however, a lack of enthusiasm for this trajectory, manifested with great reluctance to let its colonies go, and as such many brutal colonial wars ensued in the decades following the war. With forced labour still in full swing, as it was in Portugal at the time of independence for its colonies, France was reluctant to let these economic resources leave quietly. One nation; Guinea, decided to be completely independent without these financial concessions, and as such 3000 French left and destroyed all colonial era infrastructure from schools to nurseries, libraries, communications, hospitals, public administration buildings, burned crops and killed animals to send a message to other colonies that no independent colony would benefit from any French infrastructure.

This was after France had already utilised forced labour akin to slavery in its colonies for decades, on its rubber Michelin plantations as well as others, as well as in mines and building roads, where thousands were worked to death in a single year and met with brutal punitive responses if they resisted working. Despite this, many other countries sought independence, but in order to ensure that a similar fate didn’t occur, signed a post-colonial agreement, to keep the colonial infrastructure, they would be economically bound to France, in the selling of their resources, which were to be extracted and sold at a fixed minimal price, with no opportunity to sell to any other nation making a higher offer. Essentially stagnating the nations economic potential, and binding them to further exploitation of their resources, and general economic disadvantage and lack of any potential for economic growth.

This was after France had already utilised forced labour akin to slavery in its colonies for decades, on its rubber Michelin plantations as well as others, as well as in mines and building roads, where thousands were worked to death in a single year and met with brutal punitive responses if they resisted working. Despite this, many other countries sought independence, but in order to ensure that a similar fate didn’t occur, signed a post-colonial agreement, to keep the colonial infrastructure, they would be economically bound to France, in the selling of their resources, which were to be extracted and sold at a fixed minimal price, with no opportunity to sell to any other nation making a higher offer. Essentially stagnating the nations economic potential, and binding them to further exploitation of their resources, and general economic disadvantage and lack of any potential for economic growth.

In northern Africa however, in the colony of Algeria, a completely different colonial independence war emerged. Algeria, unlike the many other colonies, was considered to be part of France, and not just a colony.  The colonial war in Algeria would last until 1962 and was largely informed by the colonial wars existent in French Indo-China beginning in 1945. Following the Second World War, the independence movement in countries such as Vietnam were met with immediate oppression by French authorities, as such a wide campaign of torture was utilised against Vietnamese nationalists. Examples of torture consisted of burning the soles of the feet with a naked flame before adhering alcohol-soaked cotton wool to the burned and bloody wounds, causing excruciating pain. Other techniques included waterboarding as well as electrocutions to the body and even genitals as well as beatings. This campaign of terror, for those seeking independence would continue into the late 1950’s, at which point the turning towards Marxist inspired ideology brought about political intervention by the United States. This of course was after the French and Japanese withheld grain from the Vietnamese population in 1944, causing a deliberate famine with 3 million deaths. The grain in the reserves was never used and simply went off.

These tortures would also be used in the War of Independence from France in Algeria from 1954-1962. During this war, an estimated 1.5 million Algerians were killed, by widespread ‘combing’ or eradicating and killing large numbers of civilians as suspected terrorists in civilian streets, use of Napalm against civilian villages, and a widespread torture campaign, against countless numbers, claiming the lives of at least 350 000 people. Whilst the figure of 1.5 million deaths claimed by the Algerian government is dismissed by France, decreasing it only to the numbers immediately retrievable as executed, graves are still being uncovered. What is also interesting, alongside the widespread use of concentration camps, and as stated the use of Napalm, as notoriously used and criticised for its use in Vietnam by the United States a decade later, is the refusal by French leaders, specifically ex-President Hollande, as acknowledging the widespread killing as a genocide. Whilst there was certainly widespread murder of a specific ethic group which may constitute this label, perhaps what is most pertinent is that the mass murder has been so immune from criticism and minimised over the decades, rather than whether it qualifies as constituting an attempted eradication of an ethnic group of people.

What is more important about the Algerian war, aside from the death toll, are the extreme Human Rights abuses committed by the French in the 1950’s and 1960’s, including waterboarding, electrocutions and many such tortures as used in Indochina in their war of Independence. Coinciding with and following on from the atrocities committed in Algeria by French forces, were the widespread genocides and mass murders as well as torture campaigns existent in other African states in the 1940’s onward by the French governments in the fourth and fifth Republics. This was apparent from Madagascar to Mali, to the Ivory Coast and Cameroon and Senegal. Massacres and torture were also common. In Madagascar following the war, widespread psychological terror was inflicted upon natives to suppress insurrection for independence. Mass killings, and torture were employed to subjugate any independence seeking fervour. In the case of Cameroon, a further 500 000 people were massacred in the 1960’s.

