Paul Voulet was making his way through territory that Europeans had not yet fully mapped. With an expeditionary force of 2000 people, he needed always to find water – his minimum requirement was an amazing 40 tons of water per day – and this in an area of semi-desert
The route he followed is now Niger’s main highway, Route Nationale 1. In many villages and towns along the road, communities still remember the devastating impact of Voulet’s massacres. His roll call of atrocity is not so different from the stages in a bus journey today across the country: Sansane Haoussa, Karma, Libore, Kirtachi, Dioundiou, Matankari, Lougou, Birnin Konni, Sabon Birni, Tibiri, Koran Kalgo, Guidam Boultou, Dankori, Tessaoua, May Jirgui.
Voulet was killed at May Jirgui in July 1899, but his expedition continued under his fellow French officers, with continued albeit reduced bloodshed, through the regional Hausa capital of Zinder all the way to Lake Chad, Voulet’s original goal.
2 years after Voulet, men, women and children were marched at gunpoint to serve as labour teams to build the road. Women and children hauled buckets of laterite rock from the bush; men pounded the material and levelled it into the road. These workers had to provide their own food and water. They slept where they worked and risked beatings if they took rest; and being shot if they tried to escape. This forced labour, referred to as La Corvee, was only outlawed on the eve of WW2.
A commodity to be traded
In 1904, five years after Voulet’s death, the French and English governments agreed to amend the 1898 convention which Voulet had been sent to reconnoitre. England now surrendered to France all the land – and peoples – that Voulet had conquered through massacre and pillage. In return, France gave England the fishing rights around the island of Newfoundland off the coast of Canada in the north Atlantic Ocean. This agreement was signed at London on April 8^th , 1904. Such is the grim and surreal nature of colonialism that the lives of tens of thousands of Africans were traded for the right to fish tuna on the other side of the world.
The border that was agreed that day defined the limits of the modern country that is now Niger.