French Equatorial Africa

French Equatorial Africa
French Equatorial Africa

French Equatorial Africa was formed as an administrative unit of the French empire in Africa in 1910. Of its three regions, Chad was the most important. Currently, Chad is not only confronted by a civil war but also by the fighting in Sudan to the east.

The French conquest of what would become Equatorial Africa began around 1897, when France was beginning to expand south of its North African colonies of Algeria and Tunisia. Although considered part of French North Africa, Morocco would not officially become a French area of control until the Algeciras Conference in 1906 gave France virtually complete dominance of the country.

At the same time, France attempted to claim territory as far as the Nile River, which precipitated the Fashoda crisis with Great Britain. On September 2, 1898, British General Sir Herbert Horatio Kitchener defeated the last major Mahdist forces in the Sudan in the Battle of Omdurman, putting the Sudan under British control.

Taking advantage of the long British preoccupation with the Sudan, beginning with the revolt of Muhammad Ahmad Abdullah, the self-styled Mahdi, or Rightly Guided One, in 1883, France had hoped to expand its equatorial holdings straight across from Chad to Darfur in the Sudan and on to the Nile.

No sooner had Kitchener defeated the Mahdists at Omdurman than he traveled up the Nile to where Marchand had planted the French flag at Fashoda. Meeting on September 18, 1898, Marchand and Kitchener established a cordial relationship, deciding to let the home governments in Paris and London resolve the problem. In the end, Marchand retreated, to full military honors from the British.

In Chad, the French discovered a complex mix of tribes and religions, with Muslims predominating in the north, while in the south, native, or animist, religions predominated, as well as some Christianity.

Tribes like the Fulani had their own imperial traditions, and the establishment of French control was difficult. The current Chadian capital of N’Djamena was founded in 1900 as Fort Lamy.

Much of the history of French imperialism in the Middle Congo and Ubangi-Shari began with the explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. On September 10, 1880, Brazza signed a treaty with King Makoko of Teke, whose territory occupied a strategic position in the Congo River basin. France’s claims to the Congo were hotly debated by King Leopold II of Belgium.

King Makoko of Teke
King Makoko of Teke

Finally, at the Congress of Berlin, which was held from November 1884 to February 1885, the fate of much of Africa was decided under the chairmanship of imperial Germany’s chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who was also intent on carving out a German empire in Africa. Belgium and King Leopold II controlled the Congo Free State. In honor of his contributions, the capital of the French Congo was named after Brazza: Brazzaville.

De Brazza became the most important colonial administrator in French Equatorial Africa. In April 1886 he was named commissaire-general for both the French Congo and Gabon, whose territory had been formally recognized as under French jurisdiction at the Berlin Congress.

In 1839, while France was still conquering Algeria (it had moved into Algeria in 1830), the first treaty had been signed between Gabon and France.

The government in Paris was anxious to bring riches out of the French colony differently then Leopold, who acted barbarously to the native Africans. Brazza had a genuine feeling of responsibility for the people now under his administration and refused to submit them to the barbarities of Leopold’s paramilitary administration, where hands and feet were cut off for the least infraction of laws.

Tens of thousands died to profit Leopold and his consortium of investors. When Brazza refused to employ the methods used by the Belgians, he was removed from his command.

In 1900 the French government took over the system of concession companies completely, by which time Leopold had wrung his wealth from the Belgian Congo. Soon the French were using the same brutal methods that the Belgians had used.

In 1905, in the face of stories of atrocities coming from the French Congo, Brazza was asked to return. His investigation led to the convictions of two Frenchmen for the murder of two natives. They both received only five years in prison.

Postal stamp depicting Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza
Postal stamp depicting Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza

Nevertheless, Brazza had served France to the best of his ability. On his return to France, he died on September 14, 1905.

While the French government preferred to bury the results of his findings in its attempt to keep seeking riches in Equatorial Africa, the Africans did not forget his devotion to the French “civilizing mission,” the rationale the French gave for the growth of their empire. Even now, after the end of the French empire in Africa, each October 3, a celebration is held in Brazzaville to mark his foundation of the city.