All of these massacres coincided with the continuation of forced labour on plantations and in mines akin slavery in the French colonies which only ended in the 1960’s, at the same time as Portugal ceded its colonial possessions and ended its slavery.  What was omitted from being reported upon by western media at the time, as detailed by journalists who were in Paris in 1962, was the mass scale police crackdown on Algerian immigrant demonstrators protesting the atrocities taking hold in Algeria. Paris Police bludgeoned protesters to death, drowned hundreds in the river Seine, whilst others in the thousands seriously injured and left for dead or arrested.

As some reporters claimed, the river Seine the following day a hundred corpses floating on top of the river. The French newspapers reported only 3 being killed and congratulated the Paris Police for the job. This occurred at a time when significant reporting occurred in the United States concerning the Civil Rights movement for blacks, occurring at the same time. One wonders why no one reported a similar occurrence in Europe. The mass murder as well as slavery inflicted upon these African countries by the French, as well as Spanish and Portuguese slavery, had the same dehumanising of colonial inhabitants, denying human rights, as Waffen SS troops and collaborating forces inflicted upon Russians and Jewish people, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Most pertinently, tortures inflicted in the Algerian war of Independence were detailed with great specificity by one of the leading officers which oversaw torture methods involved in Algeria; Paul Assuress. What is interesting about Aussuress’s account is that the atrocities committed were so widespread as a police state crackdown on perceived terrorist threats, (by nationalist Algerians seeking independence) that such torture became routine.

These tortures existed commonly alongside other widespread atrocities such as the previously mentioned combing, and napalming of civilian neighbourhoods. What is even more interesting is how Paul Assuress, (a former member of the very small scale Fascist resistance cells in France in World War Two, which later joined DeGaulle’s forces) became an advisor to the US’s CIA, and assisted in the construction of dictatorial regimes following US sponsored military coups in Latin America in the 1970’s. One noticeable example of Assuress’s direct involvement was the training measures provided to the CIA in torture methods, which were then delivered to the US sponsored dictator Pinochet, in Chile, who adopted the French imperialist torture approach and inflicted his own police state comprising of disappearances and torture.

Another even more current example of French atrocities being minimised by the media, is the role France had in the Rwandan 1994 genocide of up to 1 million Tutsi men, women and children. What has traditionally been disseminated about this atrocity was that it was able to occur and continue due to the reluctance of western superpowers, namely the US, Britain, and others to intervene in an African affair, demonstrating racist indifference of the arrogant west. What was not generally demonstrated or disseminated by any western media body, was the complicit engagement by one superpower; France in engineering, supporting and continuing the genocide, after having already trained, armed the genocidaire interhamwe militia, directly responsible for the machete wielding slaughter which unfolded.

It was not disseminated by the media, that France, the French state and military officials, constantly armed the interhamwe militia with crates of machete’s through a supply trail via then Zaire, and that after being trained, French personnel constantly revisited Rwanda to meet the genocidaires well after the genocide had started taking place, and gave many such individuals asylum from prosecution after the war had ended. This massacre of a million souls in one of the most brutal examples of mass murder has been discussed by both Rwandan people who experienced the genocide as well as other witnesses from differing groups such as the United Nations peacekeeper forces to aid workers. This massacre was also investigated by scholarly researchers and investigators who have written books detailing French involvement.

The Rwandan authorities, years later have even requested secret official documentation to be supplied by French authorities, to no avail. Whilst dozens of French officials face criminal investigation for their involvement in Rwanda, in France, this is flatly refuted and ignored. What cannot be disputed however, from eyewitness testimonials, to a well-documented money trail, and other photographs and documentation is the involvement of French officials in visiting the Rwandan genocidaires after the genocide had commenced, the training of these groups before the genocide commenced, and a direct supply line of supplying machetes to these groups via then Francophone Zaire.

Whilst many groups in France are active alongside British and other foreign journalists and researchers, for at least acknowledging this involvement if amnesty is given to those who partook in it as previous French laws have dictated regarding previous atrocities committed, the ignorance of the English-speaking world to these events, hides considerable atrocities in the 20th century from the public eye given the Anglo speaking worlds global dominion.

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