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The French West Africa Gold Rush

The French had a presence in West Africa from as early as the mid-17th century. They re-named an island at the mouth of the Senegal River "Saint-Louis," which served as the capital of Senegal from 1673 until 1902, and in 1677 took over from the Dutch Gorée Island, part of Dakar, the capital of the colony from 1902 until its independence from France. Both islands became bases for French trading companies. By the 1880s France had undertaken the construction of railroad lines in Senegal. In 1895 newly-federated French West Africa comprised Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin), and Niger.

Among the natural resources that attracted Europeans to the area was gold, and by the late 1890s, formal reports about the state of doing business in the French colonies were being compiled. A recent acquisition by Penn's Rare Book & Manuscript Library is one such report. Written by Léopold Vidal, Les Territoires Aurifères au Soudan Français begins with a clear statement about and outline of the regular transportation service between France and Dakar by five French companies, including the price and the duration of the travel as well as the length of stay in Dakar before returning to France. Vidal devotes a chapter to the Bambouk gold region, paying particular attention to the political realities of Diébèdougou and Koukadougou: he refers to them as independent states with a history of their own kings. Vidal warns: "Do not take it upon yourself to contest their power and their authority!"

The volume is a hybrid--partly printed manuscript pages and partly handwritten captions for the pasted-in photographic prints. The printing process is uncommon: the holograph sheets have been printed by hectograph, which entails the transfer of an original--prepared with special inks--to a pan of gelatin or a gelatin pad pulled tight on a metal frame. The Russian invention required limited technology and left few traces behind, making the process quite useful in clandestine circumstances. Although it is possible that a small quantity of copies were printed, none is recorded in WorldCat, except the one that the Penn Libraries just acquired.

For a closer look at the report with its seventy original photographic prints, request Ms. Coll. 914 in the reading room of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.


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