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Compulsory labor in the French colonial empire (1887-1946)


From the end of slavery in the nineteen Century until World War 2, the European colonialism was based on different forms of unfree labor. The economic exploitation of Africa and Asia by the colonial powers like Great Britain, France, Belgium or Portugal depended on the work of indigenous peoples forced to build roads and railways, harbors and barrages, mines and farms. During the world wars, hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples were recruited as soldiers and as workers by the colonial powers.


In 1930, the League of Nations abolished “forced or compulsory labor” of indigenous people in the European colonial empires by a convention, which defined forced labor as “all work or service which is extracted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily” (C29). However, some nations like Portugal and France, depending completely on forced labor for the development of theirs colonies, signed this convention only after the Second World War. Particularly France refused to abolish forced labor in its colonial empire, used methodically since the introduction of special laws for indigenous peoples (Code de l’Indigénat) in 1887 recently discussed by the French colonial historiography (1).


These laws allowed requiring requesting indigenous workers for public and private exploitations. In the 1920s, the colonial administration created civil work services for the construction of roads and railways.  Finally, the introduction of new plants needed to impose forced culture. Especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Madagascar and in Indochina, the French administration imposed forced labor, for example in railway construction, as in the few investigated cases “Congo-Ocean” and “Yunnan-Haiphong” which caused the death of thousands of workers (2).


Four main forms of compulsory labor in the French colonial empire have to be distinguished:

1. Portage: In the early times of occupation, the colonial hinterland was lacking roads and railways. Transport facilities for people and goods were needed.

2. Prestations: A monetary economy was not yet establishes. The fiscal revenue was compensated by compulsory labor for some weeks per year instead of taxes payment

3. Requisitions: Manpower was provided for infrastructure projects and during wartime by several military labor services.

4. Culture forcée: introduction of new crop for private and public exportations to France



The research project aim aims at studying the political context, the economic impact and the social consequence of these forms of forced labor in the French colonial empire since the early Twenty Century until its abolition in 1946. The focus is on compulsory labor for main infrastructure projects, private agricultural exploitations and civil labor services during the wars. Also open historical questions like the “Office du Niger”, the “Coolie Trade” in Indochina, the railway construction across the Sahara (Transsaharien), and the compulsory labor service during the Vichy Years in French West Africa with more than two hundred thousand forced workers (3), are focus of research.


The project will also deal with life conditions of the indigenous peoples during the French colonial rule. Forced labor always provoked indigenous resistances and armed conflicts, especially in Africa, Madagascar and Indochina. The French policy of forced labor is closely connected to local insurrections and colonial wars, for example in French Equatorial Africa in 1928 (Congo-Wara War) and in Madagascar in 1947 (4). Therefore, the question of a link between forced labor and the independences movements in the French colonial empire will guide the whole research. In conclusion, the forced labor in the French empire has to be compared with other European colonial empires (5), and the question of continuity of compulsory labor from French colonialism to French fascism has to be asked (6).


The research project is planned for twelve months with a usual postdoctoral stipend and additional costs for research in French archives. The results will run into a French publication about all forms of forced labor and its social consequences in the French colonial empire extending previous local studies (7). This publication will be presented as a habilitation thesis at the University of Bremen. In addition to the first supervisor, Prof. Dr. Helga Bories-Sawala, specialist in French and in French-speaking world Studies, a second advisor in France will be consulted. . Research results will be presented in French and in German. A first research report is available on our website:

(1)     Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, De l'indigénat - Anatomie d'un « monstre » juridique : le droit colonial en Algérie et dans l'Empire français, 2010 (online).

(2)     Gilles Sautter, « Notes sur la construction du chemin de fer Congo-Océan (1921-1934) », Cahiers d’études africaines, vol. 7, 1976, p. 219-299 (online)  ; Rang Ri Park-Barjot, « Le patronat français des travaux publics et les réseaux ferroviaires dans l’empire français : l’exemple du Chemin de fer du Yunnan (1898-1913) » (online). 

(3)     Ruth Ginio, French Colonialism unmasked: The Vichy Years in French West Africa, 2006, p. 78.

(4)     Raphael Nzabakomada-Yakoma, L’Afrique centrale insurgée, la guerre du Kongo-Wara 1928-1931, 1986 ; Jean Frémigacci, « Les chemins de fer de Madagascar (1901-1936) », Afrique & Histoire, 2006/2, p. 161-191

(5)     Willemina Kloosterboer, Involuntary labour since the Abolition of Slavery:  A survey of compulsory labour throughout the world, 1967 (online).

(6)     Jacques Cantier / Eric Jennings, L’Empire colonial sous Vichy, 2004 (online) ; Eric Jennings, Vichy sous les tropiques : la revolution nationale à madgascar, en Goqdeloupe, en Indochine 1940-1944, 2001.

(7)     Babacar Fall, Le travail forcé en Afrique Occidentale Française (1900-1946), 1993 (online) ; Léon Kaptue, Travail et main-d’œuvre au Cameroun sous régime français, 1986 (online) ; Christian Mamfoumbi, Contribution à l'étude du travail forcé en Afrique Equatoriale française dans l'entre deux-guerres (1919-1939): l'exemple du Gabon, 1984 ; Hilaire Babassana, Travail forcé, expropriation et formation du salariat en Afrique noire, 1978.




© Peter Gaida



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