The Thiaroye massacre was a massacre of some members of French West African troops who were protesting against non-payment of wages towards the end of World War II.
On the morning of 1 December 1944. French West African troops — known then as Tirailleurs Sénégalais — units of the French army who were being held at a holding camp in Thiaroye, on the outskirts of Dakar Senegal were massacred by French “white” forces for demanding better living conditions, their allowances and pensions.
During World War II, it was normal practice for colonial powers to recruit soldiers and civilians alike from their African colonies to fight on their side; the Britain recruited some 600,000 African men, while the french recruited over 400,000 soldiers from their colonies promising them benefits and pension equal to that of ‘white’ french soldiers.
These French west african soldiers were called Senegalese tirailleurs and they were recruited from Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, and Togo.
The Senegalese Tirailleurs were mostly used for manual labor. They dug trenches, moved supplies, cleared battlefields and also fought in the war. According to reports, no black troops experienced as much combat as those assigned to the French military.
Despite giving France their all, these Senegalese Tirailleurs were never treated equally with the French “white” soldiers. The wages, promotions, feeding, and even equipments they received were different from that given to the French ‘white’ soldiers
In the course of the war, over 17,000 of these African soldiers died in the defence of France from Nazi occupation, and many others were captured and either died or suffered terribly in German concentration camps.
Following the liberation of France and near the end of the second world war, black soldiers rescued from German prison camps were rounded up at a Harbour to be shipped back to Africa.
Largely unpaid, they were told they would receive backpay upon their arrival. All of these soldiers were former prisoners of war, freed from Nazi German camps, and eventually they were repatriated back to Africa to a holding facility in Thiaroye, on the outskirts of the Senegalese capital Dakar.
At the camp, the soldiers were disappointed at poor treatment by the white colonial authorities, following fighting for France and experiencing the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.
These soldiers additionally claimed they were owed back pay due to an order issued by the Minister of Colonies authorizing benefits for ex-prisoners of war from West Africa, which both fell short of the benefits given to French prisoners of war and was in any case not implemented.
As the Senegalese troops were about to be transferred out of camp Thiaroye, they learnt they were going to be given half the pay for their service as the French troops were unfairly converting French francs to Senegalese francs at half the rate to save money.
This broken promises by the administration and the French army, and also the discrimination they faced both while fighting the war and when they arrived Senegal led to a non violent demonstration by about 1,300 Senegalese tirailleurs at Camp Thiaroye on 30 November 1944.
The Senegalese tirailleurs captured the camp and took a French general hostage, beginning a mutiny. The mutiny ended when the officer promised to have the rate changed to a par with that applicable to white veterans.
The soldiers had been seeking equal pay with white soldiers and demanding their unpaid wages.
At the time, French commanders saw this as a mutiny, but for African war veterans this was a call for justice.
The Night it Happened
In the early hours of 1 December, just hours after the African soldiers had finished celebrating their win, French troops attacked. Despite the mutineers being unarmed, they came in shooting, with armoured cars, mounted machine guns and an Army tank. War veterans claim that over 300 of the black African soldiers were killed and many arrested while the French only claim 35 deaths, a figure which is still considered today as the official record according to the French government.
After the Massacre, the French provisional government of Charles de Gaulle, concerned at the impact of the Thiaroye incident on still-serving tirailleurs, acted quickly to ensure that claims for back pay and other monies owing were settled.
In March 1945 a military tribunal sentenced those who participated in the ‘mutiny’ to ten years in prison. Five of the prisoners died in detention.
Those imprisoned were later pardoned by President Vincent Auriol when he visited Senegal in 1947, but they didn’t receive their veteran pension.
When France’s African colonies achieved independence between 1956 and the early 1960s, the military pensions of veterans who became citizens of the new nations were frozen. By contrast their French counterparts, who served in the same war and fought in the same battles, received pensions that were adjusted for inflation in France itself.
The reason the French government gave for the freezing of the pensions was that increased levels would have created an income gap between the former soldiers and the rest of the populations in African countries where the cost of living was significantly lower than in France.
Their pensions were later unfrozen, but as colonial subjects, these West African French soldiers were not awarded the same pay or pension as their French (white) fellow soldiers after World War II. The pensions for veterans of both races were calculated on the basis of living costs in their countries of birth, supposedly lower in colonies than in France.
It was only in 2006 – more than forty years after the colonies had gained independence and sixty years after World War II had ended – that President Jacques Chirac, reportedly moved by Rachid Bouchareb’s movie Indigènes (days of glory), gave instructions to increase the pensions of former colonial soldiers.
Like much of France’s violent and oppressive colonial history, the Thiaroye massacre is not taught in schools.
Iba Der Thiam, a Senegalese historian, believes this is intentional.
“It is a page of history we tried to erase from the collective memory,” he says.
“There is part-racism and colonial mentality in this where the African has no role to play in history.”
Also a 1988 film about the event, Camp de Thiaroye directed by Ousmane Sembène, documenting the events leading up to the Thiaroye massacre, as well as the massacre itselff was banned in France for over a decade and censored in Senegal as well, shockingly.
Furthermore, there is no mention of the Thiaroye Massacre in any of Senegal’s history books taught in school.