From Dakar to Aix: the struggle with researching imperial histories

Blog post written by Dr Sarah Frank


V-P-HIST-03440-05, Guerre 1939-1945. Châlons-sur-Marne. Dulag Ob West. Camp de prisonniers de guerre. Homme de confiance des détenus coloniaux français.

Reconstructing the stories of colonized peoples presents a certain number of challenges. One struggle for historians of imperialism is how to draw out the voices of marginalized peoples when the archival trace places a euro-centric filter on their experiences. The research for my book, Hostages of Empire: Colonial Prisoners of War and Vichy France, took me on what sometimes felt like a wild goose chase hoping for memoirs and first-person accounts of captivity and finding mostly administrative documents. My first research trip as a young, hopeful PhD student took me to Paris for the French National Archives and the French Military Archives. These are the first ports of call for anyone studying the Second World War in France. I quickly realized that finding prisonnier de guerre in an inventory most likely referred to white, metropolitan prisoners of war, and not the approximately 85,000 men from across the French empire who were also captured in the Battle for France.

Evidence was there, it just needed to be found. Digging through correspondence between the French and German armistice commissions revealed intense negotiations between Georges Scapini, the half-blind veteran of the First World War placed in charge of all POW affairs, and his German counterpart over where the colonial prisoners should be interned. Once prisoners were settled into camps, international inspectors from the Swiss International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), or the American Young Man’s Christian Association (YMCA) started visiting colonial and white prisoners and reporting on their mental and physical conditions. While white prisoners sometimes left memoirs most colonial prisoners did not leave written records of their captivity. Luckily there are a few notable exceptions such as Léopold Sédar Senghor (first president of Senegal, poet, a brilliant intellectual), Ahmed Rafa (who became one of the first Algerian generals in the French army) and Michel Gnimagnon (a teacher from Dahomey). Still, much of the information about the colonial prisoners’ captivity was filtered through a white European lens – even when colonial prisoners were asked about their own experiences.

V-P-HIST-03440-35, Guerre 1939-1945. Melun. Camp de prisonniers de guerre français et sénégalais. Groupe de détenus sénégalais.

For a variety of reasons, the French authorities interviewed most of the colonial prisoners who escaped from captivity. Summaries of these interviews were submitted to the French military authorities interested in German propaganda, morale in the camps, and relations with French civilians. These testimonies constitute the largest records of colonial prisoners’ captivity experience, containing first-person narratives from surrender, capture, through to camp life and escape. So this is a fantastic source where we can finally hear from the prisoners themselves. But it of course remains problematic. One of the challenges is then, how to draw out the voices of those people whose every interactions with the French, who represented the colonial authority, was impacted by hierarchies of race and citizenship. Questions of sex and gender are inherently important for POWs, but do not exist in the source material. No colonial soldier would ever think of reporting sexual relations with a white French woman to a French military officer.


V-P-HIST-03440-36, Guerre 1939-1945. Melun. Camp de prisonniers de guerre français et sénégalais. Groupe de détenus sénégalais.

One method I found useful when working with problematic written sources was to expand my research to include as many different perspectives as possible. To do so, I travelled to the German Military archives in Frieburg, French Overseas Archives in Aix, Kew in London, the Senegalese National Archives and seventeen departmental archives in France hoping to find traces of colonial prisoners who had worked locally. Being an underfunded PhD student, these archival trips were somewhat dire – 5am trains to Vesoul, low-budget hotel rooms, and archival staff confused as to ‘what I wanted’. I quickly learnt that material on the colonial prisoners was rarely in a box labeled ‘colonial prisoners of war’, and that one should never travel without tea bags.  Surprisingly, the presence of a large POW camp, like that in Epinal which held up to 10,000 prisoners, did not guarantee that information about its colonial prisoners would be found in the departmental archives. In many departments school children were encouraged to collect clothes and scrapes of fabric to send to the ‘suffering populations in North Africa’ while ignoring the North African prisoners located in their towns. Other archives had a wealth of material, like in Mayenne, a rural department, where many small towns were forced to hire colonial prisoners to work on public works. As costs increased, so did the number of complaints which were kept in the archive, revealing the multitude of attitudes of French civilians towards the colonial prisoners.

Eventually, the diverse material from different actors allowed me to reconstruct the colonial prisoners’ experiences of life in captivity, relationships they formed, and how they survived until their return home. Reading widely allowed me to identify and challenge the assumptions of the documents’ writers, my own assumptions, and those of previous historians. Most importantly, thinking outside the box (and visiting as many archives as possible!) helped reveal the voices and agency of the people I was researching.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: