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WE have witnessed one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of the world. In less than a generation we have seen the French dream of an African empire stretching without interruption from the Mediterranean to the Congo literally fulfilled. French imperialism did not end, as the historians would have you believe, on that September day in 1870 when the third Napoleon lost his liberty and his throne at Sedan. The echoes of the Commune had scarcely died away before the French empire-builders were again at work, in Africa, in Asia, in Oceanica, founding on every seaboard of the world a new and greater France. In the two-score years that have elapsed since France's année terrible her neglected and scattered colonies have been expanded into a third empire—an empire oversea. She has had her revenge for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine by forestalling Teutonic colonial ambition in every quarter of the globe: in China, in Australasia, in Equatoria, and in Morocco the advance of the German vorlopers has been halted by the harsh “Qui vive?” of the French videttes.

Though thirty centuries have elapsed since Ph?nicia first began to nibble at the continent, it was not until 1884 that the mad rush began which ended in Africa's being apportioned among themselves by half a dozen European nations with as little scruple as a gang of boys would divide a stolen pie. This stealing of a continent, lock, stock, and barrel, is one of the most astounding performances in history. France emerged from the scramble with a larger slice of territory than any other power, a territory which she has so steadily and systematically expanded and consolidated that to-day her sphere of influence extends over forty-five per cent of the land area and twenty-four per cent of the population of Africa.

So silently, swiftly, and unobtrusively have the French empire-builders worked that even those of us who pride ourselves on keeping abreast of the march of civilisation are fairly amazed when we trace on the map the distances to which they have pushed the Republic's African frontiers. Did you happen to know that the fugitive from justice who turns the nose of his camel southward from Algiers must ride as far as from Milwaukee to the City of Mexico before he can pass beyond the shadow of the tricolour and the arm of the French law? Were you aware that if you start from the easternmost boundary of the French Sudan you will have to cover a distance equal to that from Buffalo to San Francisco before you can hear the Atlantic rollers booming against the break-water at Dakar? It is, indeed, not the slightest exaggeration to say that [Pg 3] French influence is to-day predominant over all that expanse of the Dark Continent lying west of the Nile basin and north of the Congo—a territory one and a half times the size of the United States—thus forming the only continuous empire in Africa, with ports on every seaboard of the continent.

With the exception of the negro republic of Liberia (on whose frontiers, by the way, France is steadily and systematically encroaching), the little patches of British and Spanish possessions on the West Coast, and the German colonies of Kamerun and Togoland, France has unostentatiously brought under her control that enormous tract of African soil which stretches from the banks of the Congo to the shores of the Mediterranean, and from the Atlantic seaboard to the Valley of the Nile. Algeria has been French for three-quarters of a century, being regarded, indeed, as a part of France and not a colony at all. Though the Bey of Tunis still holds perfunctory audiences in his Palace of the Bardo, it is from the French Residency that the protectorate is really ruled. Though Tripolitania has passed under Italian dominion, it is French and not Italian influence which is recognised by the unsubjugated tribesmen of the hinterland. And now, after years of intrigue and machinations, which twice have brought her to the brink of war, France, by one of the most remarkable diplomatic victories of our time, has won the last of the world's great territorial prizes and has set the capstone on her colonial edifice by adding the empire of Morocco—under the guise of a protectorate—to her oversea domain.

On the West Coast the tricolour floats over the colonies of Senegal, French Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Upper Senegal-Niger, and Mauritania (the last named a newly organised colony formed from portions of the Moroccan hinterland), the combined area of these possessions alone being about equal to that of European Russia.

