R.W. Johnson

  • The Killer Trail: A Colonial Scandal in the Heart of Africa by Bertrand Taithe
    Oxford, 324 pp, £16.99, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 923121 8

When Captain Paul Voulet presented his plan for a new expedition to the minister of colonies in January 1898 he was accorded a good reception. He was, after all, a promising young officer whose previous mission to French Sudan had shown exemplary firmness towards the natives, and only a few months earlier the president of the republic, Félix Faure, had given him an audience. He proposed to lead the expedition along with Julien Chanoine, a junior member of a major champagne dynasty whose father was close to the minister of war. (In the course of the expedition, Julien was promoted to captain and his father actually became minister of war.) The orders given to the two young men were deliberately vague. They would advance from Senegal to present-day Mali and then all the way through what is now Burkina Faso and into Chad. They might proceed even further, for the barely concealed French ambition was to annex a swathe of contiguous territory across the centre of Africa, linking up with French Djibouti in the east, thereby thwarting German and British ambitions. As it happened, although this became clear only later, Kitchener had got in first by advancing from Egypt down the southern Nile. In particular, the Voulet-Chanoine expedition was to assert French suzerainty over the Mosse people of Burkina Faso and, in line with the mission civilisatrice, avenge the sultan of Zinder’s killing of the leader of an earlier French column by deposing him and seizing his land, and take similarly tough action against Rabah Zubayr, a slave-driving potentate whose lands lay south-west of Lake Chad.

Voulet, surveying his route, saw himself surrounded by enemies: the Fulbe people of Mali, who would be furious to see him cross the Niger into lands long reserved for their own pillage; the Tuareg, who based their cattle round the Niger and would be hostile to anyone trying to assert control over the area; the Djermas, who inhabited the left bank of the river; the Almamy of Sokoto, who were bound to see them as invaders; and at the end of all that he would still have to face the sultan and then Rabah. He demanded heavy weaponry – Maxim guns, a mountain artillery piece and 270 regular soldiers. But France was conducting its scramble for Africa on the cheap and in the end the expedition consisted of just nine Frenchmen and a smattering of tirailleurs sénégalais. Voulet, perfectly aware that an officer was expected to ‘show initiative’ in such a situation, set himself to recruit a large number of irregulars, who would have to be trained en marche. Then there was the question of portage. Voulet had 30 tons of baggage: besides many hundreds of bottles of wine and spirits and an ice-making machine, he brought along a considerable library, not just travellers’ accounts, medical books and anthropology but collections of novels, 12 copies of the Koran, a 20-volume encyclopedia and multiple copies of books about Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and the feats of Alexander the Great, obviously meant to contain exemplary lessons for the officers. In addition, the expedition required 40 tons of water a day, to drink, or wash and bathe in.

French colonialism, however much it justified itself by the need to abolish African slave-trading, habitually used forced labour until after the Second World War, and the Voulet-Chanoine mission took full advantage. By early 1899 the column consisted of 600 soldiers, 600-800 porters, 200 women and 100 slaves – the latter categories providing concubines for the officers and the tirailleurs. (There were also 150 horses, 100 mules and donkeys, 20 camels and 500 cattle.) But all the men naturally wanted women too and so, as the mission progressed and battles were fought, slaves and extra women were taken in – maybe an extra 600 women – and a rag, tag and bobtail collection of children followed along too. Ultimately, the mission may well have numbered more than 2000. It was the biggest military column ever seen in those parts.

When they got to Timbuktu, Lieutenant-Colonel Arsène Klobb, the resident officer there, strongly advised Voulet and Chanoine to travel more lightly, advice they scorned. Klobb escorted them a considerable way eastwards but when he left them the massacres began. First to fall was the village of Sansané Haoussa, sacked and burned with the slaughter of 101 men, women and children; many others followed. The pattern was always the same. The column would arrive at a village and demand a large supply of cattle and other provisions, amounting to everything the village had or more: to agree meant starvation. But anything less than immediate capitulation was taken to mean all-out war and the village would be pillaged, the women raped and everyone put to the sword. The sheer size of the column more or less guaranteed that its demands could not be met. Voulet may even have welcomed the fighting, since he needed to reward soldiers who had performed well – their prize, in slaves and women, was easily exacted from the population of any village that resisted him. Soldiers or porters who disappointed Voulet and Chanoine were savagely punished; some were executed. Collective punishment was common; once a whole section was sentenced to 25 lashes each, with every line of soldiers whipping the line in front. Porters (often slaves) who ran away were hanged slowly with their feet roasting over a fire.

