Case Studies in Colonialism: Algeria and Morocco

Case Studies in Colonialism: Algeria and Morocco


Most of Africa was colonized by European powers between roughly 1885 in the 1960s. Historians have been trying to figure out the significance of that fact ever since. One way of looking at it is that colonialism was a crucial, modern episode in what we now call ‘globalization,’ that is, an episode in the often ugly process of forging global networks of rapid communication and trade and capitalist production. That’s a broad and useful generalization. Some broad generalizations about colonialism can be misleading, though. One misleading idea is that the nature and impact of Imperial overrule was the same in every part of Africa and at all times. It was not. I always tell my students that ‘god is in the details’ by which I mean we can’t really know what an abstraction – like colonialism – means unless we take a close, detailed look at particular places and times. And if we’re interested in understanding what colonialism was actually like, it can help to compare two places, especially ones that differ a good deal from one another. Here in these two colonial maps behind me we have two neighboring North African countries, Morocco and Algeria, remarkable for their differences even though they share a a border, religion, languages, ethnic profiles (Arab and indigenous so-called ‘Berber’ peoples live there), and so on. I’d like to show you two images to make those differences vivid. They’ll also suggests the variety of experiences that fall under the label ‘colonialism.’ Here we’re in Algiers. After Algeria gained its independence from France in 1962, The brand-new Algerian government sent back to France boatloads of statues depicting French heroes (including Joan of Arc), and erected instead statues of their own defiant heroes. Here we see, in downtown Algiers, Emir Abdel Kadir, the leader of Algerian forces fighting against the French invasion of 1830. He’s striking a pose similar to those of French military equestrian statues that used to be located all over Algiers. Here by contrast is Casablanca, Morocco. When Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956, the statue of its most famous governor – a man called Lyautey – was moved a few hundred yards away from where it dominated the administrative center of Casablanca. Today, Maréchal Lyautey is still there in the heart of the city, but he now sits discreetly behind a fence at the French consulate. Now, how do we explain the Algerian desire to obliterate the French presence (though simultaneously imitating it), while the Moroccans gently pushed some evidence of their presence to one side? What does this difference say about the range of experiences we cover when we use the one word ‘colonialism’? Even though they are neighbors Morocco and Algeria had very different experiences of French overrule. Let’s start with longevity. Morocco was a French protectorate for only 44 years (from 1912 to ’56), while Algeria was not even a colony but actually part of France for 132 years (from 1830 to 1962). When I say ‘protectorate’ I mean that the Moroccan Sultan was allowed to stay on the throne and in principle be advised by French ‘residents’ or governors like Lyautey. In addition, Morocco was not a settler colony; it was home to, at most, only a few hundred thousand French administrators, business people, and soldiers like these two nearly hidden uniformed figures in this French colonial postcard of the Sultan of Morocco. Algeria, on the other hand, had a much larger number of people with French and other ancestries mainly from Mediterranean Europe, who called Algeria home. Here we see a French Algerian couple amusing themselves, probably for a party by dressing up in Algerian costume; at its peak, Algeria was home to a million French people like them. Algeria won its independence from France in 1962, after a bloody war whose traumatic violence is only suggested by this photo, while Morocco’s struggle was relatively brief and less violent. Looking at these two colonial experiences side-by-side brings home the wide range of experiences subsumed under the simple word ‘colonialism’. Those facts certainly help to explain the different post-colonial fate of the statues we’ve just seen. The fact that today Morocco is a monarchy and has allowed Lyautey’s statue to remain and that Algeria is a post-socialist state and deported the statues of French heroes, owes a good deal to these two different models of domination. ironically employed by the same country, France. But we shouldn’t let these profound differences mislead us: the two countries also had similar experiences of colonialism. I’ll mention in this short talk only three important facets of this shared experience of being ruled by a foreign power. I’m labeling them — inequality, modernity, collaboration — and I’ll illustrate each one with a deliberately provocative picture. Inequality. This man having his shoes shined in Algeria could vote and probably had a well-paying job, while the parents of the shoeshine boy surely could not, and probably lived in a shanty town or bidonville. Other examples of colonial inequality abound. Here are just a few examples drawn from Morocco, though they’re pertinent for Algeria, too: in 1937, Muslim farmers near a city called Meknès were angry that river water was unfairly redirected from their fields to the fields of European settlers; At about the same time, half the Muslims in Casablanca lived in bidonvilles without paved streets, running water, or electricity; the workers who lived there were prohibited from organizing, and their leaders were constantly harassed and even arrested If we look at educational figures, the evidence of not just exploitation but also of neglect is overwhelming: for example, of the 4,000 students at the very good University of Algiers in 1945 only a hundred and fifty were Muslim, and when the war for independence began nine years later in 1954 only one Algerian Muslim child in ten went to school, leaving the others to survive by, for example, shining shoes. In Morocco, on the other hand, the French did establish schools for the sons of elite families – though