The brutality that Europeans inflicted upon West Africa was extensive, but no period in history was more dreaded than the time of Paul Voulet and Julien Chanoine. These two French ambassadors were sent to Africa on a mission but ended up realizing their vile ambitions.
They were so evil that their own men defected, writing home in disgust about their atrocities.
The French government regretted putting them on the assignment to take control of the areas between the Niger River and Lake Chad and unite all French colonies in West Africa because of the awful atrocities they committed.
Sarraounia Mangou, a chief/priestess of the animist Azna subgroup of the Hausa who was skilled in archery and herbalism, was one of the few African tribal chiefs who fought and resisted French expansionists Paul Voulet and Julien Chanoine at the Battle of Lougou (in modern-day Niger) in 1899.
She was the queen of the Azna, a Hausa subgroup that ruled in the Niger Republic in the late nineteenth century.
After her father died, she ascended to the throne at the age of 20. Sarraounia means “queen” or “female leader” in Hausa. It alludes to a line of female kings who had political and religious power. She was born with yellow eyes like a panther; hence the panther became Azna’s symbol.
She was the focus of the 1986 movie Sarraounia, which is based on the same-titled book by Nigerien author Abdoulaye Mamani.
Paul and Julien continued their heinous deeds, conquering other kingdoms along the way. But that only lasted until they attacked the Azna people.
The Azna kingdom was much like any other kingdom at the time, led by a woman, and no one thought they stood a chance against the French army. While most chiefs in Niger bowed to French control, Sarraounia Mangou organized her people and resources to oppose the Voulet-Chanoine Mission’s French forces.
To many people’s surprise, the queen of Anza fought with such determination that the French were forced to leave these people alone.
Some, however, attributed her great victory to a magician or were perhaps too narrow-minded to see the power of a determined woman.
Prior to the arrival of the French forces, the Anza had endured animosity from their neighbors, particularly the Fulani. The Fulani had converted to Islam, which they desired to impose on the Anza people.
When the Fulani saw that the Anza were unwilling to join Islam and abandon their indigenous faith, they declared war against them. However, thanks to the vital leadership of Sarraounia Mangou, the Anza were victorious and were able to hold the Fulani and their religion at bay.
Following the triumph, the queen sought peace with the Fulani, revealing to them that she had no intention of harming them.
Another nearby tribe, the Turengs, posed a threat to the Anza. They were nomadic people of the Sahara Desert. Again, the queen was able to deal with the Turengs and establish a peace pact with them, allowing them to trade freely.
The French army intended to take over the country and establish a dictatorship. They were a foreign force attempting to establish itself as the sole authority in the region.
Sarraounia eventually came to the conclusion that since she had been successful in bringing about peace between the Turengs and the Anza the same would happen with the meeting between Julien Chanoine and Paul Voulet.
As previously shown, the French individuals in question were not of the reasonable kind. Despite the fact that their journey did not need to take them near Sarraounia’s town of Lougou.
However, things didn’t go as anticipated. When the two met, it was evident that they wanted to attack the people of Anza and establish their control over them.
In an attempt to prevent the battle, the queen even suggested alternate routes for them to take, but the couple refused to listen or change their thoughts.
Sarraounia, who was weary at first, decided to ask her neighbors, the Fulani and Tuaregs, for assistance, but they declined.
On April 16, 1889, it was reported that the French had a large clash with the Anza warriors. The French troops expected to encounter a weak band of warriors only to be met by a well-prepared army of Azana. All the while, the two sides were engaged in a violent struggle.
While women and children had already retired to a small, dense, nearly impenetrable bush where the Azna guarded themselves when confronting a greater opponent, Mangou’s army had amassed on the field.
Voulet & Chanoine engaged in their bloodiest battle to date there at the stronghold capital of Sarraounia Mangou, Lougou, losing 4 men and injuring 6 more.
During sundown, the French managed to compel a retreat from Azna with heavy gunfire; realising the enemy’s impending victory, Sarraounia ordered her remaining forces to escape to the bushes.
She got lucky because they were all familiar with the bushes. They were successful in escaping Paul and Voulet.
Sarraounia reassembled her people the next day and adopted the guerilla formation of assaulting when the French were least expecting it.
Voulet walked into a dead town when he arrived in Lougou. Not only were all of its residents gone, but so were its granaries and animal pens. The “sorceress queen” had vanished into the wilderness.
Legend has it that the queen raided the French at night. She and her warriors, it appears emerged from the thickets and attacked, killing all French soldiers before fleeing.
They usually arose from the long grass and disappeared just as quickly. Historians claim that this happened frequently.
Stories about the queen’s mystical powers swiftly circulated across the French encampment, prompting many fighters to flee in terror. The vast majority of them were Africans who had been coerced into military service.
Some individuals left because they believed the Queen could perform magic and were afraid for their lives. Soon later, the mission against Sarraounia was called off, and the Anza were allowed to live in peace once more.
The French colonial forces exacted their wrath on the Queen Mangous Army on May 8, slaughtering all the residents of the town of Birni-N’Konni and possibly thousands of others in one of the bloodiest massacres in French colonial history. This was in punishment for the killing and injuring of a few of their soldiers.
Paul and Voulet were assassinated by their own soldiers not long after that because they refused to obey French commands and committed other crimes. One thing was certain about Sarraounia Mangou, she was a powerful woman.
Unlike other regional leaders who immediately surrendered to the French, Sarraounia Mangou of Niger stood firm and spared her people from oppression. And, once again, the black woman had proven her strength.
The 1986 film adaptation of the book Sarraounia took home the top honor at the Ouagadougou Pan African Film and Television Festival. In all of Africa, it came to represent female leadership and colonial resistance. Abdoulaye Mamani, the author of the book, reintroduced her to the world.
The novel and film are based on the real-life Battle of Lougou, which took place in 1899 between Azna queen Sarraounia Mangou and the advancing French Colonial Forces of the Voulet-Chanoine Mission.
The French CNC (centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée) refused to support the movie and even tried to stop its funding and distribution, but things didn’t go according to plan because Thomas Sankara, the then-president of Burkina Faso, personally intervened, enabling the movie to be funded and produced.
According to native oral legend, she was a witch with pure yellow eyes who could fling fire at the invaders and even call fog.
Her magical charms are supposed to have removed her troops’ footsteps from the battlefield, and any fields that had been burned to ash regrew overnight, providing more than enough food to keep the warriors going.
Due to her fight against French colonial forces at the Battle of Lougou in 1899, Sarraounia Mangou became the most well-known of the Sarraounias.
The Actual Story of Sarraounia Mangou
It’s challenging to piece together all the historical information in this tale. Voulet did not write much about the Azna, except for the amount of ammunition and lives expended on them, as France was breathing down their neck and he had little desire to learn about the local cultures.
The story of Sarraounia was passed down orally by the Azna people, though there appears to have been a significant gap in the transmission when the majority of their storytellers were murdered in ensuing battles with the French.
Oral history holds that the panther queen of the Azna barricaded herself in her palace for days after the last French invasion. Then one day, out of the blue, the doors to her palace flew open, letting out a panther.
It leaped over the defenses and disappeared into the bushes. They soon discovered that the palace was deserted. Sarraounia vanished without a trace.
In the 1980s, a novel based on her life was followed by a well-known movie, reviving her legacy. In addition to ballets, her name is featured in children’s books, radio stations, and petrol stations.