From the Congo northward to the confines of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan stretches the great colony of French Equatorial Africa—formerly known as the French Congo—the acquirement of which by Savorgnan de Brazza, counterchecked the ambitious plans of Stanley and his patron, King Leopold, thus forming one of the most dramatic incidents in the scramble for Africa. Though potentially the most valuable of the French West African possessions, being enormously rich in both jungle and mineral products, notably rubber, ivory, and copper, France has taken surprisingly little interest in this colony's development, and, as a result, it has been permitted to fall into a state of almost pitiful neglect. There are two causes for the backwardness of French Equatorial Africa: first, its atrocious climate, the whole territory being a breeding-ground for small-pox, blood diseases, tropical fevers in their most virulent forms, and, worst of all, the terrible sleeping-sickness; second, the almost total lack of easy means of communication, the back door through the Belgian Congo being the only direct means of access to the greater part of the colony, which was virtually cut in half by the broad area lying between the southern boundary of [Pg 5] Kamerun and the equator and extending eastward from the coast to the Ubangi River, which France ceded to Germany in 1911 as a quid pro quo for being permitted a free hand in Morocco, and which has been renamed “New Kamerun.” Though the economic development of this region must prove, under any circumstances, a difficult, dangerous, and discouraging task, it can be accomplished if the government will divert its attention from its projects in North Africa long enough to make Libreville a decent port, to provide adequate steamer services on the great rivers that intersect the colony, and to link up those rivers with each other and with the coast by a system of railways.

Lying on the northern frontier of French Equatorial Africa, and separating it from the Sahara, is the great Central African state of Kanem, with its organised native government, its important commerce, and its considerably developed civilisation, which was completely subjugated by France in 1903, Wadai, its powerful neighbour to the east, accepting a French protectorate in the same year. In the centre of this ring of colonies lie the million and a half square miles of the French Sahara, which the experiments of the French engineers have proved to be as capable of irrigation and cultivation as the one-time deserts of our own Southwest. Off the other side of the continent is the great colony of Madagascar, the second largest island in the world, in itself considerably larger than the mother country; while the French Somali Coast forms the sole gateway to Abyssinia and divides with the [Pg 6] British colony of Aden the control of the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Everything considered, history can show few parallels to this marvellous colonial expansion, begun while France was still suffering from the effects of the disastrous Prussian War, and quietly carried on under the very eyes of greedy and jealous neighbours.

The territorial ambitions of most countries have been blazoned to the world by many wars. It took England two disastrous campaigns to win South Africa and two more to conquer the Sudan; Russia learned the same lesson in Manchuria at even a more terrible cost; while Italy's insecure foothold on the Red Sea shore was purchased by the annihilation of an army. Where other nations have won their colonial possessions by arms, France has won hers by adroitness. Always her policy has been one of pacific penetration. Trace the history of her African expansion and you will find no Majuba Hill, no Omdurman, no Adowa, no Modder River. Time and time again the accomplishments of her small and unheralded expeditions have proved that more territory can be won by beads and brass wire than by rifles and machine-guns.

Not long ago I asked the governor-general of Algeria what he considered the most important factors in the remarkable spread of French influence and civilisation in North Africa, and he answered, “Public schools, the American phonograph, and the American sewing-machine.” The most casual traveller cannot but be impressed by the thoroughness with which France has [Pg 7] gone into the schoolmaster business in her African dominions. She believes that the best way to civilise native races is by training their minds, and she does not leave so important a work to the missionaries, either. In Algiers there is a government university with nearly two thousand students and a faculty of one hundred professors, while in more than eighteen hundred secondary, primary, and infant schools the youth of Algeria, irrespective of whether they believe in Christ, in Abraham, or in Mohammed, are being taught how to become decent and patriotic citizens of France. In Tunisia alone there are something over fifteen hundred educational institutions; all down the fever-stricken West Coast, under the palm-thatched roofs of Madagascar and the crackling tin ones of Equatoria, millions of dusky youngsters are being taught by Gallic schoolmasters that p-a-t-r-i-e spells “France,” and the meaning of “Liberté, égalité, Fraternité.” To these patient, plodding, persevering men, whether they wear the white linen of the civil service or the sombre cassocks of the religious orders, I lift my hat in respect and admiration, for they are the real pioneers of progress. If I had my way, the scarlet ribbon of the Legion would be in the button-hole of every one of them. We too may claim a share in this work of civilisation, for I have seen a band of savage Arab raiders, their fierce hawk-faces lighted up by the dung-fed camp-fire, held spellbound by the strains of a Yankee phonograph; and I have seen the garments of a tribal chieftain of Central Africa being fashioned on an American sewing-machine.

