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The Emperor of the Sahara

Historical Notes

Bennett Maxwell
Monday 14 September 1998 23:02 BST

THE ATTEMPT by a Frenchman to claim the Les Minquiers islands as part of the "Kingdom of Patagonia" is by no means the first effort of its kind. Perhaps the most spectacular occurred at the turn of the century, when the self-styled "Emperor of the Sahara" tried to establish an African state.

In June 1903 a French sugar millionaire, one Jacques Lebaudy, a dapper little man with a sharp nose and a shrill high-pitched voice who was said to have a personal fortune of some pounds 3m, recruited a dozen Breton sailors and landed them on the coast of Spanish Morocco, commanding them to go forth and establish an empire. Lebaudy then informed the French authorities that he was henceforth to be addressed as Jacques I, Najin-al-Den, Emperor of the Sahara, Commander of the Faithful, King of Tarfaia, Duke of Arleuf and Prince of Chal-Huin. However, the sailors were soon captured by Arab traders, who attempted to ransom them. But Lebaudy refused to pay up. So the French sent a cruiser which shelled the coast, and the sailors escaped in the confusion.

The French government then issued a warrant for Lebaudy's arrest, and he travelled to The Hague, where he tried to bring his case before the International Court. Having failed, he moved to London and set up his "court" in the Savoy Hotel, where he was besieged by journalists and press photographers, by a host of actors, actresses, retired army and naval officers, waiters and labourers, all seeking employment, and by 300 to 400 tradesman, including gunsmiths, flag merchants, a patent water filter firm, a weatherproof watch company and a corned-beef contractor.

Lebaudy commissioned "an enterprising young journalist" to edit his national newspaper, Le Sahara, which would report news of the court and promulgate the "Emperor's" laws and imperial decrees, he had banknotes printed in pale yellow, mauve and black, and he designed an imperial flag, the centre of which was adorned with three golden bees on a field of purple, beneath a crown surmounted by a cross supported by arches of gold set with pears.

He enlisted a ship's carpenter living in Fulham as Deputy Commander of the Saharan Navy on a promised salary of pounds 20 a month plus four shillings and sixpence for expenses, and appointed a retired American colonel Governor- General and Commander-in-Chief. Lebaudy also commissioned a national anthem. When he entered the Savoy Restaurant, to dine at a table covered with a cloth of imperial purple with a crown of purple chrysanthemums suspended above, the orchestra would immediately cease whatever it was playing and strike up his imperial anthem.

Meanwhile, he announced that the official inauguration of the empire and the enthronement of its ruler would take place on 1 January 1904. This was to be a spectacular occasion: the desert was to be decorated with flags and artificial flowers, and the "Emperor", escorted by a hundred grenadiers, would "proclaim his future plans and receive anew the oath of allegiance which his subjects made to his officials".

The coronation would be followed by a solemn service in the newly built church. As night fell, the desert would be lit with lanterns and a firework display would provide a fitting climax. Unfortunately, nothing came of these grandiose plans, and Lebaudy eventually moved to New York, announcing that "the throne will remain in the Sahara, with nobody on it; but his Imperial Majesty wishes it to be known that usurpers will be severely dealt with".

One day in 1919 he arrived at his house on Long Island with the intention of sexually assaulting his teenage daughter and was met on the staircase by his "morganatic" wife, who promptly shot the "Emperor" dead.

Bennett Maxwell is writing the biography of Col George Edward Gouraud

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