In Large and Sunlit Land


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Unknown Africa, where in 1877, on behalf of the Belgian King, Leopold II, Stanley began opening trading stations on the Congo River and making treaties to define the Congo Free State, a million square miles of tribal lands Leopold closed to the world and ruled with extraordinary brutality to extract fortunes in rubber and ivory. Those treaties - some 400 agreements cut with bolts of cloth and trinkets - make one of the biggest wholesale land thefts in history. 

I'm not sure what motivated Stanley in his travels, but I have an idea. He wanted contrast, something to challenge what he already knew. "The heart of Africa is infinitely preferable to the heart of the world's greatest city," he wrote in 1876. And the American West, he added, "invited thousands from the East of America to be relieved of the grasp of tyrannous custom." 

Yet in Africa tyranny was all he offered. 

Niger straddles the blurry line where the Sahara fades into the Sahel (which means "shore" in Arabic), a savanna and ecological border region between desert north and tropical south, stretching from Senegal on the west coast to the Horn of Africa in the east. The Sahel alone is so big it's difficult to see how nationality matters, just as when standing on a mountaintop in Idaho or walking the Monument Valley in Utah and Arizona I can't see the point of state lines across land so indifferent. When lightning falls on the West from spring to fall, mountains and deserts burn, flames moving over thousands and sometimes millions of acres. Still, I've never forgotten that man on the dune because even in all that space I realized I was on someone's land without permission. Whoever he was - Tuareg, Fulani, or Arab - the man had authority like a border guard. We'd crossed a line and he made his point from a certain angle, at a certain height. We took the hint, packed up, and drove away, aware of a time when Tuareg bands on camelback snuffed out French exploring parties. 

After two decades of traveling between Africa and the American West, the regions blend in my head with images of great and beautiful places ruled by Europeans with an overarching sense of entitlement: I think of the Continental Army's slaughter of unarmed Seneca Indians in the Susquehanna Campaign of 1779 to rob the British of an ally; the Sand Creek Massacre in southeastern Colorado in 1864; and the forced march of the Navajo to New Mexico a year earlier, causing the deaths of hundreds. These were known events when Henry Stanley began reporting on the West, the edge of the "American Frontier," what historian Frederick Jackson Turner called "the meeting point between savagery and civilization." 

Turner published those words 30 years after soldiers attacked a peaceful Cheyenne village on Sand Creek, killing around 200 people, mostly women, children and the elderly, and five years before the French Central African Mission. In 1899, not far south of our New Year's camp in Niger, this expedition of African conscripts under French officers pillaged its way east through territory where no one resisted to begin with. A land that vast and dry makes people crazy, gives them the notion that the land by itself swallows misdeeds whole so the world will never know. The French killed thousands of Hausa villagers to frighten the Tuareg farther north. They stuffed the dead down village wells. But the Tuareg fought on, appearing out of the desert with sudden terror and vanishing. 

George Custer waged an equally destructive war against the Plains tribes in 1867. Stanley was there. He called Custer an officer of "a certain impetuosity and undoubted courage" who was "precisely the gentleman" to stop Indians from "butchering, murdering, and torturing of the frontier settlers." In a report from Colorado in June, he recommended the government "set apart a sufficient territory, drive all the tribes within its limits, surround it with garrisons that none may leave it ..." Stanley followed the story through October to witness the signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty with five Plains tribes. Then The New York Herald sent him to Africa. 

The Tuareg for their part never really gave up. Fighting continues today, mainly in Niger where Tuareg groups want control over uranium mining on traditional grazing lands. I wonder what the man on the dune thought as he looked upon foreigners who'd shattered a desert night with rock 'n' roll from speakers powered on spare car batteries. After he left I felt a familiar unease. In junior high school we studied Kit Carson's campaign against the Navajo. On school trips to the desert we re-enacted battles using tennis balls for ammunition. We played both sides. I liked being a soldier, taking what I wanted. After all, it was only a tennis ball war. 

One day near Lake Powell, our school bus stopped at a souvenir stand that sold turquoise jewelry. I looked across a table at a boy my age. We weren't all that different from each other in T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, except that he was Navajo, with black hair and dark skin, and I'd been playing war at the expense of his people. He smiled and we exchanged words I don't recall. I didn't know what to say and went back to the bus. The land wasn't that big any more. 


Peter Chilson's new book, Disturbance-Loving Species, is a short fiction collection about Africa published by Mariner Books. He teaches writing and literature at Washington State University.

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