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Records and Papers relating to the French West Africa Company (CFAO)

Identifier: Coll-444

Scope and Contents

The material consists of the correspondence and papers of Messrs. Donnison and Edwards, Castle Street, Liverpool, who appear to have been legal agents for CFAO. The items are mainly about property in Lagos Oshogbo, and Port Harcourt in Nigeria, Sekondi and Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, and Freetown in Sierra Leone. There is also material related to litigation in the matter of captured German vessels and personnel.


  • Creation: 1900-1924


Language of Materials

English, French.

Conditions Governing Access

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Biographical / Historical

Along with the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, and the British, the French began to establish themselves in coastal West Africa in the latter part of the fifteenth century. The primary interest was missionary work, exploration and trading in slaves, sugar, pepper, ivory, wax, and gold. Indeed, in the sixteenth century gold from West Africa - from Ghana in particular - accounted for one tenth of the world's gold reserves. However, from the late sixteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century it was the slave trade that saw huge expansion. To satisfy the emerging plantation economies of the New World, the trading and transfer of African peoples became the principal economic activity of the Europeans in West Africa - first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British and French, and of course some segments of the African population themselves who participated in the capture, transport and marketing of captives.

French participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade was probably less significant than the activities of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Trading by the French was focussed on gum arabic, groundnuts (or peanuts) and other raw materials from the interior, particularly the Senegal River area and its hinterland. In Saint-Louis, Senegal, established as a trading post in 1659, the French began what would eventually become their colonial project to assimilate West Africa as a part of France.

By the late nineteenth century, when industrialisation and economic conditions in Europe came to influence the expansion of European interests in West Africa, a 'scramble for Africa' occurred. In February 1885, the Berlin Act was signed by the principal European powers looking for control and partition of the continent. The Act provided the guidelines by which each power then defined their territories and by the early twentieth century the French held most of what would come to be their colonial territory in West Africa, including: present day Senegal, Mali (formerly French Sudan), Mauritania, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Benin (formerly Dahomey), Guinea (formerly French Guinea), Ivory Coast and Niger.

Meanwhile, Compagnie Fran├žaise de l'Afrique Occidentale (CFAO) was founded in Marseilles in 1887. In 1888 the Company opened its first African agency in Saint-Louis, and from 1888 to 1902 began to expand across Senegal, and into Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. This coincided with the creation of the federation of French West Africa in 1895 to consolidate French holdings. The federation was definitively constituted in 1904 and was ruled by a Governor-General with a residence in Saint-Louis (capital of the federation from 1895 until 1902, and capital of Senegal and Mauritania from 1902 until 1958) then in Dakar.

After the Second World War, the process of de-colonisation began in Africa and between 1955 and 1961 the headquarters of CFAO transferred from Marseilles to Paris and the Company mutated into a multinational service company and becoming a leader in specialist distribution in sub-Saharan Africa. This coincided with constituent parts of the African federation becoming autonomous republics. CFAO then began to diversify its activities outside Africa and in the late 1950s the CICA group (marketing Ford, Opel, Mercedes-Benz and Fiat automobiles in France) entered CFAO. In 1990, CFAO itself entered the Pinault group, today called Pinault-Printemps-Redoute. After the devaluation of the CFA franc in 1994, CFAO was able to consolidate its position in Africa and acquired the activities of SCOA and Optorg, two large vehicle distributors with interests in, for the former, Cameroon, Gabon, Madagascar and Niger, and for the latter, Mali and Senegal. In 1996, CFAO became established in the health sector through the acquisition of Eurapharma which had been a subsidiary of SCOA.

By 1997 CFAO and SCOA had merged and expanded into Mauritius and Equatorial Guinea, and in 1999 Eurapharma became established in Kenya. In 2000 CFAO had developed its activities in Algeria, Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, and more recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt and Malawi. Today the multinational CFAO has a strong position in motor distribution, pharmaceutical distribution, trading, telecommunications, networks, and office automation across Africa and in the French overseas departements and territories (Dom-Tom).


4 boxes

Physical Location

Gen. 837-840

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Acquired from Nichael Katanka (Books) Ltd., Edgeware, Middx., April 1966, Accession no. E66.17.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Records and Papers relating to the French West Africa Company (CFAO)
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LJ Scotland
+44(0)131 650 8379