French perspectives on Africa: Africa4

If you are interested in French perspectives on Africa, have a look at the new blog I have co-founded for the French newspaper Libération. Africa4 is a blog written by two journalists and two historians who want to share their ideas on Africa.

Vincent Hiribarren

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Call for Papers: Intelligence in a Colonial Context

I am the co-editor of a future book on intelligence in a colonial context. If you are interested in contributing, read our call for papers below and send me an abstract to 


Call for papers: Intelligence in a Colonial Context

Edited by Jean-Pierre Bat, Nicolas Courtin and Vincent Hiribarren

Second GEMPA (Groupe d’études sur les mondes policiers en Afrique) edited collection


The second GEMPA edited collection is a continuation of the work undertaken by the GERN (Groupe Européen de Recherches sur les Normativités – Georgina Sinclair and Chris Williams, The Open University/ICCCR, Margo De Koster, Xavier Rousseaux, Catholic University of Leuven/CHDJ and Emmanuel Blanchard, CESDIP/Paris). It traces its origins back to colonial Policing Studies led by the Colonial and Postcolonial Policing Group (COPP) at the Open University (UK) and develops the inquiries of our first edited collection, Maintenir l’ordre colonial, Afrique et Madagascar, XIXe et XXe siècles (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012).

In the Anglophone academic world, Intelligence Studies have paved the way for a reappraisal of Western state policies by analysing intelligence as an attribute and a manifestation of the State. Our aim is to extend this approach to the colonial and imperial world.

This collective study does not claim to be exhaustive and will cover the end of the nineteenth century to the twentieth century and will garner studies on territories located on different continents and governed by a multiplicity of colonial powers. It will interrogate the practical dimensions of intelligence in the colonial empires by assessing similarities and differences between metropole and colony. Our case studies will consequently tackle the evolution of both intelligence practices and theories.

Intelligence Studies has often overemphasised the role of intelligence undertaken by and in the name of the State. This book seeks to go beyond the institutional approach often adopted by Intelligence Studies. Whist an important source, intelligence reports cannot be the sole basis upon which History is conceived as they are written from the point of view of the State not the colonised. Nonetheless, without totally discarding this approach, Intelligence in a Colonial Context would like to consider the circulation of information in its totality.

Despite their strategic role, the intelligence colonial institutions are only one of the many relays and catalysers of information in a colonial context and this is something we seek to emphasise. We do not consider intelligence as an omniscient instrument stemming from an all-powerful colonial toolkit. On the contrary, we argue that colonial empires, whether in the metropole or the colony, were particularly blind and did not perceive societies as they were, but as they fantasised them. In consequence, Intelligence in a Colonial Context will reassess the primary sources traditionally used by Intelligence Studies scholars.

The Foucauldian metaphor of sight could be extended to State intelligence agencies which were particularly myopic in that they did not go beyond a blurred and superficial understanding of the colonised societies. They could also suffer from a form of strabismus as they distorted reality. Finally, intelligence could be simultaneously longsighted as they often exaggerated resistance and contestation movements directed against the colonial State, sometimes triggering paranoid security responses. Such distorted vision consequently altered what constituted the main objective of the political power, i.e. the informing of the colonial State.

Michel Foucault has already analysed the correlation between the lack of power of the State and the increasing role of surveillance in Western societies and we seek to develop this. In a similar vein, Crawford Young has stressed the same phenomenon in colonial Congo. For Young, it was because of its weakness that the Congolese colonial State was so violent. This last study has led to a discussion on the representativeness of Belgian Congo, but proves that a similar debate is necessary in an intelligence context since so many scholars dealing with Intelligence Studies treat colonial societies as passive objects.

The GEMPA considers that the creation, evolution and development of intelligence agencies remain a pivotal point for the circulation and diffusion of information. However, we would like to focus on a broader understanding of the questions of intelligence and information. Indeed, the real informers and real information are to be found elsewhere. Since the beginning of European imperial expansion and the creation of colonial empires, intelligence and the circulation of information are everywhere and consubstantial to colonial societies.

We would like to go beyond a minimalist approach which only considers intelligence through the professional institutions under construction in the modern period. Our objective is to broaden the subject’s perspective by analysing intelligence practices in colonial context at different levels (from the village to the city to the colony or metropole as a whole) and for different social backgrounds. Whether public or private, information is neither monopolised by the coloniser nor intelligence professionals but is often publicly used for a multiplicity of purposes. This explains why we would like to focus on non-state actors producing or carrying information as they are not part of the army, the police or the colonial administration.

Intelligence in a Colonial Context aims at showing that information and intelligence are as much the backbone of the State as that of colonial societies.


