Even in the late 19-noughts, a generation after the Berlin Conference (1884-5) that saw the European powers presumptuously divide Africa amongst themselves, the upper Congo, Central Africa, and Chad were still largely outside the control of their supposed colonial masters. The Europeans had attempted to organize these regions into the Congo Free State, the personal property of the Belgian King Léopold II (existed 1885 – November 15, 1908; henceforth becoming the Congo belge, and today the Democratic Republic of Congo); Congo français (including the modern People’s Republic of the Congo and part of the Central African Republic; in 1910 becoming Afrique-Équatoriale française); the Territoire de Oubangui-Chari (a French territory created in 1903 that embraced the bulk of today’s Central African Republic); and the Territoire Militaire des Pays et Protectorats du Tchad (loosely controlled by France, created in 1900, in 1920 joining the Afrique-Équatoriale française).
The Europeans established an archipelago of forts and missions across these regions to anchor their claims to the territory; however, it remained the case that immediately beyond the perimeters of these outposts and just off the major travel corridors (trails, caravan routes, waterways), they had almost no knowledge of, let alone control over, the land. Many indigenous nations, with ancient and sophisticated cultures, remained almost completely enigmatic to Europeans, making the region one of the last major frontiers of ethnographic and geographic discovery in the world.
Enter Robert Hottot (1884 – 1939), a larger-than-life personality, who led some of the era’s most consequential and best-recorded exploring expeditions into the Congo and Central Africa. Hailing from a wealthy and well-connected Parisian family, as a boy, Hottot developed an intense fascination with travel to faraway, exotic lands, under the influence of his uncle, the esteemed collector and physician, Ernest Hottot, and family friend Max Jacob (1876 – 1944), the famed poet, painter, writer, and critic who had a role in introducing Pablo Picasso to African art.
As a teenager, Hottot abandoned his studies, setting about on grand voyages to Algeria, India, French Indochina, China, and Japan. However, his greatest fascination was with Africa, and that is where his turned his energies and ambitions.
Robert Hottot made two expeditions to the Congo, one in 1906 and the other in 1907, whereupon he was formally classified as a “touriste”. An avid big game hunter and fan of photography, he and his entourage superficially came across as “showboats” or “playboys”. While Hottot’s flamboyance and total lack of formal qualifications did not initially endear him to serious Africa experts, he returned to Partis with extremely valuable ethnographic specimens and artworks, as well as amazing photographs of the native peoples of the regions he explored. His journals and letters revealed Hottot to possess an incredibly gifted mind for understanding African cultures and languages, and this soon won him the respect of the curators of the prestigious Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. His studies of the Teke people of the Lower Congo were immediately reorganized as masterly. Hottot was dispatched on a third, but far more ambitious, mission to the Congo, Central Africa, and Chad, this time acting as an official agent of the Muséum, with the backing of the French government.
Hottot was this to lead the so-called ‘Mission ethnographique du Kanem-Chari-Logone’, which lasted from February 1908 to April 1909, and had, as its ultimate destination, the lands of the former Kanem–Bornu Empire (c. 700 – 1380), located to the north of Lake Chad, a region scarcely visited by Europeans, but which was of most intense interest to ethnographers. The general plan was to depart from Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo français, and to travel roughly up the Congo River before turning north to enter the Oubangui-Chari territory, before crossing into Chad and heading down the Chari River to Lake Chad and then finally north to the Kanem lands. This route would see Hottot and his party travel over 2,000 km down, sometimes raging rivers, through malarial rainforests and into scorching deserts, crossing the territories of several native nations, including the Teke, Ekonda, Mongo, Ngala, Ngbaka, Banda, Sara, Bagirmi, Kanuri; while in Saharan Chad they would encounter Teda and Bedouin Arabs.
The mission promised to be incredibly dangerous, as Hottot’s party would encounter hostile natives, and be exposed to tropical diseases that could easily kill Europeans, while the chance of accident while travelling through such rough country was high.
