Dancing upon a volcano: Notes on the French Intifada (part 2)
The brutalisation of Algeria
For centuries, Algiers was a hub of piracy, one of the main destinations for the estimated one million Europeans who ended up as slaves in North Africa, most never seen again.
Their fate was unimaginably grim, and even into the early modern period people living in coastal regions of Britain feared the arrival of the corsairs, who got as far as distant Iceland in 1627, and four years later kidnapped the entire village of Baltimore in County Cork.
But as European powers grew stronger their days were numbered. The Royal Navy in particular was dedicated to the destruction of the trade, and the year after their victory at Waterloo, the British had attacked Algiers to demand the return of 3,000 captive Christians, and the end of slavery. By now the Regency of Algiers, enjoying semi-autonomy under Ottoman overlordship, was already in a weakened state, and in the Darwinian state of global affairs was bound to become prey to a stronger power. Watching the British attack from a safe distance, and taking notes, were members of the French Navy.
Britain’s old rivals faced the post-Napoleonic reality that they were no longer Europe’s pre-eminent power, and the creation of a new empire – its first largely lost in the Seven Years’ War – would become a matter of national pride and greatness. Unlike the British, whose empire grew out of commercial greed, France deliberately sought to become an imperial power, and Algiers was the obvious target.
First a pretext had to be made, duly arriving when the Dey of Algiers swiped at the French consul, Pierre Deval, with a fly whisk after he had demanded excessive interest on a French loan, the Dey’s income having been ruined by the end of piracy. This story may or may not be true, although according to the British consul his French opposite number had provoked the Algerian by saying things ‘of a very gross and irritating nature’. And what Englishmen wouldn’t believe this story?
To justify this crude act of foreign aggression, the press back in Paris whipped up public opinion with articles ‘often illustrated by etchings which depicted the Dey as a swarthy, bearded thug threatening the mannerly, civilized European with open fury’, as Andrew Hussey wrote in The French Intifada, his account of France’s long conflict with North Africa.
France’s initial victory at the Battle of Sidi Ferruch had been carefully stage managed in a quite grotesque way, and ‘Members of Parisian high society had sailed on pleasure ships from Marseilles to watch the bombardment, which had been planned as an extravagant fête galante – a fashionable form of amusement popular with the sophisticated French elite in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.’
One can only imagine the feeling of having your city bombarded and conquered only to see in the distance a bunch of Parisian high-society dandies and fops watching the whole thing with opera glasses and shouting ‘Encore!’ and ‘Bravo!’
‘So, this is how the first invasion of an Arab country by a European power since the Crusades began,’ Hussey wrote: ‘as an elegant entertainment and fireworks display. The Arab corpses that lay strewn in the streets and along the coast were no more than incidental colour to the Parisian spectators watching the slaughter through opera glasses from the deck of their cruise ships.’
Yet despite the jingoism, the invasion was criticised both by the French Left and Right. One deputy in Paris argued that he ‘would gladly rather exchange Algiers for the most wretched hole on the Rhine’.
And in the year of the invasion, Edward Blaquière, an English Hellenist and friend of Lord Byron, published an article warning of the dangers. The question was not that the French could conquer Algeria, but what they would do once there – a wise lesson that many future foreign policy strategists might have heeded. He predicted that the locals, because they were united by religion, would be hard to subdue in the way that the British had subdued India.
At a great ball for the king of Naples in Paris on the evening before the fleet set sail, politician Narcisse-Achille de Salvandy made a ‘witty but prescient aside’ to the Duc d’Orléans, who would soon become King Louis Phillipe: ‘This is a truly Neapolitan fête, Sire, for we are indeed dancing upon a volcano.’
Unlike its other colonies, Algeria would become an integral part of France, populated by European settlers not just from France itself, but also Spain, Italy and Malta – a group of colons who came to be known collectively as the pied-noirs, or black feet. They would come to number over a million, a sizeable enough minority to cause demographic instability familiar enough to other victims of imperialism.
Among them were criminals and political dissidents who were deported just as the British sent their troublemakers to Australia. Swiss artist Adolphe Otth noted that all crime in Algiers was committed by ‘undesirable Christians that the galleys and prisons of Europe have vomited up upon this country since its conquest by the French’.
But for the most part they were simply land-hungry settlers trying to make a living, and they would form an elite in the grandly built city of Algiers, considered one of the great French cities after the new rulers had unsympathetically demolished much of the old city – a precursor to what Napoleon III would do to Paris.
Empires are brutal by definition, and the French were no different. Playwright Jean-Toussaint Merle was a witness to the occupation of Algiers, and at the Casbah ‘was amazed by the riotous scenes – he came across drunken soldiers gorging on fruit and sweetmeats, the cackling laughter of prostitutes, “a flock of Jewish merchants” pillaging shops and market stalls, cowed and sullen Turks and Arabs. There was no sign of military discipline: French troops of all ranks looted palaces and bazaars, slept off the drink in the streets, raped respectable women in full view, desecrated mosques and defiled cemeteries.’
There was the horrific massacre of the Ouffia tribe, who had robbed a sheikh loyal to the new rulers; a hundred men, women and children were massacred by the Foreign Legion and Chasseurs d’Afrique, a regiment of European and Muslim soldiers.
There was also the policy of enfumades, or smoking out, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Algerians, often after they had surrendered. In 1845, a thousand men, women and children of the Ouled Riah tribe were killed in this way by lighting fires at the entrance to caves they had taken refuge in.
King Louis Philippe declared that all methods were justified, for ‘What does it matter if a hundred million shots are fired in Africa. Europe does not hear them.’ But many Parisians were shocked by what was being done in their name.
Horrific though this violence was, the country was hardly a paradise of Convivencia before the arrival of the Europeans. There was a hierarchy of seven races, with Turks at the top, followed by Moors (Algerian Arabs), Chiloulis (mixed Turks and Moors), Bedouins, Berbers and black Africans, with Jews at the very bottom, each group speaking their own language but using the Lingua Franca to communicate.
Algeria’s Jews were forced to carry out all public executions and had to walk barefoot past any mosque, while their wives might often be raped in front of their own families at home. They couldn’t raise a hand against a Muslim. Even the law was carried out unevenly, so in capital punishment cases Muslims were beheaded, Europeans strangled and Jews burned.
The new hierarchy placed all three million Muslims at the bottom, forbidden French citizenship. And when, in 1865, the French gave them the right to be governed by Islamic law rather than the French civil code in non-criminal cases, they seriously blundered by also offering them the chance to apply for French nationality, but only if they renounced the right to be governed by Islamic law – which basically meant apostasy.
Furthermore, the 1881 Code de l’indigénat (the Native Code) forbade Muslims from making ‘anti-French’ remarks about the Third Republic or being insolent towards colonial officials.
But the status of Jews vastly improved, a favoured place that would only fuel existing hatreds. The granting of citizenship to Jews in 1870 even led to a call for jihad by tribal leader El-Mokrani, attracting 8,000 Muslims.