The Ivory Coast: A Short History


The Ivory Coast, or as it is correctly known, the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire is situated in Western Africa and is currently a country in turmoil.

Over twenty million people currently inhabit the country which gained its independence in 1960. It has a long and interesting history.

Early Settlers

The area has a very humid climate and as human remains don’t fare well in a humid climate this has led to the difficulty of determining the date of arrival of the first settlers. Recent finds of weapon and tool fragments indicate that there could have been a human presence since the Upper Palaeolithic period. The earliest settlers have left many traces but it is believed that they were displaced or integrated by settlers arriving in the 1300s from the Niger Basin.

The first Europeans arrived in the 1600s; these were Portuguese traders dealing in pepper, ivory and gold and later in slaves. Prior to this there were five important states making up the Ivory Coast, these were: the Muslim Kong Empire in the northern central region, the Abron Kingdom, the Baoule Kingdom at Sakasso and the two Agni Kingdoms, Indenie and Sanwi. The Sanwi have long tried to assert their independence from the rest of the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire.

French Rule

The area didn’t suffer too much mainly due to other areas having better natural harbours. Europeans didn’t arrive in the area of West Africa until the arrival of the first Portuguese ship in 1482. Greater numbers traded in the area throughout the 1600’s but the first settlement wasn’t founded until 1637. This was a French mission at Assinie in Ghana. However, it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that a proper foothold was made. French explorers and missionaries extended the area of French influence inland from the lagoon region.

The French established settlements at Assinie and also at Grand Bassam with treaties made with local African rulers. Even though the treaties weren’t entirely to the liking of the French they maintained them due to the threat of expansion by the British who were settling the along the Gulf of Guinea coast. The French built naval bases to protect their interests and moved into the interior where pacification wasn’t achieved until 1915.

This took a long time to achieve due to a break in the French interest in the area. After losing the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 the French withdrew from their French colonies leaving them in the hands of merchants. They returned in 1886 and by 1889 Britain recognised French sovereignty of the area.

Effects of French Rule

The French wanted to increase export from the area through coffee, cocoa and palm oil crops. Cote D’Ivoire was unusual in that the French settled in the area rather than acting mainly as bureaucrats. This resulted in the French owning more than a third of the plantations and a forced labour system was introduced. The main resistance to French rule came from Samori Ture who between 1880 and 1890 tried to establish a kingdom stretching from Guinea to Cote D’Ivoire and including areas of Mali and Burkina Faso. The French responded to the well armed Samori with military pressure of their own. During this time the local population of the Cote D’Ivoire rioted over taxation by the French which much of the population regarded as a humiliation.

The French had pacified the region by 1915 and their influence began to extend in other ways. Their idea of occupation was one of assimilation; the local population were expected to speak French and to follow French law. Until the second world war the area was under direct rule from Paris although after the war a group was set up to act as intermediaries between the French and the Africans.


A cocoa farmer called Felix Houphouet-Boigny established the countries first trade union in 1944 and within a year he had been elected to the French parliament in Paris. A year after this the French abolished forced labour. By 1958 Cote D’Ivoire had become a member of the French Union, which became the French Community and allowing Cote D’Ivoire autonomy. Two years later the country gained its independence and at this time it was West Africa’s most prosperous country. The Cote D’Ivoire was unusual that at the time of independence more French settlers arrived in the country than left. When most African countries gained independence the European population was usually expelled, here though it increased from about thirty thousand to over sixty thousand by 1980.

The Houphouet-Boigny regime led the country until 1993 when Henri Konan Bedie replaced him. 1999 saw a military coup which led to Bedie going into exile and elections for the country in 2000. Laurent Gbagbo was the winner beginning a reign of power which has brought us to the present day and the current troubles in the region.


  1. Bosman Willem, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, Divided into the Gold, the Slave and the Ivory Coasts unknown (2010)
  2. Zartman I William, Political Economy of the Ivory Coast Praeger Publishers Inc (1984)
  3. Mundt Robert J, Historical Dictionary of Cote D’Ivoire Scarecrow Press (1995)