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The Sword and the Cross by Fergus Fleming, published by Granta

The Sword and the Cross is a tale of two extraordinary men who lived in an extraordinary place during an extraordinary time. It is the story of General Laperinne and Father Foucauld: the two greatest figures from the turn-of-the-century French colonial conquest of Sahara. A double biography is a virtual necessity when considering the intertwined careers of these two colleagues, but the Sword and the Cross extends way beyond this to become a vivid chronicle of French Imperialism in North Africa.

This is an essential element of the book's worth. Without some knowledge of the appalling historical background of the French conquest it would be impossible to appreciate the personal achievement of Laperrine and Foucauld who were nothing if not gung-ho imperialists. Laperrine invented the Camel Corps that eventually subdued the wastes of the central Sahara. Father Foucauld acted as his forward listening post amongst the veiled Tuareg, never doubting for a moment that an ascetic hermit-priest could not also double up as a linguist, anthropologist and an agent of military intelligence.

Fortunately Fergus Fleming is the sort of writer who can remain honest to the personal heroism of his two subjects and yet expose the deluded, homicidal nature of the whole Imperial project on which they were embarked. Now, more than ever, it is important that we do not make heroes out of European men who aquired fame and rank by wading through the blood of Muslims.

By the 1850's the French army had succeeded in conquering all the potentially useful agricultural territory in Algeria. Even this land was beyond France's ability to fill with colonists. Three-quarters of the Œpied noir' settlers of French Algeria came from Greece, southern Italy, Spain and Mediterranean islands such as Malta. And they much preferred town life to ploughing up the bled. Even in the early years of subsidised land settlement 95% of the colonial population lived in towns. To create a dynamic for the conquest of the agriculturally redundant desert, the imperialists (a mixed bag of venture capitalists, consulting engineers and career officers) had to conjure up a new cause. They came up with a trans-Saharan rail route that would link up the French possessions in North Africa with those in West Africa. It was a mirage. There was neither coal nor sufficient water to power the line, let alone a purpose or a market to fulfil. However this dream, stoked-up by fear of British imperial ambitions and a patriotic rhetoric, did the trick.

There were plenty of setbacks. Fleming is in his element when describing these. How "It was unfortunate" that the first explorer, the brilliant 18 year-old Henri Duveyrie, "fell ill with a Œfever of the brain' and lost all recollection of his unique voyage." Of how in later years he suffered from the strain of being an authority "upon a subject of which he had no clear memory." And of Duponchel, "the technological fantasist" who first articulated the dream of the ŒTrans Saharien" as well as a more useful sounding project, a pipeline for carrying wine from Beziers to Paris. The destruction of the entire Flatters military expedition in 1880 by a few hundred Tuareg is an extraordinary harrowing tale in itself. This misadventure was succeeded by an even more Fleming-esque escapade, led by Antione de Vallombrosa, Marquis of Morés. This tyrannical, trigger-happy aristocrat is like a living caricature of a stage villain, who preached to the pied-noir that their Œlatin spirit' was being corrupted by an Anglo-Jewish financial conspiracy. Here one seems to have hit an ethical rock bottom. Until one reads Fleming's description of the three military expeditions of 1897 designed to converge on Lake Chad. Without spoiling this tale, it is a haunting vision of horror, to be put beside Conrad's experience of the Congo. The waste, the casual brutality and the stink of corpses still reeks across the intervening hundred yearsŠof the white man's burden relieved by a trail of devestation through the villages of the sub-Sahara. Of mass gallows, one filled by 13 women and 2 children; of hanging men so low and so slowly that the jackals could chew their heels.

Fleming is no less merciless in describing the petty realities of the imperial dream. Of how France plotted for years to seize the oasis of Tuat from the Moroccan Sultan; of how she waited until Britain was distracted by the Boer War before sending south a geologist "who carried a small hammerŠand was accompanied by an artillery detachment and almost 150 soldiers." Of the mad economics that underwrit imperial glory. In 1901 it cost France 33 million francs to rule over Tuat oasis, whose entire GNP equalled that of a provincial grocery store!

However it is only by following Fleming into this totally deluded world that one can hope to understand the scope for individual achievement. On one level, Laperrine is a classic example of a deluded "career imperialist' forever expanding the imperial horizon for the greater glory of France. He was also a near perfect model of an administrator; confiding in his men, insisting that his officers learned Arabic, respected Islam and led from the front. Personally modest, Laperrine liked to eat with his subordinates and cheerfully undertook the most menial chores and heroic treks as a matter of course. He created a genuine peace-keeping force from out of the warlike Chaamba nomads, many of whom only served France because they admired Laperrine. Foucauld is a much more complex character. Like a modern day St Francis he transformed himself in mid-life from a fat, debauched and slovenly aristocratic cavalry officer into a scholar hermit with so austere a life-style that no other monk could be found who was prepared to accompany him. The turning point in Foucauld's life appears to have been a covert journey through the independent Sultanate of Morocco, disguised as a wandering Jew. Foucauld's ŒReconaissance du Maroc' is a classic piece of military intelligence work though when later questioned about this particular spying trip he confessed that his worst experience was "the day I got back."

As a man of religion Foucauld's genius was to reject preaching in favour of a sermon of example, "giving hospitality to all comers good or bad, friend or foe, Muslim or Christian." There can be no doubt that Foucauld was quite unimaginably brave when he accepted Laperrine's offer to set up a hermitage in the Hoggar mountains of the central Sahara - some 60 days travel from the nearest military post. Nor can there be any doubt that he consciously acted as an instrument of colonial power, Œaspiring to give lands to France and souls to God." Lapperine knew that "Foucauld's reputation for sanctity will do more for our extension of influence than a permanent occupation" ­ though in due course that too would come. Foucauld would even sketch out the design for the fort. Foucauld's tiny chapel, set up beside the hamlet of Tamanraset, at the instruction of the Tuareg chieftain Moussa, was the seed from which has grown a city of 100,000 souls. Similarly it was the accidental result of one of Laperrine's epic camel rides, in 1904, that the frontier between Mali and Algeria was established at the wells of Timiaouine. Laperrine and Foucauld have now both become elemental spirits of the Sahara, their link with the desert that they loved, confirmed by the heroic circumstances of their deaths. Fergus Fleming's tale of their life and death is literally compelling. It left me with a lump in my throat and Laperrine's last words ringing in my ears.

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