Trouble on the Trans-Saharan line

Were Zapatero to read the Bible as thoroughly as we Carpathian Independents, he’d be in a better position to understand the significance of the first photo-album of his glorious Alliance of Civilisations: the crowds sent to die in a desert in connivance with Morocco, the stigmata on the hands of those who make it over the razor fences and past the bureaucracy to the promised land.

One the present fuss is past, and once the Algeria-Morocco-West Sahara triangle is sorted, we’ll see the re-emergence of old projects designed to facilitate travel between southern Spain and western Africa. One of the first pioneers of a trans-Saharan railway link was a Frenchman, Jacques Lebaudy, whose Moroccan dreams were even more grandiose than those of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Bruno Fuligni in L’État c’est moi: Histoire des monarchies privées, principautés de fantaisie et autres républiques pirates tells how Lebaudy, son of a sugar baron who got rich in the 1882 Union Générale crash, sailed to the Sahara via Madeira and the Canaries, casting anchor in May 1903. After conversations with several local men, he informed his startled crew that he was Jacques I of the Empire of the Sahara.

Jacques I’s imperial experiment was hampered by his indigenous contacts, who, aware of his wealth, kidnapped his men and held them for ransom, and by the French and Spanish governments, who were not at all keen on the competition. Unbowed, he married a glamourous actress, bought himself a throne, converted to Islam, set about creating lords and ladies, and–the mark of a true scoundrel–started a newspaper. The great powers didn’t invite him to the 1906 Algeçiras Conference, so he sailed to Long Island with the empress and their daughter; when he announced to the former that he intended to father a successor by the latter, Mrs killed him.

The kidnap case caused a stir in French society in 1903-4, when two of the victims sued Lebaudy. James Joyce (Occasional, Critical, and Political Writings) wrote (he could when he tried):

The new emperor, it would seem, is not over-careful of the bodily welfare of his subjects. He leaves them unprovided-for in a desert, bidding them wait there till he returns. They are made captive by a party of natives and suffer the agonies of hunger and thirst during their captivity. They remain prisoners for nearly two months and are finally rescued by a French man-o’-war under the command of M Jaurès [brother of the great socialist, Jean]. One of them is subsequently an inmate of a hospital at the Havre and after a month’s treatment there is still only convalescent. Their appeals for redress have been all disregarded and now they are having recourse to law… The emperor … considers that the case is between the French Republic and the Saharan empire and that in consequence … should be submitted for judgement to England, Belgium or Holland.

The association of trans-Saharan travel projects with suffering continued in the 40s, when the Vichy government deployed Jews, Czechs, Poles, and Spanish Republican soldiers as slave labour to build the Maghrebi equivalent of the Burmese Death Railway. Max Aub–lugging with him a dictionary and the poetry of Quevedo–recorded his experiences in Djelfa camp in the High Atlas in the 48 poems of Diaro de Djelfa. Carmen Camacho says that his Algerian captivity–like that of Cervantes–marked a turning point in his creative existence. One day trains will whizz from Algiers to Accra in a day, and the world will seem a boring but better place.

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