HISTORY MARCH 8, 2010
by Bertrand Taithe
Oxford University Press, 304 pp., $34.95
The arid and lengthy border region at the southern end of the Sahara has always remained just beyond the reach of government—a zone where civilizing missions come to an end. In the spring of 1899, a thin, bespectacled French army colonel named Arsene Klobb began making his way eastward from a colonial outpost in Mali. He was in pursuit of a much larger expeditionary force that, according to news accounts in Paris, had subsumed much of the region in a series of unprovoked slaughters. In one small town, the Voulet-Chanoine expedition, named for the two French officers who led it, had left behind a thousand corpses, among them the bodies of little girls strung from tree branches. In another, Voulet's and Chanoine's men had beheaded one hundred villagers and dragged the bodies to a shallow grave, leaving the ground streaked with blood. Well water, as Klobb’s deputy would record, had been poisoned by the corpses; peering down, he saw “vague forms, tangled over each other.”
Even to their contemporaries, Voulet’s and Chanoine’s actions seemed unspeakably heinous, evidence of a certain colonial madness. When Klobb, having documented the atrocities, caught up with Voulet and Chanoine, the two young captains ambushed their superior and killed him. Voulet declared himself to be an African emperor, in revolt against France, and Chanoine joined him. Days later, the pair was killed when their own native troops mutinied. Voulet, charismatic and volatile, was gunned down in his tent; Chanoine, a grim aristocrat, had turned his horse and charged the mutineers, crying out, “France! France!”
But questions lingered in their wake, and they have been taken up by the historian Bertrand Taithe in The Killer Trail. Were Voulet and Chanoine driven to lunacy by their distance from civilization? Or were they good soldiers, carrying out a policy of colonial brutality?Had Africa infected the Europeans, or had the Europeans infected Africa?
Paul Voulet and Julien Chanoine were only thirty-two and twenty-nine, respectively, when they began their mission, but they were already celebrated officers, who were in correspondence not only with the military hierarchy but also with the pro-colonial clubs and lobbies of the French right. Voulet, the son of a provincial doctor, had two years earlier led an expedition that claimed the city of Ouagadougou for France. Chanoine had been his deputy on that mission, and his own father was both an aide to the minister of war and a central figure in the framing of Dreyfus. The Sahel, in Taithe’s telling, was the border region where ambitious young officers went to make reputations, and the conquest of Ouagadougou had meant that both Voulet and Chanoine were quickly making theirs. The mission they began in 1899 was designed to bridge the French colonies of West Africa with newly acquired land in what is now Chad, uniting France’s African possessions into a single contiguous territory.
Ever since the French began advancing inland from Dakar, some forty years before, they had found themselves fighting a series of slave-trading warlords who used Islam to rally disparate tribes against a common enemy. They watched the French approach, they forced conversions, they called for jihad. The lofty and intoxicating talk in Paris of a clash of civilizations seemed to inform Voulet’s sense of righteousness, to clarify and consolidate his purpose. “Even as the villages were burning and his troops ransacked the land for slaves and food,” Taithe writes, “[Voulet] would note that his war was a humanitarian one.” In this region, the French often found themselves fighting ghosts and metaphors—a witch led one group of tribal warriors, Islamic holy men led others—and Voulet was a veteran of these campaigns. Europeans, he had written, could not win respect from the Africans with their civilization and technological advances alone. They needed to inspire fear. “European prestige vanishes,” he wrote, “when the natives think themselves more powerful.”
From the beginning, the Voulet-Chanoine mission displayed a special kind of recklessness. Moving effectively through the desert requires a small, fleet force, but instead the French officers assembled a swollen posse that included eight hundred concubines and required forty tons of water each day. At the first town they encountered, Voulet and Chanoine demanded porters. The villagers refused to provide them, and so the French column razed the town, killing more than a hundred people. Voulet and Chanoine let their troops keep their bounty; the pillage and the slaughter had begun. The French called the area of West African that borders the Sahara ‘the Soudan,’ and many believed the region provoked a festering madness in those whites who passed through. “The soldiers call Soudanitis a disease that consists of avenging oneself of ennui by being malicious, impatient, quarrelsome,” one contemporary wrote.
