Sarah Zimmerman. Militarizing Marriage: West African Soldiers’ Conjugal Traditions in the Modern French Empire. Ohio University Press, 2020. Pp. 301. $34.95
by Jeremy Rich, Maywood University
Militarizing Marriage is a fascinating overview of the intersections of race, gender, women’s experiences, and the soldiers that maintained France’s global empire for over a century. Maritime historians should be warned that Zimmerman’s study never addresses the experiences of African sailors in the French navy or their families. Yet her methodology that brings together archival accounts with interviews of West African veterans along with their wives and children has a great deal to offer for naval historians who want to understand the intimate lives of Africans who worked for colonial navies. This study offers a fascinating and well-documented analysis of the ways French, West African, and military marriages practices intersected in ways that reinforced patriarchal authority of soldiers over their wives. At the same time, male African soldiers and the women in their lives constituted a formidable challenge to French military efforts to control the movement of their subjects. Women could seek to demand benefits from the French state due to their marriages with soldiers.
Both West African soldiers and their intimate partners had an ambiguous relation to slavery and the French state. In the late 19th century, French military commanders relied on freed enslave men to fight for them. French officials provided formerly enslaved women as wives to these troops. A harrowing case of this practice emerges in the case of Ciraïa Aminata, a woman who three different African men all sought to claim as a wife in a 1888 trial presided by famed officer Joseph-Simon Gallieni (44-49). Ultimately, the winner was the soldier who first “married” her after kidnapping Aminata. This instance reveals the vulnerability of women in the conflict zones of late 19th century West Africa under French invasion.
West African military marriages was not merely a story of female victimization. Zimmerman delineates changing French military policies regarding the movement of women and children across the French empire. Before roughly 1910, wives often travelled with West African troops assigned to serve in Central Africa, Madagascar, and Southeast Asia. French authorities recognized the legitimacy of marriage soldiers brought with them from French West Africa, but proved less willing to accept marriages of these soldiers with women from these areas where they were stationed. French officers permitted forced procurement of women for soldiers in frontier regions. When France invaded Morocco at the turn of the 20th century, West African women came with soldiers to live in segregated camps on the ground they could provide food and comfort for these forces. French commanders tried to appropriate earlier Moroccan military traditions of employing soldiers of sub-Saharan African descent, although they also tried to enforce sharp racial distinctions between Moroccans and West Africans.
By World War I, the French military reversed its earlier willingness to permit West African women to live with their husbands. Female partners of soldiers stationed away from West Africa sought to obtain pensions and benefits from the French army, even as soldiers often maintained multiple marriages in different locations. Both soldiers and the women in their lives often flouted military efforts to maintain racial and colonial distinctions, such a ban on marriages between West African army personnel and white French women during and after World War II. From 1914 until the early 1960s, soldiers also entered marriages and intimate relationships outside of marriage in Algeria, France, Syria, and southeast Asia. Zimmerman turns to interviews with Vietnamese wives of Senegalese soldiers and their children who chose at the end of French rule in Vietnam to relocate to Dakar. These recollections show the intercultural challenges individuals faced in these relationships, especially with the decline of the French empire by the late 1950s and early 1960s.
How might have the marital relationships of African sailors in the French navy compared to the West African soldiers so vividly depicted in Militarizing Marriage? My own research revealed several cases of West African sailors’ widows in Gabon requesting relief from the French government shortly after 1900. Historian Carina Ray has examined the complex martial relationships of West African sailors living in Britain. Unfortunately, no such work has been done on their counterparts in the French naval service. One would have to assume restrictions on marriage based on the home region or individual colony imposed by the army would have been harder to enforce on sailors not tethered to a particular region in the same way an army unit could be fixed to one location. While the French army initially allowed women to accompany West African troops, this seems quite unlikely for African sailors (or any sailors for that matter). For maritime historians seeking to explore gender norms and marriage for sailors from colonial territories, Militarizing Marriages will be a valuable resource in methodology and for points of comparison.