Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate

 

A Note from the Publisher:

Sven Lindqvist was similar to the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in that he was not interested in hope or false optimism. He wanted the truth. His own rock solid belief in fundamental equality meant that he was never swayed by tropes of colonial inequality or historicist apologies. And this belief of his was not, one sensed, ideological – it was a much deeper conviction than that. Equality for Sven was simply true, a fact of life. I was so proud to publish him. He was an extraordinary writer – like Sebald and Coetzee, his work combines depth with a quality of evenness and dry beauty. In some ways he was essentially a travel writer – he looked at the world and found it wanting. And who could not agree with him?   

 


The following is the final chapter of Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist. Over twenty years ago, Sven Lindqvist, one of the great pioneers of a new kind of experiential history writing, set out across Central Africa. Obsessed with a single line from Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness – Kurtz’s injunction to ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ – he braided an account of his experiences with a profound historical investigation, revealing to the reader with immediacy and cauterizing force precisely what Europe’s imperial powers had exacted on Africa’s people over the course of the preceding two centuries. Exterminate All the Brutes is available now from Granta Books.

 

The Nazi slaughter of the Jews, like every other event, however unique it may be, has to be seen in its historical context.

Arno J. Mayer, in his controversial book Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History (1988), goes right back to the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, the storming of Magdeburg on May 10, 1631, when thirty thousand men, women, and children were murdered, and even further back to the mass murder by the Crusaders of eleven hundred innocent inhabitants of Mainz in 1096, to find equivalents to the mass murders of Jews during World War II.

On the other hand, there is no mention of the European slave trade, which forcibly moved fifteen million Negroes between continents and killed perhaps just as many. Nor are the nineteenth­century European colonial wars or punitive expeditions mentioned. If Mayer had as much as glanced in that direction, he would have found so many examples of brutal extermination based on clearly racial convictions, that the Thirty Years’ War and the Crusades would seem to lie unnecessarily far back.

On my journey through the Sahara alone, I have been in two Mainzes. One is called Zaatcha, where the entire population was wiped out by the French in 1849. The other is Laghouat, where on December 3, 1852, after the storming, the remaining third of the population, mainly women and children, was massacred. In one single well, 256 corpses were found.

That was how one mixed with the inferior races. It was not considered good form to talk about it, nor was it anything that needed concealing. It was established practice. Only occasionally was there any debate – for instance, over the events taking place while Joseph Conrad was writing Heart of Darkness and the Central African Expedition was on its way toward Zinder.

 

*

 

The bus to Zinder leaves at 7:30. At dawn I find a man with a wheelbarrow to help me wheel away my word processor and suit­case. It is a windy and cold morning, some fires flickering over by the stalls across the street, a few lamps glowing faintly, overcome by the morning light.

After half an hour, the driver arrives and starts washing the windows of the big white Renault truck that has been converted into a bus. On the sides it says in giant red letters: societe nationale de transport nigerenne.

Vendors of loose cigarettes and sticky lollipops start assembling. A shivering man is carrying round red nuts, already shelled and indecently naked on his tray. A bright yellow baby’s cap frames his anthracite black face.

Toward half-past eight, the blind women come, all of them at once, all singing, all begging, all led by children, some of the women with newborn babies on their backs.

At nine, the passengers are called out according to the passenger list and each given a small piece of paper, which afrer another roll call is exchanged for the ticket already booked and paid for the day before yesterday.

A man stands on a barrel and flings the luggage up to the driver, who stows it on to the roof of the bus. After that the station supervisor gets into the bus and, standing inside where he is very difficult to hear, starts the third and determining roll call. It is not easy to predict how a name like mine will sound. I miss the name and thus lose my booked seat in the front of the bus. Only the seats at the back are left.

I can still change my mind. I can still jump off. Here at the far back I will never cope with the jolts. And once out in the desert there is no return. One has to go on, for eight hours, whatever happens. It is now, at this moment, and only now, I still have a chance to get off.

Always the same alloy of panic and joy at the moment of departure. It is like losing your foothold in a great love affair. What will happen now? I have no idea. All I know is that I have just thrown myself out into it.

 

*

 

At the head of the 1898 Central African Expedition was Captain Voulet and Lieutenant Chanoine.

Paul Voulet, the thirty-two-year-oldson of a doctor, had, according to his officer colleagues, ‘a true love of blood and cruelty coupled with a sometimes foolish sensitivity.’ He was, it was said afterward, a weak character dominated by two evil people, his black mistress and Chanoine.

