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The Conquest of the Sahara
By Douglas Porch
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2005 Douglas Porch
All rights reserved.
In the center of an earth which cartographers like to depict in blues and greens lies a substantial area of khaki that stares like an eye out of the globe. Even here in this semifanciful, semiidealized world, this patch appears desolate and uninviting. The lighter brown of plain and dune swirls and twists among the darker ribs of ridge, plateau and mountain. Across this chaos of light and shade is written in large black lettering: Sahara Desert.
The geographical position of the Sahara has given it an enormously important role to play in history. The Sahara separates two continents — Europe and Asia — from the more populous and richer areas of Africa. Its vastness is almost inconceivable: 3,500 miles divide Cap Blanc on the Atlantic from Port Sudan on the Red Sea. These, of course, are 3,500 miles as the crow flies. But crows do not often fly across the Sahara. If you want to cross the desert from west to east on foot, or on a camel, or even in a Land Rover, the distance is considerably increased. The English writer Geoffrey Moorhouse attempted such a trip in the last decade, but gave up after several months at Tamanrasset in the Ahaggar massif of Algeria. While this is hardly an inconsiderable achievement, he had covered barely one-third of the distance he had originally set himself. Had he set out from London to accomplish successfully the same journey at a more northerly latitude, his camel would have taken him across the Urals and into Outer Mongolia.
It is easier to cross the desert from north to south. For one thing, the distances are far shorter. From the oasis of Biskra on the southern slopes of the Saharian Atlas where, as the tourist brochures proclaim, "the desert begins," to the fabled and decrepit town of Timbuktu, within spitting distance of the broad, sluggish Niger River, where in theory the desert should end (it obstinately refuses to do so), is around 1,350 miles. If you set out in a westerly direction from Manhattan Island, you might arrive in a small town on the south fork of the River Platte in western Nebraska with the Arab-sounding name of Ogallala before you had exhausted the distance. But again, these are crow-flying measurements. The true mileage might put you closer to Montana's Little Bighorn — in more ways than one.
The map resolutely proclaims that two roads cross the Sahara from north to south through the pie-shaped wedge of Algeria. This is partially true. The more popular eastern route is a surfaced road which will take you as far as the unattractive red mud town of Tamanrasset. From there, however, you are on your own, free to follow the confusion of faint tracks which head off in all directions, race across bone-hard plateaus, sink up to your axles in sand or simply to lose your way in a blinding sandstorm. With luck, and a good vehicle, you might arrive in Timbuktu.
During this long, hot, dusty journey, travelers with a sense of history have the leisure to reflect, indeed, to wonder, why in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the French coveted this wilderness. The variety of the Saharian landscapes is obscured by the vast distances; hour passes upon monotonous hour: "The plains of sand give way to the dunes, and the dunes to the plains," wrote Frédéric Bernard, who accompanied the first Flatters expedition in 1880. "Nothing but sand. ..." Even the normally ebullient English tourist W. J. Harding-King, who journeyed southward from Biskra at the turn of the century, complained that "There was always the same sandy soil, the same small bushes, the same level horizon, the same desert larks, the same hawks and ravens, the same little lizards scuttling about the sand. It was very monotonous."
Nineteenth-century travelers assumed that the Sahara had once been covered by ocean. Although this theory has since been rejected by geologists, it is a charming and, on the face of it, an altogether plausible notion. Today, if one flies over the Sahara, it looks like a land deserted by the sea. The plains, wadis (water courses) and dunes might well have been sloshed and rippled by tides and currents of a past geological age. If one walks or rides across the Sahara, the conclusion is irresistible that mammals could not find this a hospitable land. The few lizards and snakes that pad and twist over the sand are like refugees from an undersea world; the empty silence is more reminiscent of a place where water, not air, is the principal medium.
Yet, amazingly, men have adapted to this blasted land. The limestone plateaus that stretch southward from the Saharian Atlas, the last sentinels of the Maghreb, contain numerous depressions which are well watered and densely populated. In these oases, sometimes running for hundreds of miles, a mixture of Arabs, Berbers and blacks coax a few melons and tomatoes from the thin soil, raise scrawny chickens and goats, boil up locusts when a "plague" descends upon them, and rely mainly on the date palms for both shade and sustenance. Without the date, men could not live in the desert.
Beyond these pockets of cultivation, men manage to survive, but only just. In the north-central Sahara, Chaamba Arabs drift with their flocks of camels and sheep, seeking out pasture in the broad, shallow valleys where, from time to time, a freak shower of rain or rare collection of moisture causes low vegetation to appear, more gray than green.
