Cosmopolitanism and Anticolonialism in Selected World War II



Cosmopolitanism and Anticolonialism in Selected World War II
Cosmopolitanism and Anticolonialism in Selected World War II Poems
of Léopold Sédar Senghor
Dr. Babacar M’Baye
Kent State University, Ohio (USA)
In his poems about World War II, Senghor reveals a dualism in the blend of cosmopolitanism and
anticolonialism that appears in his depiction of the disasters that the German army brought to
Paris during the early years of the conflict. While he empathizes with the suffering that the attack
brought to France, Senghor does not forget the similar pain that the French inflicted on the
Senegalese during colonialism. Counterbalancing his cosmopolitan sympathy for the French
victims of Nazi invasion, Senghor depicts the similar kind of racism and dispossession that the
French perpetrated against Senegalese people and the Tirailleurs during the war.
Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poems reveal the neglected contributions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais,
who fought during World War II in defense of France’s struggle for freedom from Natzi
Germany. Drawing on his experiences in a German concentration camp where he was briefly
imprisoned during the war, Senghor depicts the sacrifices of these soldiers in complex ways that
reflect the blend of anticolonialism and cosmopolitanism in his poetry. His anticolonialism is
apparent in his denunciation of the prejudices and injustices that France perpetrated against
Senegalese Tirailleurs and the Senegalese colonial territory where many of these soldiers
originated. On the other hand, Senghor’s cosmopolitanism is perceptible in the compassion
about the suffering of the French soldiers and families during World War II that he shows in his
poetry. By acknowledging the predicament of both Senegalese and French people during the war,
Senghor developed a blend of cosmopolitanism and anticolonialism that deserves critical
Definition of Terms
The major terms that are frequently used in this essay are “cosmopolitanism” and
“anticolonialism.”The notion of “cosmopolitanism” connotes the idea of relationships between
various peoples from around the world. A generic definition of the word “cosmopolitanism”
stresses the interdependence that people across geographical borders and cultures share based on
their mutual recognition of their humanity and capacity to experience love, happiness, sadness,
hurt, and similar emotions. Due to their shared potentials, feelings, and desires, people need one
another and accept the moral responsibilities that cosmopolitan mutuality and reciprocity require.
Such responsibilities come from the realization that people need one another to create a better
world for themselves and everyone’s children. In this vein, Walter D. Mignolo argues that
cosmopolitanism is “a set of projects toward planetary conviviality” (721).
Yet, like any theory, cosmopolitanism is not a one-glove-fits-all accessory since every social
group gives it a different meaning. For instance, people of African descent often add the
adjective “black” to the term, “cosmopolitanism” to signify their particular historical experiences
of Western dominations for the past four hundred years. Black cosmopolitanism emphasizes the
inequalities between the Western world and Africa that evolved from the consequences of
slavery, imperialism, colonization, racism, classism, sexism and other injustices. My conception
of cosmopolitanism is indebted to Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo’s rationale in Black
Cosmopolitanism: Racial Consciousness and Transnational Identity in the Nineteenth-Century
Americas (2005) that “imperialism and colonialism themselves are forms of cosmopolitanism”
and that “responses and resistance to these forms, then, are often also cosmopolitanism” (162).
Moreover, black cosmopolitanism is an opposition to a Western totalizing view of
cosmopolitanism as a theory that assumes the existence of undeniable values, principles, and
cultures (such as the benefits of education, science, and other knowledge) to which all the
citizens of the worlds should aspire. This essentialist Western concept of cosmopolitanism is
apparent in the ways in which the late eighteenth-century German philosopher Christoph Martin
defined the qualities of “ideal cosmopolitans” in universalistic terms. As Kwame Anthony
Appiah suggests in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), Martin defined
“ideal cosmopolitans” as individuals who “regard all the people of the earth as so many branches
of a single family, and the universe as a state, of which they, with innumerable other rational
beings, are citizens, promoting together under the general laws of nature the perfection of the
whole, while each in his own fashion is busy about his own well-being” (xv). Although it
provides opportunities for Western and non-Western nations to be different from one other,
Martin’s theory of cosmopolitanism is universalist and essentialist, because it stems from a
European intellectual and epistemological framework which claims ownership and knowledge of
the “general laws of nature” and “perfection” and present them as ideal models for the rest of the
world to imitate. Although it is a noble goal to pursue, cosmopolitanism remains an ideal of
human solidarity and compassion that the kind of racism and colonialism that the French
perpetrated against Senegal and its Tirailleurs during the first part of the century contradicted.
