Domesticated or Savage?

Thoughts on the representation of the body of the Senegalese Tirailleur (1880-1918)

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The Tirailleurs occupy a specific place in the history of colonial propaganda and the representation of colonial subjects. Their symbolic status is marked by an ambivalence and polysemy, as they are the fruit of the two discourses developed by colonization with regard to « its » Black African populations – a double colonial language which would negatively develop republican ideology until decolonisation – one condemning the ‘savage’, the other leaving the way open to assimilation. We would like to examine here how the stigmas of these discourses have been projected onto the image of the Tirailleur, taking the ways in which their bodies have found themselves objectified, represented, interpreted as the object of our analysis.
Indeed, to avoid all ambiguity, let us stress that the images produced of the Tirailleur do not interest us in terms of their testimony to the reality of their condition. These images – postcards, posters, photographs, etc. – are, first and foremost, projections of already constructed representations, or representations that were in the process of being constructed, reflections of an imagination marked by ideology. It is in this respect, and as the products of this imagination, which was destined to forge and consolidate metropolitan France’s adhesion to the colonial enterprise, that these images will be addressed.
The creation and role of the Senegalese Tirailleurs in the military apparatus
The use of foreign recruits in military operations outside the national territory is a constant in European history, as the inter-State conflicts during the Ancien Régime or the First Empire testify. This policy was fully applied as of 1830, during the conquest of Algeria. The manipulation of existing ethnic and religious rivalries to divide the populations before the onslaught of the French, complemented this tactic of conquest.
In Senegal, on the initiative of Faidherbe, then Governor of Senegal, two companies of African conscripts were created in 1853. On 21 July 1857 the Senegalese Tirailleurs were born. Napoléon III indeed signed the decree creating a corps of African infantrymen called the Senegalese Tirailleurs on this date. From 1887 to 1900, several battalions of Senegalese Tirailleurs were created (in Gabon, the French Sudan, etc.), but they were short-lived. By tradition, all the corps of African infantrymen later took the name of ‘Tirailleurs sénégalais’, even though men from different African countries served in their ranks.
The Senegalese Tirailleurs were to participate more and more actively in all the military conquest operations in Africa. Black Africa was thus conquered by Africans, commanded by Whites. Militarily under-equipped, few in number, poorly trained, and without a specific mission, the Senegalese Tirailleurs were practically invisible before the early 1880s. They were soon to invade all the visual mediums during the expansionist movement of French and European conquest of sub-Saharan Africa, from the 1880s to 1890s. It was then that the image of the Tirailleur became inseparable from that of the people they were fighting, their image being constructed as a counterpoint to that of the savage.
The construction of the body of the Tirailleur
The late nineteenth-century images evoking the conquest lay the foundations for the main Black archetypes. This was a period of transition, at the crossroads of the scientific popularisation of the physical anthropology studies, which established a determining biological hierarchy in which the African was the most poorly endowed ‘race’, the first ethnological works, which developed the idea of a hierarchy of civilizations based on technological development – Black Africa being perceived in this scheme of things not as a civilization, but as a tribal obscurity excluded from History – and a popular fascination for the exotic, which, at the beginning of the 1890s, saw the creation of the first human zoos, such as the African tribe shows at the Casino de Paris or the Alhambra. In short, a mishmash of segregating, differentiating and racist representations which made their mark in that period, deeply moulding the imaginations of the people at the time. This mise en abyme of the image of the African has to be understood as a means of reinforcing Eurocentric convictions, and justifying a colonial conquest that crystallized an extreme patriotism. In a society ridden by angst before the social upheaval caused by the technological take-off and industrialization, wounded by the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in 1870, these images of the Other unquestionably played a structuring role, reinforcing the collective identity, and creating a social cohesion articulated by this ideology of superiority and power.
Inversely mirroring the degrading image of the African subjugated by conquest – the conquest thereby justifying itself – was that of the Senegalese Tirailleur. The Senegalese Tirailleur indeed represented the laboratory of French assimilation. Often conscripted by force, or voluntarily enlisted, sometimes even bought – when they were slaves – from their owners, the Tirailleur was to learn military discipline and the rudiments of French in the colonial army. Special teaching text books were elaborated to this effect during the 1860s, structured on the creation of ‘pidgin French’. Characteristic traits and the limits of doctrine of assimilation can thus be seen to emerge from the experience of the Tirailleurs.
