Today’s History Thread will not be as detailed or nuanced as usual because I am not a trained historian. Nevertheless I will give it my best shot.
Today I’d like to talk about a historical event I learned about only this year, the Voulet-Chanoine Mission of 1898. It started as a French colonial mission to conquer the areas around the Chad Basin and map out boundaries between the French and the British territories following the signing of accords in June 1898. Led by Captain Voulet and his second in command Captain Chanoine, the expedition quickly degenerated into brutality and violence as the French captains began pillaging and burning local villages to keep their overly large column supplied with food and water. Despite also being a mission to depose a local African king known for slave-trading, the French themselves began to take slaves from the villages they encountered. One lieutenant in the expedition, Louis Peteau, was dismissed for insubordination and then wrote a letter to his fiance detailing the many crimes he had witnessed.
That letter found its way to a French newspaper and severely alarmed the government. The Minister of Colonies ordered a Colonel Klobb, located nearby in Timbuktu, to locate the Voulet-Chanoine column and bring the men back to France for a trial. Following the path of the column, Klobb witnessed the aftermath of many brutalities such as bodies left to hang and heads left on spikes. In July 1899, after seven months of massacres and looting, Klobb reached the column and ordered Voulet to return with him. But Voulet decided he wasn’t going back, so he ordered his men to fire on Klobb when he arrived. Klobb was killed, but both Voulet and Chanoine were killed by their own soldiers a day later in a mutiny when he informed them of what he had done.
Despite the eerie similarities, this story occurred shortly after Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was written. Chanoine was the son of a prominent French General who later became Minister of War. An inquiry into the event was mostly buried and blamed on the unique individual derangement of Captain Voulet. The French called it “Soudanitis” the insanity of Sudan.
Prompt for this week What’s a historical event that you only learned about this year?