The true desert men, however, are the Tuareg (singular, "Targui"). While the Chaamba seldom stray too far from the oases which, though poor, are essential to life in the desert, the Tuareg occupy the heart of the Sahara. As geographers are at great pains to point out, the image of the desert as an endless succession of dunes — an immense beach in search of its ocean — is quite inaccurate. The topography of the Sahara is extremely varied. Dunes there are aplenty — seemingly illimitable wrinkles of sand hills called ergs. But there are also plains, flat, waterless and dreaded tanezrouft upon which the sun's rays beat as upon an anvil. Low, flat-topped hills called gour (singular gara) sometimes dot the horizon like aircraft carriers whose flights have deserted them. Wadis, or watercourses, usually dry, carved out by long-forgotten storms, slice through the hammada, or high plateau. There are hills of respectable size, all brown, boulder-strewn and denuded of vegetation. Occasionally a ridge breaks the monotony of the plateaus — those which tower over the oasis of Djanet in the Tassili n'Ajjer rise to 2,500 feet. But by far the most impressive feature of the Sahara is the great massifs — the Adrar des Iforas, the Air, the Tassili and, above all, the Ahaggar whose tallest peak, Tahat, rises to 9,573 feet. These stand out like islands in a parched sea, relatively well watered and virtually inaccessible. These are the redoubts in which the Tuareg make their homes.
The Tuareg are a Berber people who occupy the central Sahara from the Tuat oases in the north to the Hausa country of northern Nigeria; from Lake Chad and the Libyan desert in the east to what is now modern Mauritania in the west. For centuries, this tall warrior people made the desert their inviolate sanctuary, accessible only to the caravans which were willing to pay the price of passage. Even the Arabs, who conquered so much of Asia, Africa and even Europe, were unable to impose their language or, in any serious form, their religion on these fiercely independent nomads. This was why they called them the "Tuareg" — the "abandoned of God."
Despite its bleakness, the Sahara is a land of great beauty, as any traveler to the desert will readily admit: "It was the awful scale of the thing, the suggestion of virginity, the fusion of pure elements from the heavens above and the earth beneath which were untrammelled and untouched by anything contrived by man." This, for Geoffrey Moorhouse, was the attraction of the Sahara. Others found beauty in the startling contrasts of the desert's varied landscapes: the "chaos of peaks and needles" of the Ahaggar massif which the sun transforms from funereal black into mountains that seem to burn with "an interior fire." The 700-mile-long Tassili ridge whose crags appeared to men camped beneath to be medieval fortresses; the oases with their date palms of deep green nestled among powder gold dunes.
But the scenic attractions of the Sahara, great as they are, hardly justified its inclusion, at great expense, in the French colonial empire. Why did the French want to occupy it? The short answer is that they did not; or, more accurately, the government had no designs on the desert, no plans to garrison and colonize it. If you had asked a French politician in, say, 1880, or even in 1900, if he wished for his country to conquer the desert, he would most probably have given you an emphatic no! If he was a sensible chap and had not been drawn into the "Colonial Party" in the French Chamber of Deputies — a hundred strong at the turn of the century, organized and directed by Eugene Etienne, the deputy for Oran in Algeria — he would have told you that colonies do not pay.
The budget for Algeria, France's most populous colony (in terms of European population), was in deficit by 93 million francs in 1910. Paris poured 3 million francs each year into the Saharian territories of Algeria, which returned to it 300,000 francs in taxes annually. Attempts by zealous government officials to increase the tax burden on the native population provoked howls of protest from officers of the Armée d'Afrique who garrisoned Algeria and administered the "tribal areas" of the Sahara. They realized — as the boffins of the Ministere des Finances, oblivious to everything but the bottom lines of their ledgers, did not — that Arabs, especially desert Arabs, equated taxation with slavery: "Taxes degrade peoples." The surest way to push an Arab beyond the bounds of tolerance was to transfer a portion of his meager wealth to Paris. When, in the 1890s, the French attempted to tax the Chaamba of Ouargla, the Arabs simply moved 500 miles further south to In Salah; beyond the reach of French officialdom, and of the French army, they took up their old profession as raiders, making life intolerable for the French-held oases further north. "Perhaps tomorrow man will be able to influence the climate and the rain, he will utilize solar heat industrially, by ways impossible to foresee he will modify the present situation of the desert," the Saharian specialist E. F. Gautier forecast in 1910. "But today, to those who have seen the Sahara, and even those who have loved it, it is impossible to pretend that it has a value in itself."
