Sword and the Cross: Two Men and an Empire of Sand

Sword and the Cross: Two Men and an Empire of Sand

by Fergus Fleming

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Whether writing of the Alps, the high seas, or the North Pole, Fergus Fleming has won acclaim as one of today's most vivid and engaging historians of adventure and exploration. The Sword and the Cross takes us to the Sahara at the end of the nineteenth century, when France had designs on a hostile wilderness dominated by deadly Tuareg nomads.
Two fanatical…  See more details below


Whether writing of the Alps, the high seas, or the North Pole, Fergus Fleming has won acclaim as one of today's most vivid and engaging historians of adventure and exploration. The Sword and the Cross takes us to the Sahara at the end of the nineteenth century, when France had designs on a hostile wilderness dominated by deadly Tuareg nomads.
Two fanatical adventurers, Charles de Foucauld and Henri Laperrine, rose to the cause of their country's national honor. Abandoning his decadent lifestyle as a sensualist and womanizer, Foucauld founded a monastic order so severe that during his lifetime it never had a membership of more than one. Yet he remained a committed imperialist and from his remote hermitage continued to assist the military. The stern career soldier Laperrine, meanwhile, founded a camel corps whose exploits became legendary. During World War I the Sahara's fragile peace crumbled. In the desert mountains Foucauld paid a tragic price for his role as imperial pawn. Laperrine, by then recalled to the Western Front, returned to avenge his friend.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Adventure writer and historian Fleming (Barrow's Boys, etc.) turns to French colonial Africa for his latest chronicle of historical (mis)adventure. His meticulous research and fascination with the physical hardships faced by men bent on discovery and conquest are on impressive display. Following the sometimes parallel, sometimes intertwining biographies of Charles de Foucauld and Henri Laperrine, Fleming reconstructs the French colonial crusade in northern Africa that began with France's conquest of Algeria in 1830. Following a series of disgraces in the imperialist race, France needed the Sahara to resurrect its honor on the world's stage. Fleming concludes, "France was conquering Africa just for the sake of it." Foucauld and Laperrine met as soldiers during the Bou-Amama war in Algeria in 1881, and while Laperrine became a career soldier and Foucauld matured from a hedonistic womanizer into an evangelical ascetic, they remained friends until Foucauld's assassination by Muslim fundamentalists in 1916. Until their deaths (Laperrine died of thirst amid the dunes after a plane crash), the two men dedicated themselves to France's cause with zeal. As Fleming writes, "Evangelization was the mortar that imperialists hoped would turn the desert from conquered territory to complaisant colony," and while Foucauld became "a pawn in the colonial game," Fleming recognizes that most likely "he used the military as much as they used him." What emerges most notably from this dense, detailed history is Fleming's description of the colonialists flirting time and time again with a desert seemingly inimical to human life. As Fleming concludes, "The tragedy of their existences lay not so much in time as in landscape... the Sahara was the same after their deaths as before." 3 maps. Agent, Gillon Aitken. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this riveting story of French ambitions in the Sahara at the turn of the 20th century, freelance writer Fleming (Ninety Degrees North) focuses on two Frenchmen who hoped to conquer the desert but were instead transformed by that vast expanse of searing nothingness. Charles Foucauld was a corpulent aristocratic army officer who sought adventure in North Africa in the 1880s. Gradually, the desert took possession of his soul and transformed him into an ascetic monk who sought to bring Saharan tribesmen into the Christian fold through example. Henri Laperrine was an iconoclastic French officer whose goal was not to conquer the people of the Sahara but to earn their respect through strength and genuine friendship. In their separate ways, Foucauld and Laperrine were the best the French had to offer the Saharan culture. Inevitably, their nation's ruthless imperial ambitions doomed their struggle to conquer the Sahara, and the desert once again became the domain of the people who had lived there for thousands of years. Ably told and well researched, this telling of a unique and timely story should be in every academic and public library. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/03.]-Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fleming (Ninety Degrees North, 2002, etc.) profiles two distinct yet congruent personalities of late-19th- and early-20th-century French colonialism in Algeria. After the Phoenicians, the Romans, Arabs, and Ottomans, the French came to Algeria. Bourbon failings at home, combined with depredations of the Barbary pirates and an insult to the French consul, started France on a course of blockade, then bombardment, then occupation of Algiers. Subsequent French administrations, writes Fleming, had visions of empire. Their occupying forces became "clichés of North African conquest: white soldiers huddled in mud-brick forts, awaiting the doubtful arrival of supplies, while disease and guerrilla actions took their toll." But two characters turned the cliché on its head. Henri Laperrine was a freewheeling military spirit, not a rogue—"initiative does not mean indiscipline," he noted—but an officer who understood that to fight successfully against indigenous forces, one assumed indigenous tactics (as the French would try to do 60 years later, in the Battle of Algiers). Charles de Foucauld, in evident though not so substantive contrast, was an absinthe-quaffing soldier/sybarite who became a Trappist monk. With the declared aim of "a deeper dispossession and a greater lowliness so that I might still be more like Jesus," Foucauld took on the contradictory mantel of hermit/evangelical. Not that evangelism hurt the colonial cause; he was the perfect spy, ferrying to the colonial office information that, in the service of proselytism, tendered "a compendious list of ways in which the inhabitants of the Hoggar should be ‘civilized,’ " or at least Frenchified and colonialized. The two wereavatars of a process that would not become institutionalized for years to come, and even then it would be in vain. After concise storytelling that’s neither romantic nor sentimental, Fleming closes with the comment that Laperrine and Foucauld would have little lasting effect on the Sahara—"They lived within the circumstances of their age"—but would be swallowed by cultural will, and the sand. First printing of 35,000. Agent: Clare Alexander/Gillon Aitken