Charles Chanoine, the son of a general, was described as impulsive, ruthless, and cruel – ‘cruel out of cold-bloodedness as well as for pleasure.’ Two years previously, in 1896, the two friends had conquered Ouagadougou in what is now Burkina Faso, and had shown themselves to be skilled at burning down villages and murdering natives. Faced with this new expedition, Voulet boasted to the governor of Sudan of how he would crush resistance by letting the villages burn.

So despite, or perhaps thanks to, his reputation, Voulet was appointed head of an expedition that was to explore the area between the Niger and Lake Chad and place it, as was said, ‘under French protection.’

Otherwise his orders were vague in the extreme. ‘I don’t pretend to be able to give you any instructions on which route to choose or how you are to behave toward the native chieftains and peoples,’ wrote the minister for the colonies modestly.

Voulet was given a free hand to use the methods for which he had made himself notorious.

 

*

 

It is 270 miles from Agadez to Zinder – 270 miles of washboard, sanded over by high wandering dunes that lift the bus and throw it down with fierce, stunning jolts.

The driver maintains a good speed in order to get there before sunset. It is like sitting on a leaping compressed air drill. The fat in my blood ought to be churned to butter by the vibration.

At the same time you have to be constantly prepared to rise in the saddle and receive the great jolts with your thigh and arm muscles instead of your spine. But I miss every fourth or every tenth one, not noticing in time that the driver has taken his foot off the accelerator, and I am suddenly hurled with full force down toward the center of the earth. All my vertebrae come tumbling down and the disks in my spine have to take the whole jolt.

For the first hours the wind is very strong. The dust turns day into white night, and the sand sweeps over steppe and savanna. The white steppe grass drowns, the bushes ride in despair on the waves of sand. The occasional tree is glimpsed in the blurred murkiness of the sand, and misty human figures struggle on, whipped by the sand in the air.

The sand seems to be the attacker when the desert comes, but it is the dryness that kills. Dead plants can no longer bind and stop the sand. We drive for hours through sparse forest where only every hundredth tree is alive. White tree trunks lie like distorted skeletons on the ground.

After five desert hours we are suddenly in among fields. The cultivation boundary has moved forward until it coincides with the boundary of the desert. The vulnerable living space the nomads once found between desert and field no longer exists.

 

*

 

Here on the edge of the desert, in 1898, marched the Central African Expedition. It consisted of nine French officers, seventy regular Senegal soldiers, and thirty interpreters and ‘agents.’ In addition, they had recruited four hundred ‘auxilliaries,’ Africans who went with the French and took part in the fighting for a chance to plunder. In Tombouctou, ninety Senegalese joined them, placed at the expedition’s disposal by Lieutenant-Colonel Klobb.

Voulet took with him great quantities of arms and ammunition, but had not taken any means of paying the bearers. His men simply seized eight hundred black men and forced them to be bearers. The latter were dressed for the hot climate prevailing where they were captured and suffered severely from the night cold in the desert. A dysentery epidemic broke out, and148 bearers died during the first two months of the expedition. Chanoine set an example by having anyone who tried to escape shot.

They requisitioned food from the villages, naturally without payment. What with baggage and mistresses, the expedition had grown to sixteen hundred people and eight hundred animals. It moved on like a swarm oflocusts through areas normally living on the edge of starvation. Neither of the two commanders had any experience of desert areas. The expedition cruised between the water holes, dominated by the necessity of supplying men and animals with forty tons of water a day.

 

*

Meanwhile Joseph Conrad was sitting at his Chippendale desk at Pent Farm in Kent, penciling out his story about Kurtz, the story of outrages committed in the name of Civilization and Progress. He could not have been influenced by contemporary events in French Sudan, as he knew nothing about them.

Not until January 29, when Conrad had almost finished his story, was one of the French officers, Lieutenant Peteau, sent back owing to ‘lack of discipline and enthusiasm.’ Not until February 5 did Peteau write a fifteen-page letter to his wife-to-be in Paris to tell her of some of the atrocities he had been involved in.

The forcibly recruited bearers were maltreated and refused medical attention during the dysentery epidemic, Peteau writes. Those who were unable to continue were beheaded. Twelve bearers were shot for trying to escape, the rest bound together with neck chains, in groups of five.

To recruit new bearers, the French sent out patrols, which sur­ rounded the villages at dawn and shot anyone trying to escape. As evidence that they had carried out their orders, the soldiers took the heads back with them. Voulet had the heads impaled on stakes and placed out to frighten the population into submission.

