Even though I’m not really one for reading travel books, or books of daring escapades, there’s something about tales of Victorian exploration that tend to boggle the mind. Earlier in the year R.W. Johnson reviewed The Killer Trail: A Colonial Scandal in the Heart of Africa by Bertrand Taithe in the London Review of Books.
Captain Paul Voulet presented his plan for a new expedition to the minister of colonies in January 1898 … 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. … 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.
But this wasn’t just a couple of chaps exploring Africa. Not even a couple of chaps and a few porters. It was a dangerous area, after all.
[Voulet] 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.
Not just a couple of chaps then. Perhaps inevitably, things didn’t go well.