‘By wanting to steal fire from heaven, the men of today will lose the world’—so commented the French ethnologist, Odette du Puigaudeau (1894–1991), as she reflected on her opposition to French nuclear weapons tests in the Algerian Sahara. Odette, a Breton known for her field research in Mauritania, was unable to prevent the tests, with 17 detonations taking place between 1960 and 1966 near the oasis town of Reggane and in the Hoggar Massif. The ethnologist was, however, able to expose the hollowness of military propaganda, which framed the test sites as a desert wilderness. Her pronouncements on the agriculture, demography and hydrology of Reggane suggested the opposite: tests would take place near a cosmopolitan, fertile hub in the oasis region of the Touat, rich in history and vital to trans-Saharan trade. In this article, we draw on Odette’s archive—broadcasts, essays and letters from French and British collections—to reconstruct her interpretation of the Reggane tests. This enables us to define colonialism and nuclear power in relation to the historical geography of the desert environment, as well as in relation to Odette’s unique position as a researcher: an amateur scientist whose work was indebted to a combination of colonial structures and environmental, gendered perspectives. To this end, we suggest that French nuclear colonialism emerged as a struggle over nature, technology and modernity in the desert.
- Atmospheric nuclear weapon tests;