Native Sons

West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century

Native Sons

Politics, History, and Culture

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Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 9 illustrations Published: July 2006

Author: Gregory Mann

African Studies, History > European History, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

For much of the twentieth century, France recruited colonial subjects from sub-Saharan Africa to serve in its military, sending West African soldiers to fight its battles in Europe, Southeast Asia, and North Africa. In this exemplary contribution to the “new imperial history,” Gregory Mann argues that this shared military experience between France and Africa was fundamental not only to their colonial relationship but also to the reconfiguration of that relationship in the postcolonial era. Mann explains that in the early twenty-first century, among Africans in France and Africa, and particularly in Mali—where Mann conducted his research—the belief that France has not adequately recognized and compensated the African veterans of its wars is widely held and frequently invoked. It continues to animate the political relationship between France and Africa, especially debates about African immigration to France.

Focusing on the period between World War I and 1968, Mann draws on archival research and extensive interviews with surviving Malian veterans of French wars to explore the experiences of the African soldiers. He describes the effects their long absences and infrequent homecomings had on these men and their communities, he considers the veterans’ status within contemporary Malian society, and he examines their efforts to claim recognition and pensions from France. Mann contends that Mali is as much a postslavery society as it is a postcolonial one, and that specific ideas about reciprocity, mutual obligation, and uneven exchange that had developed during the era of slavery remain influential today, informing Malians’ conviction that France owes them a “blood debt” for the military service of African soldiers in French wars.


Native Sons clarity and scope will make it useful for undergraduate and graduate courses in African social and cultural history, as well as French colonial history. It should also be commended for taking the intellectual risk of linking the colonial past to the postcolonial present that still informs the relationship between France and West Africa. In this, Mann succeeds magnificently.” — Michelle Moyd, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

“[B]reaks new ground . . . shows how empire was created and sustained and how it continues to influence France and West Africa more than a generation after its collapse. . . . [An] excellent book.” — Clifford Rosenberg, Journal of Modern History

“[Mann’s] research into the complexity of French legislation on this issue is a model of clarity, and adds much to our understanding of contemporary attitudes in both France and West Africa.” — Nancy Lawler, African Studies Review

“[T]his book is a major contribution to the history of French military recruitment in West Africa. In Mann’s fidelity to his subject, and in reminding us of the connections between the grievances first voiced by anciens combatants and those of African migrants in Europe today, he places us, as with the obligation France owes to the veterans he describes, deeply in his debt.” — Joe Lunn, Africa Today

“Gregory Mann has succeeded in using the complex local, colonial, and postcolonial history of these African soldiers to raise fundamental questions about many slippery concepts from ‘nation’ to ‘belonging’ and from ‘debt’ to ‘immigration’. . , , [A] carefully crafted monograph that adds much to our understanding of colonial and post-colonial Africa and of relations with the metropole.” — Hugh Clout, African Affairs

“Highly readable, firmly rooted in a precise historical context and solidly based on new empirical research, Mann’s work is a testament to, and an outstanding example of, the quality of new historical writing on the French colonial—and post-colonial—empire.” — Tony Chafer, French Studies

“In this exhaustively researched, meticulously documented, and elegantly written study, Gregory Mann offers a much more nuanced and richly textured history of the numerous, complex, and fluid relationships between West African soldiers and the French, both military and civilian, throughout the twentieth century.” — Andrew F. Clark, American Historical Review

“Mann has elegantly captured the dense web of human relations, discourses of obligation, and reconfigured social ties that link the dusty town of San to the many other outposts of the empire, as well as to the postcolonial capitals of Paris and Bamako.” — Alice L. Conklin, French Historical Studies

“Mann tells a compelling story about the reciprocal bonds that developed between African veterans and the French state.” — Harry Gamble, Modern and Contemporary France

“Taken as a whole, Native Sons uses Mali’s former colonial soldiers as the means to connect the past with the present, the local with the national and international, and the pre-colonial with the colonial and post-colonial periods. It is quite an achievement.” — Martin Thomas, History

“The publication of . . . Mann’s studies suggest new directions in the fields of French colonial history, African studies, and twentieth-century military history. By bringing to light important and overlooked aspects of the imperial dynamic . . . . Mann [has] made meaningful contributions to our understanding of the connections between Europe and Africa and of the legacies of the colonial encounters for both regions.” — James E. Genova, International History Review

“This elegantly written study of the complex pattern of ambiguous relationships between France and the West African veterans of the French army is as much about the present as the past. . . . An engaging and compelling history and it leaves the reader with some intriguing issues to chew on.” — Ineke van Kessel, Leeds African Studies Bulletin

“This is a superb book, which is at the same time a contribution to the history of Africa and of France.” — Martin A. Klein, Journal of African History

“This is an excellent and well-researched book that describes very well the gradual transformation of Malians from people who accepted their colonial status into citizens who demanded and obtained full independence from their colonial oppressors.” — Edmund J. Campion, Dalhousie French Studies

"The fascinating way in which Mann unfolds the story of the Tirailleurs enables the reader to understand their local social background and at the same time to recognize their place in the transnational history of twentieth century imperialism. He writes clearly and in an engaging style so that Native Sons is not only an important academic study but also a very enjoyable read." — Ruth Ginio, Military History

[Mann’s] argument is a memorable one, and Native Sons is sure to generate, in its own right, much discussion among scholars of Africa and Europe alike.” — Mary Dewhurst Lewis, H-France, H-Net Reviews

Native Sons is an eloquent book about social relationships that spanned centuries and continents, relations between former household slaves and their former masters, between conscripts and commanders, between demobilized veterans and well-off civilian villagers, between veterans and states. These relationships—articulated in idioms of patronage and obligations, rights and republicanism—should make us wary of attaching a ‘post’ to every colony, empire, and nation we talk about.” — Luise White, author of The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe

“Gregory Mann, in this thoughtfully argued and deeply researched book, shows how West Africans who served the French empire in their military careers and in both world wars developed a language of mutual obligation in relation to the state with which the French government had to engage. Following this history of claim-making to the present day, Mann forces us to rethink how we understand such concepts as state, nation, colony, empire, citizenship, welfare, and immigration.” — Frederick Cooper, author of Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History

“In his lucid new study of Malian veterans of the French colonial army, Gregory Mann raises provocative new themes for writing conjoined local, colonial, and postcolonial histories. He has elegantly captured the dense web of human relations, discourses of obligation, and reconfigured social ties that link the dusty town of San (Mali) to the many other outposts of the republican imperial state as well as the postcolonial capitals of Paris andBamako." — Alice L. Conklin, author of A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Gregory Mann is Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1. Soldier Families and Slavery’s Echoes 29

2. Ex-Soldiers as Unruly Clients, 1914–40 63

3. Veterans and the Political Wars of 1940–60 108

4. A Military Culture on the Move: Tirailleurs Senegalais in France, Africa, and Asia 146

5. Blood Debt, Immigrants, and Arguments 183

Conclusion 210

Appendix: Interviews 217

Abbreviations 221

Notes 225

References 295

Index 321
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3768-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3755-3
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