THE FRENCH CONQUEST OF ALGERIA AND EUROPEAN SETTLEMENT, 1830s - 1870s

The French Conquest of Algeria, 1830 - 1870

             The French conquest of Algeria began in 1830 almost accidentally and certainly with little public discussion or consensus. From the sixteenth century to 1830, the "Regency of Algiers" had been a remote and semi-independent Regency of the Ottoman Empire. The territory was divided into three divisions or beyliks ruled by beys who reported to the dey in Algiers. Five percent of the ethnically and religiously diverse population of approximately three million lived in urban areas. The rest were sedentary cultivators and nomadic or semi-nomadic herders. The local economy was based on the extensive cultivation of grains and stock raising.

             The initial French invasion of Algiers was ostensibly triggered by a conflict over a French government debt to an Algerian firm; negotiations over French repayment broke down when the dey struck the French consul with a fly swatter. A more compelling proximate cause, no doubt, was French king Charles X's wish to divert his subjects' attention away from serious domestic problems. The Bourbon monarchy, restored following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, had become increasingly repressive and the nation increasingly polarized, especially after Charles X's ascension to the throne in 1824.

            The French troops landed at Sidi Ferruch, near Algiers, and conquered the city using contingency plans drawn up years earlier for Napoleon. Despite the considerable resistance by Algerian troops organized by local notables, the city fell to the French in three weeks on July 4, 1830. Many city dwellers fled, the dey left for Naples, and Turkish janissaries and bureaucrats were deported by mid-August (Ruedy 1992:50). In France, widespread celebration at the news of the victory occurred only in Marseille (Julien 1964:62). The rest of the country was ambivalent. Some feared the British reaction and the return of English-French hostilities, for the French conquest represented an obvious shift in the balance of power in the Mediterranean. There was also concern about the considerable expense of the conquest operation, future expenses that the army might incur, and the potential risks to national security in maintaining the French army overseas.

             The victory in Algiers failed to change public opinion in France about the monarchy. The 1830 revolution occurred only a few weeks after the Algiers conquest, overturning the Bourbon monarchy.
             When the French military generals stationed in Algiers received word of the revolution, they initially considered leaving for France to return their former king to power, but abandoned the idea because a lack of support from the troops.

            They resigned themselves instead to waiting for the arrival of their new general, who was being sent by the new regime. The soldiers, camped in the suburbs of Algiers, were left to their own devices and engaged in a generalized destruction of local property (Julien 1964:65). Speculators began to migrate across the Mediterranean to purchase homes and properties abandoned during the invasion (Ruedy 1992:52). As increasing numbers of the soldiers became ill with malaria and dysentery, they moved into Algiers, evacuated hundreds of inhabitants without compensation, turned Mosques into barracks, and took over palaces. Many soldiers deserted, and many local people fled the city. Thus began the French conquest of Algeria. The years to follow were characterized by similar violence and a general disorganization fueled by considerable ambivalence back in France. Throughout the nineteenth century, the French public and leadership alike were more engaged by internal politics than by North Africa, and no clear plans for the newly conquered territories emerged. Some politicians favored maintaining French control of the cities conquered thus far with a limited military presence. Others promoted full-scale colonization of the area and the settlement of substantial numbers of French migrants, a project that would require the securing of additional territories to serve as buffer zones to protect the settlers, and a larger and continued military presence. Because until 1870, French generals stationed in Algeria had considerable control over both military and civilian affairs and were rotated frequently, French military and colonization policy in Algeria shifted over the next four decades with the changing personalities and motivations of the particular general in charge.
For the autochthonous population, the period from 1830 to 1834 was the "time of anarchy" (Ageron 1991:11). Initially there was no generalized uprising against the French, but instead differential responses across the territory by local leaders.
             The first two generals, who tried with mixed results to co-opt ruling elites, were followed by General Rovigo, a former minister of police, who ruled ruthlessly from 1831 to 1833. Despite widespread protests, he turned the most venerated mosque of Algiers into the first Catholic Church of the colony and controlled the city with great brutality. As punishment for a purported theft, he had the entire tiny tribe of the Ouffia near Maison Carrée massacred; his soldiers brought back the villagers' heads on swords. For years after his departure, subsequent generals had to work hard to counteract the damage he had caused to French-Algerian relations.

Collectif des Guelmois GUELMA-FRANCE, avec l'aimable autorisation de Miss A. Smith