The Savineau Report: Introduction

The archival material of journalist, activist and commentator, Denise Savineau (born Marthe Jenty and also known as Denise Moran) is unusual not to say unique thanks to the particularly critical and analytical perspective she brought to bear on European colonisation in Africa.

While she regards her subject through a lens fashioned from a lifetime’s experience as a white European coloniser, there are glimmers of alternative perspectives as she uses her local interpreters to cite directly from her interlocutors. The following extract exemplifies this complex point of view:

  «When we discovered West Africa, it was not, either intellectually or morally-speaking, ‘uneducated’. Much is made of the fact that the Black people did not use writing, but for them spoken language is the conventional means of transmitting ideas. They could have grounds to cast a wry smile at us, given how late it was in our history that we invented the telephone».

Denise Savineau,  1938. [3]


A brief account of how the Savineau Report became a digital resource and an archive project

The Nuffield Foundation (UK) generously authorised fieldwork funding to the project director towards establishing a collaboration between the project director, the Chief archivist at the Senegalese National Archives, and the Senegalese Ministry of Education, who oversaw the production of a complete photocopy of the fragile and disintegrating archive in Dakar.

Thanks to this collaboration 17 field reports and the ‘executive summary’ –  a 220-page overview of the main findings – along with the correspondence that passed back and forth between the Governor General of French West Africa, Jules Marcel de Coppet, and Savineau were reproduced.

This full photocopy was sent to the University of Hull (the project director’s home institution at that time) which helped and supported the digitisation of the archive and the construction of ‘the Savineau Website’ housed at The site went live in 2004 and was used by scholars, teachers, public institutions and researchers in several countries and continents up to 2016 when the content transferred to the Savineau Report page of the present site .

A unique contribution to the scholarship of empire and its aftermath?

Denise Savineau’s eight-month tour of France’s former colonies in West Africa was the first and only comprehensive official tour which focused on the impact of colonisation particularly on local women and families living across the empire. This was also one of the only reports ever commissioned that was designed and executed by a woman.

Unlike the Guernut Commission of 1937, headed by parliamentarian Henri Guernut and established to explore the workings of the empire from within the colonies, this set of documents has a unique focus on women and sub-Saharan West Africa. In the brief time they were engaged between 1937 and disbanding in 1938, Guernut’s commissioners (37 men and 1 woman) cast a more administrative eye over the empire, with a focus on other areas of the global empire.

By contrast, Savineau spoke with hundreds of local families and women living in the Federation of French West Africa, generally, but not inevitably through local interpreters.  With famous historian Amadou Hampate Ba, then just starting his career as a clerk in Bamako, she conversed directly in French (though not a word was exchanged with either of his two wives).

Most her interlocutors had been living under the colonial regime unreported and  unacknowledged by the French colonial rulers. The field reports provide a wealth of detail and opinion, but have not to date been widely integrated into postcolonial research. The executive summary, or overview report, marked Rapport 18 in the archive, has been the most widely exploited in research published since the late 20th century, the reports themselves remain under-exploited.

How can this resource be used to go ‘beyond the colonial archive’?

Over 80 years after Savineau 10,000 mile tour[1] of ‘French West Africa’, and over half a century since France withdrew from the African colonies, the obvious question is: Why explore Africa through the reports of a colonial officer? Isn’t this the antithesis of seeking the multiple realities of life in the colonies that lie beyond the archive? Haven’t scholars established beyond doubt that colonisers cannot capture the experience of the colonised?[2]

Savineau’s journey through colonial French West Africa began on the now long-gone Dakar-Niger express train from Dakar to Bamako, and ended in Casamance in southern Senegal and brought her into contact with many hundreds of African women, men and children.Clearly, if we had diaries and analyses that had not been mediated by the European and colonial gaze they would serve as a primary source of information. Sadly we do not.

Notwithstanding her non-subaltern status, Savineau sought in her field reports to give her respondents an opportunity to comment on life in the colonies. The Mogho Naba, King of the Mossi nation (Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso) granted Savineau an audience as she passed through his kingdom in late 1937. He told her: No-one has ever asked our opinion before! [3].

While it is beyond doubt that Savineau herself could not reveal the realities of living as a colonised subject in French Africa in the interwar era, her writing captured evidence of the colonial encounter, as opposed to gaze, in Africa. In her idiosyncratic blend of colonial self-righteousness and anti-colonial narrative, her reports give us unique glimpses into the experiences of local people living in West Africa under colonisation, usually articulated through language interpretation, but nevertheless in situations which have not featured in official colonial histories of Africa, and enabling her African interlocutors to participate in the commentary.

