Africa, the forgotten French Titanic resurfaces 100 years after its sinking

100 years ago the ship "Africa" sank after having sailed from France on a trip to Ivory Coast.
"Africa", the forgotten "Titanic" French, resurfaces 100 years after its sinking


100 years ago the ship "Africa" ​​sank after having sailed from France on a trip to Ivory Coast. It was the worst civilian shipwreck in France and more than 500 people perished, but this French "Titanic" fell into oblivion and will resurface soon on the occasion of the centenary of the tragedy.
On January 12, 1920, at 0300 a.m., the "Africa" ​​sank 40 km from Les Sables d'Olonne, in western France. From the watchtower, Antoine Le Dû, the transatlantic commander who left Bordeaux on the night of January 9, "waited for the end," helplessly, says Lieutenant Thibaut.
Officials of the colonial administration, wives and children of expatriates, merchants in search of a new life, missionaries and 192 African riflemen returning to their homes... Of the 602 people on board, only 34 survived, including a civilian.
For weeks, dozens of lifeless bodies arrived on the French coast, thrown by the sea, says Roland Mornet, a sailor who wrote a book about the tragedy in 2006.
One hundred years later, the ship's remains continue to lie 40 meters below the surface, practically forgotten by everyone. The "Titanic" (1,500 dead in 1912) entered history and overshadowed the tragedy of "Africa", which was forgotten," he laments.
"With one exception - the bishop of Dakar Hyacinthe Jalabert - there were no prestigious passengers on his board," says this amateur historian who will meet a hundred descendants of the victims on Sunday for the second time in the port of Les Sables-d' Olonne for a commemoration before a wake, the only one in remembrance of the catastrophe.
In Bordeaux, a ceremony was held on Chartrons Pier on Thursday, from which "Africa" ​​set sail for its 58th and final voyage. The street artist A-Mo painted a mural of the ship and flowers were thrown into the water.
It was necessary to "repair oblivion and injustice," according to the founder of the Mémoires et partages association, Karfa Diallo. This man militates to recognize the 192 African riflemen as soldiers "killed by France" after his "sacrifice" in the colonial army.
When it happened, the wreck of "Africa" ​​aroused indignation but was quickly relegated to the background, in the middle of a very tense presidential election in France and with World War I wounds still open.
"People had lived unimaginable tragedies between 1914 and 1918, they wanted to move on," says Daniel Duhand, co-director in 2014 of a documentary based in part on family memories.
After 12 years of a judicial battle, the company that operated the ship was acquitted of any fault and the families received no compensation or answers on the causes of the tragedy.
How could a recent ship, which had obtained its navigation certificate, be able to sink 40 kilometers off the coast? Errors or bad luck? Several factors could have accumulated: an overloaded ship, in poor condition according to some people, hatches clogged with dirt, and a final crash with a lighthouse...
The official hypothesis, in 1932, was that the sinking was caused by a probable collision with a sunken ship during the war.
Although it was forgotten by history, the tragedy of "Africa" ​​marked the history of the families of the victims. "There are those who keep it in mind and those who deleted this negative event and don't talk about it," explains Daniel Duhand.

In some families "it was said for example that the grandmother was devoured by crabs," without giving more details, says Roland Mornet. In others, he says, the testimonies about the slow agony of their relatives, of the women taken from the boats or of the songs chanted around the bishop of Dakar, pass from one generation to another.
Alain Adenier, 74, only met his grandfather, deputy director of the Dahomey railroad company, Benin, through the stories told by his grandmother. On Sunday he will meet with "families who lived the same tragedy." "It will be like a collective duel," he says.


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