Hottot, whose party included numerous African porters, cooks, and guides, was to be accompanied by three other Frenchmen, two of whom did not manage to complete the voyage. These men were Dr. Léon Poutrin (1880 -1918), a former army physician who could provide healthcare to the party, while also serving as a skilled ethnographer; Albert Guinard, who sadly fell severely ill early in the voyage, and had to return home; and Georges Barbat, a veteran traveller to Indochina, who tragically died during the expedition.
Hottot’s goal was to create a textual and visual archive of some of Africa’s most impressive, yet hitherto mysterious cultures, before they were irrevocably altered by Europeans, to take back to Paris to serve as a profound and permanent contribution to the study of ethnography. The party would seek to engage with the various native nations, to learn about their customs, religion, social structure, and political and military situations, while gathering samples of weapons, tools, and artworks. They would capture what they saw by way of sketches and photographs (the party would travel with ample equipment).
Hottot’s Expedition Diary in Focus
Present here is Robert Hottot’s original manuscript diary that he wrote while on the expedition. It covers the period from March 12, 1908 to January 30 1909, encompassing the bulk of, and all of the most interesting and significant parts, of the mission. Here Hottot records his and his colleagues’ experiences beginning from when they departed their basepoint of Brazzaville, first travelling up the Congo River and over to Bikoro (on Lac Tumba), in the Congo Free State, before heading up to the Oubangui-Chari territory, and then into Chad and down Chari River to Fort-Lamy (N’Djamena), before reaching the Kanem lands, to the north of Lake Chad. The diary ends as the party was, once again, in the Oubangui-Chari territory, on their return from Chad towards Brazzaville.
The diary comes in the form of 13 labeled parts, or fascicules, each written in individual notebooks (some with printed wrappers commemorating battles of the Napoleonic Wars) that are bound together to form a single coherent work. The first 12 fascicules contain Hottot’s dairy, while the final part is an ethnographic treatise. The text, running to between 70,000 to 100,000 words, is richly illustrated with 80 original manuscript vignette sketches of great ethnographic value, including portraits of various tribesmen in their traditional garb, as well as images of tools, ceremonial items, and weapons, with some being beautifully executed, and a few with watercolour. Also featured are valuable sets of scientific observations and data, notes on animals, as well as the vocabularies of various African languages. The final part is an amazing treatise on the ethnography of the Banda people (of today’s Central African Republic) based upon an interview that Hottot conducted with a Banda chief.
Importantly, the diary includes 9 original manuscript maps drafted by Hottot. These maps are early and finely executed detailed records of territories, native villages, and French outposts for which very few contemporary maps of these subjects survive, including one of the earliest known maps of Fort-Lamy (today’s N’Djamena, the capital of Chad). Also included, are 7 original contemporary manuscript letters addressed to Hottot, as well as a photograph and a real photographic postcard, all bound in.
The diary is so information and action-packed, that it is impossible to adequately summarize here. It is full of surprising tales of frightening encounters with hostile native tribesmen, juxtaposed with friendly and edifying meetings with others; of big game hunting; of great bravery and intellectual curiosity, as well as moments of fear and confusion; and the thrill of encountering amazing societies and beautiful things that had scarcely ever been seen by outsiders. In reading the journal, one is transported back in time and place to one of the final great frontiers in European discovery.
The contents of the present diary are as follows:
“No. 1 / de Brazzaville à Frebon / Bas Congo”, March 12 to April 6, 1908.
24 pp., with 1 photographic postcard and 1 photograph bound in at back, bound in original wrappers.
This section concerns the beginning of the expedition proper, as it set off from Brazzaville up the Congo River.
“No. 2 / de Bikoro (Lac Tumba) à Loko (Lobay)”, April 10 to May 28, 1908.
33 pp. including text written on inside of back wrapper, bound in original wrappers.
Here Hottot recalls his party’s progress from Bikoro, located on Lac Tumba, in the interior of the Congo Free State, up north to Loco, in the Lobaye area of what is today the southwestern part of the Central African Republic.
“No. 3 / de Loko (Lobay) à Krébédje”, May 28 to June 26, 1908.
26 pp., including 1 mss. map, 4 original mss. letters addressed to Hottot bound in, bound in original wrappers.