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The Sword and the Cross


By Fergus Fleming


Copyright © 2003

Fergus Fleming
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8021-1752-X

Chapter One

Absinthe and

In December 1880 the River Loire froze, giving Lieutenant Vicomte
Charles de Foucauld the chance to hold an evening party for his
fellow officers of the Fourth Hussars. By Parisian standards it was
not particularly grand - a provincial fête-champêtre, at best - but there
was no denying its host had a sense of style. When his guests
descended from their carriages they were greeted by a remarkable
sight. There, on the ice, Foucauld had created an al fresco ballroom:
a section of the Loire had been roped off as a dance floor; a band was
playing the latest tunes; on the bank, sideboards groaned under the
weight of Parisian delicacies; meanwhile, vats of blazing rum punch
cast a bluish glow over the scene. Everything had been taken care of,
including the provision of skates for each officer, their shoe sizes
having been obtained beforehand from the regimental quartermaster.

As Foucauld's guests cavorted over the ice, a sleigh carved in the
shape of a swan drew up amidst a circle of flaming brands. It
contained Foucauld's fur-swaddled mistress, Mimi. She was, he declared,
their 'honorary colonel' for the evening. Breaking into song, the men
whirled the sleigh across the dance floor while Foucauld skated
casually alongside, murmuring to his mistress. He had news: orders had
just come in, the Fourth Hussars were being posted to Algeria. Mimi,
however, was not to worry. He was sure she could accompany him,
and the move would do both of them good. As the jaded young
aristocrat explained, 'I need a change of scene.'

From Tunisia, the fertile zones of North Africa comprise a narrow
strip of land that stretches west to Morocco, where the Atlas
mountains, which form their southern boundary, dip southwards to create a
triangular wedge of prosperity on the Atlantic coast. As one
nineteenth-century writer put it, the effect is that of a verdant forage
cap perched on the great, bald head of the continent. In the middle of
this strip, sandwiched between Tunisia and Morocco, lies Algeria.
Topographically, Algeria differs little from its neighbours: a
Mediterranean littoral - the Sahel - followed by a stretch of good,
crop-growing land - the Tell - and then a series of high valleys, suitable
mainly for grazing - Les Hauts Plateaux - beyond which the
snow-clad mountains plunge abruptly to the Sahara. Its cultivable
area is small, extending approximately 250 kilometres inland from
900 kilometres of shoreline. Its history, however, is rich.

The Berbers, a pale-skinned race of semi-pastoralists, claim
priority as the first inhabitants of North Africa. Their tutelage was
disrupted by the Phoenicans, who set up coastal trading stations, the
most impressive of which was Carthage. Later, the Ancient Romans
assumed control of their possessions, moving inland to create
substantial colonies whose main purpose was the harvesting of wheat
and the processing of resources from the African interior - ivory, gold,
feathers, furs, wild animals for the circuses and, above all, slaves.
Between 800 and 1100 AD, as Arab invaders swept across North Africa
and into Spain, Roman control gave way to a succession of Islamic
dynasties. Then, in the seventeenth century, Algeria came under the
sway of the Ottomans, forming the western limit of a vast empire
that stretched eastward to Persia and all but encircled the
Mediterranean. Ottoman rule, however, was weak. Theoretically
under the fist of Constantinople, its outlying territories were run in
practice by local rulers who paid mere lip service to the Sultan. One
such ruler was the Dey of Algeria. It took the Deys very little time to
realize that they could do more or less as they wished and that, while
the trade in slaves continued very profitably, they could also, with the
covert blessing of the Sultan, make a lot of money from piracy.