“When the English occupy a country,” runs a saying which they have in Africa, “the first thing they build is a custom-house; the first thing the Germans build is a barracks; but the first thing the French build is a railway.” Nothing, indeed, is more significant of the civilising work done by the French in these almost unknown lands than the means of communication, there being in operation to-day in French Africa six thousand miles of railway, twenty-five thousand miles of telegraph, and ten thousand miles of telephone. Think of being able to buy a return ticket from Paris to Timbuktu; of telegraphing Christmas greetings to your family in Tarrytown or Back Bay or Bryn Mawr from the shores of Lake Tchad; or of sitting in the American consulate at Tamatave and chatting with a friend in Antanarivo, three hundred miles away. Why, only the other day the Sultan of Morocco, at Fez, sent birthday congratulations to the President of France, at Paris, by wireless.

To-day one can travel on an admirably ballasted road-bed, in an electric-lighted sleeping-car, with hot and cold running water in your compartment, and with a dining-car ahead, along that entire stretch of the Barbary Coast lying between the Moroccan and Tripolitanian frontiers, which, within the memory of our fathers, was the most notorious pirate stronghold in the world. A strategic line has been built six hundred miles southward from the coast city of Oran to Colomb-Bechar, in the Sahara, with Timbuktu as its eventual destination, and, now that the long-standing Moroccan controversy [Pg 9] has been settled for good and all, another railway is already being pushed forward from Ujda, on the Algerian-Moroccan border, and in another year or two the shriek of the locomotive will be heard under the walls of Fez the Forbidden. From Constantine, in Algeria, another line of rails is crawling southward via Biskra into the Sahara, with Lake Tchad as its objective, thus opening up to European commerce the great protected states of Kanem and Wadai. From Dakar, on the coast of Senegal, a combined rail and river service is in operation to the Great Bend of the Niger, so that one can now go to the mysterious city of Timbuktu by train and river steamer, in considerable comfort and under the protection of the French flag all the way. In Dahomey, within the memory of all of us a notorious cannibal kingdom, a railway is under construction to Nikki, four hundred miles into the steaming jungle; from Konakry, the capital of French Guinea, a line has just been opened to Kourassa, three hundred and fifty miles from anywhere; while even the fever-stricken, voodoo-worshipping Ivory Coast boasts two hundred miles or so of well-built line with its rail-head already half-way from the coast to Jimini. From Tamatave, the chief seaport of Madagascar, you can go by rail to the capital, Antanarivo, three hundred miles up into the mountains, and, if you wish to continue across the island, government motor-cars will run you down, over roads that would make the Glidden tourists envious, to Majunga, on the other side. From Djibouti, the capital of the French Somali Coast, another railway has been pushed [Pg 10] as far up-country as Diré-Dawah, in Menelik's dominions (fare sixty dollars for the round trip of two hundred and fifty miles), thus diverting the lucrative trade of Abyssinia from the British Sudan to the French marts in Somaliland.

France has more good harbours on the coasts of Africa than all the other nations put together. Algiers, with one of the finest roadsteads in the world, is now the most important coaling-station in the Mediterranean and a port of call for nearly all of the lines plying between America and the Near East; by the construction of a great ship-canal the French engineers have made Tunis directly accessible to ocean-going vessels, thus restoring the maritime importance of Carthage to her successor; with Tangier under French control, a naval base will doubtless eventually be constructed there which will rival Toulon and will divide with Gibraltar the control of the entrance to the Mediterranean. With its entire western portion dominated by the great French ports of Villefranche, Toulon, Ajaccio, Marseilles, Oran, Algiers, and Bizerta, the Mediterranean is well on the road to becoming, as Napoleon once prophesied, a French lake.

