Archive for April, 2007|Monthly archive page

One of Oscar’s


oscar wilde

“I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

Je suis un chef noir – Heart of Darkness


Senegal, West Africa – two years before the turn of the 20th Century. A French military expedition sets out from Dakar for Lake Chad in November 1898 with a view of unifying all French territories in the region. The mission involves 50 Senegalese infantrymen, 20 cavalry, 30 interpreters, 400 auxiliaries and 800 porters – well over a thousand men led by nine French officers.

In command was 32 year old Captain Paul Voulet and his adjutant Lieutenant Julien Chanoine. Voulet was the son of a doctor and Chanoine the son of a general and future Minister of War.

Their orders were on the vague side: to explore the territory between the river Niger and lake Chad, and put the area “under French protection”. The Minister of Colonies said: “I don’t pretend to be able to give you any instructions on which route to choose or how you are to behave towards the native chieftains”.

When the expedition reached Koulikoro on the Niger, it split in two. Chanoine led most of the column overland across the 600-mile meander of the river, while Voulet travelled downriver with the rest of the men to Timbuktu.

As Chanoine progressed overland he found it increasingly difficult to find provisions for his large column in the arid landscape so he started raiding the villages along the way. He ordered that anyone trying to escape was to be shot. Adding to these troubles, a dysentery epidemic broke out – by the end of the first two months the mission had lost 148 porters to the disease.

Voulet and Chanoine were reunited in January 1899 at Say, the easternmost post in French Sudan (now in Niger). The column by then was 2,000 men strong – far more than their supplies could sustain. The pillaging and killing grew to match.

On 8th January 1899 the village of Sansanné-Haoussa was sacked. 101 people were killed. 30 women and children were taken prisoner in retaliation for the wounding of two soldiers.

At the end of January the mission left the river Niger for the semi-desert territory to the East.

Around this time, one of the officers, Lieutenant Peteau, told Voulet that he had had enough and was leaving. Voulet dismissed him for “lack of discipline and enthusiasm.” Peteau wrote a letter to his fiancée detailing the atrocities that he had witnessed. His fiancée contacted her local Deputy, who sent her letter on to the Minister of Colonies, Antoine Guillain. On 20th April 1899 orders were issued from Paris to arrest Voulet and Chanoine and have them replaced by the governor of Timbuktu, Lieutenant-Colonel Klobb. (Of particular concern to the French government was that Voulet was operating in Sokoto, an unconquered territory which under the Anglo-French agreement of June 1898 had been assigned to Britain). Klobb immediately set out from Timbuktu with a force of 50 fifty men.

Back in Africa, Voulet was meeting considerable resistance from the local queen, Sarraounia. At Lougou on 16th April his column suffered its biggest set-back to date – a battle in which 4 men were killed and 6 wounded. Voulet took his revenge. On 8th May, in one of the worst massacres in French colonial history, Voulet-Chanoine slaughtered all the inhabitants of the village of Birni-N’Konni, killing hundreds of men, women and children.

Klobb followed the trail of destruction left by the mission – an infernal path of burned villages and charred corpses. Trees where women had been hanged. Cooking fires where children had been roasted. Severed heads on stakes. The remains of those expedition guides who had displeased Voulet – strung up alive in such a position that the feet went to the hyenas and the rest of the body to the vultures.

After a pursuit of over 2,000 kilometres, Klobb caught up with the Voulet-Chanoine expedition just beyond Damangara near Zinder (in present day Niger). On 14th July – French Independence Day – Klobb confronted Voulet at Dankori. In full dress uniform and with his Légion d’Honneur medal pinned to his chest, Klobb approached the renegade Voulet alone. Voulet kept telling him to go back and ordered two salvos to be fired in the air. When Klobb addressed Voulet’s men, reminding them of their duties, Voulet threatened them with a pistol and ordered them to open fire. Klobb fell, wounded, but still ordering his men not to return fire. This final order was cut short by a second burst of fire which killed him.

That evening Voulet informed his officers of the clash. He stripped off the decorations on his uniform and proclaimed: “Je ne suis plus français. Je suis un chef noir. Avec vous, je vais fonder un empire” [“I’m no longer French. I’m a black chief. With you, I shall found an empire.”]

The officers were less than enthusiastic. Their negative reaction spread to the troops. Two days later an informer told Voulet that the men were about to mutiny. Voulet and Chanoine assembled the troops. They shot the informer in front of them all for informing too late. Voulet harangued the soldiers about their duty to obey their leaders, at the same time shooting at them. The Senegalese returned fire, killing Chanoine, but Voulet escaped into the darkness.

The following morning Voulet tried to re-enter the camp, but was blocked by a sentry who refused to let him pass. Voulet shot at him but missed. The sentry returned fire and ended the story of the Voulet-Chanoine mission.

An enquiry initiated by the Ministry of Colonies back in the mother country closed in December 1902, concluding that Voulet and Chanoine had been driven mad by the dreadful heat of Africa.

[This story was first brought to my attention some years ago by my good friend Marcelino Truong in Paris.]

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