Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire

Sep 5, 2021
1681 Word count

The French Colonial Empire had lived for centuries and has proliferated greatly over time. It had taken up its own trade on slavery and colonization and had also committed countless racial atrocities in the same way as its European neighbors. As an African living in Martinique, the heart of France, Aimé Césaire sought to make a profound response on the intentions and justifications of the French Colonial Empire on its discrimination and slavery of blacks. He wrote the Discourse on Colonialism in the heat of slavery at the height of postwar anti-colonial literature.

Aimé Césaire

Aimé Césaire was a distinguished writer who had authored a number of works in poetry and theater. His Discours sur le colonialism was probably the most significant non-fiction work he had ever published. Césaire is a native of Martinique, which is not only the heart of France but was also a French colony. He was exposed to multicultural classrooms where like-minded intellectual students of color raised questions about the French domination. There, he along with other students launched L’Étudiant Noir, a student journal that also serves as a forum wherein students of color can openly criticize French civilization.

Being exposed to the happenings in a French colony since he was born, Césaire could not help but notice how hypocritical the French and Americans were being by painting themselves as the world’s saviors from barbaric and uncivilized civilizations. Césaire noticed that both Western Europe and the United States were patting themselves on the back for being the harbinger of the death and downfall of Hitler and the Nazi regime all the while slaughtering and making slaves out of people they rule over. He then wrote the Discourse on Colonialism and had it first published in 1950 by Éditions Réclame. He revised and republished it 5 years later with Présence Africaine.

Discourse on Colonialism

Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism is an essay that tackles the machinations of the French Colonial Empire. The language of the text was electric and sarcastic and the anticolonial, anti-racist message was clear and simple (Janzen). The racial hierarchy present has been clarified by discussing the colonized people’s identities. According to Césaire, the colonized people has a split identity as they are torn between their colonizer’s definition of their being Black and their actual blood and cultural origin, which is being African. The colonized were often in search for their subjective self.

Césaire had been able to discuss political justifications to the white men’s apparent “destiny” as liberators of the barbaric and uncivilized people. The first of Césaire’s key points in the Discourse on Colonialism sheds light on the difference on what colonization and civilization actually means in order to extinguish confusion in his readers. This is because the French successfully intermixed the two words that the people have started to think it is once and the same.

In his next argument, Césaire points out that the French Colonial Empire justifies its own actions of colonizing other nations and cities as a means of eliminating barbaric civilizations. Any activity that does not fit the standards or customs of the French Colonial Empire and people who are out of their reach or supervision is considered barbaric and uncivilized. Césaire attacks this point by inferring that civilization for the French means only themselves. The profound, wealthy history and culture of civilizations outside the French - including even those that precede it - are discounted simply because they are not of French origin.

In fact, colonizers forced the colonized people to convert to Christianity, all the while ignoring the rich religious culture of the civilization. They have also “stolen” art and brought it to Western museums where they could display and even sell their “loots” from the uncivilized people. The French Colonial Empire used the convenient lie of liberating barbaric and uncivilized people in order for them to be able to exploit various rich cultures and a huge chunk of non-white labor force and resource. In which Césaire has to say:

Between colonizer and colonized there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses.

My turn to state an equation: colonization = “thing-ification.”

I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.

Thus, the French Colonial Empire made it its destiny to seek barbaric civilizations and liberate them. The French, and other constituents of the white man, envisioned their mission as bringing up those who are not “as advanced as they are.” What comes to mind here - and which Césaire mentioned specifically - is Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden: the white man is destined to save the people of color, for they are inherently inferior whereas the white man is superior in every way. The French has its own take, even, of that burden, by justifying this apparent racial hierarchy.

Blacks, Indians, yellow people, and other slaves live on a dependency complex that compels them to rely on something superior to them, for without that element, their lives seem directionless and pointless. Any religious beliefs that they have, were appropriated to put the white man at the highest spiritual level. Even geography had been seriously corrupted in the white man’s favor. Any and all discoveries and innovations of the non-white man are disregarded as they are only footnotes to the white man’s own advancements. This was justified even though there were many advancements contributed by non-white people prior to the white man’s conquest for colonization.