But, though good harbours are taken rather as a matter of course in the Mediterranean, one hardly expects to find them on the reef-bordered West Coast, which is pounded by a ceaseless and merciless surf. At all of the British, German, Spanish, and Portuguese ports in West Africa, save one, you are lowered from the steamer's heaving deck into a dancing surf-boat by [Pg 11] means of a contrivance called the “mammy chair,” and are taken ashore by a score of ebony giants who ply their trident-shaped paddles madly in their desperate efforts to prevent your being capsized. Alternately scorched by the sun and soaked by the waves, you are landed, about three times out of four, on a beach as hot as though of molten brass. The fourth time, however, your Kroo boys are not quite quick enough to escape the crest of one of those mighty combers—and you can thank your lucky stars if you get ashore at all. This is the method by which every passenger and every bale of merchandise is landed on the West Coast and it is very dangerous and unpleasant and costly. But when you come to the French port of Dakar, instead of being dangled between sea and sky in a bo's'n's chair and dropped sprawling into the bottom of a pitching surf-boat, and being paddled frantically ashore by a crew of perspiring negroes, you lounge in a cane chair on an awning-covered deck while your vessel steams grandly in, straight alongside a concrete wharf which would do credit to the Hudson River, and a steam crane dips down into the hold and lifts the cargo out, a dozen tons at a time, and loads it on a waiting train to be transported into the heart of Africa, and as you lean over the rail, marvelling at the modernity and efficiency which characterise everything in sight, you wonder if you are really in the Dark Continent, or if you are back in America again.

But if the French harbours are amazingly good, the French vessels which drop anchor in them are, for the [Pg 12] most part, amazingly bad. The Messageries Maritimes, a highly subsidised line which has a virtual monopoly of the French colonial passenger trade, and which is notorious for its we-don't-care-whether-you-like-it-or-not attitude, has the worst vessels that I know, bar none, and charges the most exorbitant fares. If you wish to visit the Somali Coast, or Madagascar, or Réunion, you will have to take this line, because there is no other, but elsewhere along the coasts of Africa you will do well to follow my advice and travel under the British or the German flag.

The struggle of the French colonial army to maintain law and order along the vast reaches of France's African frontiers forms one of the most thrilling and romantic chapters in the history of colonial expansion. Theirs has been a work of tact, rather than of force, for, where England, Germany, Italy, and Belgium have used the iron hand in dealing with the natives, France, more farsighted, has seen the wisdom of hiding it within the velvet glove. Always she has conciliated the Moslem. She has safeguarded the privacy of his mosques and harems; she has encouraged by government subsidies his schools and universities; instead of desecrating the tombs of his holy men, she has whitewashed them; the burnooses of the great tribal and religious chieftains are brilliant with French decorations; the native mollahs and cadis are utilised as local magistrates in all except the gravest cases or those involving a European. To attempt to govern a country without those, or against those, to whom it belonged, is a blunder of which France [Pg 13] has never been guilty. It has been the consistent policy of other European nations, on the contrary, neither to trust the natives nor to treat them with any degree of consideration. Hence the ominous unrest in India; hence the ever louder murmur of “Egypt for the Egyptians”! hence the refusal of the natives of German East Africa to work on German-owned plantations and their wholesale emigration from that colony; hence the fact that no Italian official in Eritrea or Benadir dares venture outside the town walls unarmed and unescorted, nor will in Tripolitania for many years to come. I have been assured repeatedly by North African sheikhs that, should France become involved in a European war, her native soldiery would volunteer almost to a man. That England is far from certain how her Egyptian and Sudanese troops would behave in such a contingency is best proved by the formidable British garrisons which she deems it wise to maintain in the land of the Valley of the Nile.

