French Sudan (Soudan Français in French and as-Sūdān al-Faransī — السودان الفرنسي — in Arabic) was a French colonial territory in the federation of French West Africa. The colony was initially established largely as a military project led by French troops and was called Upper River from 1880 until 1890, when it was renamed French Sudan, with its capital at Kayes. In October 1899, French Sudan was divided, with the southern cercles joining coastal colonies, and the rest split into two administrative areas called Middle Niger and Upper Senegal. In 1902, the region again was organized as a unified colony under the name Senegambia and Niger (Sénégambie et Niger). The name changed again in 1904 to Upper Senegal and Niger (Haut Sénégal et Niger). Finally, in 1921, the name changed back to French Sudan. Borders and administration of the colony similarly changed a number of times. In 1958, French Sudan declared itself the Sudanese Republic (République Soudanaise) with internal autonomy and formally proclaimed itself the Republic of Mali in 1960. The capital moved from Kayes to Bamako in 1908, where it remains.
The area of French Sudan was once part of three famed West African empires which controlled trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, slaves, and other precious commodities. These Sahelian kingdoms had neither rigid geopolitical boundaries nor rigid ethnic identities. The earliest of these empires was the Ghana Empire, which was dominated by the Soninke, a Mande-speaking people. The empire expanded throughout West Africa from the eighth century until 1078, when it was conquered by the Almoravids.
The Mali Empire later formed on the upper Niger River, and reached the height of power in the 14th century. Under the Mali Empire, the ancient cities of Djenné and Timbuktu were centers of both trade and Islamic learning. The empire later declined as a result of internal intrigue, ultimately being supplanted by the Songhai Empire. The Songhai people originated in current northwestern Nigeria. The Songhai had long been a major power in West Africa subject to the Mali Empire’s rule.
In the late fourteenth century, the Songhai gradually gained independence from the Mali Empire and expanded, ultimately subsuming the entire eastern portion of the Mali Empire. The Songhai Empire’s eventual collapse was largely the result of a Moroccan invasion in 1591, under the command of Judar Pasha. The fall of the Songhai Empire marked the end of the region’s role as a trading crossroads. Following the establishment of sea routes by the European powers, the trans-Saharan trade routes lost significance.
One of the worst famines in the region’s recorded history occurred in the eighteenth century. According to John Iliffe, “The worst crises were in the 1680s, when famine extended from the Senegambian coast to the Upper Nile and ‘many sold themselves for slaves, only to get a sustenance’, and especially in 1738–56, when West Africa’s greatest recorded subsistence crisis, due to drought and locusts, reportedly killed half the population of Timbuktu.”
French Sudan originally formed as a set of military outposts as an extension of the French colony in Senegal. Though the area offered France little economic or strategic gain, the military effectively advocated greater conquest in the region. This was partly due to a fascination with the great empires, such as the Mali Empire and the Songhay Empire that rose to prominence in the area, and partly due to the promotional opportunities that military conquest offered for French military personnel.
French conquest began in 1879, when Joseph Gallieni was dispatched to the area to establish a fort and survey the land for a railroad from Dakar in Senegal to the Niger River. This was followed with the establishment of a number of French forts and political alliances with specific leaders in the region in the early 1880s. The administrative structure of the area was still largely under control of the French Governor of Senegal, and the most significant colonization were simply the military forts and outposts, including the important one established at Kayes in 1881 by Gustave Borgnis-Desbordes. Though the civilian administration of the French governor of Senegal formally ruled the area, military officers in the region largely bypassed these leaders and answered directly to commanding officers in Paris. Desbordes gradually took over more territory, often using inter-ethnic rivalries and political tension among leaders in the area to appoint French-supportive leaders.
French civilian administrators struggled with the military leaders, and the two forces went through a number of leadership changes over the territory, until Louis Archinard was appointed military governor in 1892. Archinard led military campaigns against Samori Ture, Ahmadu Tall, and other resistant leaders in the region, with varying success. Archinard’s campaigns were often executed through direct military control, without civilian oversight. As costs increased, the French administration decided to replace Archinard’s control over the area with a civilian governor, Louis Albert Grodet.
