Against Independence

Musab Younis

  • Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonisation and the Future of the World by Gary Wilder
    Duke, 400 pp, £23.99, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 8223 5850 3

Two of the great 20th-century opponents of colonialism came from a tiny island in the Caribbean that never decolonised. Martinique – the birthplace of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon – was indifferent to the project of national sovereignty, preferring to remain a French ‘overseas department’. Fanon committed himself to the grander project of decolonisation in Africa: The Wretched of the Earth was rooted in his experiences in Algeria. But Césaire, who taught Fanon at school, returned to Martinique in 1939 after his formative years in Paris, going on to become the island’s most powerful politician and the longstanding mayor of its capital, Fort-de-France (a post he held until the age of 87). In Freedom Time, Gary Wilder picks up a lost thread in the story of decolonisation, focusing on the anti-colonialists – chiefly Césaire and his Senegalese contemporary Léopold Sédar Senghor – who, unlike Fanon, rejected the goal of national sovereignty and argued that the best outcome for France’s colonised territories would be a federal arrangement that put all parties on an equal footing. Wilder tells his story of what never happened largely through the writings – and political careers – of Césaire and Senghor.

Césaire was a magnificent anti-colonial rhetorician. In his blistering Discourse on Colonialism, written in 1950, he demolished every justification for the system: it was premised on the destruction of sovereignty, religious communities, long-standing social institutions and artistic heritage. It had destroyed the coloniser, creating a ‘poison’ that was ‘distilled into the veins of Europe’, and fostered ‘relations of domination and submission which turn the colonising man into a classroom monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver, and the indigenous man into an instrument of production’. And yet, at the very time he wrote these words, Césaire the politician was speaking out against Martinique’s separation from France.

Eminent politicians in French-controlled West Africa were campaigning, like Césaire, for their countries to remain legally tied to France. In a referendum across the French Empire in September 1958 – two years before decolonisation in French sub-Saharan Africa – only one country, Guinea, opted for outright independence. Senghor, the future president of independent Senegal and a close friend of Césaire (they had met in Paris as students), called for a federal structure that would bind France and its West African possessions in a new arrangement. Even as events seemed to tip the balance decisively in favour of national self-determination and a clean break – the Algerian war (from 1954), French withdrawal from Vietnam (1954), the independence of Morocco and Tunisia (1956), and Ghanaian independence (1957) – Senghor insisted that federation with France was essential for French-speaking West Africa. In 1955, by which time he had been an overseas deputy in the French National Assembly for ten years, he disparaged independence as an ‘iron collar’ and argued that federalism would herald a new era in which both Africans and Europeans would become full human beings, dispensing with the hierarchies that had divided them.

Other anti-colonialists took Césaire and Senghor’s indifference to sovereign independence as evidence that political office had undermined their radical ideals. Senghor was criticised for his cultural identification with Europe, both before and after independence. During his presidency he translated Hopkins, Yeats and Eliot into French and insisted on maintaining close ties with France; he seemed reluctant to condemn the neocolonial hold European powers continued to enjoy over Africa. On Césaire’s death in 2008, the Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau admitted that he ‘never understood why the author of these writings, which had liberated so many warriors in Africa, was not for the independence of Martinique’.

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[*] Stephen W. Smith wrote about Françafrique in the LRB of 11 February 2010.