How can one explain the legitimization of European colonial conquests in Africa at the end of the 19 th century, when most of these explorations turned out to be either hazardous and failure-prone enterprises, or irrational foreign policy moves? By focusing on Hubert Lyautey and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza in France and Henry Morton Stanley in Great-Britain, this article suggests that the enthusiastic support and the trust that these charismatic figures enjoyed among large swathes of the population played a crucial role in providing this legitimacy. By managing to embody the exemplary figure of the colonial hero in their respective countries, during a period of peace that saw the generalization of literacy and the development of far-reaching commercial circuits for the printed press, they played an important role in the shift of a public opinion that was initially indifferent if not hostile to imperialist project. Their celebrity and their feats were relayed and amplified through the new mass media (cheap mass-produced journals or best-sellers such as Stanley's), the commercialization of consumption goods (proliferation of images and objects representing Brazza and his expeditions), or honorary distinctions that increased their political clout (election to the French Academy for Lyautey, to the Parliament for Stanely). The success of this unprecedented cultural reference is confirmed by the study of personal diaries and letters, which offer a glimpse of the admiration and the devotion that these men aroused among the public.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Social Sciences(all)