Senegalese politics cannot be mentioned without the name of Blaise Diagne having an esteemed place in the country’s history.
Born Galaye M’baye on October 13, 1872, on Goree Island, Senegal, he was given the name Blaise by wealthy Catholic creole Adolphe Crespin, who adopted him at a young age. Diagne’s mother wasa servant and his father a cook.
Diagne completed his primary education at the Brother Of Ploemel School.
He excelled in primary school and completed his secondary education in Aix-en-Provence, France.
Diagne passed the French Customs Service entrance examination in 1891 and started his career as a customs agent the following year. His first assignment was
in Dahomey in 1892.
Diagne was a busy man from 1896 to 1914. During this period he workedin Dakar, the French Congo, the island of Reunion, Madagascar and French Guyana. His experience with colonialism piqued his interest in politics and the urge to see change among his fellow Africans.
In 1914 he became the first black African in the French government, and his political career only went up from there. He eventually became the dominant political presence in Senegal’s Four Communes, whose people he spent his entire career advocating for. From 1914 until his death in 1934 he never lost an election.
In 1914, he returned to Senegal to begin a career in politics. He ran for a seat in the French National Assembly and won, beating out Francois Carpot. He made an impact
in office immediately.
In 1916, as a deputy during World War I Diagne put up the bill proposing full French citizenship for the four coastal communities in Senegal known as “The Four Communes”. The measure, which also included the thousands of African men then fighting in north-eastern France against the invading German Army, passed in 1916.
In the same year, France’s Prime Minister Clémenceau nominated Diagne to be general governor for recruitment of soldiers
in French West Africa. Diagne accepted the post after negotiating guarantees concerning fair conditions for soldiers. He recruited more than 180,000.
From 1918 to 1920, Diagne served as commissioner general of the Ministry of Colonies. He was responsible for the welfare of workers and soldiers in France’s
In 1919, he created the Republican Socialist Party. The party won control of the four local governments in the Four Communes. In the same year he started the newspaper La Democratie. He later renamed it L’Quest Africain Francais.
From 1920 to 1934, Diagne served as mayor of Dakar and became the face of politics in the Four Communes. He spent the rest of his time in office advocating for French rights for the people of Senegal. In 1930 he spoke against assimilation and forced labour before the International Labour Organization.
In 1931 Diagne was appointed to the position of deputy minister of the colonies and he held this position until his death from tuberculosis in 1934.
Blaise Diagne’s career was one that revolved around equality not just for the Senegalese, but for all people. During his 22 years as a customs agent working in France’s African colonies he witnessed first-hand various civil injustices that stirred his passions.
He was a pioneer of black African electoral politics and an advocate of equal rights for all, regardless of race.
He encouraged African accommodation of French rule and the adoption of French cultural and social norms. Though he was ahead of his time in 1914, by the later years of his life, African colonial politics had passed him by.
He continued to advocate an African role in France while most Western-educated African elites embraced African nationalism and worked for eventual Independence
from the colonial powers.
It is alleged that he was not buried in the Muslim cemetery of Soumbedioune in Dakar because of his freemasonry. However, a large boulevard (Avenue Blaise Diagne) and a high school (Lycée Blaise Diagne) in Dakar were named in his honour, as well as Senegal’s new international airport –– Blaise Diagne Airport in Ndiass, 52 kilometres outside of Dakar.
His son Raoul was the first black to play professional soccer in France and had great success playing for Racing Club de France in the late 1930s, winning the French title in 1936 and the French Cup in 1936, 1939 and 1940.
His grandson and like-named, born in Paris in 1954 by his son Adolphe (1907-1985, a French medical officer), became mayor of the French Lourmarin Village (1,002 inhabitants in 2010) in the Provence’s Lubéron Mountains in 2001 and was re-elected in 2008.
According to him, the memory of his grandfather was scarcely mentioned within the family –– “Mais mes parents ont toujours été très discrets sur cette histoire familiale,”
and translated: “But my parents have always been very discreet about this family history.”