During their expedition, Voulet and Chanoine turned to mass slaughter so speedily that, Taithe argues, they must have brought their madness with them. At Ouagadougou, Taithe points out, Voulet had authorized summary executions—war crimes of a lesser degree than the horrors that his column would perpetrate across Niger two years later, but of the same kind. These actions had made him a national hero. A mad culture enables acts of madness. At each stage of Voulet’s and Chanoine's journey, other French colonials—their subordinates, missionaries, and the commanders of military outposts—were horrified by their excesses, and wrote Paris to seek some measure of redress. The French had established an arbitrary and inexact line for morality in colonial wars, but their contemporaries all had some sense of where that line lay. Voulet and Chanoine did not. The Europeans, Taithe notes, never recognized African kingdoms as states, and never interpreted the Geneva Convention as applying to these colonial wars. “Against the uncivilized,” the historian writes, “‘no need to be civilized’ seemed to be the argument.”
This argument was put forward across the continent. In 1904, fifteen thousand soldiers under the command of General Lothar von Trotha were sent to the German colony of southwest Africa to put down a rebellion of the Herero tribe. Von Trotha soundly defeated the Herero warriors, and then ordered his soldiers to poison local wells and herd the rest of the tribe’s men, women, and children, into the Kalahari, Sixty-five thousand people—three-quarters of the Herero population—died. Half a century later, Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, lingered over the Herero episode, and the colonial experience more generally. In Africa, Arendt argued, Europeans had taught themselves that race was the irreducible element of politics, and the bureaucracy had taught itself how to carry out racial annihilation. Both of these lessons, she believed, helped to construct a totalitarian state and point it towards the Holocaust.
Contemporary scholars, perhaps most influentially Isabel Hull, have begun to incline against this view, arguing that annihilationist tendencies had been steeped in European militaryculture since before the empires took root in Africa. In this understanding of this dark history, the problem was not Africa. The problem was Europe.Taithe, the author of elegant histories of the Franco-Prussian wars and the Paris Commune, is sympathetic to this point of view. After all, the revolt of the Commune in Paris in 1871 was crushed by a military force that killed twenty thousand French citizens. Taithe is therefore skeptical that the slaughter of Voulet and Chanoine had much to do with the psychology of the colonies. The historian cites the testimony of the mission’s physician. The doctor, Taithe writes, “never explained Voulet’s crimes as anything other than treason. Dr. Henric did not raise mention of the insanity other commentators wished to ascribe to Voulet.” Taithe is also interested in tracing the political fallout of the episode—described in vivid detail in the Parisian tabloids—on a liberalizing country fighting its way through the Dreyfus Affair and beginning, Taithe believes, to question the wisdom of its own colonial program.
One of the weaknesses of Taithe’s book is the speed and enthusiasm with which the historian moves past his subject—the Voulet-Chanoine mission—to a broader consideration of contemporary French culture. But Taithe’s description of the fragility of French domestic politics at the turn of the century is vivid and revealing: Socialist and anarchist organizing seemed to portend a revolution, and the right had propped up aging generals, and used them as the agents of failed coups. The Dreyfus affair forged unlikely political alliances, for and against. Taithe wants to describe this extended moment as one in which French elite opinion pivoted left, against the secrecy and the statism of the military, and against the colonial project. The Voulet-Chanoine moment was a “threshold,” Taithe writes, “when a certain kind of war became unacceptable.” This seems altogether too hopeful an interpretation. The enthusiasms for the French empire only escalated as the decades wore on, and by the eve of World War II they were stronger than they had ever been.
Yet it is hard not to wish that Taithe had been more right. More than a century has passed, but the territory that Voulet and Chanoine aspired to reach, now called Chad, remains under Paris's protection, its despot Idriss Deby kept in power during two recent rebellions only by the intervention of French jets. Deby has played a spoiler's role in the Darfur wars, letting his country's eastern territory serve as a staging ground for rebel groups fighting Khartoum. Other traces of the French presence there are hard to detect. There are only a few dozen kilometers of paved road in the country; in the capital, one of those roads extends from the capital's airport to the Presidential Palace. In 2006, I was in a small plane on the tarmac in that airport, waiting to fly to the Darfur refugee camps, when a Chadian employee of the American embassy came rushing up toward us, and passed us a box of chocolate croissants, locally made. They were delicious—rich and flaky—as good as you could get in Paris. Bequeathing a country croissants and not, say, pavement is a form of madness, too. And this madness is French; it has nothing to do with Africa.
Ben Wallace-Wells is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.