Global Biography and the French Empire: Ambiguous Identities

AHA Session 241
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Gibson Room (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Barbara Cooper, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
From Prince to Marabout and Traitor: Mamadou Kane
Kathleen A. Keller, Gustavus Adolphus College
The Travels and Tribulations of an African Prince
Larissa Kopytoff, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg
Mary D. Lewis, Harvard University

Session Abstract

Mamadou Kane, Ibrahim Kachala, and Messaoud Djebari all led curious and unusual lives. Born in the French empire, they all traveled widely, spending time in sub-Saharan Africa and in metropolitan France. Kane and Kachala both hailed from French West Africa and traveled in Europe. Djebari came from Algeria, but took an exploratory mission in West Africa and visited Paris. All of the men attracted the attention of the press as minor celebrities. All three men also had run-ins with French colonial authorities. Furthermore, they all almost certainly engaged in some form of deception as each claimed to be someone other than who he was. Kane presented himself as a wizard with visionary powers as well as a learned marabout who offered his services to the occupying authorities during WWII. Kachala claimed royal lineage and used multiple identity papers as a traveled through Europe while Djebari invented stories in order to gain attention and ultimately the confidence of authorities who sent him on an intelligence mission to Lake Tchad. Each man is the subject of one of these presentations—Kathleen Keller on Kane, Larissa Kopytoff on Kachala, and Arthur Asseraf on Djebari. Analysis of the three lives will allow the three presenters to reflect on how race, mobility, and identity were all connected in the 19th and 20th c. French empire. These stories of deception and reinvention raise important questions. Was trickery a necessary tool for people living under colonial rule? Were the men simply frauds or plucky heroes making their way in a world not designed for them? Such analysis will use biographies to consider the agency of colonial subjects, but the papers will also address what the lives reveal about the French empire as a whole. Did the boundaries of the French empire expand or limit opportunities for travel and migration? How did African, Algerian, or “white” identity get shaped by colonial powers? Finally, how did authorities limit self-re-invention? In all of these stories, the men’s agency runs into limits. Djebari’s celebrity did not last; Kachala, destitute, was deported; and Kane was condemned as a fraud and traitor. These fascinating lives will provide interesting stories and new avenues for understanding identity, agency, mobility and power in the French empire.
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