I am but reflecting the opinions of many highly placed and intimately informed European officials in North Africa when I assert that Germany's repeated interference with the French programme in Morocco was due as much to military as to political reasons, the Germans using this means to hinder the expansion of that mysterious force noire which has long been a bugaboo to the War Office authorities in Berlin. Whether this was the true reason or not for Germany's attitude in the Moroccan business, no one knows better than the German general staff that, in the event of war, the Republic [Pg 14] would be able to advance a great black army to the banks of the Rhine in thirty days—and that she would not be deterred by the scruples which prevented her utilising her African soldiery in 1870. It has been repeatedly urged, indeed, that the numerical inferiority of the annual French conscription, as compared with that of Germany, be made up for by drafting a corps of black troops drawn from French West Africa into the continental army. France has already recruited very close to twenty thousand native troops—which is the strength of an army corps—in her West African possessions alone, and as any scheme for drafting it into Algeria, so as to enable the French troops stationed there to be available elsewhere, would instantly arouse the Arab population to revolt, it is highly probable that this African army corps would, in case of war, be employed on the European continent. Though France's African army does not at present number much over fifty thousand men—all well drilled, highly disciplined, and modernly armed—the French drill-sergeants in Africa are not idle and have limitless resources to draw from. The population of the negro states under French protection runs into many millions, and would easily yield twenty per cent of fighting men, while the acquisition of Morocco has added the Berbers, that strange, warlike, Caucasian race, to the Republic's fighting line. Nothing pleases the African as an occupation more than soldiering, his native physique, courage, and endurance making him, with amazingly little training, a first-class fighting man. It is no great wonder, [Pg 15] then, that Germany looks askance at the formidable army which her rival is building up so quietly but so steadily on the other side of the Middle Sea.

No small part in the winning of North Africa has been played by the Foreign Legion—how the name smacks of romance!—that picturesque company of adventurers, soldiers of fortune, and ne'er-do-weels, ten thousand strong, most of whom serve under the French flag in preference to serving in their own prisons. In this notorious corps the French Government enlists without question any physically fit man who applies. It asks no questions and expects to be told any number of lies. It trains them until they are as hard as nails and as tough as rawhide; it works them as a negro teamster works a Kentucky mule; it pays them wages which would cause a strike among Chinese coolies; and, when the necessity arises, it sends them into action with the assurance that there will be no French widows to be pensioned. So unenviable is the reputation of the Legionnaires that even the Algerian desert towns balk at their being stationed in the vicinity, for nothing from hen-roost to harem is safe from their depredations; so they are utilised on the most remote frontiers in time of peace and invariably form the advance guard in time of war. It is commonly said that when the Legion goes into action its officers take the precaution of marching in the rear, so as not to be shot in the back, but that is probably a libel which the regiment does not deserve. Wherever the musketry is crackling along France's colonial frontiers, there this Legion of the [Pg 16] Damned is to be found, those who wear its uniform being, for the most part, bearers of notorious or illustrious names who have chosen to fight under an alien flag because they are either afraid or ashamed to show themselves under their own.

Several times each year it is customary for the commandants of the French posts along the edge of the Sahara to organise fantasias in honour of the Arab sheikhs of the region, who come in to attend them, followed by great retinues of burnoosed, turbaned, and splendidly mounted retainers, with the same enthusiasm with which an American countryside turns out to see the circus. At one of these affairs, held in southern Algeria, I could not but contrast the marked attentions paid by the French officials to the native chieftains with the cavalier and frequently insolent attitude invariably assumed by British officials toward Egyptians of all ranks, not even excepting the Khedive. Were a French official to affront one of the great Arab sheikhs as Lord Kitchener did the Khedive, when he exacted an apology from his Highness for presuming to criticise the discipline of the Sudanese troops, he would be fortunate indeed if he escaped summary dismissal.

At the fantasia in question luxuriously furnished tents had been erected for the comfort of the native guests; a champagne luncheon provided the excuse for innumerable protestations of friendship; a series of races with money prizes was arranged for the visitors' horses; and, before leaving, the sheikhs were presented with ornate saddles, gold-mounted rifles, and, in the [Pg 17] cases of the more important chieftains, with crosses of the Legion of Honour. In return for this they willingly agreed to capture and surrender certain fugitives from justice who had fled into the desert; to warn the more lawless of their tribesmen that the plundering of caravans must cease; to furnish specified quotas of recruits for the native cavalry; and to send in for sale to the Remount Department a large number of desert-bred horses. And, which is the most important of all, they go back to their tented homes in the desert immensely impressed with the power, the wealth, and the generosity of France.
Here, in the native quarters of the remote towns of the Algerian hinterland, the disciples of Pan-Islam find eager listeners to their creed of Africa for the Africans.
Photograph by Em. Frechon, Biskra.

