Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The French Conquest and Colonization of Algeria

Steve Muhlberger

The French conquered Algeria for almost trivial reasons.  However, it eventually became French policy to incorporate the country into France as an integral part of the republic.  As a result, the confrontation between a modern European society and an Islamic one was very intense in Algeria.  In some ways, that confrontation continues today.

This lecture takes that story from  1830 to the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s.

Algeria in the 19th century is basically northern Algeria, the coastal and mountanous parts, not the vast Saharan region in the south currently within Algerian boundaries.  By European standards this is still a pretty big country:  almost the size of Italy or united Germany, and bigger than Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Politically, this was a clearly defined country before 1830.  It was officially part of the Ottoman Empire.  There was a governor or dey based in Algiers, who was elected by the Turkish garrison of the city, had the leading role, but he had to share power with other groups, especially privileged tribes who contributed military service and sufi brotherhoods.  The vast majority or “indigenous” population was divided between Arabs and Berbers, who spoke different languages and had many different customs.  In the cities there were many people who identified themselves as Turks, and a strong Jewish population.

Early 19th century Algeria was not a dynamic country.  One scholar thinks that the population, around 3 million, was declining.  (The current population is 31 million.)

In 1830, there was a dispute between the dey of Algiers and France over an old debt.  During a  heated discussion the dey, whose name was Husayn, struck the a French rpresentative with his flyswatter.  This diplomatic incident led to a French blockade and eventually the seizure of Algiers, not because French interests were particularly affected, but because the monarchy of Charles X, which was very unpopular, could not afford a foreign policy defeat.

Later that year, Charles X’s ultraconservative regime was replaced by the more liberal regime of Louis-Philippe.  This regime, too, did not want to be responsible for abandoning French gains.  So the French stayed on.

It was not clear,  however, what they wanted.   A few colonists showed up.  A acommission looked into the behavior of the French occupying force in  1833,  condemned atrocities and violations of the rights and property of the native population, but stated that the French should stay, though only in strategic areas, and that colonization should go forward, but only on the basis of justice.

What did the Algerians think about this?  In Algiers, there was little resistance.  The desire of the urban population for peace and good relations with Europe had led it to push the dey of Algiers to surrender rather than fight.  Out in the countryside, there was more resistance, but it was very disorganized.  There was no single figure around which resisters could rally.

In one area, western Algeria, a strong leader did emerge. A man named Abd al-Qadir  organized an army and even a small state.  Abd al-Qadir’s claim to power and style of was typical of a certain type of Islamic leader in the age of colonialization.  His father was the head of  one of the most important sufi orders, the Qadiriya.   Its present leadership was basically hereditary in the family which had acquired the most religious prestige in the past.  In Algeria, as in many Islamic societies, such brotherhoods were among the most important institutions in society, comparable to church institutions in medieval Europe.  They both owned a great deal of property and unified families and clans over a large area and over the generations into an organized interest group.

If normal politics had gone off the rails, if  justice and true religion needed to be re-established, a sufi brotherhood was well placed to lead the way.

Abd al-Qadir, at his father’s urging, stepped into the breach in 1832.  He presented himself a an imitator of the life of the Prophet, the kind of person a true sufi should be:  he was an ascetic, spurning alcohol, dressing and speaking modestly, and otherwise doing his best to show himself as a spiritual leader.  As such, as a true sufi with the institutional backing of an existing brotherhood, he was able to take on the role of military commander and ruler.

For nine years, Abd al-Qadir had a good deal of success.  He had the support of the King Morocco, and even the French were not sure they wanted to fight him.   However, a determined French general named Bugeaud kept the war going, defeated Abd al-Qadir and then proceeded to pacify large areas by destroying villages, orchards and crops and clearing the native population.

Even after Bugeaud’s victories, and a wave of European colonization—not just from France but also from Italy, Spain, Malta, and central Europe—French policy in Algeria remained uncertain.  Between 1849 and 1870, France was ruled by Louis Napoleon, for most of that time as Emperor Napoleon III.   Napoleon III was in favor of French glory, but also fancied himself as the ruler of many nations—as much the emperor of the Arabs as of the French.  So initiative remained with the local authorities and new settlers.

The local authorities were basically the army and a series of  “Arab bureaus” set up by it, to deal with Algerian communities.  They thought of themselves as promoting French interests in Algeria, and sometimes as bringing “progress” to the benighted natives.  The main priority was, however, control of the countryside, and the establishment of local collaborators in supervisory positions.   The colonists, however, were often not very appreciative of these efforts, especially the French colonists.  They did not want to live under military rule—they wanted a French civilian government run by themselves.  So the colonizers did not speak with a single voice.

When France was defeated by Prussia in 1870, and Napoleon III was forced to abdicate, there was a tremendous uprising in Algeria.  It caught many of the colonizers by surprise.  The revolt of 1870-71 was led by a former collaborator, a chief named Al-Muqrani, whose family had been allies of the French for nearly 40 years.  He had found his family position being undermined  by the new administration, and when the opportunity came for revolt, he took a chance and put himself at the head of it.  He was supported in this by another sufi brotherhood, the Rahmaniya.

