The modern historiography of North Africa is dominated by controversy over European colonization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which has colored the view of the past 3,000 years. Beginning with the French capture of Algiers in 1830, this colonization was the second such wave in modern times. The first began with the capture of Ceuta by the Portuguese in 1415; it followed on from the Reconquista, the annexation of Muslim Spain by the Christian kingdoms of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon that was completed in 1492 with the fall of Granada to the newly united kingdom of Spain.
By 1492 the Portuguese were in possession of Ceuta and Tangier, together with Arzila and Larache on the Atlantic coast of northern Morocco. By 1515 they had occupied Agadir, Agouz, Safi, Mazagan, and Azemmour on the coast of southern Morocco, whereas the Spaniards had taken Melila, Mers el-Kebir, Oran, Bijaya, and Tripoli along the Mediterranean coast, and garrisoned the port of Algiers; Tunis was captured in 1535. By 1575, however, only Mazagan remained to the Portuguese in southern Morocco, whereas Spain had lost everything east of Oran. By 1700 Tangier, Arzila, and Larache had been evacuated; Mazagan, Mers el-Kebir, and Oran would be evacuated as well by 1800. By 1830 only Ceuta and Melila were left to Spain.
The motives of Portugal and Spain were various. In the case of Portugal, crusading zeal served the purpose of trade, as the Moroccan ports became links in the chain that led to sub-Saharan Africa and the Indies. In the case of Spain, such zeal served the purpose of defense against the counter-crusade of Muslim pirates operating out of North Africa. Both the Iberian conquests and the piracy were symptomatic of the weakness of central government by the Wattasids, Ziyanids, and Hafsids, the dynasties ruling Morocco from Fez, western Algeria from Tlemcen, and eastern Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania from Tunis. Lack of control of their largely tribal territories exposed the coast to invasion while leaving resistance to the people. It was through such resistance that the political vacuum was eventually filled, in Morocco by a Mahdist movement that reunited the country under the Saadian dynasty. Along the Mediterranean coast, the feat was performed by pirates from the Ottoman Aegean. ‘Aruj (d. 1518), his brother Barbarossa (d. 1546), and their successors not only drove the Spaniards from Algiers, Bijaya, Tunis, and Tripoli, but as admirals of the Ottoman fleet, conquered the region for the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the sixteenth century the modern political divisions of North Africa had been established with the formation to the east of Morocco of three Ottoman provinces ruled from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, all three were effectively independent under rulers of Turkish origin.
This enduring political achievement, that stemmed from the conflict with Spain and Portugal and provided the framework for the subsequent colonization of North Africa by France, Italy, and Spain, meanwhile, introduced 200 years of dependence upon Europe, both as an enemy and as a trading partner. As an enemy, Christian Europe provided rich pickings for state-sponsored piracy in the Mediterranean, where the so-called Barbary corsairs ran a profitable business in raids upon European shipping and European coasts for captives held to ransom and goods that were frequently sold back to European merchants. In Morocco, the expulsion from Spain in 1610 of the Moriscos, Muslims whose forcible conversion to Christianity had never been accepted as genuine, led to the creation of a pirate base at Sale, from which the so-called Sallee rovers operated in the Atlantic as far as the British Isles and Iceland. By the eighteenth century, however, such piracy was increasingly regulated by diplomacy, whereby various flags were exempted from attack in return for tribute. Growing numbers of European merchants were represented by consuls, whereas North African Jews with European connections acted as agents for the sultans, deys, beys, and pashas—the rulers of these so-called Barbary states. Morocco’s capitals were inland and, for many years under the ‘Alawite dynasty that succeeded the Saadian in the middle of the seventeenth century, trade with the infidel was restricted. But in 1760 the port of Mogador (now known as Essaouira) was created for the export of grain to provide the sultan with much-needed revenue.
North Africa thus lay on a frontier between two civilizations. In the eyes of Thomas Shaw (1694-1751), chaplain to the English consulate at Algiers in the 1720s, the Ottoman provinces were quite well governed, but socially and economically reminiscent of the primitive world of the Bible. Scientifically they had fallen far below the standards of mediaeval Islam, whereas Roman civilization was a thing of the past. William Lempriere (d. 1834), traveling from Gibraltar to Marrakesh in the 1780s, saw mainly desolation and despotism. These themes acquired a fresh significance in the nineteenth century, when the sense of European superiority was translated into conquest and colonization. The bombardment of Algiers by the British fleet in 1816 was a statement that piracy could no longer be tolerated, and that the North African states were no longer free to act in defiance of Europe. In relation to Europe, however, their rights were at a discount. When the dey of Algiers sued the French government for payment of debts outstanding from the supply of grain to France in the 1790s, the case gave rise to a diplomatic incident. In 1827 the flicking of the French consul with the flywhisk of an angry dey became the justification for the French capture of Algiers in 1830. As an expedient to keep the government of Charles X (1757-1836; King of France 1824-1830) in power it failed; but as a triumph of civilization over barbarism it became the justification for the conquest and colonization of the dey’s dominions under the new name of Algeria.
