In 1887 the affair attracted a fair few pages in the Parisian press. Jules Gros, who lived in the suburbs of Paris in Vanves and was a popular novelist and a member of various geographical sciences, was named president for life of Counani. Whilst a few took this seriously, most saw it as the farce of the year. However, the territory of Counani really does exist, lying between Brazil and French Guiana, and in the late nineteenth century did not belong to any State.

Jules Verne could not have found a better subject for a novel. Here is the history of the Republic of Counani – a story of a goldrush, escape, betrayal, and espionage.

A contested zone

Where are the borders of French Guiana? In the late nineteenth century it was difficult to give a precise answer to this question. On the Brazilian side there was a zone which had been contested since the late seventeenth century, despite dozens of treaties and agreements. Aragouari, Cachipour, Caraparori, Ouassa, Tarturagal, and the border rivers changed depending upon the interpretation of old texts and the geographers concerned.

In 1862 it was status quo. The two sides failed once again to come to an agreement and decided that the vast territory between the Amazon and theOyapock would remain a neutral zone where the French and Brazilian governments would only intervene to sort out questions of justice for their respective nationals. This no man’s land with no State or police was a godsend for convicts on the run, runaway slaves (Brazil abolished slavery in 1888), and adventurers of all stripes.

The land of Counani

The explorer Henri Coudreau discovered the land of Counani in 1883 when on a mission for the Ministry of the Navy and Colonies in the Contested Zone. He gave an idyllic description of it as place with a mild and healthy climate where mosquitoes were unknown, and fertile prairies ideal for livestock rearing. This land, lying at the mouth of the biggest river in the world, he wrote in his work Les français en Amazonie, promises “wealthy relations with the rest of the globe”. In his opinion there was no doubt whatsoever, “this savannah is just waiting for the European”. As for the 200 or so inhabitants living in the village of Counani, they were a ‘triply Métis people’ (White, Indian, and Black) who spoke Portuguese but were “familiar with the Creole of Cayenne”, and only wanted one thing, to become French. “Counani: a harmonious name, a beautiful thing, a great idea,” he declared enthusiastically.

Paul Quartier, a member of the Coudreau expedition, also thought it was “a great idea”. A former Swiss watchmaker, he had settled in Cayenne before prospecting for gold, and he too fell under the charm of Counani. In December 1885 he arrived in the little town with his mentor and associate, the adventurer Jean-Ferréol Guigues from Burundi. They became great friends of the two captains in Counani, Trajane Supriano, a former slave, and Nunato de Maceda (whose daughter Quartier married). The captains were hostile to the Brazilians, and on several occasions carried petitions to the Governor in Cayenne asking that Counani be annexed by France, but in vain. This time there were going to go a lot further.

Were the captains of Counani won over, or were their hands forced? (Supriano only signed when a revolver was being pointed at him, a Cayenne inhabitant wrote later). Whatever the case may be, in July 1886 they did sign a manifesto setting up an independent republic whose inhabitants adopted French law and language. Sure of what they had managed to achieve, Guigues and Supriano went to Cayenne in a vain attempt to get the document legally ratified by the Mayor of Cayenne.

Guigues knew that his young Republic required legitimacy. He entrusted the presidency of the new State to Jules Gros,publicist, officer of the Academy, member of the geographic societies of Paris, Rome, and Lisbon, and various learned societies, town councillor in Vanves, etc.”

Jules Gros and independent Guiana

“When I went to see them in 1883 they said; “this is our final attempt. If the French government does not want to look after us on the pretext that old papers state we are neutral, un-determined, and unattributed, well then, we will declare independence.” Apparently that is what they’ve just done. And quite right they were to.

What! You are refusing these people the right to be, because seventy-three years ago some diplomats who knew nothing of geography signed an incomprehensible treaty. You will not be, you say to them, you will not be French or Brazilian or Counanian – no, that you shall not be. Well damn it, be Counanian my friends, it’s your right. Hurray for Counani! America to the Americans!”

Henri Coudreau, La France équinoxiale, vol. 1, Études sur les Guyanes et l’Amazonie, 1886, p. 415.

Gros was a well-regarded man nearing sixty years of age, and he seemed to be a good choice. He enjoyed a certain degree of fame, being a former secretary of the Société de Géographie Commerciale de Paris (Paris Society of Commercial Geography) and a writer for various popular journals. Like his colleague and contemporary Jules Verne, he was an adept at providing a sprightly combination of popular science and adventure story.