As reports of these atrocities drifted back, Paris became seriously alarmed. Klobb was ordered to investigate and, if need be, relieve Voulet and Chanoine of their command; since he travelled lightly, he soon caught up with them. At first he’d found it hard to believe the reports, but then he arrived at the village of Birnin Konni, where he saw small girls hanging from the branches of trees and more than a thousand corpses rotting in the sun. Still Voulet and Chanoine were determined not to surrender their command and on 14 July – a date of compelling irony since it signalled his definitive break with France – Voulet, with 80 men, ambushed Klobb and killed him. The next morning, when he met up with his officers, he cautioned them not to shake his hand; he revealed that he’d killed Klobb and said he had no regrets:

Now I am an outlaw, I disavow my family, my country, I am not French any more. I am a black leader. Africa is large; I have a gun, plenty of ammunition, 600 men who are devoted to me heart and soul. We will create an empire in Africa, a strong impregnable empire … They will never dare to attack me. When France wants to negotiate with us, it will need to pay us dear.

Chanoine, equally compromised, threw his lot in with Voulet. The other French officers decided to return to Sudan. Meanwhile, Voulet boasted to his men that he would become the equal of Samory Touré, the great Muslim warrior who had fought the French for more than a decade, but when they realised that they would never be able to go back home, everything imploded. Through all the floggings and massacres, the soldiers and porters had had a very clear notion that they were acting in the service of France, something that gave them status and promised future reward. Now all this was threatened and they turned on their leaders. Neither Voulet nor Chanoine lasted a week, though Bertrand Taithe warns us in The Killer Trail that this version of events may well have been contrived by the other French officers, who now needed to exculpate themselves and make sure all the blame fell on the two captains: when the French authorities arrived at the scene not only had the two men’s belongings, notes and photographs been destroyed but so had Klobb’s papers, as if all knowledge of the disastrous mission was to be expunged.

News of the Voulet-Chanoine mission scandalised France, arriving as it did at a time of growing sensitivity about human rights: embarrassingly, it made French colonialism seem no better than German colonialism in Namibia or Belgian colonialism in the Congo. But these new humanitarian notions had made no progress at all in the French army and the Geneva Convention, first adopted in 1864, was held to apply only to war between civilised nations: Africans were excluded. The fact that the mission coincided with the publication of Heart of Darkness helped it become a cause célèbre and the story went around that Voulet and Chanoine were still alive, ruling as African kings. Taithe has traced the whole affair through the archives but is more interested in how it related to the complex movements of opinion of the time, the big question being how to explain Voulet and Chanoine’s behaviour.

One explanation was ‘Sudanitis’, a disease born of ennui, often fuelled by alcohol and ‘the despair of interminable isolation’, which led to vengeful, malicious and quarrelsome behaviour and a loss of any sense that a human life was worth something. Sudan had the highest mortality rate for soldiers in the French Empire (10.7 per cent a year) and the ‘disease’ appears in many reminiscences of British colonial life as well as the stories of Somerset Maugham. There were also arguments from scientific racism: the ‘purer’ the blood of the white man, the more likely he was to ‘succumb’ to the tropics and their fevered milieux of unconstrained lust. The great dangers were the climate and the Africans themselves.

One person making such arguments was Vigné d’Octon, a racist anti-colonialist who passionately denounced the mission both in parliament and in the press. He had written a successful semi-pornographic novel, Black Flesh, in which he dwelled on the moral perdition stemming from the colonial habit of taking black concubines. A doctor by training, and a social Darwinist, he inveighed against the dangers of feral sexual gratification and the racial miscegenation it led to. Voulet and Chanoine’s behaviour, he believed, was proof that they had been corrupted by their lustful behaviour towards slave women. It was certainly true that all the French officers on the mission had concubines and that a frequent cause of executions was the sexual jealousy of the black soldiers. Taithe points to similar attitudes in Conrad: in particular, the notion that the African climate and environment encourage white men to lose their inhibitions and forsake Western values, so that they end up living in a fantastical Africa of their own imagining.

Inevitably, the scandal became entwined with the Dreyfus Affair. General Chanoine argued that the reports of atrocities were a calculated attempt by Dreyfusards to sully his son’s reputation. In response he published some of his son’s letters home in which Julien expressed his extreme Anglophobia and his wish to invade British West Africa: these, the father suggested, were the mark of a true patriot. Reports attacking the mission simply reflected the efforts of Freemasons and Jews to dishonour the reputation of France and its army. After all, who other than the British would benefit from such reports?

The most difficult part of the story relates to slavery: at one point Voulet even talked of the mission’s ‘humanitarian’ nature because he was going to fight Rabah, a notorious slave-trader. But, as Taithe puts it, ‘slaves were not only a product but also the large denomination currency in West Africa.’ Slavery was ubiquitous, as it was bound to be in savannah country, where it was difficult to accumulate much of a surplus in any other way. When Samory was captured in 1898 the 40,000 followers taken with him were mostly slaves and the French were quick to indenture 2500 of them to help build the railways. But wherever you got a dominant chieftaincy its dominance was usually expressed in raids on weaker neighbours in which cattle and people were the prize. As late as 1968, wandering around the Fouta Djallon in Guinea, I found that the servants in the huts and fields – ‘serfs’, the French called them – were referred to by their Foulah owners/employers as ‘captifs’. And whenever a French colonial administrator wanted to build a road or a bridge he would have to rely on the corvée to do it. How else to make people toil in 40ºC except by compulsory labour? As Bernard Giraudeau’s film Les Caprices d’un fleuve (1996) showed, slavery was an inescapable fact of life in colonial Senegal: even freed slaves were slave-traders. When slavery was abolished Senegal lost its entire economic purpose. But in the interior things were never going to be that simple and they aren’t to this day.

