You are the witnesses of immortal Africa: The Thiaroye Massacre and the Creation of an African History

Sam Anderson, class of 2009

With the generous support of an Evalyn Clark Memorial Fellowship, I traveled to Chicago for one week in January 2009 to conduct research for my senior thesis.  Entitled You are the witnesses of immortal Africa: The Thiaroye Massacre and the Creation of an African History, my thesis investigated the ways in which the mutiny and massacre of West African troops in the French army in November/December 1944 were treated by French and African colonial and post-colonial sources. Based on the research I conducted in Chicago, I argue that whereas French contemporary sources on the whole suppressed knowledge of the massacre, a rich history of Thiaroye rooted in West African oral traditions has blossomed across West Africa, to a special extent in Dakar, from 1944 to the present.

The Clark Fellowship, which took me to the Center for Research Libraries at the University of Chicago and the Melville Herskovits Library at Northwestern University, allowed me to read approximately ten Francophone newspapers from French West Africa and Algeria as well as metropolitan France itself. The experience was initially discouraging. I had to travel for approximately two hours each way on public transportation to reach CRL from my base in Evanston in the freezing Chicago winter, which is worse than even Poughkeepsie cold. And what I found there was nearly nonexistent, none of the sources I could find so much as mentioned the military encampment at Thiaroye during the months following the massacre on the night of 30 November and 1 December 1944.  

But despite having literally almost nothing material to show for my Clark-funded trip, the fellowship allowed me to gain much more nuanced insight into the situation in French West Africa during the last months of 1944. Increased French editorial censorship and the rigorous separation between military and civilian affairs led me to believe that the general public, both in the colony and in the metropole, would not have learned about the massacre through the usual means. Back on campus, using sources I had discovered at CRL, I found articles in francophone West African newspapers indicating, two and a half years after the massacre, a public knowledge of its existence which I take to mean that the event was actively suppressed in its immediate aftermath, and that the relatively wide literature which has arisen around Thiaroye rooted itself in the unpublished knowledge of the colonized West Africans.  

Thus, the Evalyn Clark Memorial Fellowship enabled me to conduct intensive original research that would have been impossible at Vassar, many of the newspapers I read are too fragile to travel and are unavailable elsewhere in North America which in turn contributed significantly to my senior thesis, particularly its first chapter. The Clark let me experience a Chicago winter for the first time, took me to two stunning universities, and allowed me to experience, for the first time, the historians' joy in original research. For all of that except, possibly, the Chicago winter I am truly grateful to the Clark Fellowship and to the History Department.