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Algeria – conquest by France

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Algeria's revolt has been shaped by a history of imperialism and revolution. As part of a new series, Alistair Farrow looks at the French conquest from the 1830s to the 1950s
Issue 2650
A painting depicting the battle at Coudiat-Ati in 1837
A painting depicting the battle at Coudiat-Ati in 1837

Behind the Algerian mass movement today lies almost 200 years of heroic resistance to imperialism.

The country was one of the birthplaces of European colonial domination that shaped the world.

France invaded Algeria in June 1830. Its royal Bourbon dynasty was in crisis at home, and thought that a successful foreign war could stem revolt.

While the adventure didn’t save their regime from revolution, the troops stayed in Algiers.

In 1834 the new king, Louis-Philippe, demanded the whole of Algeria beyond the northern coastal areas under French control.

The conquest of Algeria became the template for ­subsequent European ­campaigns in North Africa. Up until 1840 the French forces were fighting an uphill battle.

They were wracked by malaria and other diseases—and were hopelessly outmanoeuvred. Unusually for a colonial war, the French often had superior numbers, but were still thwarted at almost every turn.

The Algerian resistance was led by Emir Abdelkader—only 25 years old when he began to lead the fightback.

His army developed guerrilla tactics after suffering defeat in open battle at the hands of French general Thomas-Robert Bugeaud in 1836.

They made the interior of the country ungovernable. Where French outposts existed, they were put under siege.

When French forces wanted to travel away from the coast, they had to go in heavily armed and laboriously-supplied columns, constantly open to hit and run raids.

Such insurgent tactics were to be used successfully against European armies for decades across the colonial world.

But Bugeaud adopted some of the Algerians’ methods—and pioneered a policy of total war after 1840.

And his tactics were taken up by imperialists the world over when fighting to subdue local populations.

Bugeaud exploited religious and tribal tensions to ­undermine Algerian unity against the French.

He ordered troops to target crops and villages, killing indiscriminately.

Savage violence was used on the Algerians—in two separate incidents about 500 people who were hiding in caves were asphyxiated by Bugeaud’s troops.


There was hypocritical outcry in Paris when news of the brutality filtered back—to which Bugeaud reacted with contempt. This rift between the French government and Algeria’s military administration was to have a long legacy.

This dynamic would set the foundations for a failed coup attempt in the colony in 1961.

Eventually Bugeaud forced Abdelkader to surrender in 1847. But it took the intervention of 108,000 French troops.

A year later Louis Philippe declared the whole of Algeria as part of metropolitan France, not just a colony. It was described as being divided from mainland France as the river Seine divides Paris.

So losing Algeria would be a big blow to the French state, which is a reason why it reacted with such savagery to resistance.

After Abdelkader’s surrender local and regional uprisings happened frequently, but these were isolated and easily defeated by the French.

That all changed in 1871.

As workers and the poor rose up in the Paris Commune, people in Algeria watched closely.

Republicans in the colony were the first to move. There was a mood of rebellion—the French national flag was torn down from the governor’s palace and the revolutionary one hoisted up.

But the real rebellion was still to come. Algerians had been ­hammered by a famine between 1860 and 1870.

Over 500,000 people had died out of a population of just over 2.5 million.

And the French administration had done nothing to ­prevent it. In fact, colonists had systematically filled in wells and oases, which meant that whole herds of livestock were killed off.

There was a deep anger at the occupation and the thousands of indignities and ­brutalities forced on ordinary people.

A new leader, Cheikh Mokrani, and his supporters mustered an army of 100,000.


Within the space of a year they had won 340 battles against the French and ­controlled most of the east of the country.

But with the Paris Commune crushed, France could increase troop numbers in Algeria—to 85,000 in total—and the rebellion was brutally put down. Thousands were killed, and many more imprisoned or exiled.

The French also demanded a huge fine from tribes that had risen up, and took back 500,000 hectares of the best farming land.

The defeat of the 1871 uprising ushered in a time of even harsher repression for Algerians.

Brutal collective punishment for minor infractions became commonplace.

Dispossession took place on a mass scale. An 1873 law allowed the privatisation of communal lands.

The result was that by 1917 55 percent of registered land was in the hands of the French.

And there was extreme concentration of wealth and land—the vast majority of ­funding from the colonial administration went to the largest landowners.

They set about reorganising the economy. Huge vineyards were set up on the estates.

On top of all this, Algerians were systematically excluded from political life.

The French allowed them to follow Islamic law, but to be a citizen of France one had to subscribe to French law.

So by the early 20th ­century just 2,500 Algerians were French citizens with political rights.

After the Second World War France lay in ruins. But there was the prospect of peace, and liberty.

For Algerians there was no such hope. They still lived in poverty under a colonial regime.

The touch paper was lit at Setif on 8 May 1845. A big ­protest was planned for the day. For weeks before there had been reports of people attacking colonists.

The police chief in the town—who had only 20 officers at his command—banned rebel white and green flags on the protest. People waved them anyway.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened next, but it is agreed that a cop shot and killed a protester.

That unleashed five days of violent rioting.

Colonists found in the street were killed, and people went to nearby towns to hunt them down. Army barracks were raided.

The violence at Setif had been triggered by the actions of a vicious colonial regime. And now, for a hundred European dead, the French army and the ­colonists meted out a terrible vengeance.

Some estimates put the number of Algerian dead at 45,000—others at just over 1,000 and many others at ­somewhere between the two.

A French cruiser bombarded the town of Kerrata.

Some 40 villages were bombed from the air. There were indiscriminate killings.

The official death toll by the army was 600—it was likely far higher—and then there was the vigilante squads of colonists.

The Communist Party in Algeria joined in the calls for reprisals.

And in France, where the Communist Party was in government, it knew about the reprisals and silently condoned them.

That shameful silence meant Algerians were left to fight almost entirely alone.

For Algerians returning from fighting for France in the Second World War, the news was too much.

Thousands joined the resistance.

And nine years later this new movement struck its first blow against the French in November 1954 in what would become a bitter, prolonged war for liberation.

The French ruling class realised too late that it had created a population united in its burning hatred of the colonial regime.

In 1894 governor Jules Cambon had written that the breaking up of the old Algerian ruling families was intended to be a block on resistance.

But it had the opposite effect.

“We did not realise that in suppressing the forces of ­resistance in this fashion, we were also suppressing our means of action,” he wrote.

“The result is that we are today confronted by a sort of human dust on which we have no influence and in which movements take place which are to us unknown.”

After 1945 the stage was set for one of the most heroic struggles against imperialism in history.

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