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 were avatars 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.