Abbé Pierre Boilat was one of the earliest assimilés, Africans educated in the French language and acculturated to French ways. A strong adherent of assimilation, he was the first African intellectual to study African culture from a Western point of view.
When the French reclaimed Senegal from the British in 1817, Catholic missions were established but proved to be a failure. Boilat, a member of the dominant Wolof peoples, was among the first group of Senegalese selected in 1825 by Anne Marie Javouhey to study in France in her program to revitalize the Catholic missions by Africanizing them. Ordained in France in 1841, Boilat returned to Senegal to open a secondary school in St. Louis. After four years of difficulties with teachers and the program, Boilat was removed on a morals charge. He moved to Gorée Island, off Dakar, an enclave for assimilés, to study the history and cultures of the societies of the interior of the country, which had not come in contact with Europeans. In 1853 he published Esquisses sénégalaises (Senegalese sketches) in two volumes, complete with his own illustrations. Besides describing African culture, Boilat argued the case for assimilation.
Accommodation with European culture promised considerable advantages, but at a price. The assimilés entered deeply into both African and European cultures but belonged completely to neither. They had to judge in what ways European civilization would benefit Africa without destroying African identity. Boilat belonged to the most extreme school of thought, which argued for the superiority of French civilization and saw African progress in terms of its ability to absorb Western enlightenment. The tools of this achievement were to be religion (to reshape values and the family) and education. In Boilat’s attempt to establish a secondary school, he insisted on using the French classical model and resisted every attempt to teach practical trades to Africans. On Gorée he became an opponent of polygamy and liaisons between Frenchmen and African women and credited himself with establishing respect for Christian marriage. Throughout his book, Boilat gave approval to every example of Westernization, from the abolition of slavery to the adoption of French fashion and dances.
Nobert C. Brockman
Mark Lipschutz and R. Kent Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. 2d edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
July, Robert W. The Origins of Modern African Thought. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from An African Biographical Dictionary, copyright © 1994, edited by Norbert C. Brockman, Santa Barbara, California. All rights reserved.