Not content with these periodic manifestations of friendship, the French Government makes it a point occasionally to invite the native rulers of the lands under its control to visit France as the guests of the nation. Escorted by French officers who can talk with them in their own tongue, these colonial visitors in their outlandish costumes are shown the delights of Montmartre by night, they are dined by the President of the Republic at the élysée, they are given the freedom of Paris at the H?tel de Ville, and they finally return to their own lands the friends and allies of France for the rest of their lives. “It doesn't cost the government much,” an official of the French Colonial Office once remarked to me, à propos of a visit then being paid to Paris by the King of Cambodia, “and it tickles the niggers.”

Straggling down here and there into the desert from some of the North African coast towns go the trade [Pg 18] routes of the caravans, and it is the protection of these trade routes, traversing, as they do, a territory half again as large as that of the United States, that is entrusted to the twelve hundred méharistes composing France's Saharan forces. By a network of small oasis garrisons and desert patrols, recruited from the desert tribes and mounted on the tall, swift-trotting camels known as méhari, France has made the Saharan trade-routes, if not as safe as Fifth Avenue or Piccadilly, certainly very much safer for the lone traveller than lower Clark Street, in Chicago, or the neighbourhood of the Paris Halles. It has long been the fashion to hold up the Northwest Mounted Police as the model for all constabulary forces, just as it has been the fashion to extol the English as the model colonisers, but, taking into consideration the fewness of their numbers, the vastness of the region which they control, and the character of its climate and its inhabitants, I give the blue ribbon to these lean, brown-faced, hard-riding camel-men who have carried law and order into the furthermost corners of the Great Sahara.

Though comparatively unfertile, the Sahara vastly influences the surrounding regions, just as the Atlantic Ocean influences the countries which border on it. Were commerce to be seriously interrupted upon the Atlantic, financial hardships would inevitably result in the countries on either side. So it is, then, with the Sahara, which is, to all intents and purposes, an inland ocean. Ever since the caravan of the Queen of Sheba brought gifts to King Solomon, ever since Abraham [Pg 19] came riding down from Ur, it has been customary for the nomad Arab rulers through whose territories the desert trade routes pass to exact heavy tribute from the caravan sheikhs, the Bilma trans-Saharan route alone being plundered annually to the tune of ten million francs until the coming of the French camel police. Many of these great trade caravans, you will understand, are literally moving cities, sometimes consisting of as many as twelve thousand camels, to say nothing of the accompanying horses, donkeys, sheep, and goats. To outfit such a caravan often takes a year or more, frequently at a cost of more than one million dollars, the money being subscribed in varying sums by thousands of merchants and petty traders dwelling in the region whence it starts. It is obvious, therefore, that the looting of such a caravan might well spell ruin for the people of a whole district; and it is by her successful protection of the caravan routes that France has earned the gratitude of the peoples of all those regions bordering on the Great Sahara. But the days of the caravan trade are numbered, for the telegraph wires which already stretch across the desert from the Mediterranean coast towns to the French outposts in the Congo, the Senegal, and the Sudan, are but forerunners to herald the coming of the iron horse.

France's path of colonial expansion in Africa has been remarkably free from obstructions, for, barring the Algerian campaign of 1830, and the German-created incidents in Morocco, she has acquired her vast domain—close on half the total area of the continent—at a [Pg 20] surprisingly low cost in money and lives. The only time, indeed, when her African ambitions received a serious setback was in 1898, at Fashoda (now known as Kodok), on the White Nile, when the French explorer, Major Marchand, yielded to the peremptory demand of Lord Kitchener and hauled down the tricolour which he had raised at that remote spot, thus losing to France the whole of the Western Sudan and the control of the head-waters of the Nile.

