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  • Naomi Nicholas 

The Exploitation of African Men During the World Wars 

Cartoon image of Tirailleurs Sénégalais during World War I

In 2021, David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black was awarded the International Man Booker Prize, one of the most sought-after literary awards in the world, for its “frightening” and “appalling” portrayal of a Senegalese soldier named Alfa Ndiaye. Alfa Ndiaye fought alongside black and white soldiers in the French army during World War I and suffered a psychotic break of sorts after witnessing the death of his best friend in combat. Ndiaye's story reveals much about the damage that both war and loss are capable of inflicting on one’s psyche, but it also reveals much about the way African soldiers have been viewed and exploited by Europeans. 

After losing his best friend, Ndiaye begins to seek revenge and starts cutting off the hands of German soldiers and bringing them back to the trench. At first, this savagery is praised, echoing the sentiments expressed in the novel: “The captain’s France needs for us to play the savage when it suits them.” The reception of Ndiaye’s earliest symptoms of madness reveals France’s use of generalizations about Africans to help their cause, but it also raises the question of how a Senegalese man came to be a member of the French army. 

Europeans, who had unabashedly enslaved Africans for labor, did not shy away from using them to support their military ventures. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the French military began purchasing West African slaves to serve in its armed forces, sometimes even paying slave owners in exchange for the conscription of their slaves. In 1854, a French general named Louis Faidherbe became the colonial governor of Senegal and he promoted the voluntary enlistment of African soldiers, but a system that began with slavery is rarely without flaws.

As World War I began, many Senegalese men willingly joined the French army in agreement with the promise of citizenship, but the majority of African recruits were conscripted or forced to volunteer as a result of colonial circumstances. The French were so persistent in their recruitment of African soldiers and attempts to form a permanent reserve of African troops that it has been described by Nigerian author Jide Osuntokun as a new slave trade

West Africans were often recruited by the French as soldiers because it was believed that they were too primitive and simple for skilled jobs but would be perfect as soldiers entrusted to do nothing more than kill or be killed in battle. David Diop illustrates this well, as it becomes clear throughout the novel that Ndiaye and his fellow “Chocolat” soldiers are wildly dehumanized and subjected to stereotypes that continue to harm the perception of black men in the present day. In the novel Mademba recalls, “Looking into the enemy’s blue eyes, I often see a panicked fear of death, of savagery, of rape, of cannibalism. I see in his eyes what he’s been told about me, and what he’s believed without ever seeing me.” In a war that was neither started by nor directly related to Africans, it was still them who were considered the savages or monsters. The fictional Captain Armand tells his group of Tirailleurs Sénégalais, or Senegalese riflemen, that “the enemy was afraid of savage Negroes, cannibals, Zulus…” Despite the labor and work that African soldiers put into helping the French army, they were still victims of harmful generalizations, that instead of correcting the French capitalized on to instill fear in their enemies. 

West African soldiers were not the only group subjected to stereotypes that affected their work. The French recruited Moroccan workers because they were believed to be capable of onerous work, but they were also placed under strict surveillance as they were generalized as being unloyal and easily persuaded into becoming traitors. Tunisians were also closely watched and often segregated because they were considered to be prone to theft. Workers from Madagascar were considered to be of low intelligence and effeminate, resulting in them often being assigned to support troops or work as nurses

The recruitment of Africans into European armies was not limited to World War I. Very early into World War II, the French, British, and Belgians all conscripted Africans from territories they occupied to take up arms against Germany and its allies. These men were often humiliated at the hands of European officers, received floggings, and were the targets of racial slurs and violence

A 1940 photo of Tirailleurs Sénégalais during World War II

Throughout history, Africans have faced dehumanizing stereotypes, perpetuated by Europeans to justify exploitation. From the French military's purchase of West African slaves to the recruitment tactics in both World Wars, African soldiers endured discrimination and mistreatment despite their contributions to the war efforts. Upon reading At Night All Blood is Black, it becomes clear that Africans’ involvement in the World Wars was little less than slavery, an idea that is well encapsulated when Diop writes, “There was no point in dying if it wasn’t at the captain’s command.”


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