Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bertrand Taithe's "The Killer Trail"

Bertrand Taithe is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Manchester. He has published extensively on war, medicine and war, and humanitarianism, including most recently Benjamin's Arcades: An Unguided Tour, and is an editor of the European Review of History.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Killer Trail: A Colonial Scandal in the Heart of Africa, and reported the following:
It is an extraordinary process to take this test. As it stands page 99 is marking about one third of the book and stands in the middle of a chapter entitled ‘privateering for France’. In this chapter I have attempted to explain the specific culture of empire builders working for a liberal democracy. The page is devoted to the relations between two men, Voulet and Chanoine, both captain at an early age, and the French army in West Africa. The two men led a brutal expedition which eventually became scandalous and led to a rescue expedition – the rescue expedition was ambushed and dispersed by the expedition led by Voulet. The leader of the rescue expedition Colonel Klobb was killed, Voulet died in obscure circumstances two days later. The scandal of this murder soon obscured the original scandal focused on war atrocities. This took place between 1898 and 1900, precisely at the time of the publication of Heart of Darkness by Conrad, and their story imitates closely the plot of the book that inspired Apocalypse Now. The Killer Trail tells the story but is also questioning the role of scandals when it comes to war atrocities and especially the manner in which Voulet was portrayed as criminally insane.

Page 99 sets the scene of the complex relationships these adventurers had with French colonial administration of the last frontier colony of the French Empire, Soudan (what is today Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali). It is clear from the archival evidence that both Voulet and Chanoine, previously lionised for their daring acts and their cost efficient conquest techniques, were also feared for their brutality and for the impact of their methods on the development of a viable colonial administration under military rule. The French empire, and in particular the sub-Saharan empire was ruled from afar and while Voulet and Chanoine promised quick returns to their backers in Paris, many on the ground were aware of what it entailed. On page 99, I argue that the ‘scandal’ of colonial atrocities was thus not a ‘shock of discovery’. This sets the scene for a fuller discussion of how atrocities took place and how they were revealed at a time when France still coped with the Dreyfus Affair and how they later became remembered.
Read more about The Killer Trail at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue