Africa4 – The African mouth and ears of the Borgnis-Desbordes missions (Mali, 1880-1883)

“The Interpreter” Series # 15

When is evoked the pivotal political period of the 1880s in the Sahel, which sees the confrontation of the Sahelian empires (the Toucouleur empire of Ahmadou, son of El Hadj Oumar Tall, or the Dyula empire of Samory Touré) with French colonial appetites arise all kinds of images. In this area, colonial propaganda played a significant role around the successive missions of Colonel Gustave Borgnis-Desbordes then Colonel Louis Archinard. Militarized images come to mind: colonial helmets, Senegalese spahis and skirmishers, the Medina fort, the road to Kita and Bamako, or the Niger river. Colonial propaganda has worked well since the missions of Borgnis-Desbordes (1880-1883): it fabricated its own imagination and its own version of the facts, that is to say the story from the colonial point of view (with the editing of mission stories seen by the colonels who led them) as well as all imagery forged through the mission’s photo albums.

It is therefore a whole technology of staging the colonial expeditions of Borgnis-Desbordes (especially for the missions of 1880-1881 and 1881-1882) that should be deconstructed. Beyond the deconstruction of the social and political order of the “conquest”, it is the composition itself of the members of the mission which deserves to be better analyzed. Indeed, beyond the soldiers themselves, this mission is based on other technical professions, which constitute the mouth and ears of the mission, in which Borgnis-Desbordes would have been politically blind and deaf.

Mademba Sy’s telegraph

First of all, we can cite the telegraph team, exclusively made up of Africans: it is literally the thread that links Borgnis-Desbordes. The leader of this team of telegraphers is none other than the famous Mademba Sy (1842-1918). He was employed at the posts in Medina when Borgnis-Desbordes met him for his mission in 1880. Mademba became the builder of the telegraph line between Medina and Kita and the telegraph chief of the Borgnis-Desbordes column across Sudan. In 1886, he was sent to the fort of Mont-Valérien in France to receive instruction from a military telegraphist. Returning to West Africa, he was the chief postal and telegraph clerk in Senegal in 1887, and knighted of the Legion of Honor. In 1890, he was close to Colonel Archinard (who succeeded Borgnis-Desbordes in Sudan) and he accompanied him in the capture of Ségou. In the aftermath of Ahmadou’s defeat, he was made fama of Sansanding by Archinard.

Mademba Sy’s telegraph brigade (Albums Borgnis-Desbordes, Gallica)

The interpreters: photographic portraits of the mission 1881-1882

In addition to telegraph technologies, Borgnis-Desbordes relies on a range of interpreters without whom its missions would have remained literally speechless. The portraits of these interpreters are kept in the mission’s photographic albums, posted online by the ANOMs in Aix-en-Provence and by the BnF on Gallica. In Medina, the interpreter is called Ousman and appears as a local notable (he poses with his wife for the mission’s photo albums). But Borgnis-Desbordes surrounds itself with its own translators. The small (incomplete) galaxy of interpreters that was able to be reconstructed for the mission of 1881-1882 makes it possible to glimpse a linguistic cartography of the mission and, in hollow, the issues of political connections: Mamadou Alpha is a Moorish interpreter (and seems- he, closest personally to Borgnis-Desbordes); Tiéma is a Bambara performer; Abdoulaye Diack is a Peul interpreter; Alpha Sega is a Toucouleur interpreter (obviously based in Bakel). Other portraits of performers, such as Ker, can be identified in the albums without their functions being clarified.

Mamadou Alpha (Albums Borgnis-Desbordes, ANOM)

Abdoulaye Diack (Albums Borgnis-Desbordes, ANOM)

Alpha Sega and his sisters (Albums Borgnis-Debordes, ANOM)

Finally, there remains a last character who still stands, in 1881-1882, at the crossroads of two universes: Boubakar Sada, who is ambassador of the emperor Ahmadou de Ségou to the Borgnis-Desbordes column; he then became king of Boundou.

Boubakar Sada (Albums Borgnis-Desbordes, ANOM)

All these actors were the mouths and ears of the Borgnis-Desbordes missions. Better than the colonial accounts, they show behind the scenes of a political geography in full upheaval in the decade 1880, in the moment which precedes the fights against the Toucouleur empire of Ahamdou and the Dyula empire of Samory.

The “Interpreter” series on Africa4

Louis Anno. Profession: interpreter (Ivory Coast, c. 1880-1900) # 1

The Athens of Africa (1827-1876) # 2

Marc Rabibisoa, interpreter and diplomat of the monarchy of Merina (1868-1899) # 3

Interpreters who became colonial governors # 4

“The hostage school” of Saint-Louis du Sénégal (1855-1909) # 5

Lost in translation: Kringer and King George (Gabon, 19th century) # 6

Djiguiba Camara: interpreter of the story of Samori Touré # 7

From the mouths of the natives # 8

The hostage school of Kayes # 9

Abdoulaye Sow: an interpreter faced with an insurrection (Sudan, 1930) # 10

The intrigues of a Guinean interpreter: Mamady Camara (Kissidougou, 1929-1930) # 11

OB: an interpreter worried about Mauritanian political changes (M’Bout, 1947) # 12

Marcellin Brun the performer: fake new or no news (Dahomey, 1930) # 13

Between the meshes of the colonial net. Youssoufou Yago, interpreter in Léo (Haute-Côte d’Ivoire, 1924-1934) # 14

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