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He received his military education at the Ecole Polytechnique and at Metz, and entered the engineers in 1840. From 1844 to 1847 he served in Algeria, then two years in the West Indies, and again in Algeria, taking part in many expeditions against the Arabs. In 1852 he was transferred to Senegal as sub-director of engineers, and in 1854 was promoted chef de bataillon and appointed governor of the colony. He held this post with one brief interval until July 1865.
The work he accomplished in West Africa constitutes his most enduring monument. At that time France possessed in Senegal little else than the town of St Louis and a strip of coast. Explorers had, however, made known the riches and possibilities of the Niger regions, and Faidherbe formed the design of adding those countries to the French dominions. He even dreamed of creating a French African empire stretching from Senegal to the Red Sea.
To accomplish even the first part of his design he had very inadequate resources, especially in view of the aggressive action of Omar Al-Hadji , the Muslim ruler of the countries of the middle Niger. By boldly advancing the French outposts on the upper Senegal Faidherbe stemmed the Muslim advance, and by an advantageous treaty with Omar in 1860 brought the French possessions into touch with the Niger. He also brought into subjection the country lying between the Senegal and Gambia.
When he resigned his post French rule had been firmly established over a very considerable and fertile area and the foundation laid upon which his successors built up the predominant position occupied now by France in West Africa. In 1863 he became general of brigade. From 1867 to the early part of 1870 he commanded the subdivision of Bona in Algeria, and was commanding the Constantine division at the commencement of the Franco-German War.
Promoted general of division in November 1870. he was on December 3 appointed by the Government of National Defence to be commander-in-chief of the army of the North. In this post he showed himself to he possessed of the highest military talents, and the struggle between the I. German army and that commanded by Faidherbe, in which were included the hard-fought battles of Pont Noyelles , Bapaume and St Quentin, was perhaps the most honorable to the French army in the whole of the People's War. Even with the inadequate force of which he disposed he was able to maintain a steady resistance up to the end of the war.
Elected to the National Assembly for the départment of the Nord, he resigned his seat in consequence of its reactionary proceedings. For his services he was decorated with the grand cross, and made chancellot of the order of the Legion of Honor. In 1872 he went on a scientific mission to Upper Egypt, where he studied the monuments and inscriptions. An enthusiastic geographer, philologist and archaeologist, he wrote numerous works, among which may be mentioned Collection des inscriptions numidiques (1870), Epigraphie phenicienne (1873), Essai sur la langue poul (1875), and Le Znaga des tribes sénégalaises (1877), the last a study of the Berber language. He also wrote on the geography and history of Senegal and the Sahara, and La Campagne de l'armée du Nord (1872).
He was elected a senator in 1879, and, in spite of failing health, continued to the last a close student of his favorite subjects. He died on the 29th of September 1889, and received a public funeral. Statues and monuments to his memory were erected at Lille, Bapaume, St Quentin and St Louis, Senegal.
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