In Sansan-Hausa, a village already under French ‘protection,’ Voulet had given orders that thirty women and children were to be killed – with bayonets, to save ammunition. According to the chieftain, Kourtey, there were even more victims. ‘I had done nothing to them,’ he said. ‘I gave them everything they asked for. They ordered me to hand over six horses and thirty head of cattle within three days. I did so. And yet they killed everyone they could get hold of. A hundred and one men, women, and children were massacred.’

 

*

 

Peteau’s fiancée sent his letter to her deputy in parliament, and in the middle of April, the government intervened. The governor of Sudan gave orders to Lieutenant-Colonel Klobb in Tombuoctou to find Voulet and remove from him his command of the expedition.

Just as in Conrad’s novel Marlow set off into the interior to find Kurtz, Klobb took up the hunt for Voulet. His tracks were easy to follow; they consisted of ruins and corpses, which increased in number appallingly the closer Klobb came.

Klobb found guides who had displeased Voulet and had been strung up alive, low enough for hyenas to eat their feet, while the rest of the bodies were left to the vultures. Outside the burned-out village ofTibiri, 120 miles west of Zinder, Klobb found the bodies of thirteen women hanging in the trees. Outside Koran-Kaljo, nearer to Zinder, hung two corpses of children.

On July 10, 1899, Klobb arrived at the little village of Damangara to be told that Voulet was only a few hours’ march away.

 

*

 

In the middle of the night, my father telephones. Surprised and confused, I rush across the hotel yard in the dark to take the call in Reception. When I lift the receiver I can hear nothing but a hollow crackling.

Nor could I expect anything else, I realize when I wake up. After all, Father is dead.

The heat enfolds me in its moist embrace. The heat in the Sahara stings like a whiplash, but only where the searchlight of the sun fell; in the shade it was cool, at night cold. Here in Zinder the summer temperature seldom goes below 105°F.

Your veins swell and snake along under your skin, pumping, throbbing, ready to burst. Hands and feet swell, the soles of your feet sting, fingers resemble small clubs, your skin is not large enough. Your face swells up, becomes porous and opens. Sweat spurts out through the pores, suddenly, just as when a heavy rain­drop strikes your skin.

I can feel a burning heat on the inside of my lower arm and notice it is brushing my stomach. I have burned myself on my own body.

All flesh thickens, overflows, starts running. A movement and your body is soaked all over. Keep still and nonetheless you are soaked.

I drink so much, the salt balance in my body is disturbed. Then I eat salt, become thirsty, and have to drink even more. My belly swells, my body slops about, nothing helps.

Next morning I am sitting as usual in the library of the French Institute reading Klobb’s journal. But my mind stiffens like coagulated blood in my head, and the afternoons start earlier and earlier, sinking deeper and deeper into a hot torpor.

In the evening as I sit waiting for the news on the hotel owner’s radio, I hear a sea moving in the rise and fall of the interference. Above me, filled with a wonderful cool, roll the huge roaring breakers of space.

 

*

 

The meeting between Klobb and Voulet was even more dramatic than the meeting between Marlow and Kurtz in Conrad’s novel, by then already finished and published in Blackwood’s magazine. Marlow did not after all have to make Kurtz come back with him. Kurtz was seriously ill and went with him after some persuasion. Voulet did not.

Klobb sent a sergeant and two soldiers with a letter that briefly and curtly told Voulet he had been removed from his command and was to return home immediately. Voulet replied that he had six hundred rifles against Klobb’s fifty and would open fire if Klobb approached.

On July 13, Voulet had a hundred and fifty women and children executed as punishment for the death of two of his soldiers during an attack on a nearby village. On the same day, he once again wrote to Klobb and warned him not to come any nearer.

Klobb was convinced that neither Senegalese soldiers nor French officers would bring themselves to shoot at a superior officer. He counted on the ninety soldiers he had lent the expedition preferring to obey him rather than Voulet. What he did not know was that Voulet and Chanoine had kept his letter secret from the other whites and had sent them all out on various assignments in the vicinity, keeping with them only the black troops personally loyal to them.

On July 14, Bastille Day, Klobb’s and Voulet’s troops stood facing each other. Klobb gave his men strict orders not to open fire under any circumstances. Then he started slowly walking toward Voulet, who had his soldiers fire two salvos into the air. When Klobb was within earshot, he stopped and started speaking directly to the soldiers.

Voulet was furious and, threatening them with a pistol, forced his men to fire at Klobb. Klobb was wounded and fell – still calling on his men not to answer fire. The next salvo killed him.

