The Ghosts of France’s Colonial Past

Sans Négrier by Laurent Gaudé tells the story of a man who was recently promoted captain of a slave trade ship in light of the recent passing of his commanding officer Bressac.  His task was to bring slaves from Senegal to the Americas. But before, he wanted to bring back the body of Captain Bressac to France.

Tout avait commence à Gorée, au large du Sénégal, lorsque le capitaine Bressac eut la mauvaise idée de mourir.  … Nous nous apprêtions  à partir pour l’Amérique comme nous l’avions fait tant de fois auparavant mais Bressac tomba malade. … Pendant trois  jours il ne quitta plus sa cabine. … le soir du troisième jour, ce fut pour nous annoncer la mort du capitaine : la fièvre l’avait bouffé la tête au pieds.

After burying Captain Bressac, the men light up their pipes and converse with one another, when a bunch of youngsters bellow:  “They are trying to escape! They are trying to escape!” At this point, the captain yells with rage that he will find them and pay deeply for their escape.

Ultimately, a search is started and one by one the slaves who successfully escaped are found and killed for their crime of desertion with the exception of one slave, who evades capture.

After two nights of uneventful searching for the last slave, a scream comes from one of the French men. Near Saint-Peter’s door, there is a bleeding Black finger, nailed to the door like an ill-omened charm.

Sur la porte, il y avait un doigt, cloué au bois, un doigt noir, encore saignant, accroché là, comme un porte-malheur.

They wondered why he had cut his finger, where did he find the nail and what did the run-away slave want?

As a result the search for the escapee resumed to no avail, and that same night a second finger was found nailed to hotel door of the ship-owner. Shortly after his eight year old daughter was run-over. Needless, to say the finger forebode ominous events. Regularly, they would find a new bleeding finger and the person concerned found himself a victim of disaster.

Les semaines qui suivirent furent rythmées par les patrouilles de nuit qui ne trouvaient aucune autre âme vivante – dans les rues – que celle de marins ivres ou de chat tentant de se protéger de la pluie. Régulièrement, nous découvrions un nouveau doigt. Des portes étaient maculées de sang. (…) Chaque fois, ces doigts furent accompagnés d’un malheur

After they found the tenth finger the people experienced some relief believing that no more evil would come to them and just presumed the slave died. During this time the new captain was on his way to the Americas. Three months later upon his return, he finds an eleventh finger at his doorstep. How could that be? He is left disconcerted.

Lorsque je parvins devant chez moi, je mis du temps a trouver ma clef et ce n’est que lorsque j’essayai de la rentrer dans la serrure que je la vis, là, sur le bois de ma porte: un doigt, à nouveau. Un onzième doigt.

After some time, the captain can no longer think straight and questions his and his peoples’ cruelty to the African slaves. As a result, he is ostracized by his community and is no longer able to live a “normal” life.

What I found striking about this tale was the evil presence lurking in the background. In the end of the story, he states (paraphrased): “the escaped slave will continue to live among us for hundreds of years laughing on our tombs and tormenting our ancestors.” A sense of fear and pathos preside over the captain and his people despite the death of the slaves and the passing of time. The author reminds us that the crimes of the past are still a part of the collective subconscious of the French people. The shame of their acts will remain lodged in the memories of their descendants.

Il les couperait éternellement pour se rappeler à notre bon souvenir, puis a celui des enfants et de nos petits-enfants et de nos petits enfants. Le nègre échappé allait vieillir avec la ville. Dans dix ans, dans cents ans, il serait encore là, riant sur nos tombes et harcelant encore nos lointains descendants.

When I read this short story, I was immediately reminded of Andrew Hussey’s article The Paris Intifada (Granta issue 101).

Here are some excerpts from that article:

France may be in Europe but many of its fears and nightmares began during the brutal Algerian War of Independence. It was during this conflict that many horrors of our new century – asymmetric war against Muslim terror groups, the systematic use of torture in the name of democracy – were first deployed. France may be unique among Western European nations in refusing to recognize its colonial crimes: deeply embedded in the psyche of political parties of the Left and Right is the idea that the French colonial empire performed a mission civilatrice, a ‘civilising mission’, imposing universal republican values on the ‘uncivilized’ world. This ‘mission’ was less about capital and commodity than an explicitly political task of exporting ‘Frenchness’. The loss of Algeria was, following this logic, less like losing a dependent colony than the sudden death of a family member. The bereavement continues to affect both colonizer and colonized.
France is far from coming to terms with the repressed memories of its colonial past. Like the dead Algerians who were thrown into the Seine in 1961, and whose bloated corpses shocked ordinary Parisians when they were found in the days after the massacre on the Pont de Neuilly, these memories are once more resurfacing to provoke new and fresh anxieties.


In the nineteenth century, Charles Baudelaire wrote of Paris being haunted by its past, by ‘ghosts in daylight’. In the early twenty-first century, the ghosts of colonial and anti-colonial assassins, from Algeria to Beirut, from Congo to Rwanda, continue to be visible in the daylight of the banlieue. It may be that what France needs is not hard-headed political solutions or even psychiatry, but an exorcist.

Sans Négrier was taken from the collection of short stories “Dans la Nuit Mozambique” by Laurent Gaudé.

About radiaj

I am a Research Scientist & Bioinformatician who specializes in Immunology and Cancer Biology. I routinely use R and other programing languages to explore genomic data of cancer cells to identify molecular changes and risk factors that contributes to cancer development.
This entry was posted in Andrew Hussey, Literature, Politics, Post-colonialism, Short Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Ghosts of France’s Colonial Past

  1. Malek says:

    Excellent Radia! juste un tout petit détail:

    Ligne 6: “le capitaine Bressac eut la mauvaisE idée de mourir”

    Bonne continuation!


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