The region was governed under a number of different names between 1880 and 1960. From 1880 until 1890, the area was known as Upper River. The French created a market town at the small village of Kayes on the Senegal River in 1881. The name “Kayes” comes from the Soninké word “karré“, which describes a low humid place that floods in rainy season. It is located 260 miles (420 kilometers) northwest of Bamako. On August 18, 1890, Upper River became the colony of French Sudan and the capital was established at Kayes. It remains a transport hub, primarily for Senegalese trade, to this day, lying on the Dakar-Niger Railway which offers regional passenger train service to Bamako three times a week via Kati and Diamou. The area is rich in gold and iron.
Originally, and for the initial period, the colony vacillated between military administration and civilian administration from Senegal. In 1893, French Sudan formally came under civilian administration, which lasted until 1899.
Cercles were instituted in France’s African colonies from 1895 until 1946. A cercle was the smallest unit of French political administration in French Colonial Africa that was headed by a European officer and consisted of several cantons, each of which in turn consisted of several villages.
The Cercle Commander (commandant de cercle) was subject to the authority of a District Commander, and the government of the colony above him, but was independent of the military structure. Below the Cercle Commander were a series of African Chefs de canton and Chefs du Village: “chiefs” appointed by the French and subject to removal by the Europeans. As well, the Cercle Commander made use of a large number of servants, employees, and African officers such as the Gardes-de-cercle police, any military units seconded to them by government authorities, and sub-administrators such as the Precepteur du marché trade inspectors, etc.
Because of administrative practice and geographic isolation, Cercle Commanders had a tremendous amount of power over the lives of the Africans around them. The Cercle Commanders also had tremendous power over the economic and political life of their territories. Legally, all Africans outside the Four Communes of Senegal were “subjects” under the Indigénat legal code of 1885. This code gave summary powers to French administrators, including the rights to arrest, try, punish and imprison subjects. It also gave French local authorities the right to requisition forced labor, usually limited to able-bodied men for a few weeks a year, but in practice having few restrictions. These “tools” included the Civilizing mission ideology common in the period following the First World War. Every new Cercle Commander might well bring with him vast projects for development and the restructuring of the people’s lives he governed.
In the late 1890s, the French government began to rein in the territorial expansion of its “officers on the ground”, and transferred all the territories west of Gabon to a single Governor based in Senegal, reporting directly to the Minister of Overseas Affairs. The first Governor General of Senegal was named in 1895, and in 1904, the territories he oversaw were formally named French West Africa (Afrique occidentale française, or AOF). This was a federation of eight French colonial territories: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan, French Guinea, Ivory Coast, Upper Volta, Dahomey, and Niger. The capital of the federation was Dakar.
On October 10, 1899, French Sudan was divided with eleven southern cercles joining coastal colonies like French Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Dahomey. The area that was not reorganized was governed in two administrations linked to other French colonies called Middle Niger and Upper Senegal.
In 1902, the region again was organized as a unified colony under the name Senegambia and Niger (Sénégambie et Niger) which lasted under this name until 1904. Despite its brief existence, the French government still managed to issue postage stamps for the administrative unit, in the form of a version of its Navigation and Commerce series, inscribed SENEGAMBIE / ET NIGER.
On October 21, 1904, the Colony of Upper Senegal and Niger (Haut Sénégal et Niger) was created from colonial Senegambia and Niger by the decree “For the Reorganisation of the general government of French West Africa”. At its creation, this colony contained the old territories of Upper Senegal, the Middle Niger, and the military Niger territory. Its capital was established at Bamako.