Finally, the term “black anticolonialism” is used in this essay to describe Senghor’s
resistance against imperialism in both the métropole (of France) and its Senegalese colony during
the early part of the twentieth century. Since they both connote resistance to imperial and
hegemonic oppression, “black cosmopolitanism” and anticolonialism are two contiguous forms
of resistance against domination that Senghor explores at the same time. Thus, one cannot
disassociate the notion of “cosmopolitanism” from the concept of “anticolonialism” because the
two words describe two simultaneous historical processes in Senghor’s poetry.
Senghor’s Early Life and War-Prison Experiences
Senghor’s relationships with World War II began when he was called “to active military
service” in September 1939 and served “as an officer in the French Army at the front” (Herdeck
396). Senghor’s World War II experiences surface in many of his poems where he uses the bitter
periods of his imprisonment in a Natzi camp as an opportunity to remember his homeland and
denounce both colonialism and racism. He intersperses warm and colorful images of Senegal and
France into his memory of acrimonious experiences that he had in Natzi stalags where he was a
war prisoner. Such images reveal Senghor’s cosmopolitanism that appear in his ability to
transcend race and find humanism that allows him to forgive all people who have historically
oppressed others. Yet Senghor does not naively celebrate this cosmopolitanism since he also
denounces its contradictions which are visible in France’s racism towards the Senegalese soldiers
that defended it against Natzi Germany. In a similar vein, he attacks the paradox of a midtwentieth century French society that participated in a global colonialism that tightened its knots
on Africans.
A number of poems that Senghor wrote about World War II are followed with the term
“Front-Stalag 230,” which, as Donald Martin Carter suggests in Navigating the African
Diaspora: The Anthropology of Invisibility (2010), was the location of a German camp near
Poitiers, France, where Senghor was prisoner of war with other Tirailleurs Sénégalais and
“fresh” recruits from Africa during World War II (188). The circumstances leading to Senghor’s
imprisonment are explained in Black, French, and African (1990) in which Janet G. Vaillant
writes: “On May 10, 1940, German troops began their move into Belgium and the Netherlands,
and only a few days later they crossed into France. Senghor’s unit was sent to defend a bridge at
Charité-sur-Loire, a small town south of Paris, not very far from Vichy. Four days later the unit
surrendered to the Germans” (166). After this surrender, Senghor stayed in a prison camp in
Charité-sur-Loire for eighteenth months, until February 1942 when he was released due to an
imaginary disease that the Germans mistook as an infectious illness.
Cosmopolitanism and Anticolonialism in Senghor’s World War II Poems
Senghor’s cosmopolitanism is apparent in his use of his poetic voice as a means for
attenuating the tragic consequences of World War II on the French. Taking this messianic role,
Senghor paints the image of snowfall in Paris as a means for lulling the pain that the city’s
inhabitants experienced as their town was nearly decimated by German airplanes during the early
raids that preceded the armistice of June 22, 1940. According to Martin Gilbert, these attacks,
which were part of Hitler’s plan for “the capture of Paris,” began on June 2, 1940, and were
swiftly carried out by General Rommel “on June 3 [as] the German Air Force bombed Paris. In
all, 254 people were killed, 195 of them civilians, the rest soldiers. Among the civilian dead were
many schoolchildren who had taken refuge in a truck which had received a direct hit” (85).
These attacks were followed by other assaults of the German troops against Rouen and other
parts of France, which led to massive displacement of people who were fleeing from a great evil
with enormous destructive power. Describing the impact of the June 3 tragedy on Paris,
Rosemary Sullivan writes: “Now caught like the northern refugees in the debris of war, Parisians
began to understand that this might be the end. Warplanes droned over the rooftops; the houses
shook, the plaster cracked, the plates and glasses slid from the tables. Powdered glass piled in
small crystal mounds on the sidewalks and the acrid smell of cordite from the bombs thickened
the air. It felt like Paris was dying” (131). This painful history has a strong influence on
Senghor’s poetry where the author uses positive representations of Paris as a means for providing
an antidote to the ailment of the city’s people. Countering the bleak image of Paris that the war
created, Senghor conjures the fall of soft and furry snow over this city as a way of soothing the
wounds of its inhabitants whose houses and lives were shattered by the unprovoked violence of
Hitler’s army. With a humble and religious voice that registers the strong influence of his
Catholic upbringing on his poetry, Senghor implores God to pour heavenly substance over a city
that sin has paralyzed. In his poem entitled “Neige sur Paris” [“Snow in Paris”], he writes:
Seigneur, vous avez visité Paris par ce jour de votre naissance
Parce qu’il devenait mesquin et mauvais
Vous l’avez purifié par le froid incorruptible
Par la mort blanche.
