France’s military intervention in Mali to root out Islamist militants evokes memories of when the French ruled a vast empire across much of West Africa.
Long before the arrival of Europeans, the present-day Mali was comprised of parts of various ancient civilizations -- Ghana, Malinké and Songhai -- that prospered from trade in such precious commodities as slaves, salt and gold in the Sahara. The Mali empire reached its zenith of power and influence during the 14th century, when the fabled city of Timbuktu inspired dreams of glory and was renowned as far away as the Mediterranean and Arabia as a center of wealth and Islamic learning.
The decline of the West African empires coincided with the inexorable rise of European states that zealously sought to extend their presence and influence across the globe.
By 1892, France took control of Mali, subsequently naming a civilian governor of what was then called the ‘French Sudan’ -- it took the cities of Timbuktu in 1894 and Gao in 1898, at which point the French military crushed any resistance to colonialism in the region.
At that time, Mali’s geography included parts of contemporary Mauritania, Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso.
The French authorities forced African laborers to produce goods such as peanuts and cotton, which were transported to the coast by railways and roads, while the vast interior remained destitute and undeveloped.
Generally speaking, Paris ruled from a distance, giving little importance or attention to a territory that was largely uninhabitable and lacking in natural resources.
However, in the 1930s, in an effort to build up the local cotton industry to feed French textiles, France established an irrigation program that flooded areas (thereby displacing Malian villages) of the Niger River Valley, using labor that amounted to plantation slavery.
After World War II, nationalist movements mushroomed across colonial Asia and Africa, leading to their indedpendence, most notably India in 1947.
Mali became an independent nation in 1960, with Modibo Keïta as its first president, who ran a one-party Socialist government.
At its height during the 1920s and 1930s, France’s global empire reached across 4.9-million square miles.
Similar to the British call for the assumption of “White Man’s Burden” to defend its huge empire, French imperialists called their program “mission civilisatrice” (a civilizing mission).
Indeed, in 1886, well into France’s expansionary period in West Africa, a French statesman named Jules Ferry spoke for many when he proudly said: "The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races."
As a result, French is now the dominant language in Mali and across West Africa, while Christianity pervades the region.
However, the French did not completely abolish slavery in West Africa until 1905 -- in fact, just prior to emancipation, up to 3.5 million people, about one-third of the region’s population, were slaves.
Even after abolition, slavery remained in force in Mali, given that the practice stretched back into antiquity, long before the arrival of the Europeans.
According to the Anti-Slavery Society, some freed slaves from Mali enlisted in the French Army and fought for the Republic in the First World War. Ten-thousand Malians died in the trenches for France in WWI.
One of the many legacies of colonial rule in West Africa relates to the migration of local peoples to France -- at least 120,000 Malians now live in France.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.