Whatever it meant in practice, this notion of a civilizing mission sustained the French Empire in North Africa almost to the end. It depended upon a definition of the barbarism it was designed to overcome, a mental exercise that began in 1830 and continued down to 1950. Blame for the perceived backwardness of the region was variously apportioned between the Turks and Oriental despotism in general, Arab nomads who had ruined the agriculture of Roman Africa, and Islam— a religion that had stupefied the population. The thesis found its final expression after World War II (19391945), when the formation of the French Union generated a series of publications to which Eugene Guernier (b. 1882), editor of L’Encyclopedie Coloniale et Maritime, contributed La Berberie, I’Islam et la France. This was a history of North Africa in which the native inhabitants, the Berbers, of the same race and customs as the Spaniards, and thus completely different from the Arabs, had profited from Roman civilization and Christianity, but succumbed to poverty and superstition under Islam; the task of France had been to return the land and people to the European fold.
Guernier’s version of North African history is a colonial myth. The state of affairs in 1830, however, remains contentious: a comparatively prosperous economy and society going its own way in its own time; a backward economy and society structurally unable to progress; or one whose natural development had been inhibited by a long history of confrontation with external enemies. What is important is not the weakness of the states created in the sixteenth century, but their durability. Over the centuries their governments had taken increasing control of their territories and inhabitants while becoming ever more firmly identified with their societies. It was this structure that the French took over and adapted.
They did not do so without destruction. Like the Portuguese and the Spaniards before them, the French in Algeria encountered the opposition of tribal peoples left without central government by the removal of the Turkish elite. Within ten years, confrontation had escalated into war for the interior of the country with the Mahdist leader Abdelkader (1808-1883), whose defeat and final surrender in 1847 was only accomplished by a huge army and the ruthless devastation of the countryside. Invasion of the mountains of Great Kabylia completed the conquest in 1857, but major revolts down to 1871 entailed further loss of life and livelihood. In 1848
Alexis deTocqueville (1805-1859) declared that the country had been depopulated and its civilization ruined.
However true, his statement was an attack on the policies of the monarchy of Louis Philippe (1773-1850, King of France 1830-1848) by a partisan of the Second Republic, symptomatic of a conflict over Algeria that continued under the Second Empire and the Third Republic. In that conflict, the ideal of liberty, equality, and fraternity mingled with the concept of a colony of settlement by immigrants from the mother country and the alternative vision of a colony of exploitation by capital investment and technical assistance. The battle over these principles was waged between Paris, the army, and the settlers within the framework of the Constitution of 1848, which declared Algeria to be an integral part of France and subject to its laws. Within that framework, the slogans of assimilation and association acquired different meanings. In principle, the assimilation of the country into the departmental and communal structure of government in France required the integration of the conquered population into the French nation; but for the settlers it applied only to themselves as citizens distinct from native subjects. To the Saint-Simonians in the army under the Second Empire, believing in progress through technology, association meant partnership with the native population; but to the settlers it meant apartheid.
The outcome was a series of compromises that favored the settlers after the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870. The native population was given the vote in local elections on a limited franchise with minority representation; most, however, were placed in so-called mixed communes under administrators rather than mayors. As Muslims they were declared to be subjects and not citizens unless they agreed to live entirely under French as distinct from Islamic family law, while as subjects they were penalized by a special criminal code. A further anomaly was the continued separation of Algeria from France under a governor-general, reinforced by the creation of a representative assembly of the settlers in 1903. As full citizens, this pursued their civilizing mission at the expense of the indigenous majority, acquiring land for the production of wine and grain and raising taxes for their own benefit. The Muslim population was increasingly impoverished. Attempts by Paris to rectify a system so out of line with metropolitan France came to nothing.
Saint-Simonianism may have failed in Algeria, but the ideal of association lived on in a second generation of imperialists who believed in the creation of a French empire to compensate for defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1971. In a climate of international rivalry, they acquired Tunisia in 1881 and Morocco in 1912, but on terms very different from Algeria. So, too, was the political philosophy. The occupation of Tunisia, ostensibly to regulate the country’s debts and prevent tribal incursions into Algeria, was followed in 1883 by the establishment of a protectorate over a theoretically sovereign state in which a French resident-general directed the government on behalf of the bey. In Morocco, the French gained control of the finances of the country by the Act of Algeciras (1906) before establishing a French and Spanish protectorate by the Treaty of Fez in 1912. A French resident-general was installed together with a Spanish commissioner for a Spanish zone along the Mediterranean coast, and a Committee of Control for Tangier. In Tunisia the first resident, Paul Cambon (1843-1924), set out to complete the reform of government begun by the beys and their ministers over the past fifty years, by inviting the Tunisians to participate in the modernization of their country. In Morocco the struggle of the sultans, defeated by France at the Battle of Isly in 1845 and by Spain at Tetouan in 1860, to bring the tribal people of the mountains and the desert under their administration, while losing control of foreign trade to European merchants and consuls, was taken over by the new French resident, Marshal Louis-Herbert-Gonzalve Lyautey (1854-1934). Although, as in Algeria, this meant a campaign of conquest that culminated in a major war in the Spanish zone in 1926, Lyautey aimed to win the support of the Moroccans by promotion of the sultan as the embodiment of state and society. In both Tunisia and Morocco, this combination of separate statehood with paternalism was a victory for association over assimilation.