A decree on March 2, 1907, added the cercles of Fada N’gourma and Say, which had been part of the colony of French Dahomey (present day Benin). On January 1, 1912, the military territory of Niger was split off from Upper Senegal and Niger, and became its own colony in 1922. Between November 1915 and February 1917, the Colony of Upper Senegal and Niger witnessed vastly popular, temporarily successful, and sustained armed opposition to colonial government in its western Volta region, which is referred to as the Volta-Bani War. It challenged colonial government authority for more than a year in an area stretching from Koudougou (in present day Burkina Faso) in the east, to the banks of the Bani River (present day Mali) in the west. This was the most significant armed opposition to colonial authority organized anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa in the period preceding World War II.
After World War I ended, the unsuspected success of this resistance movement caused the French authorities to issue the decree “Concerning the Division of the Colony of Upper Senegal and Niger and the Creation of the Colony of Upper Volta” on March 1, 1919, which divided the colony into two distinct units:
- the Colony of Niger
- French Upper Volta, formed from the cercles of Gaoua, Bobo-Dioulasso, Dédougou, Ouagadougou, Dori, Say, and Fada N’Gourma
French Sudan was formed later on January 1, 1921, with the remaining territory, implementing the decree of December 4, 1920, “For the Denomination of the Colonies and Territories Composing the General Government of French West Africa.” Though the borders shifted slightly, there was little territorial change until 1933. At that point, the colony of the French Upper Volta (Haute-Volta, modern Burkina Faso) dissolved, and the northern territory was added to French Sudan.
In 1947, Upper Volta was reestablished, and the French Sudan borders became those that eventually became the borders of Mali. In early 1959, French Sudan (which changed its name to the Sudanese Republic) and Senegal united to become the Mali Federation. The Mali Federation gained independence from France on June 20, 1960. Senegal withdrew from the federation in August 1960, which allowed the Sudanese Republic to become the independent Republic of Mali (République du Mali) on September 22, 1960. Modibo Keïta was elected the first president. Keïta quickly established a one-party state, adopted an independent African and socialist orientation with close ties to the East, and implemented extensive nationalization of economic resources. In 1960, the population of Mali was reported to be about 4.1 million.
Throughout its history, French Sudan supported mostly rain-fed agriculture, with limited irrigation for its first 30 years. The only cash crops were nuts gathered close to the railroad between Kayes and Bamako. However, following successful tests of growing Egyptian cotton in West Africa during World War I, Émile Bélime began to campaign for the construction of a large irrigation system along the Niger River. Starting in 1921, significant irrigation projects around Koulikoro and later at Baguinéda-Camp and the Ségou Cercle began to bring water. The French believed this project could rival the major cotton growing centers of Egypt and the United States.
Unlike other agricultural projects in French West Africa, the French Sudan irrigation project initially relied on families voluntarily resettling along lines established by the colonial authority. Unable to attract enough volunteers, the colonial authorities began to try forced resettlement to the cotton project. The Office du Niger was founded in 1926 as the main organization facilitating planned, irrigated agricultural projects. Farmers resisted forced resettlement and petitioned for permanent land rights to the irrigated land (which was usually held as property of the Office du Niger). Despite these efforts, a significant cash crop economy did not develop in the French Sudan.
Like much of the rest of French West Africa, the colony had a number of policies regarding Islam and the Muslim communities. The Arabic language and Islamic law were preferred in the colony by the French in the establishment of colonial government, largely because both were codified, and thus easy to standardize. Though they maintained a formal neutrality policy in regards to religion, the French colonial administration began to regulate Islamic education in the early 1900s. In addition, fear of a pan-Islamism political rise throughout North Africa and the Sahel led the French to adopt policies that aimed to prevent the spread of Islam beyond where it already existed and to prevent Muslim leaders from governing non-Muslim communities. Indigenous religions and Christianity existed under less formal policies, and French efforts often used these to balance the spread of Islam in the region.
In the 1940s, a religious movement called Allah Koura began in the San Cercle based upon the visions of a single person. Local administrators allowed the Allah Koura movement to spread and practice, seeing it as a potential limiting influence on the spread of Islam farther south. In the late 1950s, Muslim protests and riots throughout the colony further contributed to a growing independence movement.
