I write with a considerable dose of imposter syndrome here. Even pushing my research to its extremities, I really can’t describe myself as a historian of France, or of the Francophone world. My PhD concerned the intersection of local politics, decolonisation, and the Cold War in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – something of a hybrid between international and African history. There’s more information on the project here.
The historian of high politics in post-colonial Africa faces a problem of sources. State archive collections in the continent are often off limits to researchers, in a state of neglect and disrepair, or simply non-existent. Oral histories provide illuminating insights, but they can only take us so far: the flaws of human memories render interviews alone an inadequate method for rebuilding detailed narratives that rely on precise chronologies.
My response was to turn to archives outside of Africa, primarily the records of various foreign powers with diplomatic representations in Dar es Salaam or a stake in Tanzanian affairs. The UK, the United States, and West Germany offered a Western angle. East Germany and Poland provided a Soviet Bloc perspective. Portugal monitored closely the activities of Mozambican guerrillas based in Dar es Salaam. The broad approach to these archives was twofold. First, I wanted to gain an insight into the foreign policies of these states vis-à-vis Tanzania. Second, through triangulation with other documentation, press reports, oral interviews, and secondary literature, I sought to use carefully the contents of diplomatic cables to construct a political history of post-colonial Dar es Salaam.
France had less of a stake in the former German and then British territory of Tanzania than any of the other states listed above. But its embassy in Dar es Salaam was an attentive observer of domestic affairs. So, in pursuit of documents – and squeezing dry my language skills – I ventured into the French diplomatic archives. These are split between Nantes and Paris, though for my project, it turned out that only the former really contained relevant material for the time period in question. My trip was generously funded by the Society for the Study of French History and a report appeared in French History last year.
With the assistance of the helpful staff in Nantes, I moved through the files from the French embassy in Dar es Salaam from the 1960s and 1970s. (Joanna Warson has written a useful report on the Archives Diplomatiques). Like similar archives, these files are not simply a repository of diplomatic communications, but full of ephemera that passed through the embassy: government handouts, press cuttings, liberation movement propaganda, photographs. The language is predictably colourful, effusive, and highly quotable. The material filled in blank spots in my narrative and substantiated otherwise looser claims I made based on documents found elsewhere in the world.
The material I found in Nantes offered up the occasional surprise. France’s colonial connections brought it into contact with the Comorian diaspora in Tanzania. The islands of Zanzibar, which retained a significant degree of autonomy after the union with mainland Tanganyika in 1964, were home to a large Comorian population, which suffered severe persecution at the hands of the local regime. Through them, the French maintained a network of well-placed contacts among Zanzibar’s political elite. As the regime of President Abeid Karume turned Zanzibar into a de facto police state, the French consulate on the islands became an oasis of political intelligence for the West, which was concerned about Soviet and especially Chinese influence on the islands. The most detailed background to the assassination of Karume in 1972, which represents a climax in my thesis, comes from these French sources.
The French files from Dar es Salaam threw up certain anecdotes which could not have appeared elsewhere. The ambassador made a rather deluded and futile attempt to reinstate French as the language of diplomacy in the Tanzanian capital. A note on a report about the embassy’s catering arrangements lamented that the local wine left much to be desired. When the French minister for foreign affairs, Louis de Guiringaud, made a visit to Tanzania in 1977, he was even more disgruntled. Confronted at the airport by a crowd of student protesters, who were angry at the French government’s decision to sell arms to apartheid South Africa, the minister decided immediately to cancel his stay in Dar es Salaam. ‘BON VOYAGE’, concluded an editorial in the government newspaper the following morning.
Truffle-hunting among the files in Nantes, I also stumbled across a future mini-project. In the 1960s and 1970s, Dar es Salaam housed the offices of exiled anticolonial movements from across Africa. While the South Africans, Rhodesians, and Mozambicans have stolen much of the historiographical limelight, there were a string of smaller groups also based in the city, including the Comorian nationalist organisation, MOLINACO (Mouvement de libération nationale des Comores). The French embassy kept a close eye on the movement’s activities. However, MOLINACO enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with the French representatives in Dar es Salaam. While campaigning against French rule, Comorian nationalists also looked to the French diplomats for consular advice and protection, especially as the Karume regime persecuted Zanzibaris of Comorian descent. Mixing the politics of liberation with a flourishing literature on citizenship and decolonisation, I’d like to explore the tensions and ambiguities in this relationship further. Perhaps, then, there might be something of the Francophone historian here, after all…
George Roberts is a Teaching Fellow in Modern African History at the University of Warwick. He recently defended his PhD thesis, which concerned the intersection of politics, decolonisation, and the Cold War in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He previously studied at the University of Cambridge and the College of Europe in Warsaw.
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