Ce matin, jusqu’aux cheminées d’usines qui chantent à
Arborant des draps blancs
« Paix aux Hommes de bonne volonté! »
Seigneur, vous avez proposé la neige de votre paix au
monde divisé, à l’Europe divisée
A l’Espagne déchirée
Et le Rebelle juif et catholique a tiré ses mille quatre cents
canons contre les montagnes de votre Paix.
Seigneur, j’ai accepté votre froid blanc qui brûle plus que
le sel. (275-276)
[Lord, you have visited Paris on this day of your birth
Because it has become mean and evil,
You have purified it with incorruptible cold, with white
This morning, right up to the factory smokestacks
Singing in unison, draped in white flags—
“Peace to Men of Good Will!”
Lord, you have offered the snow of your Peace to a torn
To divided Europe and ravaged Spain
And the Catholic and Jewish Rebels have fired their fourteen
Cannons upon the mountain of your Peace.
Lord, I have accepted your white cold, burning hotter than
Salt]. (12)
Senghor’s representation of Paris as a sinful city that the Lord has “purified” with “incorruptible
cold, with white death” is a redemptive Biblical metaphor since it represents ice and blizzard as
Christ’s means for sanctifying a town that evil has corrupted with violence and malice. The
redemptive quality of Senghor’s imagery of Paris is also noticeable in his depiction of a snowfall
on the city as a divine message of “Paix aux hommes de bonne volonté” (275) “Peace to Men of
Good Will’ (12). These words properly fit the World War II context in which they reveal the
rancor Senghor felt against Hilter’s Natzi army that attacked France and later besieged a “torn
world,” a “divided Europe,” and a “ravaged Spain.” These predicaments resulted from Hitler’s
collaboration with the authoritarian regimes of Italy’s Mussolini and Spain’s Franco during the
first years of the war in order to bring Western Europe to its knees. According to Doris
Weatherford, Hitler “thus had conquered or neutralized all of western Europe” by the end of June
1940 (59). Against this havoc, Senghor prays that Christ will dampen and pacify a war-torn Paris
on the day of his “birth.”Since December 25 is considered as the day Christ was born, it is
possible that Senghor wrote “Snow in Paris” during the Christmas holiday of 1940, when the
City of Lights experienced an unusually severe cold weather. In Agriculture et alimentation en
France durant la IIe Guerre mondiale (1961), Michel Cépède describes a freezing temperature
of Paris that exceeded the normal 1.5 to 5 Celsius degrees and accompanied heavy snowfall in
half of Western and Eastern France during the second part of December 1940. In an attempt to
conjure this bitter cold away, Senghor romancizes it as a climate that loses its malicious atrocity
by purifying and redeeming France from the evil of unjust war. As a devout Christian, Senghor
finds strength in a Biblical faith that allows him to spiritually empower France to resist
Germany’s scorching weapons with a “froid blanc” (276) [“white cold” (12)] that “brûle plus
que / le sel” (276) [burning hotter than / salt] (12).Thus, in “Neige Sur Paris” [“Snow in Paris”],
Senghor empowers an abused France with the cosmopolitan Catholic faith that he shares with
this nation, which is his strong belief in the power of goodness and purity of heart and actions to
defeat evil. Developing a similar argument about Senghor’s poetry, Aimé Adopo Achi states:
“Ainsi, la seconde guerre mondiale ne lui est pas indifférente. Il décrit ses atrocités avec des
accents de l’homme du monde, affligé et profondément touché” (14) [“Thus, Senghor was not
indifferent to the second World War. He describes its atrocity with emphasis on the modern man
who is both afflicted and profoundly hit” (14)].
Yet Senghor does not associate evil with Germany only, since he also correlates it with a
global capitalistic order that complicity worked with France during the years preceding World
War II to keep blacks under their knees. Denouncing the international tyranny in which France,
Europe, and the United States participated, Senghor writes in “Neige sur Paris” [“Snow in
Seigneur, je ne sortirai pas ma réserve de haine, je le sais,
pour les diplomates qui montrent leurs canines longues
Et qui demain troqueront la chair noire.
Mon cœur, Seigneur, s’est fondu comme neige sur les toits
de Paris
Au soleil de votre douceur
Il est doux à mes ennemis, à mes frères aux mains blanches
sans neige
A cause aussi des mains de rosée, le soir, le long de mes
joues brûlantes. (276-277)
[Lord, I know I’ll never release this reverse of hatred
For diplomats who show their long canine teeth
And tomorrow trade in black flesh.
My heart, Lord, has melted like snow on the roofs of Paris
In the sunshine of your gentleness.