This section concerns Hottot’s progress from the Lobaye area to the French outpost of Krébédje (Fort-Sibut), in the Oubangui-Chari territory (Central African Republic).
Includes [Map no. 1]: “Krébédjé”
This map (covering two-thirds of p. 26) depicts the important French outpost of Krébédje (founded 1895), which was renamed Fort-Sibut in 1900 (today Sibut, Central African Republic). It has a key that labels 15 sites in and around the outpost and shows the Tomi River and the roads to Kemo and Fort-Crampel.
“No. 4 / de Krébédje à Batangafo”, June 26 to July 18, 1908.
32 pp., including 3 mss. maps, bound in original wrappers.
This section charts Hottot’s travels in the Oubangui-Chari territory, between Fort-Sibut and Batangafo, in the Chari River Basin.
Includes [Map no. 2]: “Région entre Ft. Sibou & Oua – ligne d’étapes du 28 Juin au 8 Juilliet / R.H. & B”.
This full-page map (on p. 9) depicts the upper Chari River Basin, noting the rivers, the territories of various tribes, and the locations of French forts and native villages, plus, a table of distances.
Includes [Map no. 3]: “Poste de Bouca à Confluent de Lakoumi & de la Fafa”.
This is a detailed plan of the key French outpost of Bouca, and features a key labeling 6 sites, and covers one-third of page (p. 11).
“No. 5 / de l’Ouahme à Fort-Crampel”, July 18 to 29, 1908.
27 pp., including 3 mss. maps, plus a 1 p. drawing glued in at end, bound in card wrappers.
Here Hottot recounts his party’s travels in the Chari Basin, between Fort-Crampel and the Ouahme River.
Includes [Map no. 4]: “Fort-Crampel (Bandoro) 448 m altitude”.
This full-page map (on p. 9) depicts the critical French base of Fort-Crampel (today Kaga, Bandoro, Central African Republic). Founded in 1898, the outpost was infamously the scene of the ‘Affaire de Fort-Crampel’, in 1905, when two French functionaries summarily executed a native man using a stick of dynamite. This horrible incident discredited the French in the region for many years. The map shows the fort near the Gribingui River, and includes a key labelling 31 sites, with the “Factorie hollandaise” (Dutch commercial outpost), located nearby.
Includes [Map no. 5]: “Itineraire Batangafo à Crampel / Distance Kilom: 120 env. (4 joirs de marche – 20, 21, 22, 23 Juillet. R.H. & P.”
This finely drafted quarter-page (on p. 21) general topographical map shows the area between Batangafo and Fort-Crampel (in today’s west-central Central African Republic), and traces Hottot’s route through the area.
Includes [Map no. 6]: “Carte de note voyage sur l’Ouahme de Krebedje a Crampel / 28 Juin au 23 Juillet 1908 / R.H. & B.”
This fine general topographical rendering (covering two-thirds of p. 22) depicts the Chari Basin from Fort-Sibut all the way up north past Batanfogo.
“No. 6 / de Fort-Crampel à Guélébom”, July 28 to August 24, 1908.
28 pp., including 1 mss. map, with 2 original mss. letters to addressed to Hottot bound in, bound in original wrappers.
This section covers the Hottot expedition’s progress down the Chari River in southern Chad.
Includes [Map no. 7:] “Fort-Archambault”.
This full-page map (on p. 25) depicts the major French base of Fort-Archambault (today Sarh, Chad), founded in 1899. Shown by the Chari River, it features key that labels 31 sites.
“No. 7 / de Guélébom (pays Kabba) à Tanda”, August 24 to September 11, 1908.
32 pp., bound in original wrappers.
Here Hottot’s party enters the territory of the Kaba, a tribe of the Sara people, travelling along the Chari River. A Sara vocabulary regarding the names of animals can be found inside the front wrapper.
“No. 8 / de Tanda (pay Sara-Kabba) à Mandjaffa”, September 11 to October 4, 1908.
[2 pp.], 26 pp., 1 mss. letter addressed to Hottot bound in, bound in original wrappers.
