The Conquest of the Sahara gets 3 stars but a strong recommendation nevertheless. I did not know how central the French were in taking the Sahara. I had only thought of them as significant in Algeria but they were everywhere. Porch tells a tale of some very strange and eccentric figures who launch off on missions to explore and, later, conquer various areas. In fact, the spread of the French into North Africa was haphazard and not part of a grander plan. There is little to recommend the coming of French influence and “civilization”. Where they do not kill the inhabitants, they set about ruining the wadi’s and oases where the desert folks live.
This story takes place between 1875 and 1905. Supposedly the French are trying to make amends for their humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war by gaining an empire to rival the Brits and others. Additionally, the colonial army was the dumping ground for less well-behaved men and officers, who then go on a search for glory and riches in the desert. In a humorous exchange, the Brits sign a treaty to give the French free rein in the Sahara, which no one else wants. “Like giving a comb to a bald man” goes their joke. The book then lurches from adventurer to glory hound, recounting battles and long, thirsty marches in the wastelands.
Slavery was a big player in the economy of the desert. The slave trade was a source of money and the French were resisted because it was known they would stop the trade. The French often freed slaves where they found them but not always. Slaves provided the manpower to farm the oases and other menial tasks, allowing their Arab masters to live graciously. When the French found that no one was left to work, they found ways to keep slaves employed, either by sending them back to their masters or arranging a set period of work where they could buy their freedom.
In the end, I reduced the rating because Porch never gave me a feel for the Tuareg (“abandoned of god”), Chaamba, Haritin or other indigenous folks opposing the French. There are battles and raids galore but the main enemy is the desert itself. He never interested me in any of the French who invaded or any of the resistance. I never was engaged by the story. Still, it is not a boring story and is a decent read.