At the closing of the 1800s, France had some of its all-time worst ambassadors plowing through Africa.
In the 1890’s a French colonial operation was planned whose mission it was to force the submission of an empire along the bend of the river Niger. Lieutenant Voulet and Captain Chanoine were the colonial officers in charge of this mission. The Voulet-Chanoine mission met with success as they spread death and ravaged the villages they took and acted as if they were competing for a “most heinous atrocity” award. They’d put in a strong showing, going above their baseline of raping and pillaging by putting in the extra effort to burn entire villages to the ground and kill all the inhabitants therein. They’d become so villainous that their own soldiers defected, writing home in disgust about their monstrous crimes. They seemed unstoppable. It was in 1899 that they would go on their final and fatal expedition to Niger. It was there that they met a woman, Sarraounia Mangou, the queen who opposed their bayonets with the strength of her soul and the white man’s tricks with the traditional magic of Africa.
Sarraounia (a title indicating a female chief, nowadays referring mostly to this Sarraounia) was the “panther queen” of the Azna people. Among the Azna people of Lougou and surrounding Hausa towns and villages, the term refers to a lineage of female rulers who exercised both political and religious power.
Sarraounia’s father was a warrior who had distinguished himself from the those who were hungry to sell black men. He had become the king of a small territory of the Azna’s. Sarraounia’s mother had died giving birth and it was thought that her child would follow her to the grave. But the little child with her pinched mouth and clenched fists opened her eyes and revealed shining yellow eyes; the people recognized the sign of the panther. The Azna’s always knew that they had been born of a panther, and it was this animal which was sculpted in front of their houses, embroidered on their clothes and was their symbol among the other tribes. Panthers are made for the bush and the panther child soon learnt how to use a bow and arrow. She learnt the secrets of ‘hyena’s ear’ a poison that gives arrowheads merciless power over everything that breathes. She was the king’s daughter and she went with men as she pleased, but never wanted a child clinging to her breast. Sometimes she would disappear for weeks at a time and they said that she would talk to the spirits of the Shadow who taught her all the secrets of good and evil, the elixirs of power and wisdom and the plants that kill and those that bring back life. This is how she became Sarraounia, daughter to the king, sorceress, great dame of the Shadow.
She was 20 when was brought to the throne due to her father’s death. At the slightest danger, she would be at the head of her troops, her pale eyes shooting lightening. Her silhouette became legendary. Then a rumour made its way to her: a column of white men were marching east, devastating everything in their path.
Sarraonia had been to the “protect my people” rodeo many times before — she’d first driven off the Tuareg, who routinely attempted raids on her village; then the Fulani people, who wanted to convert the Azna to Islam. She’d won peace with both of them, she reasoned – she would win peace with the French.
But the French people in question, as previously established, were not the reasonable sort. Even though their travels did not need to bring them near Sarraounia’s village of Lougou (and despite Voulet’s advisors urging him to choose a different route) he decided to make a beeline for her. Sarraounia, in turn, reached out to her old enemies, the Fulani and Tuareg, and asked them to band together in fighting a common foe. Both replied no – the Fulani, with the less-than-neighborly missive of sending back her messenger’s head, sans body. Realizing the Azna would have to go it alone, she began to prepare.
While most chiefs in Niger pragmatically submitted to French power, Sarraounia Mangou mobilized her people and resources to confront the French forces of the Voulet–Chanoine Mission.
When the Voulet-Chanoine Mission’s “infernal column” fell upon her city, they met the strongest resistance they’d seen in their entire campaign, losing several men to the fighting… until the attacks suddenly ceased. Upon entering Lougou, Voulet stepped into a ghost town. Not only were all its inhabitants gone, but its granaries and animal pens were totally empty. The “sorceress queen” had disappeared into the wild.
From then on, Sarraounia and her people would raid them on a nightly basis, appearing from the tall grass and disappearing just as quickly. As talk of Sarraounia’s magic began making its way through the camp, morale plummeted. The conscripts — mostly Africans, often forced into service — began to have fitful nightmares and many deserted.
Soon, the Voulet-Chanoine mission collapsed upon itself. France, having received word of the mission’s terrifying cruelty, sent out its local governor to get them to stop — only for Voulet to shoot the higher-ranking governor dead. Voulet proclaimed himself no longer French, but a black chief who would found an empire. This did not prove a popular sentiment with pretty much anyone. Within three months of their attack on Sarraounia’s city, both he and Chanoine had been assassinated by their own soldiers.
Sarraounia immediately sent messengers to her Muslim neighbours suggesting that they unite against their common threat. The Muslims did not even bother to reply: you don’t make alliances with the seeds of slaves. So Sarraounia had a fortress wall built around Lougou, her capital. She smashed open the granaries and sent the women, children and old men to safe places in the bush. The warriors waited while the queen applied an ointment on them that was supposed to stop bullets. Then having hand-picked a group of archers, the silent warriors, she slipped into the tall grass to seek out the enemy. When night fell, a cloud of arrows from nowhere threw the Voulet-Chanoine expedition into a state of chaos for the first time. The next day 150 porters were missing at roll call and a dozen native infantrymen had deserted preferring to wander in a strange land that confront Sarraouina. The troops enter a deserted city. Another arrow flew in sky and shouts rang out, a woman’s laughter was heard: that was the beginning of the end for the French force. Day after day Sarrounia harassed the divided and crippled column until one of her warriors brought now Chaoine with a rifle shot, while Voulet was slain further along. That was the end of their adventure.
The capital kingdom was rebuilt, but new French soldiers followed those who had died and the traditional cunning of the Azna people could not sustain them. Eventually a French flag was raised in the middle of the great court of Lougou and the queen shut herself up in the shadows of her palace. One day at the end of a fiery hot afternoon, a yellow-eyed panther burst out of the throne room and disappeared into the bush. Sarraounia was never seen again.