This section describes Hottot’s continued progress through the Kaba lands and includes interesting entries on the measurements of animals (giraffes, antelopes) and the names of animals in various languages.
Includes [Map no. 8]: “Itineraire en pays Kabba du 20 Aout au 14 Septembre 1908 / R.H. & P. / 1 /1 000 000”.
This map (which covers half of p. 10) is a fine topographical overview of the Kaba lands of southern Chad, and notes rivers, villages, Fort-Archambault, along with a distance table.
“No. 9 / de Mandjaffa (Chari) à Bol (Kanam)”, October 5 to 26, 1908.
27 pp., including 1 mss. map, bound in original wrappers.
In this section, Hottot describes the party’s progress down the Chari to Fort-Lamy (N’Djamena) and then around Lake Chad, to enter the mysterious Kanem region, the ultimate destination of the expedition.
Includes [Map no. 9]: “Fort-Lamy 1908”.
This full-page map (on p. 32) is one of the earliest detailed depictions of Fort-Lamy, founded in 1900, which is today the site of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Located near the confluence of the Chari and Logone Rivers, Fort-Lamy was the main French base in the south-central Sahara. A key labels 32 sites around the town.
“No. 10 / de Bol a Mao”, October 26 to November 15, 1908.”
32 pp., bound in original wrappers.
Here Hottot charts the expedition’s advance into the heart of the Kanem region, to the ancient city of Mao. The final page features a Kanem vocabulary.
“No. 11 / de Campement arabe à Fort Crampel”, November 14 to December 27, 1908.
25 pp., including 2 blank pp., bound in original wrappers.
Here Hottot’s party commences their long return journey towards Brazzaville, with this section describing their traverse of the Chari Basin in the Oubangui-Chari territory.
“No. 12 / de Fort Crampel —-”, December 27, 1908 [to January 30, 1909].
11pp. plus 3 pp. on later pages interspersed by blanks, bound in original wrappers.
This section charts the continuation of the Hottot expedition’s return journey. The diary’s consistent content ends on January 8, 1909, but a stray final entry is dated January 30.
Includes [Map no. 10]: “Nana-Ké”.
This small, quarter-page, map (on p. 4) depicts the Banda village of Nana-Ké, with a key labeling 13 sites.
“Ethnographie Banda”, dated Fort-Archambault, August 14, 1908.
21 pp., bound in original wrappers.
This is a fascinating and highly valuable ethnographic treatise on the Banda people of today’s Central African Republic. Signed at the end, “Intervieux du chef Yaugueré / Banda / Ft. Archambault, 14-8-08”, it is based upon an interview that Hottot conducted with a Banda chief while at Fort-Archambault. Including 70 points, it is worthy of further academic study.
Robert Hottot’s ‘Mission ethnographique du Kanem-Chari-Logone’ was greeted as a great success in Paris, and his reports, accounts, and amazing photographs and artefacts were highly treasured, redefining the study of several indigenous African cultures.
As for Hottot, he got married in 1912, whereupon his travelling stopped, as apparently his wife was not so enthusiastic about him disappearing for years on deadly expeditions in faraway lands. He then spent the rest of his career as a highly regarded academic authority on African ethnography, living in various places in France, Jersey and, finally, from 1932, in Oxford, England, where he became the President of the Oxford University Anthropological Society and a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
A Note on the Locations of Hottot’s Other Surviving Archives and Artefacts
While many objects acquired by Hottot are housed in places such as the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, London, the great bulk of his papers and his photograph collection were retained for many years by his son, Hubert Hottot. In 1994, he donated this grand collection (including diaries kept by Robert Hottot from June 4, 1906 to 2 March 2, 1908) to the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford). Please see link to this archive:
The present diary is more than likely the most significant original document by Hottot still in private hands, and until only very recently had been part of a private British collection for over 50 years.
References: N/A – Present diary seemingly unrecorded. Cf. Jacques de NOUVION, ‘La Mission Robert Hottot’, Le Monde illustré, 29 August 1908, p. 132; ‘Mission R. Hottot’, La Géographie: Bulletin de la Société de Géographie, 19 (1909), pp. 85–86.