It is kind even unto my enemies and unto my brothers
With hands white without snow
Because of these hands of dew, in the evening,
Upon my burning cheeks]. (13)
The passage suggests the dilemma Senghor faced during World War II as he thrived to throttle
the “reverse of hatred” against France that he felt when he fought for a métropole that brutalized
and impoverished colonized Senegalese people. In his ironic defense abroad of a democracy and
freedom that were denied to people in his homeland, Senghor experienced the inner-tensions that
Du Bois calls “Double Consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folk. Barend v. D. Van Niekerk
explains this quandary when he writes: “The problems with which Senghor had to grapple
poetically had all been anticipated in this work of Du Bois – the role of rhythm in the poetry and
music of the Negro and the African, . . . the adoration of blackness, etc. and, above all, the pain
and tragedy of being (what Senghor often calls) a ‘métis culturel,’ a cultural split personality”
(1). Yet Senghor’s anguish cannot be restricted to métissage [biculturalism], since it also
includes the agony of being rejected in the French empire his people helped build. Senghor
confronted the hypocrisy of a French society that refused to recognize that the violence that
fractured it in June 1940 was part of the same Western colonial oppression that France
perpetrated against Senegalese people and other Africans for centuries. In this context,
Senghor’s poetry is an indictment of the illicit activities of the colonial enterprise in which
France was involved during the centuries preceding World War II. Senghor alludes to this history
in his representation of the officials in “Neige Sur Paris” [“Snow in Paris”] as “les diplomates
qui montrent leurs canines longues” (276) [“diplomats who show their long canine teeth” (13)
and “demain troqueront la chair noire” (276) [“tomorrow trade in black flesh” (13)]. In this
context, France’s colonial establishments behaved like Germany by perceiving Africans merely
as little creatures to devour like a fox would eat a fowl. Such a Darwinian worldview that defines
power as the privilege of the fittest led to Natzi Germany’s genocide of Jewish people. Yet this
tragedy is related to the massive human, social, and economic decimations of African lives that
resulted from France’s colonization of Senegal. Since the middle of the seventeenth century,
France had exploited Senegal by means of enslavement, forced labor, imprisonment, cultural and
linguistic assimilation, and other means of control. Such a long history of colonial abuse led to
the death, impoverishment, and ostracization of millions of Senegalese people on whose parched
bodies and souls France gained the human and economic resources that made it an economic
power by the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.
Yet France barely gave little to Senegalese people for the enormous sacrifices they made for
its development. The French historian Jean Suret-Canale relates a famous anecdote in which the
French Professor Auguste Chevalier returned in 1947 to Senegal’s rural areas that he had visited
at the end of the nineteenth century only to find the village populations in the same deplorable
conditions in which he left them decades earlier. Canale writes: “les cases sont toujours aussi
misérables, les paysans toujours en haillons, et il [Auguste Chevalier] intérroge : « Mais que sont
devenus les millions de francs-or réalisés par la vente des cacahuètes ? » (Afrique Noire 200)
[(« the huts are still deplorable. The peasants are still covered in rags, and he [Auguste
Chevalier] asks : “But what happened to the millions of gold-francs gained from the peanuts
trade?”)]. The money Chevalier that was searching was not there because it was not meant to
benefit the Senegalese people who toiled and moiled only for the greatness of French colonials
that considered them as mere preys to their ruthless economic schemes and not as cosmopolitan
cousins. Had France regarded Senegalese people as equals, it would not have regarded them as
mere chattel and workforce whose duty was to labor for the métropole’s grandeur. In their book,
Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations: In Comparative Perspective (1998), Kurt
Jonassohn and Karin Solveig Björnson write:
According to Chevalier, the French colonials, especially the concession holders, considered the
natives as freely available for forced labor and proceeded to seize all their property, including
cattle, under the pretext that the produce of soil was included in the concession. The few
plantations still kept by the village people were “requisitioned” by the Europeans, their servants,
or the Senegalese. Chevalier also quoted the opinion of the heads of trading stations and of army
officers: “There is nothing to be got from these blacks here: the best thing to do is to exterminate
them and so make the other regions more docile.” (242)
Being from a cattle herders’ family, Senghor had a strong compassion for the plight of peasants
and other rural workers on whose bare backs and limbs France built its colonial power without
knowing that its abuses would come to haunt it in the end. France was not devoid of the pure
hatred of members of other races that later burgeoned into the fascist ideology which swept
across Europe during the World War II era. Such fascism is evident in the above statement in
which a petty, pretentious, yet empowered, French army officer proposes the liquidation of
Senegalese village people as a means of teaching their neighbors to become “docile” to France’s
colonial authority. In this sense, French colonialism was as dehumanizing and racist as the antiSemitism that threatened to exterminate Jews during World War II. This kind of oppressive
ideology was not foreign to European thinking since the biological racism that permeated it was
already pervasive in France colonial policies and cultural attitudes toward Africa. Addressing this
neglected French colonial racism, Alice L. Conklin writes in A Mission to Civilize: “To the extent
that racism is defined as the perception that certain groups—including Jews and various
immigrant groups, as well as non-Western peoples of color—were fundamentally different from
and inferior to white Europeans, then French officialdom was guilty of thinking in racialized
categories and implementing oppressive measures throughout the life of the Third Republic” (9).
