Algeria: Dotting the I’s in France’s colonial history
France's colonial history is a barbaric one that extends from the 16th century until the liberation of Algeria in 1962. Millions of people have died, countries have had their wealth plundered, and France still refuses to recognize its dark past.
It wasn’t completely unlike Macron to deny that Algeria was ever a nation. It was surprising to hear such a statement uttered against a sovereign country in what is supposed to be a post-imperialist world order (evidently not so), but to say outright that a country that France had occupied for over a century and whose culture it helped destroy was truly flabbergasting.
You can take the colonial out of the colony but not colonialism out of the colonial, the mentality indeed persists.
It seems somewhat perplexing that France, whose Zemmours, Le Pens, and Macrons are all radically attempting to preserve what they consider to be essential to French identity by coercing Muslims into conforming, are also denying the identity of the very country they occupied, whose riches they stole, whose people they killed and posed next to their decapitated heads neatly arranged on spears, and whose culture and identity they transformed by force and coercion.
How did France’s colonial history begin and unfold, and what led it to its 100+ year occupation of Algeria?
France’s colonial empire
France’s earliest trials at colonialism happened during the 16th and 17th centuries and were part of the ongoing competition that was taking place at the time between European powers (France, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal), the main goal of all of whom was to find new routes to the East Indies in an effort to secure these routes for themselves in an attempt to monopolize the spice trade.
France first began its incursions into North America with the establishment of small colonies. The presence of French missionaries, coupled with colonization efforts, further exacerbated matters as they upset the sociological makeup by drawing Native American men into Christianity with promises of land, and then telling them they must cultivate crops, which to their societies was women’s work. These “redefinitions of manhood prompted many women to resist Christianity” and generated conflict within their communities.
The Caribbean was also a region where competing European powers constantly clashed with one another. By 1697, France had colonized portions of North America stretching to the Caribbean and snatched Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti) from Spain in that same year. Most of the island’s indigenous population had died during Spain’s incursion for gold. France turned their colonies into plantations for sugar, coffee, and spice, and used slave labor on the islands, to such an extent that by the late 18th century, slaves outnumbered European colonists by 8 to 1, thus greatly transforming the demographic makeup of the region.
Amid the struggle for global empire-building between France and Britain, the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) took place between the two powers and their allies in Europe. The war resulted in a decisive win for Britain and a loss for France and Spain, and the 1763 Treaty of Paris saw a number of land exchanges in order to appease Britain. France ceded all of Canada in order to retain the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe and their valuable sources of sugar and remained somewhat inactive until after the French Revolution of 1789 and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte who returned to the task of empire-building.
France’s imperial incursions into West Asia and North Africa date back in large part to the year 1798, as Napoleon was rising in power and conquered Egypt, and then continued on when the French Empire later colonized Algeria in 1830.
After his successes in Italy, which culminated in the Treaty of Campo Formio, Napoleon turned his attention to the British Empire, France’s perennial enemy, and tried to see whether a landing on the British isles was possible; after two months of planning, he found that it was not, as the British Navy was far superior to the French. However, one thing Napoleon could do to harm the British would be to threaten their trade with India.
Napoleon’s fascination with Egypt
Another end goal envisioned by Napoleon would follow the occupation of Egypt, whereupon he would send a force to the Kingdom of Mysore in South India in order to reinforce them, as they were also enemy of the British and were fighting against their presence in India.
For Napoleon, this mission also held a personal dimension, as the 29-year-old general (in 1798) had been a longtime fan of the Orient, and he always referenced Alexander the Great and Egypt in his writings and conversations. “Thus, the idea of reconquering Egypt as a new Alexander proposed itself to him, allied with the additional benefit of acquiring a new Islamic colony at England’s expense.”
Although Napoleon’s ships were being pursued by the British Royal Navy, he successfully evaded them, managed to land on Egypt’s shores, and defeated the Mamluk army in the Battle of the Pyramids. However, Napoleon’s armies suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the British Navy only days later, which resulted in the decimation of Napoleon’s ships, left him stranded in Egypt, and ended his dreams of conquering West Asia. After a three-year campaign and a series of defeats, Napoleon went back to France and launched his coup d’état, leaving him in power.
