This dissertation investigates the lives and careers of African interpreters employed by the French colonial administration in Saint-Louis, Senegal, from about the mid 1850s to about the early 1920s. It focuses on the lower and middle Senegal River valley, where the French concentrated most of their activities in West Africa during the second half of the nineteenth century. All through the extended period of French territorial expansion and early colonial rule, Muslim African interpreters in Senegal performed multiple roles as mediators, military and expeditionary guides, emissaries, diplomatic hosts and treaty negotiators. As cultural and political powerbrokers who could straddle the colonial divide, interpreters were indispensable intermediaries for French officials in their relations with African rulers and the local population of the Senegal region.
Because African interpreters had close ties with the colonial regime, however, earlier post-independence studies on the colonial period in Senegal framed in the nationalist and resistance paradigms usually portrayed them simplistically as "collaborators" (read pejoratively as "unpatriotic" traitors or sellouts). This perception of interpreters created considerable misunderstanding about their intermediary roles during the colonial period. Yet, since historians studying Senegal have not carried out extensive empirical research on African colonial interpreters, this problem has persisted in the historiography of Senegal and French West Africa.
This dissertation addresses this historiographical lacuna and challenges the conventional understanding for its reductionist misrepresentation of African colonial interpreters in Senegal. Contrary to the received wisdom, the study suggests that African interpreters epitomized a paradox: while serving an alien French administration they not only defended the interests of their local communities but also strived to maintain some degree of autonomy. Second, the study proposes that interpreters occupied a propitious position as go-betweens to influence the creation of colonial discourse and knowledge as they could channel the flow of information between French officials and the African population. Evidence indicates that French officials, including Governor Louis Faidherbe, the "architect of Senegal," and Xavier Coppolani, the "pacifier of Mauritania," often relied on African interpreters for information about local politics, culture, history and the economy. As repositories of "local knowledge," interpreters had the capacity to shape relations of power between the French and their African subjects.
Combining a variety of French colonial archival records, such as official correspondence and personnel files, with oral data comprising interviews, family biographies, and local narratives about the colonial period, the study reconstructs the experiences of Muslim interpreters in colonial Senegal and assesses their intermediary position. In so doing, it aims to illuminate the complex worlds they traversed while mediating between French officials and Africans. The study also seeks to appraise the contributions made by interpreters to the production and dissemination of knowledge in colonial Senegal. In all, it offers a trajectory of interpretation for a nuanced understanding of African colonial interpreters and similar intermediaries as active historical actors rather than passive victims of French colonialism.