We invite the submission of papers on the following themes:

1) The Colonial State as seen through its intelligence agencies

2) Intelligence “from below” (unpublished histories of informers; intelligence agents or state; parastatal and non-state intelligence networks)

3) Subaltern Intelligence Studies (the other side of the coin, i.e. the study of information and communication networks; the analysis of “informal” informers who worked for the colonisers; parallel or semi-parallel networks)

Submitted papers will analyse “intelligence in action” focusing on the creation and evolution of State, parastatal or non-State intelligence practices. Ideally, authors will give a similar place to both intelligence actors and users and will write a cultural and social history of men and women whose professions or activities deal with information and intelligence in a colonial context.


Provisional Timetable

Deadline 1: 30 March 2014. Send one page to the book editors (main argument, primary sources, and plan). Answer from the editors before 15 April 2014.

Deadline 2: 1 June 2014. The selected authors will send the first draft of their chapter to the book editors.


In their final published version (including footnotes and bibliography), the essays should be around 5000-6000 word long.



Jean-Pierre Bat (, Nicolas Courtin (, Vincent Hiribarren (

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Postcards of French West Africa (1900-1960)

Last November, I went to Senegal to teach on a course taught at the Ecole des Bibliothécaires, Archivistes et Documentalistes (EBAD) where I came across a CD entitled “Images et Colonies” containing a collection of ca. 1500 postcards of French West Africa published between 1900 and 1960. These postcards were slowly collected by the Archives nationales du Senegal staff and were subsequently put in a database by Oumy Coume and Ngouda Diene under the direction of Adama Aly Pam.

With Adama Pam’s authorisation, I made some of these postcards more widely available online (a few of them are already here). It is hoped that modern-day West Africans and researchers interested in the history of colonial French West Africa will be able to use these postcards. These sources of the African past can be analysed in many different ways. For example, they tell us much about the way the French colonisers wanted to depict West Africa; these postcards also show us how African men and women were represented by photographers and postcard publishers; we can discover what colonial urban landscapes looked like…

Afrique Occidentale Française (Sénégal) - Le sorcier du village : prédicateur et guérisseur

Click on this photo to access the postcards

A few technical points:

I have used Omeka to display these postcards. I first exported the content the CD Access database 2000 to a CSV file. I subsequently imported the CSV file into Omeka with the ‘CSV import‘ plugin (it was quite a slow process as the PHP CLI binary used by the plugin is not installed on my server). I didn’t create the metadata for these postcards but managed to map the columns used by the Access database to different Dublin Core fields. As a result, the postcards and their different fields are fully searchable by users and search engines.

Vincent Hiribarren

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Timeline of Colonial Algeria

The interactive timeline below is a selection of events which took place when Algeria was a French colony (1830-1962). I have used it in class to teach a French undergraduate module on the Algerian War of independence (University of Leeds, 2013). When possible, I have tried to give some bibliographic references and I have inserted a link for each event with an historical document (photograph, text or video).

Click on the picture to access the timeline

Timeline of Colonial Algeria (1830-1962)
Timeline of Colonial Algeria (1830-1962)

Vincent Hiribarren

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Film review: Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

If you don’t know what to do this week-end, go and watch Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. It’s really worth it! I have just written a review for the official website of BBC History Magazine,

Vincent Hiribarren

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela (2013)

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela (2013)

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Anti-Apartheid in Exile: Digital Humanities and Oral History

It’s launch day for Anti-Apartheid In Exile: Alfred Hutchinson’s Road to Ghana !

Screenshot of our map - Alfred Hutchinson travelling from Dar es Salaam to Accra

Screenshot of our map – Alfred Hutchinson travelling from Dar es Salaam to Accra

Over the last few months Nicholas Grant and I have been developing this interactive online map to tell the story of the ANC activist Alfred Hutchinson, who in 1958 illegally left apartheid South Africa. Facing charges of treason, Hutchinson traversed Africa in an attempt to reach newly independent Ghana – a place that he hoped would be a safe haven from white supremacy and the dehumanising system of apartheid. His journey was made all the more pressing by the fact that he had met and fallen in love with Hazel Slade, a white teacher from England. Illegal under apartheid law, this interracial relationship placed the couple under intense pressure and led to increased harassment by the South Africa authorities.

The map relies on Alfred’s (Road to Ghana) and Hazel’s (The Other Side of the Road) respective accounts of this specific time in their lives. Designed as an educational resource, it also draws on and contains audio clips from an oral interview conducted with Hazel Hutchinson in September 2012. Although intended to draw attention to a very specific story, these travels tell us much about the nature anti-apartheid protest, state repression and African decolonisation throughout the 1950s. The plan is to expand these themes by embedding this map within a broader website that will contain writings, oral histories, images and documents that will further contextualise the specific themes the map addresses.

The map is something we’ve been working on in our spare time over the last few months. Nick was awarded some funding by the Leeds Humanities Research Institute and used this to conduct an oral interview with Hazel Hutchinson, which hopefully adds an additional dimension to the subject of the map. I used d3.js to make this map work and tried to bring together digital humanities and oral history. We acknowledge that there are certain shortcomings with this project – i.e. its limited scope, lack of interaction with potential users – but hopefully it succeeds in telling a interesting and under researched historical story in an innovative and engaging way. Again, we hope to build on this and situate the map within a broader educational project that will address the development of apartheid in the 1950s.