Francophone Africa: beyond the archive has been built around the existing Savineau Archive while seeking to go well beyond the archive itself. Its aim is to open up many more opportunities for establishing new lines of enquiry and new research fields exploring the impact of the colonial world then and now. The website provides access to all the primary and secondary materials available on the previous site, but the new site is many times larger than the previous one and accommodates a host of new resources.


Savineau’s Journey

Dakar, French West Africa

October 1937.

Marcel de Coppet, Governor General of French West Africa, commissions a report on ‘African women and families’ living in the French West African Empire.

Denise Savineau, employed in the Colonial Education Service for French West Africa based in Dakar, is given the task of producing the study. She spends over seven months travelling through the French colonies in West Africa, observing, interviewing, and writing up her reports.

The first of her reports reaches the Governor General in mid-December 1937. It is evident from the outset that the account Savineau is producing goes well beyond her original brief. What the Governor General receives from Mme Savineau is as lively in parts as a journal, packed with personal observations, judgements, criticisms, outrage, and scandals.

The Savineau Report is a colonial vision of life in the French African Empire, redolent of the prejudices of the era, and the prejudices of the author. We encounter here, through imperial eyes, the multitude of characters who peopled the French Empire; from colonial agents, to missionaries, to doctors, to tribal chiefs, and most importantly we meet women, girls, wives, daughters, schoolchildren, sisters, teachers and nuns, Africans and non-Africans, who lived and worked in French West Africa on the eve of World War Two.

In theory and in keeping with academic notions of the day, the Report was supposed to be an exercise in objective observation. Indeed, inspired as it was by the socialist ideals of the Popular Front government, it was undertaken as mission to improve the lot of the colonised peoples of ‘French’ West Africa.

As we read these reports, it is not difficult for us to identify the ideology of empire coursing through her accounts, not least as we now have access to several decades of postcolonial cultural theory to help our reading. The study undertaken by Savineau had a clear ideological objective, it was commissioned to gain a better understanding of a subject population in order to reinforce the impact of French culture and civilisation on this population. It is a document designed to support and strengthen the French colonial mission in Africa, not demolish it, though Savineau includes severe criticism of how some agents were carrying out that mission. In this respect she was a forward-thinking observer for her day and the reports she penned are strikingly dissimilar to much of the material we find in the official colonial archive.

So how, in the 21st century, should we read these documents?

To read this study as an empirical documentary of an imperial world is to deny the subjective interpretative nature of the material, that very subjectivity that brings this material so vividly to life. It is a most engaging report in that it presents, through a wealth of fascinating details, a breath-taking panorama of scenes of life along with unabashed commentary and judgements on the colonial subjects and activities observed from the subjective point of view of the author. Its value lies on the one hand in the wealth of detail it provides on matters such as education, the health services, the legal system, but also in the candid account of how a colonial culture viewed a subject population.

The study Savineau undertook was ultimately submitted to the Governor General in the form of 17 geographical reports followed by a very large and comprehensive overview report. This collection of original reports is made available on this website, along with some English translations, for use by scholars and students engaged in not-for-profit research.

We stress that the views and opinions expressed in the Reports are those of the author, Denise Savineau. Among the views expressed by the author are some which can now be seen to be sexist and racist. Obviously we do not in any sense endorse these views. This is a historical document on a colonial theme and should be viewed in that light.

Among the fields of enquiry for which these documents are of interest are French colonial history, French colonial education and health services, African gender studies, African colonial history, the Niger Office, gender and development studies, social and human development policy in Africa from the early 20th century.

It is hoped that the documents will be of value and interest to researchers in Africa and beyond. We would be grateful if use of this website is acknowledged in publications.

The creation of this website represents a substantial undertaking in collation and copying at the National Archives of Senegal, and of transcription, translation, revision, commentary, editing, summarising and uploading of materials at the University of Hull and more latterly (since 2015) at the University of Chester. The work has been directed and coordinated by Claire Griffiths who also produced the English translations of the report. The project could not have been completed without the help of many contributors, not least the archivists at the National Archives in Senegal who identified the value of the holding and collaborated with us to conserve it electronically, and colleagues at the Ministries of Education and Culture facilitated the transfer of the holding from Dakar to Hull, the project has benefited from input from four research assistants and several student collaborators who have all helped make available the electronic files you can access by clicking on Reports.

Author: Claire Griffiths

Original site:

Updated 2017