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Women in colonial times
|Mme Dard, the shipwreck of the Medusa in 1816 and the early colonisation of Senegal|
It is always interesting to find out what other readers are making of the work written by little known authors who can only be assessed from one's own intuition. Thus my pleasure in discovering Françoise Lapeyre's interesting study, titled Le roman des voyageuses françaises (1800-1900) [The novel of French women travellers (1800-1900)], that proposes a wide overview of French women who were "swept along by 19th century dynamics of knowledge expansion". The achievements of these travellers bound for Africa, Asia, Oceania and America, provide a unique reflection on 19th century French preoccupations, mentalities, perceptions of the world, hierarchies and socio-cultural divides.
Among the many books mentioned by Françoise Lapeyre, The African cottage or the story of a French family thrown on the western coast of Africa after the frigate Medusa was wrecked by Charlotte-Adélaïde Dard has been of particular interest to me because it speaks volumes to the material lost to the worlds of literature and history for reasons beyond "the institutionalised gender imbalance that permeated everyone's mind".
Published in 1824, The African cottage provides a firsthand account of France's occupation of West Africa at the very beginning of French colonial expansion. It is thus a central piece of French colonial history. However, as was the case of the writings by Mme de Noirfontaine and Mme Bonnetain, Mme Dard's account of her experience was dismissed, not so much because it was written by "a poor woman who knew nothing, understood little and displayed even less imagination", but rather because the author contradicted the wisdom of the day and represented a nuisance to the government. In other words, this testimony was not overlooked because of "the power of archaic cultural beliefs asserting the primacy of the masculine over the feminine" even though ingrained sexism facilitated its exclusion but rather because the subversive, or at least unsettling nature of the narrative was perceived as a threat to the precarious equilibrium that sustained the lives and reputation of some influential individuals.
The African cottage tells the story of the author and her family. In 1816, aged 18, she left France for Senegal with her father, stepmother, brothers and sisters, aboard the frigate Medusa. When the ship ran aground, she witnessed the confusion that followed and, after a perilous few days aboard a small lifeboat and a long walk in the African desert, she eventually reached Saint-Louis where her family settled down. This book is teeming with enthralling comments about early 19th century France, the shipwreck of the Medusa and life in the colonies in the very early stage of French colonisation. Moreover, it offers a take on society that illustrates with spontaneity and simplicity the superficiality of the myths that has sustained, not only the social values, but also the honour of the Nation, socio-economic wisdom and European expansionism aimed at "developing" Africa by exporting Western civilisation to its shores.
In her preface, Mme Dard argues that her decision to put pen to paper was only due to her father's last wishes : his hope that his "persecutors" would be exposed and the misfortunes of the family brought to light "so that they would not be forgotten" (p. ij). However, the significance of the narrator's revelations, eight years after the loss of the Medusa and four years after she left Senegal, went far beyond the mere tale of a young woman recounting her tribulations in the colonies. It was published on the heels of another book by Henry Savigny and Alexandre Corréard that divided public opinion and it was not the intention of the government to reopen a damaging controversy. Furthermore, England had relished the opportunity to stir up trouble in providing unconditional support to the victims of the shipwreck at the very time France attempted to quell their complaints and, in the eyes of the Government, Mme Dard's pro-English attitude was further proof of the seditious nature of her writing. Like Savigny and Corréard, whose book had been translated and published in English in London in 1818, Mme Dard's book was arguing, most convincingly, that the high moral ground was not held by the French :
Nowadays, a lengthy colonisation of Senegal has allowed France to establish preferential links between Dakar and Paris, but the relationship between the two countries was quite different in 1816. England had just agreed to return Saint-Louis to France after occupying the city for several years and it was the purpose of the Medusa's voyage to convey hundreds of French troops, the new governor, Colonel Schmaltz, and the civil servants who were to reclaim the colony. The Medusa was thus sailing towards a city that was still under British administration and the French Governor's intention was to escort the English out of the colony at the earliest opportunity after his triumphal entry into Saint-Louis. The loss of the Medusa put this plan into turmoil as the French contingent was dispersed and reached the African shores in total disarray and deprived of a good number of the army personnel butchered by their own during the tragedy. As mentioned by Gaspard-Théodore Mollien in his own account of the disaster : "What pitiful a shape we were upon landing on African soil where we were expected to take over as Masters".
