Jean-Baptiste Marchand

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Jean-Baptiste Marchand

Jean-Baptiste Marchand (1863-1934) was a French soldier who led an expedition from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Nile River in order to expand French territory. He was confronted by the British at the Sudanese town of Fashoda and forced to retreat.

Jean-Baptiste Marchand was born in the little French town of Thoissey in eastern France north of the city of Lyons. His family was poor, and he was forced to quit school after the first year of high school (lycée). He was apprenticed to a notary at the age of 13 and worked there until the death of his mother when he was 20. He enlisted in the French Army on October 1, 1883. He was promoted to corporal on April 1, 1884 and then progressed to sergeant. His superiors thought so highly of him that he was sent to officer training school in 1886 and returned to his former regiment as a second lieutenant in March 1887.

In January 1888 Marchand was sent to serve in France's colony of Senegal in west Africa. At that time France was engaged in a colonial war to expand its empire throughout west Africa. In what is now Mali, there was a war going on with the Tukulors. Marchand distinguished himself in his first combat, helping to capture the Tukulor stronghold of Koundian in early 1889. In April 1890 he took part in the capture of the fortress of Segu, was promoted to lieutenant and awarded the Legion of Honor. On February 21, 1891 he was wounded in the assault on the Tukulor capital of Jenné.

Following the defeat of the Tukulor, Marchand joined the campaign against another foe of French imperialism, Samori Turé, in Guinea. He fought in battles against Turé from April 1891 to the end of 1894. He was wounded in the Battle of Bonua in November 1894 in which Turé's forces defeated the French in spite of the notable bravery of Marchand. Marchand returned to France on June 14, 1895.

On Marchand's return to France, he almost immediately began agitating for a plan that he had conceived with his French colleagues in Africa. He proposed to lead an expedition from France's settlement of Brazzaville on the Congo River across Africa to the Nile, thereby winning for France control of the upper Nile and eventually linking it with France's outpost on the Red Sea at Djibouti by forming an alliance with Ethiopia.

The upper Nile had been originally explored by British explorers such as John Hanning Speke and Samuel Baker. An Anglo-Egyptian government had been imposed on the Sudan that reached as far south as the sources of the Nile in what is now Uganda. That government had been led by Charles "Chinese" Gordon and had used such agents as Charles Chaillé-Long and Emin Pasha to control the upper Nile. But all of that had been wiped out by the Muslim forces of "El-Mahdi" in 1885. Marchand now proposed to step into the confused situation along the Nile by replacing British power with French. In effect, it was a French imperialist design to control the sources of the Nile by taking over a band stretching from the Atlantic on the west to the Red Sea on the east. This would counter, and derail, British attempts to control Africa from north to south: from "the Cape to Cairo."

Marchand presented his ideas at a meeting with the French Foreign Minister on July 18, 1895. He then submitted a detailed proposal to the Ministry of Colonies on September 11, 1895. During this period, governments in France changed frequently. One of the main political divisions was between the colonialist faction that thought that France should make itself stronger following its defeat by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 by expanding outside of Europe—in Africa and Asia. The other side thought that France should not weaken itself by using its forces overseas while the main struggle was in Europe. Marchand happened to make his proposals at a time when the imperialists were in control and when they were not too worried about offending the British, who they knew were trying to defeat the Mahdi and return to the upper Nile. On February 24, 1896, therefore, Marchand's proposal was tentatively agreed to, and this was approved by the Prime Minister on April 7.

In the meantime, Marchand had been making preparations, and the first of four detachments of officers and supplies left France on April 24, 1896. Marchand himself sailed on June 25. They traveled to the small port of Loango in the French Congo, where Marchand arrived in August. The governor of the French Congo at the time was Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, a native Italian who had explored the Congo and had founded France's colony along the great river.

When Marchand reached Loango, he found that it was impossible to move his supplies inland to the Congo River port of Brazzaville because there was a revolt by the Basundi and Bakongo tribes against the French. Marchand was in a hurry, and on August 18, 1896 he convinced Brazza to declare martial law in the Congo with Marchand in control. He then organized his French officers and Senegalese soldiers into a campaign against the rebels. Some of the rebel leaders were captured and executed on October 17. The last resistance to Marchand ended on December 12, by which time he was in Brazzaville. The rest of his men and supplies caught up with him by the end of February 1897.

Marchand was now faced with a problem. The French had no transport adequate to carry the supplies up the Congo. They requested help from the Belgians who ruled the other side of the river from Léopoldville (now Kinshasa). The Belgians initially refused, but new orders came from Brussels and the use of the steamship Ville de Bruges was approved. It made two trips with Frenchmen and supplies up the Congo as far as it was possible to navigate. The first one left Brazzaville on January 13, 1897, and the second followed with Marchand, sick with malaria, on board on March 10, 1897. They were deposited in the village of Zinga and then had to proceed up the Ubangi River to Bangui (now the capital of the Central African Republic) in 72 dugout canoes. They reached Bangui in early April.

