Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Montagnac - A man of contradictions?

"In one word, annihilate all that will not crawl beneath our feet like dogs." - Montagnac, in reference to Algerians, 1843.

Lucien de Montagnac (1803 - 1845)

Lieutenant-Colonel Montagnac was a French soldier who was sent to Africa in 1836. He was responsible for several massacres of civilians during the French conquest of Algeria and was killed at the Battle of Sidi-Brahim.

I find his character fascinating.

He had previously refused the Légion d'honneur offered to him by Louis-Philippe of France, explaining that he was "resolved to await this reward on an occasion I will better deserve it". It was only in 1840, that he finally accepted the honour.

If he seemed severe towards himself, he was even more so with the Algerian local population for which it can only be assumed that he expressed a curious mixture of contempt and pathos.

One of the most famous quotes Montagnac made was in reference to the treatment of Arab populations in Algeria.

On 15 March 1843, Montagnac wrote in French: "Toutes les populations qui n'acceptent pas nos conditions doivent être rasées. Tout doit être pris, saccagé, sans distinction d'âge ni de sexe : l'herbe ne doit plus pousser où l'armée française a mis le pied. Qui veut la fin veut les moyens, quoiqu'en disent nos philanthropes. Tous les bons militaires que j'ai l'honneur de commander sont prévenus par moi-même que s'il leur arrive de m'amener un Arabe vivant, ils recevront une volée de coups de plat de sabre. […] Voilà, mon brave ami, comment il faut faire la guerre aux Arabes : tuer tous les hommes jusqu'à l'âge de quinze ans, prendre toutes les femmes et les enfants, en charger les bâtiments, les envoyer aux îles Marquises ou ailleurs. En un mot, anéantir tout ce qui ne rampera pas à nos pieds comme des chiens."1

English : "All populations which do not accept our conditions must be despoiled. Everything must be seized, devastated, without age or sex distinction: grass must not grow any more where the French army has put the foot. Who wants the end wants the means, whatever may say our philanthropists. I personally warn all good militaries which I have the honour to lead that if they happen to bring me a living Arab, they will receive a beating with the flat of the saber... This is how, my dear friend, we must do war against Arabs: kill all men over the age of fifteen, take all their women and children, load them onto naval vessels, send them to the Marquesas Islands or elsewhere. In one word, annihilate all that will not crawl beneath our feet like dogs."1

But what I find perplexing is that Montagnac also says, in a letter to his own sister written later, on 19 December 1844:

"Et ces malheureuses populations aujourd'hui si vivaces, si belles, que deviendront-elles? Elles iront toutes mourir de misère sur le bord d'une fontaine tarie; celles qui échapperont au désastre viendront s'étioler sous les miasmes de notre civilistaion infecte, et s'éteindre bientôt. Tel est pourtant le sort réservé à tous ces êtres que les évènements ont placés sous notre domination. Là où nous passons, tout tombe. »

English: "And those populations, today so vivacious, so beautiful, what will become of them? They will all end up dying of misery on the edge of a dried up fountain; those that do escape the disaster will wilt beneath the miasma of our foul civilisation, and soon perish. Yet this is the fate that awaits all those beings that events have placed under our domination. Wherever we pass, everything falls."

Is it possible that even in overtly racist beings who, it can be argued, merely reflect the notions of their current social and cultural condition, and who in certain highly charged situations (war, conflict) can be pushed to exhibit the cruellest behaviour, there can also exist a profound visionary understanding of reality that is at once objective and tinged with regret.

Or, was Montagnac, in his letter to his sister, indulging in a form of romanticism whereby he figuratively lamented the tragic consequences of French domination, lingering on the plight of the conquered but only as a pseudo-narcissistic method for self-aggrandisement? After all, he would have been one of the key players in this 'domination'. As such, was there not a degree of pride, albeit, shielded by affected regret, to extract from his sense of power however disastrous this power's effects?

It is hard to say.

I would love to do more research on this man. And on a Kabyle woman, a leader, sage and warrior who fought against the French and who Montagnac never got to meet when he died in 1845.

Her name is Lalla Fatma.

1Lieutenant-colonel de Montagnac, Lettres d'un soldat, Plon, Paris, 1885, republished by Christian Destremeau, 1998, p. 153; Book accessible on Gallica's website.