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    The French Conquest of Algeria Between Truth and Propaganda

    The French Conquest of Algeria Between Truth and Propaganda


    French plans for the conquest of Algeria had matured long before the famous “blow of the fly-whisk” event of 1827.  Napoleon Bonaparte had once regarded Algeria as an indispensable foreign market for the industrial development of France. In his talks with Alexander I in Tilzit (1807) and Erfurt (1808), whenever the question of the partition of the Ottoman Empire arose, Napoleon I never failed to include Algeria in his future domains. To prepare for the conquest of the country in 1808, he sent the military engineer, Major Buten, to Algeria and Tunisia to make a topographical survey and work out a plan for the expedition. Although the defeats in Spain and Russia prevented Napoleon 1st from putting his plans into practice, Buten’s material was to come in handy during the preparations for the expedition of 1830.


    Charles X recalled Napoleon’s plans in the last days of the collapsing Bourbon monarchy. The greed for new markets was the primary reason for the conquest of the Algerian regency, as the country was called in the official documents of the time. Of no little importance was the desire of the French landowners, who had lost their lands during the Great Revolution, to acquire new estates. By conquering Algeria, the Bourbons hoped to strengthen their own tottering throne. Charles X and his Prime Minister, Polignac, calculated that the military adventure would stir up a wave of nationalist feelings and delay the revolution. Tsarist Russia supported the aggressive plans of the Bourbon monarchy. Although England objected, she offered no resolute opposition.


    As a propaganda pretext for the Algerian adventure, France raised the question of “piracy and the sufferings of prisoners in Algeria” as well as the financial account of the Dey government. It must be noted, however, that as far back as the 18th century and especially after the punitive expeditions of the European squadrons and the United States at the beginning of the 19th century, Maghreb piracy had fallen into decay and had long since ceased to serve as a profitable business for the ruling clique of Algeria. The Algerians’ opposition to the decisions of the Aix-la-Chapelle congress, however, made it possible for France to brand the Dey government as the protector of the pirates.


    The question of financial accounts was equally fictitious. During the revolution the Dey had sent supplies of wheat, salt-beef and hides to France, which was under a blockade at the time. He also supplied Bonaparte’s army with provisions during the Italian and Egyptian campaigns. The majority of the deliveries were made on a credit basis and the Dey received nothing in return. The agreement on the repayment of debts and settlement of mutual claims concluded later through the mediation of the Algerian Jewish merchants, Bakri and Bushnack, did not satisfy the Dey. He felt that the French had deceived him, and cheated the Algerian treasury of several million francs. The dispute over the debts lasted for several years and irritated the Dey and his men. Moreover, a conflict arose over the stronghold at La Calle, which the French had begun to fortify in spite of the formal prohibition of the Dey.  

    The differences were considerably aggravated by the French consul in Algeria, Pierre Deval. According to a French historian, in Algeria he was regarded as a person of questionable reputation, a rascal and unprincipled intriguer. He played a dirty and provocative role in the money conflict. Deval plotted, lied and exorted bribes from the Dey.


    One hot morning on April 29, 1827, during one of their countless squabbles, Deval gravely insulted the Dey, who in his indignation struck Deval with his fly-whisk.  This provided France with the long-awaited excuse. She immediately severed all relations with Algeria and blockaded the Algerian coast. At first she decided to act through the Egyptians. In 1829, Mohammed Ali, the governor of Egypt and one of France’s chief allies in the East, had almost agreed to attack Algeria, but then refused to bargain with France because of the insignificant reward that was offered.

    In such circumstances the Polignac government and Charles X decided to operate independently. On June 14, 1830, the 37,000-strong French army under General de Bourmont landed at Sidi-Ferruch (23 kilometres west of Algiers). Opposition was strong, but fruitless. In the fight for Algiers, the French lost 400 men and the Turks lost 10,000. On July 4, 1830, Fort de l’Empereur fell. In the evening, the Dey signed an unconditional surrender and on the following day, July 5, the French entered Algiers. On July 23, 1830, the Dey was deported, the janissaries left for Turkey, the enemy plundered the Algerian treasury (about 48,000,000 francs) and also seized the homes, land and property of many Algerians.

    Two weeks later, a revolution took place in Paris and Charles X’s shaky throne collapsed. General de Bourmont tried to send his troops to save the Bourbons, but met with the resistance of the soldiers. Having abandoned the army, he fled to Portugal.


    The July monarchy of Louis Philippe de Orleans accepted the Algerian heritage of the Bourbons and after some hesitation decided to continue fighting in the name of the self-interest of the new rulers of France-knights of the money bag and easy profit. ln 1834, in conformity with the recommendations of the “Commission on Africa,” Louis Philippe formally proclaimed Algeria’s annexation and organised the civil administration of the “French possessions in North Africa” under a governor-general. By that time France had occupied only the coastal towns of Algiers, Oran, Mostaganem, Arzew and Bougie as well as the Algerian coastline and Metija. The rest of the country would not surrender to the French authorities.


    Having seized Algiers, de Bourmont arrogantly announced in his report: “The whole kingdom will surrender to us within fifteen days without firing a single shot.” But he was mistaken. The French subdued the north of Algeria only after forty years of bloody fighting.

    No sooner had the news of the capital’s fall spread throughout the country than the tribes rose in arms against the enemy…

    (To be continued with episodes about the Algerian resistance to the French invasion)

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