The partition of Morocco between France and Spain extended into the Sahara, where Spain was allocated the tiny enclave of Ifni and a narrow strip to the north of a line that fixed the Moroccan frontier at 28° N. To the south along the coast was the Spanish Sahara, while to the east was an immense extension of Algeria that began with the occupation of the oasis of Touat in 1900 and ended with that of Tindouf in 1934. Morocco was thus excluded from the Sahara, although its southeastern frontier with Algeria remained undefined. Meanwhile the Italians invaded Libya in 1911. Resistance in what had been an Ottoman province since 1835 was nevertheless so fierce that by 1921 the Italians had conceded autonomy to the Sanusiyya order in Cyrenaica, and constitutional representation in Tripolitania. Such liberalism was terminated in 1922 by the Fascists, who for the next ten years fought the Sanusiyya in Cyrenaica before undertaking a program of settlement by land distribution on the French model.
Ironically, by the 1930s the French had abandoned such a program not only in Algeria, but in Tunisia and Morocco, where it had been introduced in the 1900s and 1920s. The economy of the three countries now depended upon the export of wine, grain, and olive oil, together with phosphates and iron ore. But the economies of scale required by the overseas market had put an end to the original vision of a countryside densely populated by European farmers. The settler population of Algeria, now native to the country, had moved into the cities, leaving their original smallholdings to be amalgamated into large estates. The result, said Jacques Berque (1910-1995), was a land without people, and in the case of the Muslim population, a people without land. Across North Africa that population was outgrowing its means of subsistence, leaving the countryside for work in France, and like the settlers, crowding into the cities. This transformation of society was the background to the advance of North Africa to independence.
Agitation started in Algeria and Tunisia before World War II in Morocco during the 1930s. It began as an extension of the French debate over assimilation and association, but ended with a demand for independence. In Tunisia and Morocco it called on the protectorate to prepare the nation for eventual independence in the spirit of association; in Algeria it called for citizenship in the spirit of assimilation. But in 1934 the Destour or Party of the Constitution founded by the Young Tunisians in 1920 was eclipsed by the Neo-Destour, a mass party aiming at immediate independence. In 1943 the Moroccans followed suit with the Istiqlal or Independence Party. In pursuit of assimilation, the Young Algerians concentrated on the question of citizenship, against the demand by Islamic scholars in the 1930s for the association of the Muslim population with the French on equal terms. But both demands were overtaken by the formation in 1936 of the Algerian People’s Party, which, like the Neo-Destour, called for independence.
The French treated this agitation as the work of an unrepresentative minority of basically loyal subjects. But the transformation of traditional society accomplished by colonization gave the new nationalists new supporters, and their movements continued to grow. In Algeria assimilation was gradually implemented with an extension of the franchise leading up to the concession of citizenship in 1947 and its final introduction in 1959. Reprisals for the killing of Europeans at Setif in 1945, however, escalated into war after the outbreak of rebellion in 1954. The impatience of extremists and the military reaction to their terrorism cut short the slow but steady progress toward a peaceful compromise. It precipitated the end of French Algeria in 1962, when the Europeans refused counter-assimilation into an independent Algerian nation, and left en bloc. The war likewise cut short French resistance to the independence of Tunisia and Morocco, which became sovereign in 1956.
At independence, the French version of North African history gave way to a nationalist account of liberation from oppression, rapidly clouded by the disappointment of conflicting hopes for democracy, socialism, and Islam under the rule of autocratic kings and presidents. In Algeria dissatisfaction with the performance of the one-party state culminated in Islamist terrorism during the 1990s, but in slow progress toward plural democracy in the only country to have had some experience of representative government throughout the colonial period. Stability has nevertheless been maintained by regimes working through parliamentary institutions to complete the modernization of government in the colonial period, and provide a secure framework for national politics. In Libya, where Britain took over from Italy after World War II, the monarchy set up by the United Nations in 1950 relied on British and American assistance until 1969, the military coup of the anti-Western Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (b. 1942) and a more lasting constitutional experiment in nation-building.
Even in the case of Libya, however, the ties with Europe have been unbreakable. Not only has Europe remained North Africa’s main trading partner, taking oil and gas from Algeria and Libya and sending tourists to Morocco and Tunisia, but since independence the flow of immigrants from Europe into North Africa has been reversed by the emigration of North Africans to Europe to escape the poverty of a rapidly growing population. The problem of assimilation has thus been exported to metropolitan France and its neighbors, whereas North Africa has benefited in receiving remittances from these emigres, from technical assistance and trade agreements. Economic growth, however, has yet to outstrip the rise in population, which poses a problem for Europe as well as North Africa. But while North Africa might welcome association with the European Union, the sense of a cultural barrier remains, and Europe has yet to agree on a constructive approach to removing it.