Algeria, or the Barbary Coast as Europeans knew and feared it,
became the scourge of the Mediterranean - and of the Atlantic too. In
1644, Barbary pirates raided the British port of Penzance, seizing sixty
people to be sold as slaves; forty-four years later they took 237 men,
women and children from the Irish port of Baltimore. In the same
century, so voluminous were the crowds of women, who came to
London seeking restitution for breadwinners lost to Barbary corsairs,
that Parliament allocated them the fines levied on Members who
were late for morning prayers. It helped the women little and had no
deterrent effect on the corsairs, whose reputation was by now so widespread
that a group of Japanese pirates came to join in the fun. For
two centuries the Barbary Coast disrupted European shipping with
virtual impunity and in blithe disregard of world politics. In 1810,
during the Napoleonic War, when Britain supposedly ruled the waves,
Sir Arthur Paget, Commander of HMS Thetis, was forced to exchange
a gold snuff-box valued at £500 for two British captives held by the
pirates; in the same year London's Company of Ironmongers paid
£465 for the return of another thirteen. This was too much. In 1816 a
Royal Navy squadron anchored off Algiers and blew the pirates, their
ships and their port to smithereens. Troops were sent to invest the
rubble, which they did with notable success, using some of it to construct
a new pier, before sailing home with the satisfaction that the
Dey had been taught a lesson.

In 1830, France decided that the Dey needed another lesson - this
time in manners. During the past fifteen years, the world had become
increasingly interested in Ottoman North Africa. Nations as far afield
as America and Sweden were intrigued by its commercial possibilities
and despatched so-called 'Consuls' to pursue their interests. In every
major port, therefore, could be found a group of foreigners - adventurers
and spies for the most part - who manoeuvred for advantage in
the eyes of the local ruler. The Deys of Algeria, however, kept a
sharper eye on accounts than did most other rulers and in 1828 the
current Dey invited the French Consul to discuss a debt that had
been outstanding since the 1790s for a consignment of wheat. When
the Consul refused to countenance payment, the Dey became so outraged
that he struck the man with his fly whisk. For Charles X, the
unpopular Bourbon monarch who had been placed on the French
throne following the defeat of Napoleon, this was a perfect
opportunity to detract attention from his failings at home. Declaring the
incident 'an insult to the national honour', he put Algiers under
blockade. It was, alas, a seasonal blockade, and as soon as the French
ships left for the winter, Algerian pirates snatched three ships from the
Bay of Naples, sold them in Tangiers and returned home with the

Therefore, in 1830, France inflicted a second bombardment on
Algiers and sent marines to occupy the port. To the marines' surprise
they met almost no resistance, so they moved inland. The process was
repeated along the coast, at the ports of Oran and Bône. By the end of
the year, France, which had intended at first only to rid the
Mediterranean of a nuisance, and maybe at the same time flex its
muscles on the international stage, found itself in possession of a
small colony. Charles X would have been pleased, had he still been in
power. He had, however, been deposed and his successor, Louis
Philippe, the 'Citizen King', a ruler of more popularity and greater
caution, needed no such venture to bolster his regime. In fact,
colonization was the last thing he wanted. Afflicted, almost uniquely in
Europe, by a diminishing population, and with its finances in disarray,
France had neither the money nor the people to support new overseas
possessions. To the government's dismay, its North African territory
continued to expand. It was not a matter of policy but of practicality:
once they had recovered from the initial shock, tribal leaders did their
utmost to prevent the French advancing inland and the military
responded by securing their outer limits or, as one commentator put it,
'the presence of enemies induced battle'. Under the command of,
among others, the grizzled veteran General Thomas-Richard
Bugeaud, French troops marched ever deeper into Algeria.

For the invaders it was a glorious and exciting prospect, a chance to
display their martial prowess and to prove that, despite the ignominy
of Waterloo, they were still a formidable power. All they had to do to
take Algeria was smite a few natives armed with swords, spears and
the occasional musket. But, as they soon discovered, this was a land in
which European notions of warfare did not apply. Massed battalions,
long baggage trains and heavy artillery worked well enough in the
urbanized coastal regions; but in the countryside matters were not so
simple. The logistics alone were a nightmare. How was an offensive
force and all its supplies to be hauled through a trackless, occasionally
marshy and often mountainous hinterland? How were these cumbersome
columns to defend themselves against a foe that refused to fight
set-piece battles but pestered them with skirmishes and midnight
raids, vanishing into the bush whenever artillery was brought into
play? The French response was to advance by construction, consolidating
each hard-won piece of territory by means of a fortified redoubt
in which they could regroup before moving on. The result became
one of the clichés of North African conquest: white soldiers huddled
in mud-brick forts, awaiting the doubtful arrival of supplies, while disease
and guerrilla action took their toll. Even the Foreign Legion
failed to make an impression. Created in 1831 to siphon off undesirable
elements of France's alien population, it fought its first battles in
Algeria and later made its headquarters in the territory south of Oran.
But, notorious as it was for its brutality, it, too, became just another
part of the beleaguered garrison.

