CE41 - Inégalités, discriminations, migrations

''Insane persons'' and ''native''. A legal history of a double discrimination in the French Africa (end of 9th-1960) – AMIAF

«Insane« and «native«. A legal history of a double discrimination of status in French Africa (Late 19th century-1960)

The AMIAF research project intends to carry out a legal and historical survey of the legal administrative discourses and practices which determined the construction and functioning of the status of native madness in African territories colonised by France between the last two decades of the 19th century and 1960.

Bodily signs of madness and mobilizing knowledge of the psyche

In the discourse of colonial law, the constitutive otherness of «natives« – based on ethnic considerations which in turn justified the barrier between «French citizen« and «French subject« – went hand in hand with an additional difference emanating from the sphere of mental pathology. Our study examines the issues (political, economic and social) and effects arising from the double discrimination of status which mentally ill natives underwent throughout the period of French colonization in Africa. To this end, this research is comprised of two parts. The first part seeks to identify the criteria that enabled judges and administrators to classify individuals from the African continent as «mentally ill«. More specifically, our research underpins the hypothesis that, in a colonial environment, the elements that jurists and administrators used to establish such classifications stemmed essentially from observing the body and behavioural responses of individuals. The second part focuses on the use of extra-legal knowledge throughout legal and administrative discourse and practice to identify what was known as «native spirit« and to distinguish between what was considered «normal« and what was deemed «pathological«. By paying attention to ongoing changes during French presence in Africa, as well as to distinctive features of colonized territories, it is possible to highlight what was at stake when institutional actors chose to mobilize specific notions about the psyche while discarding others.

This research work essentially follows a historical and legal method, focusing namely on the exploration and historical analysis of legal sources, such as case law, doctrinal studies, theses defended in law schools, legislative documents and administrative documents. It adopts a casuistic approach that allows us to get to the heart of the «legal proceedings«, thus showcasing how potent legal and administrative discourses were in the shaping of social reality. Because of the very nature of the object of study, the historical and legal method must imperatively cross-reference methodological approaches and epistemological questioning which are specific to other disciplines (among which anthropology, psychology and the history of science figure prominently). In the same vein, in addition to the mobilization of legal and administrative sources, great attention must be paid to sources relating to colonial medicine, psychiatry and psychology, as well as anthropology and ethnology.

By reconstructing a crucial and neglected part of the modus operandi of colonial justice and administration in the face of mental disorders, our work aims to fill a historiographical void and to explore an innovative research sector thanks to our host laboratory and the help of a dynamic and cross-disciplinary team made up of specialists from different fields.
So far, having gathered various sources (mainly archival documents) relating to both the status of “native” and to that of the “insane”, we have been able to grasp and analyse the complexity and extreme variability of legal and administrative conditions withstood by the insane in the context of French colonial sub-Saharan Africa between the end of the 19th century and the 1940s. The way in which mentally ill natives were viewed varied depending on the actors involved (local administrators, central administration, judges, legislators, military doctors, psychiatrists). During the period under review, there existed a very fine line between «native mentality« (ontologically sick) and psychopathology, especially when religious and mystic considerations were involved. We can thus question the relevance of referring to the «native insane« when designating a doubly discriminatory legal status, which sits at the heart of our research.

In tackling such topical subjects, the AMIAF project aims to provide the historical insight which appears essential to the understanding of contemporary processes of identity assignment and discrimination, based on ethnicity, race, origin, health status and other considerations. This historical and legal perspective should therefore help us to question the persistence of colonial categories in current mental health practices (legal, administrative and medical) with regard to immigrant and refugee populations in France. This research also provides instruments for questioning and analysing the reasons for the political, legal and administrative marginalisation of certain theories and/or discourses on the psyche in favour of others. Using a historical perspective, this research will provide new elements to reflect upon the way in which they are selected in current legislative policies on mental health in France, with a focus on the management of mental disorders among immigrant populations.