Although his cosmopolitanism led him to despise the brutality that Germany perpetrated
against France in World War II, Senghor might have regarded this oppression as a historical
irony. Senghor knew that the colonizer was more likely to accept the humanity of the colonized
populations when the kind of atrocities that it historically perpetrated against the foreign
populations occurred within its métropole. Knowing that it would have been politically incorrect
for him to explicitly convey this truth to the French public for whom he was fighting, Senghor
found poetry as an effective means for implicitly expressing this viewpoint without drawing the
suspicion and wrath of colonial authorities. Senghor diligently accomplishes this task by
denouncing colonial oppression in Africa in terms similar to how he condemns Natzi Germany’s
subjugation of Jewish and French people during World War II. For instance, Senghor describes in
the poem “Prière aux masques” [“Prayer to the Masks”] images of human deprivation that
anticipate the early stages of Hitler’s oppression against European Jews. Senghor tells
Europeans: “Fixez vos yeux immuables sur vos enfants que l’on commande / Qui donnent leur
vie comme le pauvre son dernier vȇtement” (277) [“Fix your steady eyes on your oppressed
children / Who give their lives like the poor man his last garment” (14)]. These images
anticipate Hitler’s extorsions, abuse, and humiliations of Jews in Europe that led to their
expulsion out of Germany by 1936. Senghor describe this tragedy in his poem entitled “A l’appel
de la race de Saba” [“At the Call of the Race of Sheba”], where he writes: “Voici le mineur des
Asturies le docker de Liverpool le / Juif chassé d’Allemagne, et Dupont et Dupuis et tous les /
gars de Saint-Denis” (315) [“Here are the Asturian miner and the Liverpool stevedore, / The Jew
driven out of Germany, and Dupont and Dupuis / And all the guys from Saint-Denis” (44)].
Senghor’s reference to the oppression that confronted European Jews in 1936 helps him to justify
his moral and religious war against Natzi German. Claiming his rightful place in this noble
mission, the narrator of “Neige Sur Paris” [“Snow in Paris”] states: “And the Catholic and
Jewish Rebels have fired their fourteen hundred / Cannons upon the mountain of your peace”
(12) [“Et le Rebelle juif et Catholique a tiré ses mille quatre cents / canons contre les montagnes
de votre Paix”] (276). Senghor’s allusion to the solidarity of Jews and Catholics against Hitler
serves to legitimize the human brotherhood that he perceives as a necessary cosmopolitan
blockade against colonial tyranny. Senghor is disappointed by the Tirailleurs’ fight on the side of
European allies at a time when they were colonized people. Revealing the colonial status of the
Senegalese soldiers and their other African comrades who were also called Tirailleurs, Senghor
shows that the chaos that he saw in Paris resembles a similar tragedy that occurred in colonial
Africa. As he reflects upon this parallel oppression, the narrator of “Neige Sur Paris” [“Snow in
Paris”] remembers a similar subjugation that Africans encountered for centuries from slavery to
colonization. Looking at the image of the white snow falling on Paris reminds the speaker of
Les mains blanches qui tirèrent les coups de fusils qui croulèrent les empires
Les mains qui flagellèrent les esclaves, qui vous flagellèrent
Les mains blanches poudreuses qui vous giflèrent, les mains
peintes poudrées qui m’ont giflé
Les mains sûres qui m’on livré à la solitude à la haine
Les mains blanches qui abattirent la forȇt de rôniers qui dominait l’Afrique,
au centre de l’Afrique
Droits et durs, les Saras beaux comme les premiers hommes
qui sortirent de vos mains brunes.
Elles abattirent la forȇt noire pour en faire des traverses de chemin de fer
Elles abattirent les forȇts d’Afrique pour sauver la Civilisation,
parce qu’on manquait de matière première humaine. (276)
[The white hands firing the rifles that crumbled our empires,
The hands that once whipped slaves, and that whipped you,
The snowy white hands that slapped you,
The powdery white hands that slapped me,
The firm hands that led me to loneliness and to hate,
The white hands that cut down the forests
Of straight, firm palmyra trees dominating Africa,
In the heart of Africa, like the Sara men,
Handsome as the first men born from your brown hands.