This undignified arrival was exacerbated by the new Governor's poor behaviour during and after the catastrophe. Colonel Schmaltz was among the dignitaries embarked on the Medusa and his performance, when his leadership was needed, had been dismal. Preoccupied with his own safety, he did not hesitate to abandon women and children aboard the Medusa and to disappear with his family and close friends aboard a lifeboat he had commandeered. That, of course left an enduring imprint in Mme Dard's mind :
Understandably, when Colonel Schmaltz arrived in Saint-Louis with his family, four days ahead of the others, his main preoccupation was to erase the evidence of his disgrace. Typifying the kind of rogue character described by Major Peddie to Corréard, he baulked at nothing and in his denials seemed unperturbed by unexplained coincidences :
The Picard family was among the disquieting witnesses to be silenced and Colonel Schmaltz provided them with no material support when they eventually made it to Saint-Louis. Destitute and abandoned, Mr Picard then turned for help to Major Peddie, the English Governor. Unlike Colonel Schmaltz, the former had made the trip from his headquarters in order to welcome the survivors and showed a great deal of compassion for the women and children who had been victims of such a terrible ordeal. Upon reading Mme Dard's glowing portrayal of Major Peddie, the French Government could be excused for believing that she was deliberately provocative in underlining the gap that separated a good-natured and yet determined English gentleman from a two-faced French colonel with no regard for etiquette and proper behaviour : the English Governor had been a man of action who had sent the worst affected to hospital and invited the English settlers to show compassion to the new arrivals. One of the consequences of this benevolence meant that the narrator and her sister were invited to share the abode of an English family :
The way things were unfolding did not follow the scenario planned in Paris. After the severe military humiliation suffered in conflicts with Britain in 1815 and a treaty that was not favourable to France, despite the return of Senegal and a few other territories to France, it was time for the new French government to show that the country was again on the ascendancy : that it had lost nothing of its determination, that it remained a world leader and a reference point in terms of refinement and sophistication. Mme Dard's contrasting portraits of Major Peddie and Colonel Schmaltz did not fit the French high aspirations. Rather they were an embarrassment as they called into question the honour and the integrity of a French army officer and, by association, of the whole French Army. That alone would have been enough to exclude Mme Dard's book from any list of recommended reading, but there was more bad news.
Unfortunately for the French administration, and for the literary future of Mme Dard, people called to answer for the trauma suffered by the Picard family did not stop at Colonel Schmaltz. The Viscount de Chaumareys, Captain of the Medusa, was also sitting in the dock of the accused. According to his fellow officers, he was unfit to lead his crew. He had not sailed for the previous twenty years and had been appointed on the strength of his name rather than his seamanship. Following the decommissioning of numerous Bonapartist officers, the Ministry of Marine had recalled a number of survivors from the Ancien régime, paying little attention to their professional credentials. The Viscount de Chaumareys was one of them, but he was not ready to admit his incompetence thus his stubbornness, lack of judgment and a complete disregard of the advice given to him by fellow officers much better qualified than he. To Mme Dard, there was but one person responsible for running the Medusa aground and that was the captain :
During the stormy meetings that followed the announcement of the catastrophe in Paris, the Minister of Marine was rightly accused of having compromised safety by showing favour to incompetent members of the Ancien régime. However, this heated argument would have died if it had been possible to show that Captain de Chaumareys had been able to redeem both himself and the honour of the French Navy by some heroic deeds. Unfortunately, reports to the contrary were running wild that the Captain of the Medusa had fled the scene of the disaster aboard a lifeboat, abandoning many people on board the vessel and leaving the rest, including those piled up aboard a makeshift raft, to fend for themselves. As mentioned by Corréard in his book, this did not go well with the witnesses to this infamy :
That indignation was shared by the Dard family who learned to its cost that the captain of the frigate, like the Governor, could not be trusted and would not come to their rescue. And those showing courage and determination, Mme Dard says, were the very same people who had attempted to avoid the tragedy in the first place and who were now left to deal with the situation in the context of their commanding officer's desertion.
Given the fact that the death penalty was to apply to "every commanding officer found guilty of abandoning his vessel while there were still other people aboard", it was difficult to explain the leniency of the Naval Court Martial which sentenced the cowardly captain to three years jail and to his removal from the Roll of French Naval Officers. Yet, as was the case with Colonel Schmaltz's reprehensible behaviour, it was not in the interest of the State to make too much fuss about this shameful incident. Corréard was probably right when he suggested that "there is, among the naval officers, an uncompromising esprit de corps, a so-called matter of honour, as mistaken as it is peremptory, that pushes them to consider as insulting to the whole of the Navy the unmasking of a culprit". Resurrecting the deeds of a naval officer who was better forgotten outraged the Navy and exposing the true colours of Colonel Schmaltz was a slap in the face for the Army. Thus, not surprisingly, Mme Dard's testimony never made it to mainstream historical accounts of the Nation.