The body of the Tirailleur in the representations is a superficially domesticated body, a military body. This domestication is metaphoric of the possibility of subjecting all Africans to a European discipline meant to raise them to the frontiers of civilization. In response to the discipline of the Tirailleurs – their unfailing obedience was constantly celebrated – was the vision of disorganized tribes, lacking in hierarchical organization other than the all-powerful and, at the same time, grotesque, or cruel and fanatic sorcerer ‘Negro king’. To obey, to penetrate the subtleties of the military hierarchy, was a first step towards the incorporation of metropolitan France’s complex social hierarchies, and, above all, what at the time was a burgeoning unequal socio-racial colonial order. The Tirailleur thus symbolized the possibilities of evolution for the African (let’s not forget that right at the beginning of the century, a school for chiefs was founded in St Louis, announcing the emergence of a category of évolués). An evolution which would be limited, as was the case in the colonial army, to the subaltern ranks, so as not to question the essential superiority of the Whites. As a result, and well before the judicial formulations which would later codify the colonial socio-racial hierarchy through the creation of the specific status of the « native », the Senegalese Tirailleur emerged as the prototype of this new citizen imagined by the colonial Republic, in an inverse image of the French citizen, to whom the republic’s paradigms applied (equality, freedom), taking care that these applied only to the colonized subjects, the colonizers being placed on another, hegemonic strata, as much in judicial, as political and cultural terms.
By definition, the body of the Tirailleur is a body covered in a uniform. A symbol of upward mobility, the uniform worn harks back to the nudity or semi-nudity of the Africans who resisted conquest. The wearing of the uniform was a privileged access to European social norms, to the Christian conception which stigmatised the naked body.
Finally, the last point, the Tirailleur spoke, or rather blabbered, ‘pidgin French’. It is perfectly symptomatic that the French officers developed these ‘pidgin French’ text books for the Tirailleurs, books which were destined for conscripts who, often, could speak three or four local languages. Mastering language is the distinctive sign of belonging to a civilization. It is also the heart of power. The Tirailleur would thus speak pidgin French in order to differentiate him clearly from the French soldiers, so as not to breach the fundamental boundary of the equality of language.
The Tirailleur’s ambivalent status
The figure of the Tirailleur thus emerged. He was a hybrid character, who was no longer completely African, but who could not envisage being completely French either. He remained in-between, in an intermediary position, the interface between the murky world of the colonized and that of the colonizers. Hence the fundamental ambivalence of his status, both vis-à-vis the African societies and the colonial world. Behind the superficially domesticated body of the soldier lurked savage, animal instincts, which is why the archetypes of the Tirailleur sometimes liken them to Whites, sometimes to Blacks.
The Tirailleur’s animality thus resurfaced during the First World War. The abundant images of assaults and personal exploits again highlighted their atavistic brutality, their taste for blood, and often their cannibalistic tendencies. When confronted with another figure of barbarity – the German – their savageness reared its head. These images counter those of the ‘big child’, which had been the recurrent refrain since the turn of the century, materialized by the image of the « Tirailleur Y’a bon » (*), which appeared in 1917, and which was re-used and exploited ad nauseam by the Banania brand in the inter-war years.
Another stigma of this animality bridled by military discipline, but always ready to subsume them, were the innumerable illustrations concerning their wartime women pen-friends, which appeared in the period from 1916-1918. These women – nurses and young French women – wrote to the Tirailleurs, just as they did to soldiers from metropolitan France.
These special relationships between the Tirailleurs and their pen-friends, in which gifts were exchanged, dates made, photos sent, established unprecedented relations. They became the theme of a whole popular iconography playing on the reciprocal gratitude. The images of convalescing soldiers, surrounded by doting young nurses, or on the arms of women of the world, developed a paternalistic and stereotypical vision. The suggestion of a (socially impossible) transgression of the taboos surrounding sexual relations between white women and black men is clearly portrayed. From this fantasy emerges the (always implied) fantasy of the unbridled sexuality of the Blacks, who, still close to nature, were thus incapable of controlling their own bodies and their instincts.
The figure of the Tirailleur and the representation of his body thus bear the stigmas of his status, mid-way between the colonial universe and that of the colonized. This relates back genealogically to the Republic’s assimilationist discourse, a double language based on the certitude that it was possible to ‘civilize’ the Africans, whilst at the same time confining them to a subaltern role.
The equivocal position of the Tirailleur lends itself to the projection of corporal fantasies – savage strength, a cannibalistic transgression of the sacred, an animalistic, and thus unbridled, sexuality – which form a mirror image designating the contours of a Western imaginary of the body, based on the suppression of urges, the incorporation of sexual and conjugal norms, the construction of a disciplined and socially useful body. The condescending mockery present in the images of the Tirailleurs, the signs of social, moral and racial inferiority (limited intellect), let fester an almost libidinous fascination for the superficially domesticated body, which could at anytime break out into violence or sexuality.

(*) Translator’s note: « Y’Bon' », the Banania brand logo, means « c’est bon » (here, « tastes good ») in pidgin.///Article N° : 5432


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