Algeria’s story begins
France’s aspirations of colonization in the MENA region would be left unachieved until after Napoleon’s fall, and during the reign of Charles X. Although Algeria had stood by France during its difficult times, when it was shunned by all of Europe in the 1790s, Algeria had lent it money and allowed it to receive supplies from its ports. Both countries’ relations were somewhat constrained during France’s three-year invasion of Egypt, as the Ottoman Sultan requested that Algeria declare war on Egypt, which it did, but relations returned to normal as soon as the invasion was over.
Despite Algeria’s good relations with France, Napoleon had (prior to his fall) been looking for a reason to invade it because of its strategic position, the superiority of France’s fleet, and his want of a colony on the Mediterranean to strengthen France’s position. He threatened Algeria repeatedly over the years on a number of different occasions, but the plans to invade it never materialized, as he was busy with campaigns in Europe. Nevertheless, some of his commanders did go to Algeria in the early 1800s to scout it and assess how best to capture it.
The main reason behind France’s invasion of Algeria is that France did not wish to repay its debts to the Algerian Dey and Algeria’s Jewish merchants (who had come to the Dey complaining that France is refusing payment). The debt had been accumulated by France during its invasion of Egypt in 1798. France only used an incident that took place between the Algerian ruler and France’s consul (who was implicated in the affair and had received payment from the merchants in exchange for helping secure a portion of their debt, none of which found its way back to the Algerian treasury), in order to launch the war against the country and occupy it in 1830, during the reign of Charles X. The incident in question came to be known as the Fly Whisk incident.
The merchants had promised France’s Foreign Minister and its consul in Algeria a portion of the funds if they managed to secure payment of France’s debts to them, which in fact happened. However, the merchants were also indebted to the Algerian state, but by the time they were paid, France paid them directly, and not through the Algerian treasury. Moreover, one of the merchants had secured French citizenship, and another Italian citizenship, and so the Algerian state was unable to pursue them for payment.
France’s consul, as French newspapers revealed at the time, was paid two million Francs by the merchants in return. When Algerian authorities caught wind of the news, they knew the consul, who is thought to have made up the incident, was in on it, and was refusing to cooperate with Algeria in order to avoid France having to repay its debt.
During the course of Algeria’s 132-year struggle for independence, nearly 5 million people were killed, and hundreds of thousands were injured. It took France nearly 70 years to gain control of Algeria after it first occupied it on July 5th, 1830, and Algeria only gained its independence after fighting a fierce war in which nearly 1.5 million Algerians lost their lives.
As far as the looting of Algeria went, France made sure to profit off the land as best it could. Even though the Treaty of Surrender signed between Algeria’s last Dey, Hussein Dey, and France included a condition that Islamic endowments not be violated, France realized that these endowments may become a source of income and confiscated them and looted them in 1843.
France’s colonial administration went a step further in 1871, enacting the Indigenous People Law, which helped them plunder Algeria’s resources by granting European settlers ownership of the lands, while Algerians working them only received 20% of the production. The Algerians could also only travel after seeking permission from colonial authorities and had their movements restricted.
Another law issued by colonial authorities was the Cremieux Decree in 1870, which turned Muslim Arabs and Berbers effectively second-class citizens, while Algeria’s Jewish population was granted French citizenship.
In terms of precious metals, more than 110 tons of Algeria’s gold and silver were stolen by the French, which are estimated today to be worth over $180 billion in today’s money.
France only recognized Algeria’s war of independence as an actual war in 1999. Today’s France, however, is still dragging its legs in recognizing Algeria’s right to reparation. In 1961, before gaining their independence, Algerians took to the streets of Paris to protest a curfew imposed on them, but a French crackdown turned the protest into a massacre, with more than 200 people being killed and scores of bodies being dumped in the Seine River.
Today, France continues to treat its Muslim population as second-class citizens who must conform, by force, to a very restricted idea of French identity. Instead of accommodating them, France is trying its best to exclude its citizens, just as it tried to force Algerians to conform to its own norms. The reasoning before was that of the White Man’s Burden, backwardness, cultural inferiority, or any number of excuses. Today, these excuses have all been repackaged under a nifty new branding called French identity.
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