To understand what was going on in the minds of Voulet and Chanoine several things have to be borne in mind. First, French expansion in West Africa had been far more warlike than anything the British faced. The French had fought El-Hajj Omar Tall, the formidable Toucouleur leader, but above all they had fought Samory for 16 long years and he had been a very tough opponent, even manufacturing his own firearms. Voulet and Chanoine had no doubt that they were going to war – and against other Muslim potentates. They had the traditional French anxiety about Islam and were conscious of their small numbers. As Chanoine wrote, ‘in a Muslim land submission is made from fear’ and ‘when one is fighting a black chieftain one should not fight a softly, softly war but a hard one.’ That’s to say, violence had to be exemplary; indeed, later French administrators were to find that the Mosse had been utterly cowed by Voulet and Chanoine’s exemplary violence while Voulet and Chanoine were doubtless fired up by the knowledge that many French missions had come to grief. They themselves were supposed to link up with the Bretonnet mission proceeding northwards towards them from the French Congo, but Bretonnet’s column was ambushed and massacred.

At the time the French army may have been anxious to have its revenge on Germany, but fear of German strength made that only a notional possibility. The only real game in town was the scramble for Africa and no young officer could be unaware of the unequalled chances of promotion provided by the colonial enterprise. Algeria had been run by the army until the 1860s and not only generals but even presidents were made there: Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup succeeded because he was backed by the army of Algeria (an almost exact parallel with De Gaulle in 1958), and the first president of the Third Republic, Marshal MacMahon, was a former governor-general of Algeria. And then there was the example of Chanoine’s own father, who had joined in the pillage of the summer palace in Beijing in 1860 during the Second Opium War and gone on to scale the political heights. The whole colonial enterprise was celebrated for the great ‘adventures’ it offered for the members of the Foreign Legion and the sense that only in Africa could the cult of heroic masculinity find its full expression.

Voulet and Chanoine did not want to risk ending up like Bretonnet. To succeed would bring glory and promotion, and since France would not provide them with adequate means they would take whatever was at hand to compensate for their vulnerability. Thus they ended up hanging small girls from trees and sticking severed heads on sticks. Taithe is surely right to argue that one doesn’t need recourse to insanity or Sudanitis as an explanation. Many elements of the mission’s ruthlessness and use of slaves were present in the normal colonial order and once Voulet and Chanoine began to muster an expedition so large that it could not easily live off the land, it was evident that trouble lay ahead. Indeed, Jean-Baptiste Chaudié, the governor of French West Africa, wrote to the minister of colonies warning against the mission:

Captain Voulet … will have to be waging war as soon as he will have left the territories under our authority, and even in our territories the constitution of a convoy of 800 porters will not be without serious difficulties and will cause deep trouble across the land … They will be driven by hunger to steal what they cannot get, to pillage the villages … porters will run away and he will have to use violence.

Chaudié would probably not have been surprised that Voulet and Chanoine took the further step of claiming to their tirailleurs that they were adopting African forms of warfare, that their strategy and tactics would be consonant with African notions of how great warlords should behave. Exactly what crude understanding of African mores they had we don’t know but they not only enslaved and pillaged like Rabah: they used drums and griots (‘praise-singers’). The notion that they were aping the great Samory grew on Voulet – hence his final outburst. The irony is that while his soldiers, both black and white, went along with these ideas, the moment it was clear France no longer stood behind the two leaders, that they were as much on their own as Samory had been, the bonds of loyalty snapped.

Taithe is a sure guide to the probable rationale of the mission and to the often complex psychological currents of imperial France. But he can’t resist broadening his canvas at the end to consider the whole range of colonial atrocity and we end up with reflections not only on Heart of Darkness and the Congo but Apocalypse Now, My Lai and Abu Ghraib. More to the point is the fact that the almost contemporaneous German massacre of the Hereros in Namibia took place with the full approval both of the colonial authorities and of Berlin. It wasn’t until a century later that German hearts and minds changed sufficiently for it to be regarded as something to be apologised and atoned for. The fascination of Voulet-Chanoine is that French opinion was already on the cusp of change. Had they managed to elude Klobb and successfully complete their mission they might still have got away with it, so long as the scandal remained within colonial circles, where it could have been effectively hushed up. What did for them was the appearance of reports of the atrocities in the metropolitan press. It’s far from clear that similar reports would have made it into either the German or the British press at the time, or into the French press of an earlier epoch. But Paris in 1899 was torn apart by the Dreyfus Affair, with sections of the press willing to believe and print almost any monstrosity involving the army. It wouldn’t have done the inhabitants of Sansané Haoussa or Birnin Konni any good to know it, but in effect they had Dreyfus on their side, meaning the game was up for Voulet and Chanoine.