From Bangui the expedition traveled 450 miles to Ouango, the last outpost before the Mbomu Rapids. At this point, Marchand seized a small riverboat, the 50-foot long Faidherbe to take with him to the Nile with the plan of floating it down the Nile with the French flag flying. Since they had reached the limit of navigation, the Faidherbe had to be totally disassembled and hauled overland by the African porters, each carrying a 55-pound load. This considerably slowed down the progress of the expedition. Fortunately, along the way the French discovered two other streams, the Mboku and the Méré, by which the Faidherbe could be sailed 160 miles farther. At that point, Marchand had a road 100 miles long built to carry the pieces of the boat from Méréto Khojali. Once they reached Khojali in November, they realized they would have to wait until the spring rains before they would be able to proceed any farther. In the meantime Marchand sent part of the force ahead to build a French post near the present Sudanese city of Wau.

While they were waiting for the rains to come, Marchand and other members of his force went exploring in different directions throughout the southern Sudan. It was not until June 4 that the boat reached the new French outpost, and it was possible to continue on the Sué River, a tributary of the Nile. After sailing for seven days they reached a vast swamp, the Sudd, and it took them until June 25 before they could fight their way out onto the Bahr-el-Ghazal, a bigger river flowing into the White Nile. They reached the little village of Fashoda on the Nile on July 10, 1898. Later that day the French force took possession of a fort a little ways outside of the town that had been abandoned by Egyptian troops years before.

The next day, Marchand had a formal ceremony raising the French flag over the fort of Fashoda and thereby claimed that part of the Nile valley for France. Significantly, on their first attempt to raise the flag, the flagpole broke. They were then able to celebrate Bastille Day, July 14, in their new outpost. On August 25 they were surprised by an attack of Mahdist forces, but the French easily drove them away with no loss of life. They were soon faced, however, with a much more serious challenge. The British arrived on September 19.

A joint Anglo-Egyptian force under the command of Lord Kitchener had been fighting the Mahdists since 1896. At the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898, they had destroyed the power of the Sudanese in their capital and restored the country to Anglo-Egyptian control. Kitchener had immediately headed up the Nile after his victory to oust the French from Fashoda. At a famous meeting on September 19, 1898, Kitchener demanded that Marchand withdraw. Marchand refused. The matter was then referred to the two governments in London and Paris.

The news of the confrontation at Fashoda drove the newspapers of both countries into a nationalistic frenzy. The British began threatening the French with recriminations. In the midst of this, the French government sent a message to Marchand by way of a British Nile steamer that reached him on October 9. It announced his promotion to major and ordered him to send an officer to Paris to report on the expedition. When that officer reached Paris on October 27, he found the French government in the midst of backtracking. It realized that it did not have the wherewithal to confront the British government nor the means of supplying Marchand by his impractical overland route. Marchand himself took a British steamer down the Nile to Cairo, where he arrived on November 3 to communicate with his government by telegram. The next day, he received instructions from Paris to evacuate.

A furious Marchand spent the next several days arguing with his superiors in Paris. He was then ordered to return to Fashoda and carry out his instructions. The only concession granted was that he was not required to accept the humiliating offer of the British to evacuate the French soldiers on British steamships down the Nile. They were allowed to continue their march eastward through Ethiopia to the French port of Djibouti. Marchand arrived back in Fashoda on December 4, 1898. The French troops played the "Marseillaise" and struck the tricolor flag on the morning of December 12 and marched out of the fort of Fashoda.

They reached Addis Ababa on March 9, 1899. They arrived in Djibouti on May 16 and embarked for France on a steamship sent to pick them up. On their return to Paris at the end of May, they were met by enormous crowds who cheered the French heroes. The popular sentiment was used by French nationalists to try to bring down the government. This attempt failed, and Marchand and his force marched together for the last time on the parade to celebrate Bastille Day, 1899. Marchand then was reintegrated into the French Army where he continued to make a name for himself. He was promoted to general and fought with notable success in World War I. He died in Paris in 1934.

The "Fashoda Incident" was one of the major turning points in modern European history. The failure at Fashoda taught the French that they would never be able to achieve their goals without the support of Great Britain. The country's leaders therefore started a conscious policy of befriending the government in London and quickly settled all the major problems it had with the British. The two countries signed a treaty of friendship, the "Entente Cordiale" in 1904. This eventually led to a military alliance that pitted France and Britain against Germany in World War I.

Further Reading

There is a very good summary in English of the Marchand expedition and the Fashoda crisis, based largely on secondary sources: David Levering Lewis, The Race to Fashoda: European Colonialism and African Resistance in the Scramble for Africa (New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988; also available in paperback.) A very detailed study in French, based on primary sources is Marc Michel, La Mission Marchand, 1895-1899 (Paris: Mouton, 1972). For the diplomatic repercussions of the Fashoda Incident, see William L. Langer, Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902, 2nd edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965) and Charles Andres, Théophile Delcasséand the Making of the Entente Cordiale (London: Macmillan, 1968). □

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Jean Baptiste Marchand

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