Yves-J. Saint-Martin, "Les premieres automobiles sur les bords du Niger: Félix Dubois et la Cie. des Transports par Automobiles du Soudan Francais, 1898-1913"
in Revue Francaise d'Historie de Outremer, volume XL, n°221, 589-615 (4ième
trimestre 1973)

Notes © 1999 by Jim Jones, Ph.D.

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(p591) For his trip to Timbuctu, Dubois took the railroad from Kayes to Bafoulabé in November 1894 and continued by land and pirogue. He brought back a second version of the Tarik-es-Sudan (an Arabic-language history of Soudan) which, combined with Dr. Tautain's version, permitted O. Houdas to make the 1900 French translation. He was supported by Maurice Lebon, the Sous-Sécretaire d'État aux Colonies.

(p592) During the 1897 Cazemajou mission, African porters resisted French attempts to subject them to forced labor, and ten were summarily executed as deserters. Dubois (second in command to Cazemajou) disapproved of such methods and reasoned that the automobile was the solution. After Cazemajou fired Dubois, he returned alone via Say and Dahomey. Cazemajou received a "triste fin" (sad end) at Zinder, but Dubois escaped. They required twenty-two porters between Bafoulabéé and Bamako. Even a single European, like the businesman Eugène Gramain who earned 300 francs per month in 1903, required 10 Africans servants - 8 porters and 2 domestics.

In 1898, Dubois started his own company because journalism didn't pay very well, according to a letter written to his wife on September 7, 1925 (located in Archives Departementale de Deux-Sèvres, Fonds du Puyraveau). Dubois also wanted to make the Soudan profitable. In this, he was supported by Lt. Governor Trentinian.

(p593) This article includes a map of AOF.

(p594) In 1898, the French used 1,200 African porters to carry supplies along the route from Dioubéba to Bamako. Each ton of merchandise required 40 men and 15 days at a cost of 1,000 francs-d'or. The military relied on mules and Lefebvre wagons with a 300-kilogram payload to move a maximum of 144 tons per month. This system required 16 officers, 37 non- commissioned officers, 120 African non-commissioned officers and soldiers, 750 African auxilliaries, 800 mules, 800 wagons and 50 horses. Even with all of this, they still needed 2,000 African porters. Since all of this was controlled by the Artillerie du Soudan, this gave the French military much more power than their few cannon. (See Jacques Meniaud, "Les Pionniers du Soudan" volume I (Paris: Société des Publications Modernes, 1931), 113- 126 for details about Lefebvre wagons).

(p595) In 1897, traffic in both directions amounted to 2,450 tons and 6,000 passengers. Dubois didn't expect to lower prices, but he hoped to increase the speed and ease of transport, and reduce the need for porters. Trentinian wanted to free soldiers for use in the Niger Bend area.

(p597) The first automobiles reached St. Louis on November 14, 1898 and Kayes on December 10, 1898, after being towed on a barge by the steamer Borgnis-Desbordes. Officers of the Artillerie du Soudan were both sceptical and critical. There was a tremendous shortage of labor necessary for building roads, thanks to 50 years of war, the African reaction to earlier labor requisition (especially for the Mission Voulet-Channnoine) and the decision to accelerate rail construction. The route had been heavily damaged by the Voulet-Chanoine group because, in violation of all all standing orders, they traveled during the hivernage (rainy season).

(p598) On December 16, 1898, the first auto was assembled outdoors and tested at Kayes. (Note: the Commandant de Kayes was Sornein.) The first real test began at the end of the railroad at Oualia on March 3, 1899. The Capitaine d'Artillerie Marine PalÉtre accompanied Dubois to verify the results. On March 11, 1899, they gave up near Soritabougou, 57 kilometers short of Kita.

(p599) Despite the mechanical weakness of the De Dietrich vehicles, the main problem was the road. Trentinian ordered three officers, 4 non-commissioned officers, 800 laborers and 40 Lefebvre wagons for road construction, along with 3 kilometers of Decauville (narrow-gauge track). [See ANFOM Affaires Politiques Carton 1461, Dossier 5, Item n°35 "Memoire du procédure de 17 Aôut 1901"]

Here are details of the government contract that subsidized the operation of the Compagnie des Transports Automobiles au Soudan (Soudanauto): The government paid 3.50 francs per ton- kilometer to transport 1,500 tons per year. The government also deeded all the necessary land to the company for free and provided the road. This amounted to 1,750,000 francs of gross revenue per year. Dubois had to buy 85 autos at a specially low price of 800 francs each. His annual expenses (including auto purchase) were calculated at 900,000 francs per year. Dubois promised his investers an 18% dividend in the first year out of a gross profit of 850,000 francs and a net profit of 538,000 francs. In contrast, the existing system cost 1,051,575 francs per year, so the colony would save a bundle.

(p600) The contract was signed on June 28, 1899 by Dubois, Colonel Binger, M. Jolly and Inspecteur Général des Travaux Publiques Bricka. It was approved on July 11, 1899 by Minister A. Decrais. However, the decree of October 17, 1899 dismembered the colony of Soudan and Trentinian was recalled for his anti-Dreyfus opinions. Dubois claimed that the Directeur de l'Artillerie began to sabotage his operation with critical articles ...

(p601) ... in "L'Intransigéant" and "La Defense des Colonies." His articles criticized the "automobilisme officiel" and the waste of money (1,105,000 francs for roads).

Dubois retired from the company in March 1900, and the main stockholders, E. Ainet and Ch. Lafitte, took over. E. Aine was a merchant with 75,000 francs invested. Lafitte had 200,000 francs while Dubois had 100,000 francs. Many newspaper people, who were friends of Dubois from his journalism days, also had substantial investments in the company.

The employees of the company included Captain Ostermann as the Directeur d'Exploitation, Captain Martin as director of personnel, and M. Young as the conducteur de travaux. There were also two contre-maitres (overseers) and eight mechaniciens français (mechanics). M. Boudios was the company's accountant in Kayes. Captain Martin recruited fifty Chinese from Haiphong to work as mechanical laborers, but Dubois preferred to use Africans.

(p602) Dubois got fifty-five automobiles to the French Soudan. At the time, there were only 5,606 automobiles in all of France, 392 in Belgium, 304 in Great Britain, 268 in Germany and sixty-eight in Switzerland. Togo had only three automobiles in 1914 and Dahomey did not get its first automobile until 1910.

(p603) Gouverneur-Général de l'AOF Chaudie travelled to Bamako in January 1900 but was not impressed with the autos. There were too many breakdowns.

(p607) Ly Tching was the interpreter for the Chinese. When the company failed, they were repatriated, but there was much wrangling over who would pay for it. As a result, the Chinese were interned for a while in Marseilles. At some point, they rioted.

(p612-3) Reasons for the failure of Soudanauto: Technical problems with the machines and roads, competition between various government branches, and opposition from Commandant du Kayes Sornein and Gouverneur Général de l'AOF Ponty. The company was also weakened by poor organization, and not enough people or training. French domestic politics (l'Affair Dreyfus) created friction between civilians and military personnel, especially in the colonies. Railroad construction in Haute Guinée (under Gouverner-Général Ballay) and in Haut- Sénégal-Niger made automobile transport less important. The yellow fever epidemic of 1900-01 was also a factor.

(p614-5) Summary: Félix Dubois (1862-1943) made his reputation as a journalist and explorer. He accompanied the Brosselard-Faidherbe mission of 1890-1891 and the Cazemajou Mission of 1897. He traveled to Timbuctu on his own from 1894-5 and wrote Tombouctou la mystérieuse (Paris: Flammarian, 1897), 418pp.