But what was the link between Jules Gros and French Guiana? Paul Gustave Franconie, the French MP who had been elected in 1879. The two friends met up every Friday evening at the Grand Véfour restaurant in Paris. Sailors, traders, and politicians exchanged ideas on colonial issues over a meal. Franconie was the president of this expansionist lobby and Gros was its secretary. Gros was introduced to Coudreau and Guigues at this period. The stay-at-home journalist was captivated by their stories, that he published in Le Journal des Voyages. The series bore the sober title: Les grands aventuriers et les grandes aventures (Great Adventurers and Great Adventures). It was in this journal that Gros first wrote about Guigues’ Republic of Counani, on 25 July 1886.

Story has it that Jules Gros learned of his appointment by telegram. In May 1887 he announced in the press that he had been named president for life of the new Republic of Counani. He specified that he was to depart shortly and was looking for people “who are perfectly honourable and with sufficient resources to help put these rich countries into production”. He received people in his office in Clamart on Monday and Thursday afternoons.

All the press very rapidly took up the story. 1887 became the year of Counani. But then the president did take his work seriously. Guigues became Minister of State and Grand Chancellor, Quartier was named Quarter-Master General of the Palace of the President and Louis Boisset, publicist, was named Consul to Paris, at 18 rue du Louvre. In the pages of the Official Gazette of Independent Guiana distributed in Paris, one could read that the Counani authorities were offering free grants of land (of five hectares per household) to people willing to emigrate. As one journalist wrote, it was a success: “On leaving the General Consul, I was surprised to see a crowd in the waiting room that spilled out of the room as far as the staircase. It was made up of people who had decided to leave for Independent Guiana who had come to ask for information. There are over 3000 requests to emigrate.” (Le Gaulois, 8 September 1887).

The indefatigable Jules Gros also devised the coat of arms of the Republic, adapted the Napoleonic Code, and founded an order of chivalry – the Order of the Star – based on the French Legion of Honour. The decoration, a cross with four red and black arms, bore the words “Justice et Liberté”. Parisian society rushed to get hold of it. But as Le Matin rightly pointed out in its edition of 6 September 1887, “the star is given out, and not the sale”.

The death of a star

“I cannot fail to repeat here the philosophical reflections of the unfortunate President of the Republic of Counani: “I appointed them, they removed me. I removed them in turn. But as I had been removed, I could no longer remove them. But since it was I who had appointed them, they could no longer remove me. And so I was still appointed and could remove them

Alfred Copin, La Revue d’art dramatique et musical, 1888, vol. 9, p. 231.

The affair broke in September 1887. The Consul Boisset accused S. Richard, the former chargé d’affaires for Counani, of trafficking in crosses and Gros of complicity. He distanced himself from his associates and announced his hope that the new colony would be founded under a double protectorate. He further added, speaking to a journalist from Le Gaulois: “M. Gros is in the habit of drinking absinthe as if it were water”. Jules Gros could not allow this slight to pass. He abolished the consulates of Independent Guiana and revoked Boisset. Only Guigues was spared, but he chose to go over to the enemy camp. Together with the members of the toppled government he too declared Jules Gros to be “unfit to hold the high office he has been called to”. In the Official Gazette of Independent Guiana of 17 September, Guigues declared himself the sole representative of the inhabitants of the provinces of Counani, Cachipour, and Mapa. The Order of the Star was abolished and those who had been awarded it were warned that they ran the risk of being prosecuted for unlawful wearing of the declaration.

The split between the leading figures of Counani was both melodramatic and unexpected. Were some of the protagonists afraid? As the months passed France and Brazil had grown annoyed by the rumours of secession. On 7 September the Brazilian legation in Paris specified that it did not attach “greater importance than it deserves” to the affair of the would-be Republic, but that Brazil would take the necessary steps to prevent any modification to the status of the Contested Zone. It was no coincidence that this declaration was made on the day after the announcement that Gros, Guigues and Boisset would shortly be leaving for Counani, accompanied by a first cohort of fifty French people, mainly planters (Le Matin, 6 September).

“Today this Republic is no longer mere chatter. Brazil does not recognise it, thus it exists,” Gaston Jollivet ironically observed in Le Matin. But Counani was no longer a laughing matter. The joint declaration published on 11 September in the Official Gazette of the French Republic makes this clear:

“Attempts are currently being made by some people to create an independent republic in Counani, an area located in the vast territory to which both France and Brazil have laid claim since the Treaty of Utrecht.