Opening symposium for the AMIAF project: L’« aliéné indigène ». Justice et administration face à l’altérité psychique. Perspectives historiques et enjeux actuels, 11 mars 2019, EHESS, Paris.
Publications :
S. Falconieri, « Pathologie de l’« âme indigène ». Savoirs juridico-administratif et médical sur la folie en Afrique », Genèses, numéro thématique : Race et psychiatrie, dir. A. Michel, à paraître.
S. Fancello, « ‘Le diable attaque la santé’. Guérison et délivrance en Afrique centrale (Centrafrique, Cameroun) », in A. Desclaux, A. Diarra et S. Musso (dir.), Guérir en Afrique, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2020, pp. 59-79.
R. Gallien, « La chair de l’asile. Le quotidien de la folie entre violences ordinaires et ambitions disciplinaires (Madagascar, 1941) », Politique Africaine, 2020/1 (n°157), pp. 71-89.
T. Le Marc’hadour, « La gouvernance des fous, l’expérience lilloise au XVIIIe siècle », in Collectif CHJ, Gouvernance, justice et santé, Lille, Éditions du CHJ, 2020, pp. 87-134.
R. Tiquet et G. Aït Mehdi (dir.), L’ordinaire de la folie, Politique Africaine, 157 (2020).
R. Tiquet et G. Aït Mehdi, « Introduction. Penser la folie au quotidien », Politique Africaine, 157 (2020), pp. 17-28.

AMIAF project analyzes, from a historical-legal perspective, the legal and administrative discourses and practices grounding the establishment of the status of the “mentally ill indigenous” in African French colonies, colonized between 1880 and 1960. In colonial law discourse, the otherness of the “indigenous” is based on ethnic considerations and justifies the split between the “French citizen” and the “French subject”. Moreover, it is coupled with an additional difference concerning mental pathology. This research aims to examine the (political, economic and socials) issues and effects of the double discrimination of status, produced at the intersection of the categories “indigenous” and “mentally ill person” throughout French colonization in Africa. This research consists of two components. The first aims to detect the elements which allow judges and administrators to classify an individual of African origins as an “mentally ill person”. We hypothesize that, in colonial situations, lawyers and administrators in order to classify the indigenous as mentally ill use elements drawn almost exclusively by means of observing the body and individual behavioral responses. The goal of the second part is to identify the different (and non-legal) types of knowledge used by the same judges and administrators to understand the “indigenous spirit” and to distinguish between “normal” and “pathological” cases. By paying attention to the changes that occurred at different times of the French presence in Africa, as well as to the specificities of the different colonized African territories, we will highlight how institutional actors face different challenges in their choice to put at work some pieces of knowledge about the psyche rather than others.
This research is inspired by a legal-historical method, but it is bound to cross the methodology and the epistemological questioning of other disciplines (anthropology, psychology and history of sciences in the first place), given the multidisciplinary nature of the object of study. In the same perspective, this project will be carried out by employing sources relating to law, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, anthropology, ethnology. By filling a historiographical void, this work aims to reconstruct a part (so important, though neglected) of the operating methods used by colonial justice and administration when facing mental disorders. The proposed research will create an innovative, multidisciplinary area of study within the host laboratory and will propel a new dynamic and heterogeneous team, composed of specialists from different disciplines.
The AMIAF project also proposes to provide a historical perspective essential to the understanding of contemporary processes of identity ascription and of discrimination, based on considerations relating to ethnicity, race, origin and health. Consequently, the outcomes of this research (AMIAF blog, digital library, virtual exhibition on asylar confinement in Africa, conferences, workshops, publications) are aimed at a wide public, including researchers, political actors, lawyers, mental health professionals working with immigrant populations, students and the general public.

Project coordination

Silvia Falconieri (Institut des mondes africains)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


IMAf Institut des mondes africains

Help of the ANR 235,067 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2018 - 36 Months

Useful links

Explorez notre base de projets financés



ANR makes available its datasets on funded projects, click here to find more.

Sign up for the latest news:
Subscribe to our newsletter