 

*

 

Naturally, Voulet had not read Conrad’s recently published story about Kurtz, the white man who, with terror and magic, had made himself king over a black realm in the heart of the continent.

But when the white officers returned that evening, Voulet told them what had happened and suggested a solution of exactly that kind: they would continue to Lake Chad and there set up their own kingdom, ‘a strong and impenetrable empire, surrounded by a waterless desert.’

‘I am no longer a Frenchman. I am a black chief,’ said Voulet.

The following day, the black sergeants decided to mutiny. Voulet was warned by an interpreter, who was immediately shot for not warning him earlier. Voulet mounted his horse and, with Chanoine, addressed the soldiers, firing at them at the same time. The soldiers answered fire and killed Chanoine. When Voulet tried to approach the camp the following morning, he was also shot.

The French officers held a council of war and decided to continue the expedition. They marched toward Zinder and captured the town.

 

*

 

The hotel owner sits allday in the yard talking to his parrot, his voice caressing and loving, quite different from the brusque commanding tone he otherwise uses in his contact with the outside world.

Sometimes he brings his two dogs here and exercises them in the yard. An adopted son takes up a middle position, a handsome black boy, son of his dead housekeeper.

I am the only guest.

I am engrossed in the history of Zinder. It turns out that a much larger French expedition, which had just crossed the Sahara in the summer of 1899, was on its way to Zinder. So it was quite superfluous for other Frenchmen to capture the town.

But the remains of the Central African Expedition got there first. These were the troops to gain everlasting glory by occupying Zinder, the expedition’s officers hoping their crimes would be forgotten.

They were right.

When the murder of Klobb became known in Paris, an official inquiry was set up on August 23. After having accumulated three huge cardboard boxes of statements and documents, they found only one conceivable explanation: the climate. Voulet must have gone mad in the African heat.

The crimes of the others were excused and forgotten, and France kept her captured possessions.

The French left wing took over in government in1899 and had little interest in digging any further into the affair. The right wing had even less. The ugly truth stayed in the inquiry’s cardboard boxes.

 

*

 

Eventually the facts trickled out. Of course, educated Frenchmen knew roughly, or even quite precisely, by what means their colonies were captured and administered.

Just as educated Frenchmen in the 1950s and 1960s knew what their troops were up to in Vietnam and Algeria.

Just as educated Russians in the 1980s knew what their troops did in Afghanistan, and educated South Africans and Americans during the same period knew what their ‘auxilliaries’ were doing in Mozambique and Central America respectively.

Just as educated Europeans today know how children die when the whip of debt whistles over poor countries.

It is not knowledge that is lacking. The educated general public has always largely known what outrages have been committed and are being committed in the name of Progress, Civilization, Socialism, Democracy, and the Market.

 

*

 

At all times it has also been profitable to deny or suppress such knowledge. Even today there are readers of Conrad’s story who maintain it lacks universal application.

It has been said that the circumstances in the Congo of the Belgian monarch were unique. The novel cannot be seen as an accusation against the whole of the civilized world, as the oppressive Belgian regime in the Congo was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon already condemned by most reasonable people.

But during just those months when Conrad was writing the book, similar or even worse events were occurring by another river, the Niger, on the way to another chamber of the same dark heart.

No, the Belgians were not unique, nor were the Swedish officers in their service. Conrad would have been able to set his story using any of the peoples of European culture. In practice, the whole of Europe acted according to the maxim ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’

Officially, it was, of course, denied. But man to man, everyone knew. That is why Marlow can tell his story as he does in Conrad’s novel. He has no need to count up the crimes Kurtz committed. He has no need to describe them. He has no need to produce evidence. For no one doubted it.

Marlow-Conrad was able to assume quite calmly that both the listening gentlemen on the yacht, the Nellie, and the readers of Blackwood’s silently knew quite enough to understand the story and in their own imaginations develop details the novel only implied. This knowledge is a fundamental prerequisite of the book.

This knowledge could be expressed in general and scholarly language. Imperialism is a biologically necessary process that, according to the laws of nature, leads to the inevitable destruction of the lower races. Things of that kind could be said. But the way it actually happened, what it really did to the exterminators and the exterminated, that was at most only implied.

And when what had been done in the heart of darkness was repeated in the heart of Europe, no one recognized it. No one wished to admit what everyone knew.

 

*

 

Everywhere in the world where knowledge is being suppressed, knowledge that, if it were made known, would shatter our image of the world and force us to question ourselves – everywhere there, Heart of Darkness is being enacted.

 

*

 

You already know that. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and draw conclusions.

 

The above is an excerpt from Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate and available now from Granta Books.

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