‘Not Soul but Stomach (and Stench)’

by Dr. Sarah Frank, University of the Free State

Our panel on ‘Plumbing in the Metropole: Time, Memory and the Senses’ drew the Everyday Empires conference towards its close. The panel delved into the visceral, often unpleasant lived experiences of colonial subjects across two different time-periods and empires. The papers, “A Colony in the Metropole? Daily Experiences of French Colonial Soldiers Interned in Vichy France” by Dr. Sarah Frank (University of the Free State) and “The Filth of the Abode of Felicity: Sewers, Stinks, and the Late Ottoman Empire” by Dr. Michael Talbot (University of Greenwich) drew methodologically on labour history, among other approaches, to explore the textures and odours of imperial subjects’ varied quotidian experiences in locations close to the centre of imperial authority.

Labour history in both cases proved generative of deep, strong and nuanced case studies, connecting the local scale to the national to the international. In the Ottoman case, local officials in Istanbul petitioned municipal and central government to build sewers to overcome the threat posed by sewage and stinks, while workers in the area around the naval arsenal went on strike against the risk of cholera. Michael Talbot showed how workers’ everyday experience of foul smells became a site of historical intersection between varied dynamics: negotiations between imperial and local agents, scientific development of bacteriological understandings of health in the late nineteenth century, the beginning of international agreements on fair labour practices in wartime and racialized ideologies of sanitation and health in a colonial world.

Many of these questions and themes returned in Sarah Frank’s paper looking at the experiences and politics of colonial prisoners of war (POW) interned in Vichy France, a century and a half later. After being captured by the Germans in June 1940, approximately 85,000 soldiers from across the French empire were interned in POW camps across occupied France, while white prisoners went to Germany. The German fear of colonial diseases and desire to protect the supposed ‘racial purity’ of the Reich influenced this decision, which would help define the POWs’ experiences in captivity.1 The colonial prisoners quickly became an important labour force. Indeed, regulating their work was a significant political consideration in the creation of the terms of the Franco-German armistice and one which drew on the 1929 Geneva Convention for the Protection of Prisoners to define the work they could do, illustrating how internationalist agreements intersected with inter-imperial practices.

“Group of Senegalese prisoners of war, Melun, France, August 17 1940”, ICRC archives, V-P-Hist-03440-35

Starting with the everyday and working up through various scales of analysis revealed the different dimensions of these imperial histories. The workers, from those building sewers in Istanbul to those working as POWs in the French countryside, were, of course, subject to macro-level political negotiations and imperatives, but they were also independent actors whose agency was often limited by and tied to the materiality of their work product. Michael’s paper demonstrated that workers could and did strike to protest sanitary conditions. In the French case, the colonial POWs were caught between the Vichy regime’s desire to collaborate with Germany, and its hope that returning colonial POWs could positively influence the discourse of French defeat in their home communities in the colonies. To these ends, in hopes of gaining more ideological and political control over the colonial POWs, the French state took on many of the financial responsibilities for their captivity.

The most important French contribution was feeding the colonial prisoners, through both Red Cross deliveries and French civilians bringing meals to prisoners working nearby. Yet even with the French supplying most of the colonial prisoners’ food, the Vichy regime feared setting ‘dangerous precedents’ where colonial prisoners might believe they were owed something even as limited as food. Strikes or work related protests among the POWs were punished swiftly. And disobedience, for instance a short-lived hunger strike by five Indochinese prisoners, was interpreted as the result of German propaganda, and never considered a legitimate protest.2

Michael argued that while complaints to the imperial government about the stench in Istanbul did cite fears of disease and bacteria, the appalling smell itself became a reason to protest and the imperial regime became an object of angry criticism for subjects who felt their leverage was being lost to increasingly unresponsive systems of municipal government. While many historians examine everyday life in terms of its physical conditions — food, work, health, personal interactions and so forth — Michael’s work pushed further into the question of sensorial experience, drawing on a tradition established by historians such as Alain Corbin.3 He argued that smell was at the centre of the urban and labour experience in imperial Istanbul and in doing so he combined histories of health, sanitation, the constitution of spatial boundaries between those exposed to smells and those spared, and between those who benefit from and control technological advances in sanitation within and across imperial formations, and those who do not.

French colonial POWs, meanwhile, had more contact with French civilians during their captivity in the imperial metropole than they had in the colonies or while in the French army. French men, women and children came to feed the workers, bring them extra clothes or supplies, and in some cases, help them escape from captivity. Some civilians were responding to Vichy’s call for imperial solidarity, while others viewed helping the colonial POWs as a form of resistance under German occupation. Sarah argued that during captivity, most colonial prisoners blamed the Germans captors for the difficulties of captivity and were grateful to the French efforts to improve conditions. It was only after release and during the long repatriation home, where the French reinstated the strict racial hierarchies, that the former prisoners’ anger and disappointment turned against the French colonial authorities. While some former prisoners, like Leopold Sédar Senghor, would go on to illustrious political careers, most tried to return to their former lives. Yet their everyday experiences during the war changed them and how they viewed France, which had huge consequences for the post-war world.4

Overall, it was through the lived experience of everyday lives, with their difficult working conditions, their nauseating smells wafting through the confines of long, dry summers, their demanding employers and their contact with colonial and imperial authorities, that the complex and connected nature of empire was revealed in imperial Istanbul and rural France alike.


1Nancy Lawler, Soldiers of Misfortune: Ivoirien tirailleurs of World War II, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992), pp 104.

2Archives Départementales de Mayenne, 227W6, Commune of Beaulieu-sur-Oudon to Prefect of Mayenne, 11 June 1941.

3Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge; Mass: Harvard University Press, 1986).

4See for example Ruth Ginio, The French Army and its African Soldiers: The Years of Decolonization (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

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