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Africa at the Exhibition Expo Liege 1905

A laughing apparition greeted the walker who lingered under the shades of the Jardin d'Acclimatation. From the shade where he was, the white palace of Africa in the spreading sun, cut out against the clear sky, appeared to him with a precious exaltation of colour.

By its imposing mass, the edges of its outer walls, its bulbous tower
the rough mosques of Timbuktu, the mysterious.

Here, however, the old crumbling walls, eaten away by the slow decay of the centuries, had been covered with light colours; the mosque of bloody rites had become a pretty and peaceful vision.

Around him, paths wound their way around. In the middle of a lawn, opposite his entrance facing the Palais des Beaux-Arts, stood the statue of a pioneer of colonisation, Dr Ballay, former Governor General of French West Africa. The monument depicted him supporting a small negro whose gaze rose confidently towards him.

While the left side of the long building was split into two in the plain mirror of the waters of a lake, the other side, with its high dome and its tricolour flag, stood out in a luminous cut-out against a background darkened by tall trees.

As soon as one entered this pavilion, one was seized by a warm smell of honey, resins, and perfume exasperated in the heavy heat of the pavilion, which constituted a fictitious decor of exotic trees that one expected, on leaving, to see fanning the somewhat weary face of the visitor, with their great regular palms.

Moreover, the decoration of the pavilion itself was very conducive to the illusion. Here and there, on the panels bordering the bays, were panoplies of native weapons, amidst a decor of long drums, strange instruments, crude statuettes, and bark dugouts.

At the beginning of the central bay, a compartment had been reserved for indigenous workers working with ivory. Huge elephant skulls, still in possession of their tusks, invited the walker to stop by their decorative grouping. The workmen - two negroes with barbarous headdresses adorned with feathers - were working with admirable patience, while the polished bronze of their skins gleamed under a light sweat. Around them, finely chiselled paper-cutters, napkin rings, goblets and utensil handles attested to the superiority of their artistic craft. The side bays of the pavilion were particularly grouped with the different products of the colonies. Especially noteworthy was a superb collection of exotic birds, hummingbirds, parakeets, metallic blackbirds, parrots, etc., and a no less interesting and beautiful collection of wood species for luxury cabinet making.

All these things constituted a powerful evocation of torrid, productive Africa, with fabulous birds dressed in jewels, and if one discovered a piano or glassware, one nevertheless ended up finding a charm in these banalities. They had their reason to be represented in the pavilion, as objects that could be exported.

The countries which the pavilion brought together, although identical in character, are numerous and immense.
Indeed, the General Government of French West Africa comprises five colonies, each commanded by a lieutenant-governor: Senegal, French Guinea, Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Upper Senegal and Niger.

Special compartments had been reserved in the pavilion for these various countries, to which were added Mauritania, the French Congo, the Somali Coast, the islands of Madagascar, Reunion and Martinique.

It is not without interest to review the various products exhibited in the pavilion, especially when some picturesque detail relating to their culture or civilisation was added.

A simple walk along the windows was enough to convince the visitor of a certain kinship between the countries they represented. It was noticeable that groundnuts, rubber, coffee, cocoa and precious woods were common to all countries. On the other hand, some differed in the importance of one of the crops, but the picturesque and indigenous element still linked them together. The same psychological teaching emanated from the musical instruments and crude weapons spread everywhere. We were in the presence of savage peoples, with childish and cruel customs, and as in the Belgian Congo, we could deduce that the peaceful penetration of the civilising element could have its great advantage, not only from the commercial point of view, but also in terms of customs.

A few words about the countries represented in the pavilion seem necessary.

Senegal is the oldest of all the French possessions in Africa; two systems of government are in force there, depending on whether they apply to regions included as direct possessions or protectorate countries.

The compartment reserved for him showed us mainly samples of peanuts, which constitute his main production. Gum, rubber, live birds, ornamental feathers, palm kernels and elephant teeth are also included in the export figures.

The political regime of Guinea is similar to that of Senegal; its productions are more or less identical. It should be noted, however, that the rubber harvested in the plateau region is the main export product. Palm trees, groundnuts and sesame are also exported.