There is an interesting bit of secret diplomatic history in this connection. The story has been told me by both French and British officials—and there is good reason to believe that it is true—that the French Government had planned, in case Marchand was able to hold his position until reinforcements arrived, to divert the waters of the White Nile, at a point near its junction with the Sobat River, into the Sahara, an undertaking which, owing to the physical characteristics of that region, would, so the French engineers claimed, have been entirely feasible. France would thus have accomplished the twofold purpose of irrigating her desert territory and of turning Egypt into a desert by diverting her only supply of water; for this, remember, was in those bitter, jealous days before the Anglo-French entente. It was, indeed, the intelligence that the Khalifa proposed, by doing this very thing, to bring Egypt to her knees that caused the second Sudanese expedition to be pushed forward so rapidly. (I should add that the idea, once so popular in France, of turning the Sahara into an inland sea, has been proven impracticable, if not [Pg 21] impossible.) It is safe to say that England's prime reason for clinging so tenaciously, and at such heavy cost, to the arid tract known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, is to safeguard Egyptian prosperity by keeping control of the head-waters of the Nile. To illustrate how completely the Nile is the barometer of Egyptian prosperity, I might add that the last time I was in Khartoum the officials of the Sudanese Irrigation Service complained to me most bitterly that they were being seriously hampered in their work of desert reclamation by the restrictions placed upon the quantity of water which they were permitted to divert from the Nile, a comparatively small diversion from the upper reaches of the river causing wide-spread distress among the Egyptian agriculturists a thousand miles down-stream.

Because the map-makers from time beyond reckoning have seen fit to paint the northern half of the African continent a speckled yellow, most of us have been accustomed to look upon this region as an arid, sun-baked, worthless desert. But French explorers, French engineers, and French scientists have proved that it is very far from being worthless or past reclamation. M. Henri Schirmer, the latest and most careful student of its problems, says: “The sterility of the Sahara is due neither to the form of the land nor to its nature. The alluvium of sand, chalk, and gypsum which covers the Algerian Sahara constitutes equally the soil of the most fertile plains in the world. What causes the misery of one and the wealth of the other is the absence or the presence of water.” Now, an extensive series [Pg 22] of experiments has proven that the Sahara, like the Great American Desert, has an ample supply of underground water, which in many cases has been reached at a depth of only forty feet. There is, incidentally, hardly a desert where the experiment has been tried, whether in Asia, Africa, or America, where water has not been found within two thousand feet of the surface. Though usually not sufficient for agriculture, enough has generally been found to afford a supply for cattle, railroads, and mines. Three striking examples of what can be accomplished by scientific well-drilling in arid lands are the great wells of the Salton Desert, the flowing wells at Benson, Arizona, and a supply of seven hundred thousand gallons of water a day from the deep wells on the mesa at El Paso, each of these supplies of water being obtained from localities which were superficially hopelessly dry.

It should be borne in mind, in any discussion of North Africa, that until the early '80's the Great American Desert was as primitive, waterless, and sparsely settled a region as the Sahara. Its scattered inhabitants practised irrigation and agriculture very much as the people of southern Algeria and Tunisia do to-day, and, like them, they constructed buildings of unburnt brick and stone. Though the Indian was able to find a meagre sustenance upon the American desert, just as the Arab does upon the African, it was of a kind upon which the white man could not well exist. The unconquered Apaches plundered wagon-trains and mail-coaches just as the Tuareg occasionally plunders the [Pg 23] Saharan trade caravans to-day, and the only white men were the soldiers at scattered and lonely posts or desperadoes flying from the law. There is, indeed, a striking similarity between the conditions which prevail to-day along France's African borders and those which existed within the memories of most of us upon our own frontier.

Then the railways came to the American West, just as they are coming to North Africa to-day, and the desert was awakened from its lethargy of centuries by the shriek of the locomotive. The first railroads to be constructed were designed primarily as highways between the Atlantic and the Pacific seaboards, with hardly a thought of revenue from the desert itself. But hard on the heels of the railway-builders followed the miners and the cattlemen, so that to-day the iron highway across the desert is bordered by prosperous cities and villages, by mines and oil-derricks and ranches and white farm-houses with green blinds, this one-time arid region, which the wiseheads of thirty years ago pronounced worthless, now yielding a wealth twice as much per capita as that of any other portion of the United States.

