Whisked Off to War

Hayreddin Barbarossa, pirate of the Mediterranean, and sometime rival of Johnny Depp. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

To understand just how the war in Algeria began, it is worth stepping back to understand how the French had moved in to Algeria in 1830, and the immediate tone of the relationship. Algeria had been Ottoman territory for almost 300 years by then, originally conquered by the feared ginger corsair Hayreddin Barbarossa[1] and his brothers. Barbarossa had used the country as a base for his corsair fleet, and had more or less stayed that way for three hundred years. Slave raids, piracy, and reprisal bombardments by various European powers became a common cycle, continuing long after Ottoman power ceased its rise and started to wane. Even the young United States wasn’t immune from a shakedown, culminating in the Barbary Wars from 1801-1815.

It’s therefore just a bit ironic that the French conquest of Algeria was actually sparked by a legitimate business deal in the 1790’s. In the midst of the French Revolution and a war on all fronts, the government in Paris had contracted a pair of Jewish merchants named Bacri and Boushnak to buy wheat in Algiers. The arrangement had continued for several years under Napoleon, with the merchants buying on credit, then shipping off food to the army, then diving behind the proverbial couch when the Ottomans came knocking for payment.

The Ottoman administrator Hussein Dey was a reasonably patient man, but by 1820 the joke had worn a bit thin. Facing his own economic problems he hassled the merchants, who in turn referred to their own debtors, the now reconstituted Bourbon Dynasty, who in turn showed no interest in paying a red cent for IOU’s Napoleon might have offered.

fly whisk incident
An annoyed Hussein Dey accidentally fans the flames of conflict. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The back and forth between Hussein Dey and the French continued for years, until finally in 1827 an exasperated Dey smacked a French diplomat with his fly-whisk. Given that this was a fan, and that it was over a debt the French themselves hadn’t paid in 30 years, this would seem like a strange basis for a full scale French invasion.

Unsurprisingly, the reasoning behind the war had nothing to do with the hapless invadee to be. Then French King Charles X was the kind of recalcitrant constitutional monarch who had been busily spending years attempting to reassemble the humpty-dumpty of absolute monarchy shattered when his brother was guillotined; and he was now deeply unpopular. Deciding that a good military adventure was just the thing to take French minds off of his own failings, Charles initially sponsored a three year blockade that did little more than annoy his own merchants. In 1830 this escalated to an actual military invasion of Algeria.

In a political tale as old as time the war was supposed to be a short and cheap; and it deceptively began that way. Basing the invasion off of Napoleon’s own contingency plan drawn up in 1808, the French smashed the Ottoman forces and conquered the entire country in just 21 days. Shrugging their shoulders, the Turkish contingents of the army set out for friendly territory, and Hussein Dey went into exile in Naples. Charles X couldn’t savor his triumph however, having been deposed just three days prior by the French and replaced with his more liberal cousin King Louis-Phillippe. As is also so often the case with supposedly short and cheap conquests, the new king now found himself stuck with a war of occupation that would last for 17 years.

EmirAbdelKader ange tissier
 A painting of al-Qadir later in life. Though he was one of the most prominent leaders of the Algerian resistance, he was by no means the only one. Photo Credit: Ange Tissier

As it turned out, the Algerians themselves were less keen on yielding to the French than their nominal overlords had been, especially after the French made it clear that they planned on sticking around. Initial promises to respect property rights and Muslim religious traditions were been ignored, and by 1834 the French took the step of formally annexing the coastal territory they had occupied as a military colony. Long term, the French had big plans for producing cotton and industry in their new and expanding Algeria, only slightly delayed by the need to evict many of the neighboring communities that considered these lands their own.

In response to the encroaching French, many Berbers and Arabs rallied behind the leadership of the young and charismatic Abd al-Qādir ibn Muḥyiddīn. Al-Qādir was initially successful, leveraging a French treaty recognizing his authority in the region bordering the new colony to draw new tribes to his banner. Relying heavily on guerilla tactics, al-Qādir routed a surprised French column at the battle of Macta in 1834. In response to the rising threat, the French handed command over to a veteran of the Napoleonic wars named General Bugeaud in 1836. Bugeaud had fought in Spain, and had already developed his own methods of responding to an evasive foe fighting on home turf. In a moment that set the tone for all the Algerian wars to come, Bugeaud relied on a series of fast paced raids that emphasized terror, looting, and scorched earth to pacify his enemies. The “Razzia”,[2] or raids, were brutally indiscriminate and effective. One eyewitness in 1846 captured a typical scene as 500 French cavalry descended on a village at dawn from all sides,

Women, men, children scurry to the only exit offered to them by the terrain, only to find the riflemen and the goum; salvoes whiz and the riflemen’s sabers pierce a large number, and one hundred fifty corpses soon scatter the ground,’’[3]

French Foreign LegionJean Paul Grandmont
A monument in France commemorating the French Foreign Legion. The Legion cut its teeth in Algeria, having been formed in 1831. Losses among the French Army from 1831-1851 reached a staggering 92,000 or more. Photo Credit: Jean Paul Grandmont.

Along with the new tactics, Bugeaud received a massive wave of reinforcements, fielding over 100,000 soldiers by 1840. Although the wars were both expensive and bloody, most French citizens seemed to support the ongoing conquest regardless. Writing in 1841, Alexis de Tocqueville, declared:

“I think that all the means available to wreck tribes must be used, barring those that the human kind and the right of nations condemn. I personally believe that the laws of war enable us to ravage the country and that we must do so either by destroying the crops at harvest time or any time by making fast forays also known as raids the aim of which it to get hold of men or flocks.”[4]

After more than a decade of off and on war, al-Qādir fled to Morocco, prompting the French to invade there as well in 1844. He finally forced to surrender to the French in 1847, eventually going into exile in Syria.[5] Over the following decades and in the teeth of consistent resistance the French would continue to expand and consolidate their control over the interior; slowly introducing more locals to a colonial reality of “haves” (the French), and “soon to have nots” (the locals). Perhaps half of Algeria’s three million inhabitants subsequently died in the resulting famines and war as an estimated 364,341 hectares of fertile land was seized and doled out cheaply to European settlers. Oppression of this scope and scale would not be forgotten by subsequent generations.

[1] Literally “Red Beard”. Hayreddin’s older brother Baba Oruc was the actual ginger, and after his death the title passed, Dread Roberts style, onto his even more dangerous sibling. Aside from conquering Algeria, Barbarossa and his brothers effectively conquered the Meditteranean for the Ottomans after smashing a combined Venetian, Spanish, Hospitaller, and Papal fleet at the Battle of Preveza in 1538. Perhaps we’ll talk about it some point, but the Ottomans effectively ran the naval board until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 as a result.

[2] A word adapted from the Arabic word “Ghaziya”. While tribal raiding was always a part of life in Algeria, the French upped both the scale and the violence.

[3] Rid, T. 2009. Razzia: A turning point in modern strategy. Terrorism and political violence 21:671. https://ridt.co/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/rid-razzia1.pdf

[4] Grandmaison, O.lC. 2001. Liberty, Equality, and Colony. Le Monde. mondediplo.com/2001/06/11torture2. Also yes, that de Tocqueville, the inexplicably glowing champion of the American yeoman farmer.

[5] Well not immediately. As a final kick in the teeth the French held him in a prison for five years. In spite of everything, he went on to become something of a nonpartisan hero of colonial resistance, sometimes called Jugurtha by his contemporaries, after the Numidian King who fought the Romans.


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