The same form of government still applies to the Ivory Coast, where French penetration in the highlands is met with the irreducible hostility of the natives. However, despite these difficulties, railways have already been established and other lines are still under construction. The usefulness of these means of transport is evident from the considerable expansion of trade, which rose from 7 million in 1894 to 17 million in 1903.

The Ivory Coast showed us in Liege the main products constituting its exports: almonds and palm oil, mahogany in sawn and polished planks and rubber.

The Dahomey compartment followed that of the Ivory Coast.

Administratively, Dahomey is divided into three distinct parts: annexed territories, protected territories and territories of political action.

The commercial movement of this colony has not progressed since 1894; this fact is due to the fact that the only export product is palm oil and palm kernels, which are harvested only in the regions close to the coast and cannot be harvested elsewhere for lack of transport. A small part of the export figure is still made up of various products: copra, rubber, groundnuts, cotton, rice and corn.

The colony of Haut-Sénégal and Niger extends from the Falemé River to Lake Chad.

Among the products representative of the culture of this country, rubber occupies a preponderant place. Thanks to the creation of farm-schools teaching the blacks to exploit this product rationally and to care for the plantations that a law orders to be made around their villages, the quality and quantity of the rubber of this colony can only increase.

Cotton, gutta-percha, gum, ornamental feathers, rice and wax are mainly traded internally by the dioulas or peddlers who, coming from the most distant centres, constantly criss-cross the colony and attend the markets held in various places.

Mauritania does not constitute a separate government, it is a grouping which has been organised with a view to facilitating the penetration of the whole country which extends to the north of Senegal and Niger, to establish permanent contact with the Moorish populations, for the most part nomadic, who circulate in the desert zone of Togant and Adrar, and to put an end to the state of anarchy and continual warfare which reigned in these regions and hindered the circulation of caravans and commercial operations.

When tranquillity is definitively assured, trade will be able to take off in a very appreciable way.

Such are the majority of the colonies of the African West which participated in the grouping of the French Possessions in Africa by samples of their products and collections of local objects. Various colonies were still in the pavilion; these were the French Congo, the Somali Coast, Madagascar and Reunion.

The French Congo and its dependencies include Gabon, Moyen-Congo, the territory of Oubanghi-Chari and that of Chad; all these countries are placed under the authority of a general commissioner resident in Brazzaville.

The French Congo is, by its ethnographic characteristics, its productions, the general state of its soil, quite similar to the Belgian Congo. It exhibited ivory, rubber, precious woods, palm oil, cocoa and kola in the compartment reserved for it.

As for the Somali Coast, it was represented by samples of Abyssinian wax.
Although the conquest of Madagascar is barely ten years old, the results obtained by the French in this immense island are truly noteworthy.

European activity has already manifested itself there by the installation of sugar factories, rum factories, distilleries, breweries, rice factories, salt works, brick factories, tile works, and lime factories, while rubber, textile plants, oil seeds, pistachio oil, and manioc are the object of the most important trade.

The island of Reunion, better known as Bourbon Island, was a neighbour of Madagascar and sent samples of cane sugar, febrifuge wine, rum, coffee, vanilla, sugar, tobacco, mineral water, honey, etc. Its representation in Liege was one of the most important in the world. Its representation in Liege was most striking.

A final special compartment of the pavilion was reserved for the Bordeaux Colonial Exhibition. This included various industrialists from Bordeaux, represented by derivatives of raw materials supplied by the colonies, such as peanut oils and cakes, olive oils, manufactured rubber, palm nuts, gum arabic.

It would perhaps be singularly presumptuous to give any conclusions here after these few brief notes on France's civilising work in Africa.

It seems, however, that it can be said that by a penetration as peaceful as possible, France has contributed powerfully to the moral upliftment of the negro populations.

As for the pavilion itself, its arrangement, and the pamphlets which commented on it, apart from the identical observation of the beauty which France knows how to imprint on everything she touches, one deduced from it the great impartiality of this country which knows how to admit its glorious defeats, its always possible errors, and which is not afraid to advise its nationals against their establishment in a hostile or infertile colony.

This disdain for "bluffing", all the more horrible because it is imposed on average mentalities, was a great example here.

©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle de Liège 1905