Prosper Augustin Hacquard, explorer, pioneer missionary and bishop, was born at Albestroff in the French diocese of Nancy. In 1878, at the age of eighteen he applied to join the newly founded Society of Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) in Algiers, where he was ordained priest five years later by its founder, Cardinal Lavigerie. Hacquard was a romantic and heroic figure, a “bearded colossus” of powerful physique, vivacious, fearless and a fluent Arabic speaker. His first assignment was to the teaching staff of St. Eugene apostolic school in Algiers. He then became a “missionary soldier,” as religious superior of the Armed Brothers of the Sahara in 1891.
Lavigerie had been appointed Apostolic Delegate to the Sahara and Sudan by Pope Pius IX in 1868. Mission posts were founded at Laghouat, Biskra and Ouargla in the north of the Algerian Sahara, but attempts to cross the Sahara into French Sudan ended in the tragic massacre of two parties of missionaries by the Tuareg in 1877 and 1881. In the same year a French expedition was massacred by the Hoggars, and the authorities forbade the Missionaries of Africa to pre-empt French penetration of the southern Sahara. The Armed Brothers of the Sahara, a military religious order like the medieval Knights Templar and Hospitaller, was the brainchild of Lavigerie. The idea had been unfavourably received by the Missionaries of Africa in their 1885 General Chapter, but Lavigerie revived it during his anti-slavery campaign of 1888. These armed lay brothers were intended by him to help recapture slaves, practise medicine and teach crafts. Hacquard became their first and only superior. At first the French authorities expected the Brothers to help them pacify the southern Sahara, but enthusiasm soon turned to alarm that a Catholic Cardinal should have a private army at his disposal. In fact, there were only 22 members. Under pressure from international opinion, Lavigerie abandoned the project shortly before his death in November 1892.
During these very years the French moved east from their sea base in Senegal, occupying the area now covered by Mali and Burkina Faso, entering Timbuktu in 1894 and declaring a protectorate the following year. In 1891 Lavigerie–already Archbishop of Algiers and Carthage–had been made Vicar Apostolic (Bishop) of the Sahara and Sudan, with Bishop Toulotte as coadjutor. Toulotte succeeded him in this role at his death in 1892, and set about organizing the mission to French Sudan. In 1894 he received permission from the French authorities to enter the area from Senegal, on condition that the superior be a French citizen. Hacquard was appointed.
Hacquard’s caravan to West Africa set out by sea on Christmas Day 1894. Arriving at Dakar in January 1895, he followed the Senegal river to Kayes and marched to Bamako and Segou, where he established a mission. Later in 1895 he went to Timbuktu to establish a shortlived mission there. In January 1896, Hacquard achieved a master-stroke by accepting the invitation to accompany, as an interpreter, Hourst’s hydrographic expedition for mapping the Niger. This voyage of exploration gave him an immediate understanding of the prospects and possibilities of missionary work in the countries bordering the Niger river.
In 1898 Hacquard succeeded Toulotte as Vicar Apostolic and was ordained bishop in France. Bishop Hacquard returned to West Africa in the following year and founded mission stations among the Mossi and Gourma of Burkina Faso. He also conferred with the British colonial authorities and took the important step of beginning a mission in the northern territories of what later became the British colony of the Gold Coast (Ghana). His death on Holy Thursday, April 4th, 1901, was as spectacular as his life. He drowned while swimming in the Niger at Segou. He was 41 years of age.
Aylward Shorter M.Afr.
Eugène Marin, Vie, Travaux, Voyages de Mgr. Hacquard des Pères Blancs (1860-1901) (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1905).
Paul Lesourd, Les Pères Blancs du Cardinal Lavigerie (Orléans: Bernard Grasset, 1935).
This article, submitted in 2003, was researched and written by Dr. Aylward Shorter M.Afr., Emeritus Principal of Tangaza College Nairobi, Catholic University of Eastern Africa.