There are many studies contrasting the theory and practice of France and Britain in the
days of their African empires. This is not one of them. The purpose of this
fascinating book is to give voice to the experience of generations of French colonial
administrators who have now passed from the scene. It does this by looking at the role of
the touring Commandant de Cercle (District Officer/Provincial Commissioner) in French
African territories from the 1900's to the 1950's.
The book consists of an historical analysis of the purposes of touring and its results in
practice, coupled with a selection of government circulars on the how, when and why of
touring, some formal touring reports, and the whole illuminated by some vivid personal
first hand accounts of life and events on tour. This approach provides an admirable
perspective from conquest to independence.
The official French point of view on touring was clear from the early beginnings and
did not really change until politics gradually took over in the post WWII period. A 1906
circular from the Lieutenant Governor in Bamako set out "... the advantages ... of direct
contact (with the local population) ... in contrast with administering a territory from the
local HQ through intermediaries like chiefs or other agents ..." He goes on to emphasise
the importance of palabres (village meetings addressed by the Commandant in person)
in bringing home to the general population the advantages of French rule.
A few years later Van Vollenhoven, the Governor General of French West Africa in
Dakar, wrote in a circular of 1917 of "... the necessity of maintaining contact with the
local population by constant touring ... there must be no intermediaries between the
Commandant de Cercle and the natives..."
Contrast this with Lord Lugard's Memoranda to Political Officers issued in Nigeria in
1906. Whilst equally commending the need for "constant touring" the Memoranda give a
different reationale, emphasizing the political rather than the administrative role.
Because of the vast extent of the territory "... it is obvious that we cannot in any sense
administer it. We must utilize the existing machinery (native chiefs) and endeavour only
to improve it".
Despite such differences in approach, the desire to communicate with the general
population is evident. Yet the emphasis on palabres as official French theory directed
was rendered problematic at an elementary level by the use of interpreters. There was no equivalent in French territory to the requirement universal in British territories that
proficiency in the local language was a condition of promotion. One cannot help thinking
that the aim of 'direct communication' here gave way to the higher imperative of the
spread of the French language.
Other difficulties arose from limitations in staffing and resources. The fiscal principle
had early been established that territories had to be self-financing. This both set a limit
on resources available, and high-lighted the role of touring officer as tax collector in the
eyes of the local people.
Though the rights of the conqueror were clear, some touring officers found it difficult
to reconcile the official line on the benefits of French rule received by the local
communities in return for the taxes they paid. Nevertheless it was a constant concern of
colonial administrators to justify their continuing rule in terms of an implied contract
between the governors and the governed.
It would be interesting to consider how far modern African governments have the
same concern to justify their rule in terms of benefits flowing to local communities. In
some countries, control through access to military technology has replaced dialogue; in
other mineral-rich countries royalties or export earnings from foreign companies has
replaced the need to collect general taxes from the population, and hence the need to
justify such tax collection. An important link between the governed and the government
is thus removed.
Perhaps the Commandant on Tour, despite his military origins, represented after all an
important attempt to govern with the consent of the governed.