Such an undertaking is in flagrant contradiction with the claims of the two States (…). Under these conditions the government of the French Republic and that of His Majesty the Emperor of Brazil cannot authorise the establishment of any so-called Republic of Counani.”

Journal officiel de la République française, 11 September 1887.

The shady Republic

“The ephemeral Republic of Counani barely lasted a day” ran the title of Le Correspondant on 25 October 1887. But that was without counting on the character of Jules Gros. He refused to take this lying down. And he was quite right that matter. Guigues could go ahead and form a new government, but for people in Paris the only president was Gros. Le Figaro called on the caricaturist Caran d’Ache, and devoted two pages of its “literary supplement” to him on 31 December, which was renamed the “Counani-Revue” for the occasion. In January 1888, Gardel lay on a two-act review at the Théâtre La Gaîté-Rochechouart, called’ Paris à Counani’. The following year Charles Solo brought out a comedy called ‘La république de Counani’.

In reality it turned to tragicomedy. Jules Gros wanted to join his subjects. France forbade him from taking place aboard the French steamer. No matter! In February 1888 he reached an agreement with an English finance house, The Guiana Syndicate Limited. In exchange for exploitation rights the syndicate undertook to transport him to Counani and provide him with capital. Guigues realise this was in his interest too. After various dealings the two associates patched things up. In return the company promised each of them 125,000 francs.

There were three departures for French Guiana between May and August 1888. Guigues left accompanied by the syndicate’s attorney, and Gros set sail with the last convoy. He took his family with him, his secretary and a few supporters. He never got to see Counani. In the meantime the English had understood that they could do without him. His voyage came to an end in British Guiana. Jules Gros was sent back to France. The same year the author Rudyard Kipling wrote The Man who Would be King.

It was a disillusioned Jules Gros who on his return wrote that his government persecuted him whereas in fact his sole aim was to bring France rich territories, “without it costing it a centime or the life of a single man”. As for Guigues, in an essay called Guyane indépendante. Propositions au gouvernement français published in November 1889, he explained he had only asked for French protection for this vast territory cut off from the rest of the world and “without master or government”.

The former president tried in vain to obtain the backing of French investors, but he had lost his aura. His reputation had been tarnished when a former private secretary of his had been arrested for defrauding an English emigration company.

Jules Gros died at home on 29 July 1891 at the age of sixty-two. His fame transcended national borders. The New York Times of 17 August 1891 spoke of the demise of a great globetrotter and of his shady Republic. As for the chronicler Charles Formentin, he wrote on 1 September in La Revue des Conférences: Counani is no more, and the man who wanted to give the universe a state of which Plato would have dreamt has died before even reigning. Jules Gros has left on an eternal journey, taking his stock of spurned decorations together with a barely glimpsed plan for an ideal constitution.”

Epilogue. For a few nuggets more

In 1894 gold was discovered in the Calçoene river. The Eden of Counani became an Eldorado. The precious metal stirred up tension. With the French flag flying above the house of the former captain Trajane Supriano in Counani, a group of Brazilian adventurers declared the autonomy of the Contested Zone, under Brazilian protection. In May 1895 their leader, the former revolutionary Cabral, had Supriano arrested in Counani. The hot-blooded Governor of French Guiana, without referring to Paris, sent troops into Mapa to liberate the nonofficial representative of France in the Contested Zone. The operation was a disaster and the fighting left several dozen dead. On 18 April 1897, France and Brazil approached Switzerland to ask it to settle their territorial dispute. Led by the Baron de Rio Branco, the Brazilian geographers were the more convincing. On 1 December 1900 virtually all of the Contested Zone was attributed to Brazil.

The story should have stopped there, but utopia has a knack for arising from its ashes. Jules Gros had many heirs, and apparently there is still a Republic of Counani today. And so we will leave the final words, at least for the moment, to Henri Coudreau:

“Do you like long summers with no rain and cloudless skies; a pure mellow atmosphere that refreshes your soul, an enchanted solitude where nothing recalls the dictates of society; to you like living with no regrets about the past or worries for the morrow, in the certainty of a happy future, with the blessing of nature, without newspaper or politician, far from all the stupidities and skulduggery which make up the substrate of our sick and exhausted civilisation; delighting in being, simply living without apprehension or fits of enthusiasm; with a few horses, a few cows, a few dogs, a few rifles, and a few families of naked Indians? Then you will like Counani.”

 

H. Coudreau, La France équinoxiale, vol. 1, Etudes sur les Guyanes et l’Amazonie, 1886, p. 388.