Great figures
of the colonization era

The great figure of the French colonial period is Joseph Gallieni. He began his career as second lieutenant under General Faidherbe’s orders in western Africa until 1888. He was assigned to Madagascar, then to Tonkin. It was there that he experimented with the “pacification” technique under the “ink blot” principle.1 The idea was to expand gradually, starting from the controlled zone, in which significant economic improvements had been made and had been immediately felt.

“It is the combined action of politics and force that must result in the pacification of the country. . . . Political action is by far the most important; it draws its greatest strength from knowledge of the countries and their inhabitants; these are the goals toward which the first efforts of any territorial command must tend.”2

It was necessary, he wrote, “[to] develop as quickly as possible, the electricity-supply network. . . . It is certainly more thanks to roads and telegraphs that a colony is conquered, than to using troops. Money is never more quickly recovered than when it is thrown massively into spending on the first installations. A telegraph line is immediate savings in military manpower.”

From this point of view, however, the French were amazingly shy and parsimonious, especially when compared with the processes used by the English, for whom building telegraph lines was to be done, step by step, along with, if not preceding, penetration. The French, on the contrary, despite the means extensively made available to them by the existing state of science, were still waging colonial wars overall as they had been in the eighteenth century.

“In sum, for all colonial enterprises, like for every industrial enterprise, the first capital outlay must be as large and speedy as possible.”3

No country was to be, on any account, directly administrated. Any organization more or less approaching direct administration would require staff in proportion with the population numbers, which would be impossible to deliver. The basis of the colonial regime was therefore to be a protectorate.

The general idea for the English was that in India, in Burma, “next to each indigenous chief a European agent [was] to be placed for supervision and control. But here, the difficulty [was] to react against the innate tendency among all the French to replace the local chief completely, down to every detail, and to indulge in direct administration.”

Hubert Lyautey, who remained in Morocco for a long time, had been under Gallieni’s orders in Madagascar and regarded himself as the spokesman of the latter’s methods.4 At the time, in the French colonial army, officers were assigned to a given territory for only three years. Lyautey argued for them to settle lastingly in the country where they had gotten projects underway.

“No wonder there are not more officers studying the languages. How encouraging can it be to learn Madagascan if you won’t be using it anymore? Let officers stay assigned to the same colony if they wish to, as other nations are showing us…”5

In Morocco, Lyautey used the “ink blot” technique dear to Gallieni. Economic development was central to his strategy. During World War I, even though he was deprived of two-thirds of his military staff, who had been sent to the front, he preserved “the apparent contour of ground occupation” and waited for the European conflict to be settled, when he would isolate every mountain range with a solid front, marked with advances into the valleys and the blocking of mountain passes (1919). He would leave Morocco after the failure of Abd el-Krim’s great insurrection (1922-1926), which had begun in Spanish Morocco in the Rif region.

  1. The French expression used by Faidherbe, “faire tâche d’huile”, which calls up the image of a spreading oil stain, was taken up by the United States in the twenty-first century as the “ink blot” theory. According to War Slang: American Fighting Words & Phrases Since the Civil War (Dickinson, Paul [2003], Potomac Books Inc., Dulles VA], “ink blot” is the “[t]heory that hundreds of thousands of men had to spread out like an ink blot (alternatively like an ‘oil slick’) to ensure that ‘pacification’ was taking hold.”
  2. Instructions given on May 22, 1898 relating to Madagascar.
  3. Instructions given on May 22, 1898. Underlined by Gallieni. This brings to mind the summer of 2003, when US forces did not put in the means to restore electricity in Baghdad, despite the torrid summer heat.
  4. See Lyautey, Hubert (1900), “Du rôle colonial de l’armée”, Revue des Deux Mondes, Vol. 157.
  5. Ibid.