And, as if the behaviour of the leaders put in command by the State did not suffice to discredit the Nation and her quest to "civilize" Africa, the atrocities committed by some of the men packed on the raft of the Medusa were tarnishing French image even more :
Far from verifying the moral superiority claimed by France, this evidence of French people engaged in summary executions and cannibalism was shaking the very foundation of the whole colonial enterprise. It showed a reversal of the role; one incompatible with the civilising mission that the State promoted in order to justify its occupation of vast tracts of land. How could one justify that it was the very same people sent to Africa to impart a new sense of morality to the "natives" and to fight cannibalism who had engaged in random killings and eaten each other on their way to Senegal ? The only solution was to forget the whole sorry episode and to erase it from the collective memory in order to minimise its impact on the Nation. Paradoxically, Gericault's monumental painting of the raft of the Medusa facilitated this ploy. At first this canvas was seen as a controversial piece but it soon became a monument committed to the memory of a maritime tragedy cut loose from the unsavoury historical events that had inspired the artist in the first place.
Mme Dard's had a further reason to bother the government as her views on local African people and their relationship with European colonists were in complete contradiction to the colonial wisdom; one which took for granted that the "natives" lacked the faculty to think logically and were unable to experience life in the way any white persons would. In discrediting this falsehood that justified the horrors of the slave trade in previous centuries and soon became the main pillar of colonial exploitation, Mme Dard was giving the impression that she was again siding with the half-baked nonsense coming from London. Furthermore, the open admission that her father was talking to his employees on equal terms and that he did not punish two slaves who attempted to run away looked like a reprehensible provocation :
Reasons to hush up Mme Dard's testimony were many and varied and one would be interested in knowing how the book was received upon publication, for instance in Dijon where it was published. Was it mentioned in Paris ? in Saint-Louis where the names of Picard and Dard were still fresh in everyone's memory ? And what about Jean Dard who opened the first French school in Black Africa in 1817 and married Charlotte Adélaïde Picard in 1820, just before returning to France, where, in 1826, he published a French-Wolof dictionary and a Wolof grammar ? Was he victimised because of his wife's writing as would be the case years later for the family Bonnetain :
Future literary research will no doubt shed more light on Charlotte Adélaïde Dard's life and reveal the converging forces that combined to suppress her story. What can already be said with certainty, however, is that the result expected by her detractors has, to date, been achieved : her writings have been conveniently lost for almost two centuries. As rightly argued by Mme Lapeyre, people's way of thinking is slow to change and the hierarchy governing gender's position "persists to this day" yet, I believe that if Mme Dard's volume is still ignored in this day and age, it is not so much because it was written by a woman but rather because this woman was non-conformist and reflects unfavourably on the historical record that gave rise to our current beliefs, myths and values. Like Mme de Noirfontaine, Mme Bonnetain and many other writers, Mme Dard witnessed the messy days of early French colonial expansion, its viciousness, shambles and the untold damage to the world that continues to tarnish the Nation's image and its institutions' respectability. That, more than anything else, explains the reasons why her book is still largely being ignored by our contemporaries.
|Back to the main article : Women's perception of French colonial life in 19th century Africa, a fascinating universe challenging conventional wisdom|
 Her bibliography mentions 77 women travellers. Françoise Lapeyre. Le roman des voyageuses françaises (1800-1900). Paris : Payot, 2007, p. 10.
 Charlotte-Adélaïde Dard
(née Picard). La chaumière africaine ou Histoire d'une famille
française jetée sur la côte occidentale de l'Afrique,
à la suite du naufrage de la frégate la Méduse. Dijon
: Chez Noellat, 1824. Page numbers in the text refer to that book. All
translations are mine.
An English translation of Mme Dard's narrative by Patrick Maxwell (of Edinburgh) was included in Perils and Captivity, Edinburgh: Printed for Constable and co. and Thomas Hurst and co. London, 1827. Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22792/22792-h/22792-h.htm Project Gutenberg EBook [Sighted 10 April 2008].