The elimination of barbarism and uncivilized people was said to be the desired goal of colonialism, yet Césaire – and this is his boldest, most striking claim in his Discourse on Colonialism – opposed this by pointing out one fatal flaw of the whole scheme: the methodology of colonization is inherently destructive, both to the colonized and the colonizers themselves. To colonize is to gain control and to maintain that control. The colonizers do just that by eliminating any and all that the colonized may use against them that may stand in the way of colonization.

There is no method more efficient for the colonizers to achieve that goal than by violent subjugation. At first, they painted the uncolonized people as barbaric. Yet by succumbing to violent methods, they treated the uncivilized people like animals. In turn, the colonizers become animals themselves. They reduce the colonized, who were once civilized, to their barbaric state--the very same state that they swore to eliminate. In due time, the colonizers themselves become barbaric. Ultimately the method reduces everyone to barbarism. For Césaire, colonization is not what propagates civilization. It is the harbinger of its destruction.

[...] colonial enterprise is to the modern world what Roman imperialism was to the ancient world: the prelude to Disaster and the forerunner of Catastrophe. [...] The truth is that this policy cannot but bring about the ruin of Europe itself, and that Europe, if it is not careful, will perish from the void it has created around itself.


The avid reader of Discourse on Colonialism may find a type of humor in Césaire’s work that is a mix of sarcasm and exaggeration. It is a recurring theme throughout the work – and an apt one at that. One of Césaire’s main goals when he wrote Discourse on Colonialism is to expose the sensationalism behind the French Colonial Empire’s actions and the underlying beliefs that they propagated. Just as the French Colonial Empire wielded sensationalism as a weapon, Césaire also arms himself with it as a means of exposing the truth behind colonization at best.

Césaire’s flippant tone in much of Discourse on Colonialism’s text is less that of an angry activist and more of a subversive genius that truly aims to turn the dominant system on its head. This, coupled with his unrelenting tenacity and eloquence in voiding the methods of the French Colonial Empire, signifies his dominance in both substance and form in his essay. The Discourse on Colonialism is a significant work in Negritude literature and in anti-slavery literature as a whole.

It is not constructed in mere conjectures or sarcasm for its own sake, but in founded inferences and rebuttals to apologists of the Empire, of which Césaire addressed many by name. If one cannot fully appreciate this essay due to its relentlessness and harshness in tone, it should be appreciated for its depth and cohesiveness of its argumentation. But in order to fully appreciate it, the reader must do so in respect to the tenacity and zeal of Césaire to turn the French Colonial Empire on its head, for the sake of not only the colonized but also of the colonizers; for the whole of human civilization is at stake.

Ultimately, Discourse on Colonialism empowers not only those who were, and still are, discriminated by racism and instills them with a tenacious awareness of the power structures that perpetuate it. When it was first published, it inspired and fueled African slaves who faced discrimination at the hands of their colonizers or slave-owners. Years later, when it later translated to English, African Americans used Césaire’s work in their own fight against racism in the West.

By itself, Discourse on Colonialism is an essay that is highly appreciable as a prime example of how an essay should be written. Césaire’s work demonstrates the power of words and intellect to move toward a collective ideal for a better world. A skilled an creative mind is needed to achieve a high-grade essay like his. And for that, professional writers are often needed to be hired. Look no further for CustomEssayMeister has a wide array of professional writers who are experts in various fields of study. No matter what subject your essay needs to tackle, we are sure to have someone who is able to assist you to the best of their abilities. Send us a message now.

Works Cited

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Éditions Réclame, Paris, 1950.

Janzen, Philip. “Discourse on Colonialism.” Africa’s a Country, 17 Apr. 2018, africasacountry.com/2018/04/109050.

Silva, Angelica. “Aimé Césaire and the Coloniality of Being.” LAW DEVELOPMENT & CONFLICT, 10 Mar. 2020, lawdevelopmentconflict.com/aime-cesaire-and-the-coloniality-of-being.

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