Children of the French Empire:
Miscegenation and Colonial Society in French West Africa 1895-1960

Owen White

Oxford University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
Children of the French Empire is obviously rather specialised — it is based on a PhD thesis — but it connects with the broader history of colonialism. White opens with a chapter on miscegenation in French West Africa, touching on earlier Portuguese contacts and then looking at the theory and practice of French colonial administration. Though policies and practices varied considerably, the French tended to be pragmatic about temporary marriages with locals (more so than the British and Italians) and métissage persisted even as racial and social divides hardened.

White's focus, however, is not on miscegenation itself but on its results, on the thousands of métis born of mixed-race relationships. These were mostly abandoned by their fathers, but were the subject of special attention by colonial administrations, which set up institutions for them, or allowed and encouraged missionaries to do so (before Third Republic anti-clericalism). The goals of intervention varied considerably, as did implementations: in some cases children were taken away from their mothers, distinctions between métis and Black African children were not always maintained, conditions in institutions ranged from the appalling upwards, and of course boys were treated differently to girls. White looks in detail at two institutions and at the subsequent employment of their graduates — métis were pushed towards careers as "petty bourgeois functionaries" such as auxiliary workers in health and education.

White then looks at the place of miscegenation in nineteenth century racial theories, from Gobineau onwards, and the extent to which metropolitan theories, many of them obviously lacking contact with reality, were accepted or opposed by those in the colonies with first-hand experience. He also describes attempts to clarify the legal status of métis. Pressure to give them French citizenship increased with a 1910 change to French paternity law and with the First World War, but a 1930 decree allowed authorities to keep tight control on who was given citizenship and fewer than four hundred métis qualified before 1944. A final chapter considers the search by métis for a social identity, looking at the creation of métis organisations and the histories of a few individuals.

Note: Children of the French Empire happens to be in the middle of my sister Jennifer's research field, but she's not responsible for anything in this review.

December 2001

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- books about Africa + African history
- books about France + French history
- more social history
- books published by Oxford University Press
%T Children of the French Empire
%S Miscegenation and Colonial Society in French West Africa 1895-1960
%A White, Owen
%I Oxford University Press
%D 1999
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0198208197
%P 200pp