The world knows little about Sergeant Malamine Camara, a soldier in the French colonial army who was key in securing the Congo Basin (present-day Congo Brazzaville) for France against Belgian invasion.
Little is known about the birth and ethnicity of the young Senegalese soldier, but was believed to have been born in the 1850s to Soninke parents who were living inland Senegal.
He was recruited as part of the African colonial troops in the French army called Laptots in the 1870s. Camara volunteered in 1880 to join the expedition of Franco-Italian explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who was about to explore the Congo Basin.
From Dakar, the troop journeyed to the coast of Franceville in present-day Gabon; and then together with 11 other West African soldiers, 4 Gabonese interpreters, and 4 Frenchmen including Brazza, they crossed to the Congo River.
Camara gained the trust of the French commanders after his dedicated service and usefulness following his learning of local languages and creating an affinity with the locals.
Brazza dispatched Camara to lead a two-man team to create and man an outpost in Mfoa (present-day Brazzaville) which was on the right bank of the river. At the time, Belgium had already occupied the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was on the left bank of the river.
In the 18 months that Camara and his men had stayed in Mfoa, they had received no reinforcements or significant supplies from the French. He relied on his hunting skills to feed his men with the meat of hippopotamus and buffalo.
Camara gained the liking of the chiefs in the area after regularly offering them meat from his hunts while he defended the French flag and the territory from the Belgian rivals. He earned the names “mayele” and “tata nyama” which respectively meant a resourceful person and meat father.
He also met the leader of the Belgian colonizers of the Congo region, American Henry Morton Stanley, to claim Mfoa. In 1881, Camara visited the camp of Stanley in Kinshasa with a treaty signed by a local chief Makoko Iloo I and Brazza which granted France the territory.
Stanley crossed the river anyway in 1882 with a large number of Zanzibari mercenaries to scare away Camara and his men. They failed as the Senegalese unflinchingly held the fort.
Later that year, Camara and his men were ordered to return to Franceville in Gabon. Sensing danger, the Senegalese visited all the local chiefs and urged them to be loyal to France in his absence.
Camara returned to Dakar and in 1833, he was recalled by Brazza to recruit African soldiers and buy supplies for another expedition to the Congo basin. Upon arrival, he was hailed by the locals.
The Senegalese worked under Frenchman Brazza and later his deputy Charles de Chavannes who later claimed that the Belgians in Kinshasa had put a bounty on Camara’s head due to his importance to the French.
In 1885, Malamine Camara fell ill and was later awarded the Médaille Militaire, the third highest military honours given to non-citizens in the French armed forces.
His health was not getting better after he was diagnosed with what appears to have been a bladder infection. Camara was sent home to Senegal where he died the following year in a military hospital in Goree Island. He was about 36 years old.
Camara is reported to have never been able to collect his salary from his last mission, but has a bronze plaque dedicated to him in Brazzaville by France following his death. A steamboat was named in his honour and a street in Brazzaville was also named after him. In his country Senegal, a secondary school was renamed in his honour.
On April 29, 2018, Malamine Camara was honoured by the city of Brazzaville with posthumous citizenship, the city’s flag, a crown and a medal. They were presented to Senegalese president Macky Sall at a ceremony attended by the president of Congo Brazzaville Denis Sassou Nguesso.
This honour was questioned by some Congolese who accused Camara of helping the French enslave locals at the time. A picture of him with shackled men and children was shared on Twitter and below are some reactions in French and their translations:
“I wonder who writes the speeches of this bloodthirsty old dictator and murderer in the name of Sassou denis???? This is the Sergeant Malamine that Papi honoured, I’m just outraged and shocked.”
“The mastery of history… Even at school, this is not the image we were given of the Sergeant #MALAMINE it is the opposite.”
This article by Ismail Akwei was first published on face2faceafrica.com