They tore down the back forest to build a railroad,
They cut down Africa’s forests to save Civilization,
Because they needed human raw materials.] (13)
These passages only give a brief part of the record of European colonial oppression of African
people that Senghor traces from the times when Europeans destroyed the “empires” they found
in Africa to the times when they turned the inhabitants of these kingdoms into slaves and railroad
workers. Senghor represents this colonization as a violence that severely weakened African
people by cutting down their natural preserves in the name of a flawed civilizing mission. As is
apparent in its decimation of “la forȇt de rôniers qui / dominait l’Afrique, au centre de l’Afrique”
(276) [“the forests / Of straight, firm palmyra trees dominating Africa”] (13), European civilizing
mission was not based on cosmopolitanism, since its intent was to use the “railroad” as a means
of extirpating Africa’s human, natural, and material sustenance out of its belly in the same way
slavery emptied Africa of the people and material resources that represented its human assets.
One must add to this history the humiliation that confronted Africans during colonization as
Europeans imposed forced labor on them, requiring them to work in conditions akin to slavery.
Africans in colonial forced labor were beaten and mutilated by Europeans whose civilization was
barbarism, not the acceptance of the other as an equal that the notion of cosmopolitanism
implies. These atrocities occurred in colonial Senegal where forced labor was pervasive between
the 1920s and the 1940s. In his article, “Colonisation française et exploitation de la maind'œuvre carcérale au Sénégal : De l'emploi des détenus des camps pénaux sur les chantiers des
travaux routiers, (1927-1940),” (2004), Ibra Sene describes the French colonial “institution of
itinerant penal camps in 1936” (153) that produced drastic consequences. Sene writes: “They
were established in the cercles (provinces) of Louga, Thiès, Diourbel, and eventually in Bignona.
They were used until 1940 to supply much of the work force for road building and maintenance
along the main transportation routes of the colony. Lacking any deterrent or rehabilitative
objective, the penal camps epitomized the political and economic functions of colonial
imprisonment” (153). Doubling the atrocity of a forced labor system that operated in tandem
with a brutal carceral institution, the French established prisons that resembled slave ships and
concentration camps, since they were small and insanitary confines where they kept Senegalese
people who defied their authority and caprices. Such horrible conditions of France’s prisons in
colonial Senegal are apparent in the essay “La prison coloniale au Sénégal, 1790-1960: Carcéral
de conquête et défiances locales” (2007) in which Babacar Bâ states:
Ces prisons qui avaient des capacités de 30 à 40 places ont régulièrement accueilli
70 à 80 détenus.19 Dans une prison où les ouvertures d’aération étaient limitées à
de petits trous, les détenus étouffaient du fait d’un cubage d’air très faible, situé
entre 1,5 et 8 mètres cube, 20 loin de la norme des 15 mètres cube codifiés.
Entassés dans une prison insalubre où régnaient en maîtres les odeurs et la
vermine, c’est une humanité dégradante que vivaient les détenus partagés entre la
malnutrition, la faim, la maladie et la mortalité : dans la prison de Dakar, celle-ci
a évolué entre 15,98 % et 24 % entre 1931 et 1940. (89)
[These prisons, which were made for 30 to 40 cells, usually held 70 to 80 inmates.
In a prison where the only ventilation consisted of a few small holes, the inmates
stifled from lack of air. The holes were between 1.5 and 8 cubic meters, and way
below the required 15 cubic meters. Piled in a dirty prison full of stench and filth,
the prisoners were losing their humanity as they confronted malnutrition, hunger,
disease, and death: in the prison of Dakar, the death rate was between 15,98 %
and 24 % between 1931 and 1940.]
The horrible conditions in which the French kept the Senegalese inmates show the viciousness of
a colonial institution that was systematically oppressive. Such a system was hegemonic because
it had an inhumane and punitive method of teaching Senegalese people to be “docile” and fearful
towards a metropolitan power that reaped the fruits of their labor and bodies. French colonizers
ignored such agonies by preferring to dwell on a cosmopolitan admiration of a liberty, equality,
and fraternity that they could not extent to the Senegalese people who were not from the four
communes such as Dakar, Saint-Louis, Gorée, and Rufisque. These French colonizers
overestimated their power since they were unable to defend France alone when the Germans
brought to their nation domination that was akin to the ones they had perpetrated against
Africans for centuries. Senghor was aware of this tragic irony, which is the reason why he uses
his poetry as a means for giving an inventory of colonization. His intention was to remind a torn
French and Europe society that their dilemma, such as the dispossession of Jews and poor people
in Spain and Italy during World War II, was not unrelated to Africa’s colonial predicament, since
the same empirical greed and violence that disrupted the lives of Europe’s ethnic minorities and
working class people during the war also marred the existence of Africa’s underprivileged groups
and laborers. In both continents, Senghor decries the pernicious stronghold of a global capitalism
that used voracity and terror in order to subdue vulnerable people to abject poverty and death.