A section of Mme Dard's book was also published in English in "Shipwreck of the Medusa on her voyage to Senegal, by Madame Dard" in The Mariner's Chronicle : containing narratives of the most remarkable disasters at sea such as shipwrecks, storms, fires and famines...". New Haven : R.M. Treadway, 1834, pp. 296-398.
 Lapeyre, p. 240.
 I cannot figure out why such an important narrative has escaped my attention for so long, especially as it was republished in 2005 in the collection « Autrement mêmes » with an Introduction by Doris Y. Kadish. Charlotte Dard. La chaumière africaine Ou Histoire d'une famille française jetée sur la côte occidentale de l'Afrique à la suite du naufrage de la frégate 'La Méduse'. Paris : L'Harmattan, 2005.
 Mme de Noirfontaine. Algérie, un regard écrit. Paris, 1856, p. 304.
 Lapeyre, p. 242.
 In the introduction to the 2005 re-edition of La chaumière africaine, Doris Kadish argues that the narrator's attempt to rehabilitate her father's reputation leads her to a simplistic dichotomy of good versus evil. In the end, Kadish suggests, the "so called persecutors" (p. xv) of the Picard family were nothing but new, enterprising colonists matched against an old and disgruntled competitor. In my view, this approach does not do justice to Mme Dard, her book and her father's character. M. Picard should not be dismissed in claiming casually that he was the "typical French whinger" (p. xii), a "good sort but far to eager in criticizing others" (p. xii) elevated to the standing of a "philosopher" by an "emotional and nostalgic" (p. xxx) daughter.
 A. Corréard and H. Savigny. Naufrage de la frégate la Méduse faisant partie de l'expédition du Sénégal en 1816. Paris : Chez Corréard, 1821, 5ème édition.
 J. B. Henry Savigny and Alexandre Corréard. Narrative of a voyage to Senegal in 1816 undertaken by order of the French government comprising an account of the shipwreck of the Medusa, the suffering of the crew, and the various occurrences on board the raft, in the desert of Zaara, at St. Louis and at the camp of Daccard . London : Henry Colburn, 1818, pp. 238-240.
 Gaspard-Théodore Mollien. "Le naufrage de la Méduse" in Découverte des Sources du Sénégal et de la Gambie en 1818. Paris : Delagrave, 1889, p. 31.
 Major Peddie refused to surrender his executive power to Colonel Schmaltz for months.
 Corréard et Savigny, p. 72
 According to Corréard et Savigny, p. 388. (Art.35).
 Corréard et Savigny p. 11.
 See http : //lettres.ac-rouen.fr/louvre/romanti/medus.html [sighted 18 August 2007]
 I do not share Doris Kadish's opinion when she mentions in the introduction of the 2005 re-edition of La chaumière africaine that Mme Dard « endeavours to depict an utopian view of White relationships with the Blacks » (p. xviii). I rather think that she held the same beliefs as her father and future husband Jean Dard in embracing the ideals of a French-African relationship wildly different from that which prevailed later. She anticipated a development of Saint-Louis based on freedom of the individual and solidarity between people : two virtues incompatible with a « French civilising mission », the main and only purpose of which was to pursue slavery under a different guise and to carry on with Africa's exploitation. There is nothing "utopian" in Mme Dard's exposition of race relationship. It is just an illustration of the human empathy and trust that was guiding the family's interrelations with "others".
 See http : //www.rfi.fr/Fichiers/MFI/Education/843.asp [sighted 18 August 2007]
 "La Femme aux colonies", Revue encyclopédique, 1896, cited in Lapeyre, p. 48
 Doris Y. Kadish provides preliminary information on these subjects in her introduction of the 2005 re-edition of the Chaumière africaine. Firstly, the section titled "Importance of the text" (p.xxxi) sketches an excellent analysis of the book's importance and reception by the critics. Secondly Kadish mentions useful documents offering new insight into Mme Dard's life and family. According to one of her sources, the Dard's family returned to Saint-Louis in 1832 where Mme Dard later become a teacher. Another source highlights the "heterogeneous nature" of the family as both her father and her husband had African women companions and the children born of these relationships were part of the family circle.
 Françoise Lapeyre notes that at the time she wrote her study, "the site Gallica of the French National Library, that listed one thousand five hundred and twentyfour entries on the theme of XIX century travel to Africa, only mentioned seven women travellers". Lapeyre, pp. 240-241.