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.
LRB 11 March 2010 | PDF Download