Describing the role of the pernicious collaboration between the global financiers and Christian
missionaries in Africa and in the Pacific seas during colonization, Senghor writes in “Prière de
paix” [“Prayer for Peace”] (1945):
Ah ! je sais bien que plus d’un de Tes messagers a traqué
mes prȇtres comme gibier et fait un grand carnage d’images
Et pourtant on aurait pu s’arranger, car elles furent, ces
images, de la terre à Ton ciel l’échelle de Jacob
La lampe au beurre clair qui permet d’attendre l’aube, les
étoiles qui préfigurent le soleil.
Je sais que nombre de Tes missionnaires ont béni les armes
de la violence et pactisé avec l’or des banquiers
Mais il faut qu’il y ait des traîtres et des imbéciles. (350)
[Ah, I know that more than one of Your messengers
Hunted down my priests like wild game and slaughtered
Sacred images. We might have had an understanding,
For those images were our Jacob’s ladder
From earth to Your heaven,
The clear oil lamp for us to await the dawn,
The stars foreshadowing the sun.
And I know that many of your missionaries have blessed
Weapons of violence and traded in banker’s gold
But traitors and fools have always existed.] (72)
These passages suggest Senghor’s denunciation of a form of Christianity that he considers as
corrupt since it cooperated with colonial authorities to slaughter Africans. Senghor’s
disparagement of this Christianity is noticeable in his lamentation, in “Prière de paix” [“Prayer
for Peace”] (1945), of the cruel manner in which one of the messengers of the French colonists
“a traqué / mes prêtres comme gibier et fait un grand carnage d’images / pieuses” (349) [“Hunted
down my priests like wild game and slaughtered / Sacred images” (72)]. The passages also reveal
a pernicious collaboration between the French missionaries and colonizers in an attempt to
subdue the Senegalese whose lands they wanted to possess. Senghor abhorred this malicious
union between Capitalism and Christianity, since it was an unholy alliance between a Catholic
faith to which he was personally devoted and a sullied imperialism in which the Church played a
primary and longstanding role of abettor and destroyer of colonized people. Senghor’s revulsion
towards this tainted Christianity is apparent in Janice Spleth’s argument that “While retaining the
foundations of his faith, he [[Senghor] was unable to justify the actions of Christians in the light
of Christian principles” (Léopold, 7).
A similar collaboration between monotheistic religious leaders and colonizers in Africa is
evident in Sembene Ousmane’s film Ceddo in which Catholic missionaries, who are the
cornerstones of French colonialism in a fictional traditional Senegalese village, collaborate with
the increasingly destitute local and royal leaders and convince them to alienate the rebellious
segments of their populations (known as the ceddo in Wolof) from power. When Biram, the
prince of the Senegalese community, dies, the local Muslim imam decides to ostracize the
followers of the ceddo by demanding that the body of the deceased be taken out of the village.
Regarding Biram as a pagan who had braids just like the ceddos do, the Imam develops such a
strong fear of the cultures of the traditional African priests that leads him to attempt to eradicate
them through a new form of colonization that is similar to the one Senghor depicts in the above
poem. The Imam attempts to substitute the traditional leaders and beliefs of the ceddos with
Islamic ones. This forced Islamic order was not different from Christianity in that it also
strengthened colonialism by looking down at the rebellious segments (ceddos) of the invaded
Senegalese populations who refused to follow any hegemonic order or allow it to take away their
freedom. Philip Rosen writes: “The imam’s first official act after the victory of Islam is
linguistic: in an elaborate public ceremony, he inaugurates the Ceddo into what he had
previously called ‘the beautiful language of the Koran’ by renaming each one individually after
figures in the Islamic Holy Book. When Islam is victorious, then, one aspect of its triumph is the
advent of the authority of the book” (277-278). By allowing local Muslim leaders to substitute
Senegalese cultural practices with foreign ones, the Islam that attempted to maintain a stronghold
in colonial Senegal during the late nineteenth century was as alienating, authoritarian, and strict
as the Christianity which also attempted to gain power in the colony during the same period.