In the first year of their conquest the French had uttered vague
promises about the rights of the natives: they could retain their property,
their religion would be respected; they would be treated fairly.
Some, predominantly those around the towns and in the agricultural
zone of the Tell, had believed these promises, assuming that they had
merely exchanged rule by the Ottomans for rule by the French. 'Far
from being hostile to us, the Moors are friends of our civilization,'
wrote one observer. 'By treating them well, by according them liberty
and security, we will find the most useful support among them.' It
soon became obvious, however, that the promises were empty: one of

France's first acts was to transform Algiers' Ketchawa Mosque into a
church; Muslim feast days were no longer recognized as legal holidays;
and large stretches of farmland were confiscated and handed
over to colonists. As the occupation continued, resentment increased.
There had always been divisions within the Algerian population, the
main one being that between the coastal regions, inhabited by Arab
communities, and the highlands, which were occupied by Berbers.
The two groups did not share a common language - Berbers spoke
their own tongue, with numerous dialects. They were also at odds in
their religion: while both practised Islam, the Berbers pursued their
own, unorthodox version that incorporated ancient, pre-Islamic customs.
And their lifestyles differed - the Arabs were settled farmers,
the Berbers were pastoralists. The French had hoped to exploit these
differences but, to their dismay, both parties now came together in
opposition against them.

In the colony's outlying territories, settlers protected their villages
with ditches, walls and watchtowers. When they emerged to till their
fields they did so in armed groups and kept an eye out for the black
flag that was raised to warn them of danger. Raids were commonplace,
torchings, kidnaps and murders a matter of weekly occurrence.
Initially, the attacking tribesmen ransomed their hostages; latterly,
they just decapitated them, finding that the colonists would pay as
much for a head as they would for the living person. The settlers
replied in kind, with or without military assistance. Outside the
narrow coastal strip, where some order reigned and whose native
inhabitants actually volunteered to serve in the French army, Algeria
was a bloody and very unpleasant place. Yet still Frenchmen wanted
to live there. Displaced aristocrats who had been supporters of
Charles X - they were nicknamed the 'gants jaunes' or 'yellow
gloves' - built large estates from which they enriched themselves
while remaining in the safety of the city. Property speculators were
attracted by the promise of quick, if dangerous, profits: on seeing that
a rebellious village was about to fall, one land agent rushed in with his
wallet; the conquering officer had to pay the man several thousand
francs for the land on which he wanted to construct his fort, plus a
premium for the parade ground. And even in the most dangerous
areas settlers were united by a frontier spirit - the land might not have
been theirs originally, but having shed blood for it, they were not
going to give it up.

Paris fretted. In 1834 M. Dupin, Procureur-général, told the French
Assembly that 'The thing to do was to reduce expenditure to the
lowest possible limit, and hasten in every way the moment that would
free France from a burden which she could not and would not support
much longer.' Three years later, M. Thiers, Foreign Minister, said: 'If
we could secure a few leagues of land around Algiers, Oran and Bône,
I should for my part be satisfied. I am no friend of a general occupation.'
Even at the front there were doubts. While dealing with his
elusive enemy, a process that involved variously victory, submission,
double-dealing and a corrupt but highly profitable bit of arms-dealing,
General Bugeaud insisted that his task was a complete waste of time.
'Unfortunately,' wrote one of his officers, 'he professes these opinions
all day, to every one, and at the top of his voice, which, although he
may not be aware of it, is rather discouraging to the army.'
Nevertheless, it was thanks to Bugeaud that Algeria was finally vanquished.
Discarding traditional European methods, he created a force
of light infantry that moved swiftly, living off the land by means of
razzia, or raids, in the same manner as its opponents. As one veteran
described it, 'In Europe, once [you are] master of two or three large
cities, the entire country is yours. But in Africa, how do you act against
a population whose only link with the land is the pegs of their
tents? ... The only way is to take the grain which feeds them, the
flocks which clothe them. For this reason, we make war on silos, war
on cattle, [we make] the razzia.'

Bugeaud's tactics were ideally suited to their context, and gave
rise to a second cliché of colonial warfare, that of the infantry square
blazing defiantly at circling hordes of savages.

Excerpted from The Sword and the Cross
by Fergus Fleming
Copyright © 2003 by Fergus Fleming.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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