The Voulet-Chanoine Mission left Dakar on the coast of French West Africa in the late summer of 1898. They were heading for the Central African region of Lake Chad, with the aim of establishing effective borders between the French and British empires while “pacifying” a notoriously belligerant region. However, the mission descended into a horrific catalogue of colonial violence and cruelty that eerily prefigures fictional accounts of the “scramble for Africa” such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which originally published as a three-part series in 1899. When the story reached Paris in 1899 a second mission was sent out to investigate, culminating in a dramatic shoot-out when the two mission met in the July of that year. Below is a short extract from Bertrand Taithe‘s new book on the subject, The Killer Trail: A Colonial Scandal in the Heart of Africa.
In the end, their tracks became clearer. Burnt villages signalled the progress of their journey. Occasionally, hanging bodies marked the entrances of villages while corpses littered the places they had visited. In the first few settlements beyond the uncertain borders of French Soudan the corpses had been arranged in shallow mass graves, a long dark blood stain hinting how the bodies had been dragged to their burial ground. Later on the corpses lay where they fell. To Colonel Klobb and his small squad of native troops of the French in West Africa, the so-called tirailleurs, it became obvious that the men they were looking for had lost their ways in every conceivable manner.
On 25 April 1899, Arsène Klobb had been sent after a much larger military ‘mission’ or ‘colonne’ led by two men: Captains Voulet and Chanoine, whose fates were so entwined that they have become almost a twin entity sharing a common tragedy: Voulet–Chanoine. These men were the kind of colonial figures known for their daring and initiative, the nationalists lionized. Indeed only a few years earlier they had been welcomed back in Paris as heroes. From heroes these men became villains, worse still, a national embarrassment. There had been early signs that the mission they led would encounter ‘difficulties’. When Klobb had received Voulet in Timbuktu, in November 1898 he had confided to his diaries: ‘Voulet is coming to me tomorrow. I am anxious, it seems to me that he is venturing into something he does not know. A conversation with him should tell me if that is the case.’ While driving his small group hard on Voulet’s track, Klobb noted in increasingly telegraphic style the evidence of destruction he encountered. On 5 July he wrote:
I am starting to be exhausted—I am still running. I am on the 5th longitude East and I still have not reached anything. It’s true that the expedition is a year ahead of me. I am in a village where I eat what has not been torched. Voulet burns everything—exactly. I do not encounter many difficulties: the inhabitants are terrorised by Voulet’s passing through, they run away when they see me coming; when they see the tirailleurs the bows and arrows fall from their hands.
On the 6th of the same month, on reaching Tibiri, ‘huge village with many gaps; entirely burnt. The dry moat is 4.5 metres deep to the tip of the wall. Women hanged.’
Klobb had received orders from the governor of the military colony of French Soudan, Colonel de Trentinian, who led from the city of Kayes a huge and ill-controlled territory which would cover most of today’s Burkina Faso, Mali, and (as Voulet’s advance furthered its borders to the east) the south of Niger. De Trentinian was acting on orders received through two telegrams sent from Paris. The first stated that a mission should be sent to catch up with the army of Captains Voulet and Chanoine to investigate the news leaked in the daily newspaper Le Matin. The second, sent three days later, ordered that both Voulet and Chanoine should be arrested and held accountable for their crimes:
Recent massacre Sansané Haoussa, 15 women and children—execution tirailleur—number of exhausted porters refusing march would have been beheaded then six massacres to obtain new porters—Tirailleurs alleged to have to bring hands to captains to show orders were executed—Captain Chanoine alleged to have put on sticks heads of inhabitants found in villages which would have been burnt twelve kilometres around—I hope the allegations are unfounded—if against all probability these abominable crimes are proven Voulet and Chanoine cannot continue to lead mission without a great shame for France . . . send from Say superior and subaltern officers join mission.
The minister of colonies’ telegram contained a summary of the allegations published in the Parisian press. These were leaked from the correspondence of a Lieutenant Péteau, dismissed a few weeks earlier by Voulet.
Some of the accusations seemed so extreme that officers on the ground such as Klobb were originally unconvinced. It is only gradually, the official version reveals, that he came to accept that something might be grievously wrong. According to his second in command, Lt. OctaveMeynier, Arsène Klobb was convinced, when, upon entering Birnin Konni, he saw little girls hanging from the low branches of the trees and over a thousand corpses rotting in the sun. For Klobb the decision to arrest Voulet seemed justified and in a letter to the rear, he noted, ‘I confess I find it hard to believe that French officers could have ordered such horror. I will do what I can to prevent a scandal but I will send Voulet and Chanoine back if I can.’ The mission had to continue but it had to change. Something had gone wrong east of the colonial border of French Soudan.