For more information or for questions, criticisms and feedback please email

Vincent Hiribarren

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What do African countries’ names mean?

Interested in a nonsensical map of Africa? Have a look at this map displaying a translation of each African country’s name. This picture is only a screen capture of an interactive map I have created. You can see the full version here on my website.

The Possible Etymology of African countries' names

The Possible Etymology of African Countries’ Names

Why this map?

This map was inspired by this etymological map of the USA. It does not claim to be exact; etymology is not an accurate science. 18th and 19th century armchair historians, geographers and linguists wrote countless books to explain the etymology of place names. Their idea was to explain the origin of Africans by tracing African languages back to a certain part of the world. The most famous example was the Hamitic hypothesis – if a toponym could be linked with Ham, son of Noah, it meant that an ethnic group in particular came from Egypt or the Middle East. This map is clearly not an attempt to revive endless debates on the pseudo-origin of peoples as it is pretty easy to see how these theories have led to scientific racism. For a discussion of these issues see this article.

A nonsensical map?

This map aims at showing the variety of names used to designate African countries in modern English. The effect of this translation is to level all historical, geographical and linguistic differences between every country. The names and definitions were often copied and pasted from this page on Wikipedia, so, it goes without saying, that this map is not the result of any in-depth research. If you think that some of my translations are incorrect or could be improved, please contact me. Obviously, this is quite an artificial exercise. I don’t know if someone has noticed but the word “black” comes back quite often… Among other possibilities, “Africa” could mean “Sunny Land” – so on this map, “South Africa” appears as “Southern Sunny Land”. South Africa was not named after its climate but after its geographic location. So, yes to a certain extent, this map doesn’t make any sense.

Under a more historical angle, countries such as Burkina Faso chose to be called in 1984 the “land of Honest Men” as it was known under the colonial name of “Upper Volta” before. Choosing to get rid of the colonial past by using African languages was thus seen as a logical step by some African countries (Mali, Benin or Ghana did exactly the same). That’s why place names can be excellent primary sources to understand history at different scales. The fact that competing etymologies still exist nowadays can tell us a lot about postcolonial Africa. For example, why do we have so many possible etymologies for Niger? It seems that modern political situations still largely influence linguistic debates on the origin of these toponyms. See this comparison between Southern Senegambia and Germany to see the potential of such an approach.

Why this projection?

It is always quite difficult to find a good projection for African maps. Most projections used in the media tend to distort African distances. The Chamberlin trimetric projection is clearly a compromise between area, direction and distance. It is constructed by triangulating three base points (22°N, 0°), (22°N, 45°E), (22°S, 22.5°E). It was first built by Chamberlin in 1947 and was adapted to d3.js by Jason Davies. For an explanation on why we should change projections according to the scale of the map, see this page or this video.

Vincent Hiribarren

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‘Mastering the River Niger: James MacQueen’s Map of Africa and the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery’ (Review of David Lambert’s presentation on the 13th February 2013)

This post is a review of the seminar given by David Lambert on James MacQueen’s Map of Africa (University of Leeds, 13 February 2013).

David Lambert presented a fascinating analysis of the influences upon James MacQueen’s geographical imagination of the River Niger during the classic age of exploration.

There were three main sections to Lambert’s presentation.  First, he provided an overview of MacQueen’s life yet this aspect of his paper should only be addressed briefly.   The salient details were that he was a Glaswegian bookkeeper who attempted to map the River Niger during his time as an overseer on the Westerhall estate, Grenada, from 1799 due to the potential economic rewards of control trade along the tributaries.  His motive and methodology are further explored through the analysis of his professional life in section two. Continue reading

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‘Identifying with War: A Historical Appraisal of Child Combatants in African Conflicts, c.1950-2010’ (Review of Stacey Hynd’s presentation on the 13th March 2013)

This post is a review of the seminar given by Stacey Hynd on African child combatants (University of Leeds, 13 March 2013).

Hynd’s paper tackled a range of disparities between the humanitarian narrative of the child soldier and the actuality of warfare involving children.  To solve this misunderstanding Hynd’s paper took an alternative two-step approach: first, she contextualised the child’s role in warfare and, second, she historicised the reading of the basis to current arguments.  This process is conducted through three main stages and by using non-traditional archival material, such as oral interviews, media camps, grey literature, and humanitarian and NGO reports.  It should also be noted that Hynd tackled the definitional debate surrounding childhood in Africa and attests much of the Western misunderstanding to this difference.  Continue reading

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Nigeria, a Russian website and Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

I think it was on a Russian website a few years ago. I am not so sure. I knew I wanted to study Nigeria and I didn’t know where to start. I googled “Nigeria” and found a series of texts certainly reproduced with the permission of their authors (obviously).  I ended up reading a poem about Biafra and the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970). Two hours later, I was still in front of my screen. This is how I started reading Chinua Achebe’s poems and novels.

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