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.

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