What has already been accomplished in the American desert, French brains, French energy, and French machinery are fast accomplishing in the Sahara. Thanks to the recent invention, by a non-commissioned officer of France's African forces, of a six-wheeled motor-sledge driven by a light but powerful aeroplane engine, the problem of rapid communication in these desert [Pg 24] regions, which have hitherto been impassable to any kind of animal or mechanical traction, has been solved. As the new vehicle has proved itself capable of maintaining a speed over sand dunes of twenty miles an hour, it promises to be of invaluable assistance to the French in their work of opening up the waste places. Not only have French expeditions explored and charted the whole of the unknown regions, but they have thoroughly investigated the commercial possibilities of the immense territories which have recently come under their control. These investigations have shown that the Sahara is very far from being the sandy plain, flat as a billiard-table, which the pictures and descriptions in our school geographies led us to believe, and which the reports of those superficial travellers who had only journeyed into the desert as far as Biskra, in Algeria, or Ghadames, in Tripolitania, confirmed, but is, on the contrary, of a remarkably varied surface, here rising into plateaus like those of Tibesti and Ahaggar, there crossed by chains of large and fertile oases, and again broken into mountain ranges, with peaks eight thousand feet high, greater than the Alleghanies and very nearly as great as the Sierra Nevadas.

An oasis, by the way, does not necessarily consist, as the reading public seems to believe, of a clump of palm-trees beside a brackish well, many of them being great stretches of well-watered and cultivated soil, sometimes many square miles in extent, and rich in fig, pomegranate, orange, apricot, and olive trees. The oasis of Kaouer, for example, with its one hundred thousand [Pg 25] date-palms, furnishes subsistence for the inhabitants of a score of straggling villages, with their camels, flocks, and herds. There are said to be four million date-palms in the oases of the Algerian Sahara alone, and to cut down one of them is considered as much of a crime as arson is in a great city, for its fruit is a sufficient food, from its leaves a shelter can be made which will keep out sun and wind and rain, and its shade protects life and cultivation. Many date plantations and even vineyards have flourished for several years past in southernmost Algeria by means of water from below the surface, while the chief of the French geodetic survey recently announced that a tract in the very heart of the Sahara, nine degrees in longitude by twelve degrees in latitude, is already sufficiently watered for the raising of grain. The reports of these expeditions and commissions bear with painstaking thoroughness on the productivity of the soil, the suitability of the climate, the existence and accessibility of forest wealth, the presence and probable extent of mineral veins, and on transportation by road, rail, and river over all that huge territory which comprises France's African empire.

The story of French success in the exploration, the civilisation, the administration, and the exploitation of Africa is one of the wonder-tales of history. That she has relied on the resources of science rather than on those of militarism makes her achievement the more remarkable, for where England's possessions have largely been gained by punitive expeditions, France has won hers by pacific penetration. Look at Senegambia [Pg 26] as it is now under French rule, and compare its condition with what it was as Mungo Park describes it at the end of the eighteenth century; contrast the modernised Dahomey of to-day, with its railways, schools, and hospitals, with the blood-soaked, cannibal country of the early '60's; remember that Algeria has doubled in population since the last Dey, by striking the French consul with his fan, turned his country into a French department—and you will have a bird's-eye view, as it were, of what the French have accomplished in the colonising field.

If French Africa becomes in time a rich and prosperous dominion—and I firmly believe that it will—it is to her patient and intrepid pioneers of civilisation—-desert patrols, railway-builders, well-drillers, school-teachers, commercial investigators—that the thanks of the nation will be due; for they are pointing the way to millions of natives, on whose activities and necessities the commercial development of Africa must eventually depend. So I trust that those at home in France will give all honour to the men at work in the Sahara, the Senegal, and the Sudan or rotting in the weed-grown, snake-infested cemeteries of the Congo and Somaliland; men whose battles have been fought out in steaming jungles or on lonely oases, far away from home and friends and often from another white man's help and sympathy; sometimes with savage desert raiders, or in action against Hausa, Berber, or Moor; but oftenest of all with an unseen and deadlier foe—the dread African fever.

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