In addition, as is apparent in this essay, Senghor does not denounce Western colonialism in
Africa only since he also criticizes the revisitation of this oppression on Europeans themselves.
Using World War II as an example, Senghor shows how Europeans forced on their own people
the same kinds of unchristian behaviors that they imposed on colonial Africans. It is in this
context that Senghor interprets World War II as the climax of a longstanding transnational and
imperial scheme against justice and equality that came back to bite its main instigator: Europe.
Putting Europe on trial, Senghor laments, in his poem entitled “Luxembourg 1939”
[“Luxembourg 1939”], the incoming shedding of Europe’s lifeblood in a war that the narrator
foreshadows through the stifling of “children voices” and the collapse of his own romantic
dreams of Luxembourg, which are metaphors that mirror the tragic fall of the country’s leaves, as
creuse des tranchées sous le banc où j’appris la douceur
éclose des lèvres.
Cet écriteau ah ! oui, dangereuse jeunesse !...
Je vois tomber les feuilles dans les faux abris, dans les
fosses dans les tranchées
Où ruisselle le sang d’une génération
L’Europe qui enterre le levain des nations et l’espoir
des races nouvelles. (320)
[dig trenches under the bench where I learned about
The sweet budding of lips.
This sign, ah! yes, of dangerous youth!. . .
I watch the leaves fall into these false shelters, into graves
Into trenches where the blood of an entire generation flows
Europe is burying the nations’ leaven
And the hope of new races.] (48)
This passage suggests the influence of cosmopolitanism in Senghor’s poetry, which is visible in
the narrator’s solidarity with the Europeans who lost their lives on the trenches of Luxemburg
during a tragic war that not only sapped the blood of their people but the sustenance of their
natural world. In an attempt to reflect the true extent of this horror, Senghor draws on surrealism
in order to reveal the chaos in a cataclysmic world in which the narrator’s imagines the macabre
sight of death that saps the lifeblood of the people’s children. Senghor depicts this heartbreaking
reality as the image of “L ‘Europe qui enterre le levain des nations” (“Luxembourg” 320) [of
“Europe [which] is burying the nations’ leaven” (“Luxembourg” 48). This metaphor of a
continent burying its own people is surrealistic since it suggests the poet’s use of an abysmal
image of self-interment in order to suggest the extent to which World War II brought Europe on
the brink of self-destruction. Surrealism is handy for a poet’s realization and memory of this
foreboding disaster since it primarily focuses on impending chaos. Hans Sedlmayr writes: “The
leading theme of Surrealism is chaos absolute, the movement seizes upon it wherever it can be
found—in the dark regions of the world of dreams, in hallucination, in the ‘deranged’ and
irrational character of ordinary life, in that department of reality in which things that have no
intrinsic connection with one another have been brought together in a fortuitous, senseless and
fragmentary manner” (142). Senghor’s poetry reflects this surrealistic emphasis on chaos since it
highlights the fragmented nature of a world torn by war as a means for suggesting the danger of
anarchism. Senghor’s alternative for this disjointed world is a universe in which
cosmopolitanism conveys the long-held moral virtues of peace and harmony against the terror of
battle, discord, and self-centeredness. Senghor places cosmopolitanism at the center of his
surrealism since he uses poetry as a means of urging Europeans to treat other people in the same
decent ways in which they want to be treated. In teaching this parable, Senghor rejects any
established or monolithic notions of colonialist policy and morality.
Senghor’s World War II poems have a dualistic meaning since they reveal both his
cosmopolitanism and anticolonialism. On the one hand, Senghor uses these poems as a means
for demonstrating the cosmopolitan embrace of France and its ideals of liberty that inspired other
Senegalese soldiers and him to fight for the métropole’s freedom from German domination. On
the other hand, Senghor uses such poems as tools for showing the disappointment and anger that
he felt about a French society that refused to perceive Tirailleurs as equals in spite of the huge
sacrifices that these soldiers and other Africans made for France’s development and freedom
struggle. Torn between these two realities, Senghor’s World War II poems reveal the unresolved
dilemma of a major Senegalese writer who deeply experienced the angst of sharing unrestrained
love and compassion to a French society that kept Senegalese and other African people in
colonial status akin to slavery and was unwilling to perceive its Tirailleur liberators as
cosmopolitan cousins.
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Ibid, “Prière de paix” [“Prayer for Peace”], ibid. 346-350; 69-72.
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Ibid, “A l’appel de la race de Saba” [“At the Call of the Race of Sheba”], ibid, 311316; 41-45.
Ibid. “Luxembourg 1939” [“Luxembourg 1939”], ibid, 319-320; 48.
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