By Rob Lemkin:
The oral history and official archives detailing Voulet’s mission, in danger of being lost to history and covered up by the colonial powers.
Our film brings centre-stage for the first time the collective oral history of the colonisation of Niger as it lives on in the hearts and minds of Nigeriens today. But we also made considerable use of written records, or at least what survives, of Voulet’s massacres in the French official archives. Incredibly much of this still exists. Despite that, from the moment of Voulet’s death, his brutal invasion was the subject of a sustained official cover-up.
Days after his killing and hurried burial, his body was exhumed by his fellow French officers so that ‘sensitive papers’ contained in the clothes he was wearing could be destroyed forever.
The Voulet scandal coincided with a pivotal episode in modern French history, the Dreyfus affair, when France’s involvement in racism, in this case anti-semitism, and empire came under scrutiny like never before (see Émile Zola’s open letter J’Accuse…!)
In the context of intense political and judicial scandal and with a growing radicalism there was incentive to cover up Voulet’s deeds. Even in the 1920s and 30s memoirs of Voulet’s fellow officers on the conquest of Niger were subject to official censorship. And in the 1950s the distinguished French historian Jean Suret-Canale visited the colonial government archives in Dakar, Senegal only to discover that most of the original files on Voulet had been removed.
What remains, and it is still quite considerable, is held at the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence. In our film we make extensive use of these archives.
They include the diary of Colonel Klobb, the doomed officer tasked with finding Voulet and taking over his mission; letters and reports written by officers who witnessed, and sometimes took part in, Voulet’s massacres; and even the administrative records of Voulet’s massacres down to the ammunition and weapons bought.
Voulet had a budget of 265,000 francs (just over £1 million pounds in today’s money), with which he assembled an enormous arsenal of equipment and men. His most expensive item, an 80mm mountain cannon (canon de montagne), proved the most decisive tool in his mission.
In many places, like Birnin Konni, Lougou, Koran Kalgo, Dioundiou, the official reports noted the difference between the French force and the Hausa resisters was the mechanised firepower.
By placing these surviving written archives alongside the oral testimony of Nigeriens today, we hope that future generations will be able to form a more complete picture of the grim reality of colonialism.
Paul Voulet (1866 – 1899), the son of a Paris doctor, graduated from the Infantry School (Ecole Militaire d’Infanterie) in 1890. After serving in French Indochina, he took part in early French military operations west of the River Niger against Samori Ture, leader of the Wassoulou region.
In 1898, he was appointed head of the Central African Mission (Mission Afrique Centrale), the French operation to take control of the area between the River Niger and Lake Chad.