Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Previously unsuspected colonial atrocities

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!”
More here.


  1. So all this went on just as Conrad was publishing "Heart of Darkness" in serial form.

  2. Right. The history is even more sensational than the fiction.

    There's an angle on how Voulet and Chanoine were basically late-19thC wingnuts, "making France strong again" after the Dreyfus affair, but comparisons to the present day would be invidious.