Gautier was not alone in his opinion. Even many of the men on the spot thought the idea of conquering the Sahara an absurd one: "When one has never visited and lived in these regions, one cannot imagine their desolation," wrote Major Jean Deleuze, dispatched in 1901 to report on the feasibility, and the wisdom, of establishing a permanent garrison in the newly conquered oasis complex of the Tuat. "The words: infertility — desert — void — do not do justice to the place. I am in agreement with Monsieur Foureau to employ the expression 'waste,' the 'Saharian waste.' The expression is not too strong." The desert populations were "small, miserable, wandering across the immense deserted regions and jealous of their independence." Some saw the conquest of the Sahara as vital to link the French empire in Chad and the Western Sudan with Algeria: "But what is the utility of that?" Deleuze asked. Lake Chad was just a bog surrounded by more desert. Anyone who thought that the Sahara could ever be made to pay its way was following a "mirage d'illusions" and simply digging yet another "hole into which we shall pour millions."
Deleuze was no fool. He knew exactly where to place the blame for all of this mad talk about the conquest of the desert. A few hotheads like Captain Théodore Pein could, by taking unscheduled local initiatives, put the army in embarrassing situations, provoke fights and oblige Algiers to dispatch punitive expeditions. But the real culprits were the armchair colonialists in Paris who supported them, covered for them, excused their indiscipline. "Colonial expansion has become a sport, and a very fashionable sport, which is practiced mainly in Paris" by politicians, soldiers and intellectuals, Deleuze wrote with remarkable acerbity. "Their action coloniale is limited to writing articles in newspapers or haranguing explorers who depart or return, posing as partisans of 'la plus grande France.'" If they ever troubled to study more closely the places which they urged Frenchmen to explore and acquire, if they ever bothered to venture south of the Place de la Concorde, they might realize that la plus grande France was a charade, a papier-mâché world, large, exotic, but worthless, a poor joke played on the French people.
Deleuze certainly had his point of view, and it was one shared by the majority of Frenchmen. As an economic proposition, the colonies were almost everywhere a write-off. Few Frenchmen wanted to emigrate there. Few capitalists wanted to invest in them. (In the decade before the Great War, Russian railway bonds offered a far more tempting — and ultimately an equally disastrous — investment.) When the Compagnie de l'Oued Rirh tried to exploit commercially the date palms of the southern Algerian oases, they reckoned to make a profit of only 3 francs 50 per palm tree. Many French patriots saw the colonies as a gaping maw which devoured men and matériel desperately needed to bolster the vulnerable eastern and northern frontiers with Germany.
Why did France, then, conquer the Sahara? The question is probably best answered in terms of what a diplomat or strategist would call a power vacuum. Power vacuums always tempted neighboring states to intervene. Most of the wars in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe were fought over those places where states were weak or fragmented — Poland, the German states, Italy, the Balkans. "Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" would probably start the next war, Bismarck had predicted before his retirement. But the Balkans apart, Europe had largely resolved the problems of power vacuums by 1875. In a real sense, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 can be seen as one of the last European wars fought over a power vacuum. When Bismarck provoked a confrontation with Emperor Napoleon III of France ostensibly over the succession to the Spanish throne, in reality both men had their ambitions firmly set on the four kingdoms, five grand duchies, six duchies, seven principalities, three free cities, and the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine which made up "Germany." With Europe distracted by the war in the north, Italian Prime Minister Cavour seized the opportunity to tidy up his borders by eliminating the Papal States which cut the peninsula in half.
With the question of power vacuums largely settled on the Continent, European states began to look outward, to search out new fields of conquest. Their motives were varied. But it is certain that economic ones were less important than, until a few years ago, historians once thought. While politicians paid lip service to trade and industry, things like prestige, national honor or whatever tag one likes to apply to the wave of national fervor which swept European countries before 1914, were the raw material of ringing editorials. rousing speeches and electoral victories. Unless one understands this, then the "steeplechase to the unknown" — as French Prime Minister Jules Ferry labeled the mad rush for African lands which began in the 1880s — becomes inexplicable. Colonialism was not, as Lenin claimed, "the highest stage of capitalism." Rather, it was the highest stage of nationalism.
National tensions resulted in the expansion of the armed forces of Europe, and these, in turn, contributed their own impetus to the cause of imperial expansion: all those men, guns and ships lying idle in an age when nationalism flowed toward its spring tide. It was like a number of football sides searching for a field upon which they might compete, and no country fielded keener competitors than did France. In this way, European nationalism gave birth to imperialism, and imperialism acquired its own rationale beyond those of economics. But within these great historical currents which swept Europe in the fifty or so years before the Great War, there was plenty of room for individual initiative. Of no place was this more true than of the Sahara.
Excerpted from The Conquest of the Sahara by Douglas Porch. Copyright © 2005 Douglas Porch. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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