Despite the chaotic situation in France, the French military establishment in Algeria was able to crush the revolt, and a terrible revenge was taken.   The end result of the revolt was the destruction of the old structure of Algerian society, and the beginning of a period where the French ran everything important.  New lands were opened to French and European settlement, and existing farmers were displaced or reduced to sharecropping or wage labor on land that they no longer owned.   From this point, in fact, the control of the land by Europeans continued to grow, as did the Eurpean population.

The large European colony was not content to lord it over the Algerians.  They also wanted the advantages enjoyed by Frenchmen in France

Thus Algeria was recognized as an integral part of France.  French citizens in Algeria had the right to vote in French elections.   Furthermore, they gained the right to run their own local governments in French districts, and  a great degree of  provincial autonomy.  In 1898, an Algerian legislative assembly was introduced, entirely dominated by the 1/9 of the population that had European status.  Franco-Algerians in fact had more local government than the French at home.

In contrast, the 8/9ths of the population that was not French or European was reduced to the status of being foreigners in their own country.  They were very much in the position of  blacks in South Africa before the recent changes, when most South Africans needed permits to move from place to place, were provided with public services like education only to the extent that they benefited the rulers,  and were not considered as citizens.

For a long time after the revolt, Arabs were very demoralized.  To see further development, we have to jump forward to the 1920s and 30s, when the situation had changed.

The old Algeria, in most places, was dead.  But the Algerians were not.  They did adapt to the new environment they were in.  One thing adaptation meant was the adoption, or partial adoption, of European culture.  Despite all the rhetoric proclaiming that colonization was good for the natives, the French did little to really assimilate the Algerian population (even if that was possible).  However, the colony needed some trained and educated administrators, doctors, teachers, and technicians, and so there was some education in French for Algerians.  Algerians were also recruited as soldiers, and came face-to-face with European culture through service in the army.

After the First World War, the French government, impressed by the support that native Algerians had provided the “Mother Country” in its hour of need,  announced that it was going to loosen the restrictions on the native population.  In fact, France offered French citizenship to any Muslim who agreed to give up their claim to be ruled by Muslim civil law.  The vote, very highly restricted before, was to be extended to prosperous and otherwise trustworthy elements of the population.  Perhaps this was motivated in part by the idea that Algerians might really be ready to become Frenchmen, or at least that they had passed successfully some test partway through their period of assimilation.

There was immediate controversy over this in Algeria itself.  The colonial population was outraged by the threat to their privileges.  They mounted a campaign noisy enough to get many of these concessions withdrawn.  And the withdrawal sparked a counter-reaction among the Muslims.

We are now at a period, the just post-WWI period, where modern nationalism originated in many parts of the world.   Algeria, like many other places, felt the first stirrings of a modern nationalism.  This nationalism was more than a return to the society that had existed in Algeria before 1830 or even 1870.  French colonization had also destroyed, or at least made less relevant, some of the old divisions.  What was important in Algeria was whether you were European or  Muslim.   The common subjection of the Muslims to the French colonists and French political and economic domination was a unifying factor, and a potentially powerful one.  There existed, in embryo, an Algerian nation.

But what was the future of this Algerian nation?   Following Lapidus here, I will briefly outline the three alternatives that occurred to Algerians.

First, some members of the French-educated elite, especially lawyers and teachers who had accepted many French values, wanted equality without political independence.   People in this group wanted social and political equality with Frenchmen in a community where French or modern values would dominate.  Despite Farhat Abbas’s famous statement about Islam being in the past, I don’t think many of them thought that they would abandon Islam as a faith.

Second, there were nationalists who hoped and struggled for an independent Algerian nation.  They wanted some of the same things the first group wanted, but they wanted more.  Some of these people were communists, some more or less secular nationalists, some pan-Arabists (seeking a unified, independent Arab nation bigger than Algeria), and some were very sympathetic to Islamic values.

A third group were Islamic reformists.  These were people who felt that Islam itself was not a side issue, but the answer to Algeria’s problems.  A new social and political order founded on a reformed Islam was the only way ahead.  Note that I say a reformed Islam.  These people criticized old Algerian religious institutions and leaders because, first, they had been coopted into the French system.   In other words, this reformist movement, though appealing to ancient tradition, was not “traditionalist” in any simple way.  It condemned not only Western values, but much of what was old in Algerian life.   It was, in fact, as much a modern movement as the other two.

Algeria is one interesting and important example of  European impact on a Muslim country.  As in Egypt and India, old institutions crumbled very quickly in the face of rather half-hearted European aggression.  Under European rule, Algerian society was reshaped entirely—and in a very destructive way.

Yet this did not result in the assimilation of Algerians into a European way of life.  As we’ve seen, the French in Algeria would not allow Algerians to become Europeans or Frenchmen, equal to themselves.   The result of domination was something a bit complex—the creation of a modern Algerian identity, defined by colonial domination and the desire to regain political and cultural autonomy.

The struggle would be difficult, and made more difficult by the unresolved question:  what would be the basic values of a modern Algerian society, if it could be established?  How much would it be affected by French, European or “modern” values?  How much would it rest on Islamic values?  And what kind of Islamic values?  These questions are common questions in many countries today; and indeed, they have not yet been answered in Algeria, more than 30 years after independence.


Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.