Like much of the rest of French West Africa, authorities enforced explicit rules in an attempt to end slavery in the region. In 1903, the government instructed French administrators to not use slave as an administrative category anymore. This was followed in 1905 by a formal French decree that ended slavery throughout French West Africa. Almost a million slaves in French West Africa responded to this by moving away from their masters and settling elsewhere. The French supported these efforts by creating settlements around the Niger River and digging wells for communities elsewhere so they could farm away from their former masters.
This process affected the Southern and Western parts of present-day Mali most significantly, but in the Northern and Eastern parts of the colony large numbers of slaves remained in servitude to their masters. According to rough estimates, throughout the area of present-day Mali about one-third of former slaves moved away from the slavery relationship, while two-thirds remained with their masters. In the 1920s, most Tuareg households still had slaves who tended to the house and animals.
Though slavery persisted, some aspects of the relationship changed with the French administration. Escaped slaves could find official protection by French authorities in the cities for a limited time. Slaves could sometimes renegotiate the terms of their servitude in the changed political situation. Some were willing to agree to remain in servitude if they received control over their family life and some land to pass to their children. In addition, the French administration actively worked to end slave raiding and the most clear manifestations of the slave trade, greatly reducing those means of acquiring slaves. However, for many decades after the 1905 abolition of slavery, the practice continued in much of French Sudan.
The first post offices in what is to become French Sudan were established from Senegal in 1890. The first stamps used were the general issues for the French colonies and the stamps from Senegal. The Senegal post offices were transferred to French Sudan in 1892.
The first stamps for French Sudan were provisionals issued in 1894, using French Colonies general issues overprinted Soudan Fais and surcharged with new denominations. The first set of definitives were of the standard design for the French colonies and issued later in the same year. A few additional values were released in 1900.
The French colonial territories federated into French West Africa (AEF) in 1895 issued their own postage stamps until 1943. In many cases the stamps were inscribed with the name of the federation as well as the colony’s own name. These included Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan, French Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Upper Volta, and Dahomey.
In 1903, the group-type stamps were marked SENEGAMBIA ET NIGER, the new name of the colony. In 1906, new stamps were issued marked Haut Sénégal et Niger, with varied illustrations including colonial personalities: General Louis Faidherbe and Governor General Noël Ballay in 1906 and a Tuareg horseman in 1914. All the above stamps of this colony with its successive names became uncommon for letters until 1920.
In 1920, Upper Senegal and Niger became French Sudan and some of its regions became Upper Volta and Niger. Stamps were issued in 1921 with overprints on issues of Upper Senegal and Niger reading Soudan Français. The first definitives were issued in 1931, inscribed Soudan with the additional inscriptions of Afrique Occidentale Française or AOF to show that French Sudan was part of the federation of French West Africa. From 1944 to 1959, the French West Africa issues were used in the French Sudan.
The first stamps of the Mali Federation were issued on November 7, 1959. The first stamps of the Mali Republic were issued in September 1960. In 1959 and early 1960, nine stamps were issued in the name of the short-lived Federation of Mali which consisted of Senegal and French Sudan. They depict symbols of the Federation with a series of fish and a common issue with some other of former French colonies in Africa. But tensions quickly arose between the two states of the new federation. Senegal then seceded, while the former Sudan retained the name of Mali, as well as the use of the Federation stamps. The stamps of the defunct federation are rare on letters, especially as in 1961 the remaining stock was overprinted RÉPUBLIQUE DU MALI.
Scott #62 was released in 1931, part of a large issue with 41 stamps produced from 1931-40 using three local portraits or scenes. These included a Fulani milkmaid (described in the Scott catalogue as “Sudanese woman”), the door of the Djenne residence, and a boatman on the river Niger. The 2-centime stamp portrays the milkmaid in orange with a dark blue frame, typographed and perforated 13×14.