the majority of students were at vocational schools – but Morocco’s modern university system began to develop only after independence. The literacy rate at Independence was about ten percent in Algeria and thirteen percent in Morocco. ample evidence of an aspect of inequality that can, at best, be called neglect. But the story wasn’t only one of neglect and inequality. Here we move on to our second shared colonial attribute: modernity. This picture of Madame Luce’s school for girls was taken in Algiers about 1856. I’ve chosen it to signify that European overrule brought new, stimulating institutions and ideas to both Algeria and Morocco, in this case a school that Madame Luce founded to teach literacy and a craft, embroidery, to girls who in this picture may be reading or doing math. Madame Luce had a dream of encouraging her students to assimilate aspects of French culture. Note that the writing on the blackboard is both Arabic and French. She was providing a secular education about the wider mid-19th c world: note the map. She believed in slogans – “the civilizing mission” and “assimilation” – that we may now find offensive because of the hierarchy of cultures that those words imply, but Madame Luce did try to plant which she called “the germ of an intellectual and moral revolution” unquote, by training girls to calculate numbers to serve as interpreters and assistants in schools, and so to avoid the poverty that could lead to prostitution. I wish I could quote to you the girls’ responses to their education, but given the lack of documentation, we can only guess that they appreciated gaining a skill that allowed them to earn money; certainly the fact that their parents sent them there is a sign that some local families were embracing this new opportunity. While there’s no doubt that the local population in Morocco and Algeria was generally neglected and that modern services were meant mainly to serve the French interests, French rule did indeed introduce social services like this school and hospitals. And, as Algerian novelist Assia Djebar once observed, the French also introduced the French language a language that rescued Djebar’s father from his family’s poverty, and gave her a liberating language for which she felt quote “a contradictory, ambiguous love” Collaboration This pair of photographs illustrates the third of my three points about the similarities between the colonial experience in Morocco and Algeria. They give evidence that helps us answer the question, pertinent to all of Africa, how did so few colonial officers manage to govern so many people? The answer is that they were helped by local people — serving as soldiers, interpreters, adminstrators — whom they employed and usually rewarded for their service and loyalty. That’s the significance of this late 19th century photograph showing a Berber family from the mountains of Algeria. What will first strike your eye is the women’s jewelry, no doubt worn for the benefit of the photographer, but what interests me more is the ‘jewelry’ worn by the man at the back left, that is, the French medals he wears that are probably military medals. In fact, his earnings could well have contributed to the purchase of the women’s jewels. Colonized men served in the French army in both Algeria and Morocco. In fact, there were more Algerians serving in the French army in 1962 than there were Algerian soldiers fighting for independence! Another facet of this collaboration was legal or administrative. You see the father of a former student of mine in Algeria. He had proudly served as an interpreter in French courts in Algeria. I’ve chosen these pictures to signify the danger of assuming that all colonized people opposed the colonizer all the time. They did not. Their reasons for ‘collaborating’ were various and complicated; for example, sometime’s people’s political stances were determined by their relation with other members of their own family. We don’t do justice to the complexity of history and people’s motivations by suggesting that colonialism was always and simply ‘us/the locals’ vs. ‘them/the foreigners’. I can’t speak for the family on the left but I do know that the gentleman on the right was critical of the government of independent Algeria, and that his son now lives and teaches in France. My point here is that so few colonial officers were able to rule so many colonized people not always because of brute force — which was indeed terrible in some places and times, though less evident in others — but also because of numerous collaborators; it might be be a good idea to ask our students to think seriously about the various reasons why people would collaborate or, to choose less loaded words, simply to work along with the colonizer. Let’s return to my opening point that ‘god is in the details’. Even in Algeria the official anti-French story is not the only one; others may be more hidden, but they are there. Here is, or more precisely was, the Monument to the Dead in Algiers: this structure was built in 1928 to honor both Muslim and French Algerian men who died fighting in World War One. It became a focal point for patriotic ceremonies in French Algeria. In 1978, 16 years after independence, a group of Algerian sculptors covered it in concrete rather than allow it to be torn. That’s why you can no longer see the heroic Muslim and Christian horseme who are still there inside, and see instead only a fist breaking chains. The story I was told in Algiers — even if it is an urban legend, it strikes me as significant because it reflects what some people today want to believe – is that the Algerian sculptors refused to destory the statue in 1978 because they considered it a masterpiece and preferred to hide the statue until time — a time which has apparently not yet arrived — when everyone can appreciate its beauty, when the official Algerian line on colonialism has become less strident. I’d like to conclude by sharing with you an epiphany I had when I was a young professor at the University of Oran in Algeria. One day I asked my students why the war for national liberation began in 1954. Full of nationalist fervor — I was teaching there in 1976, before popular disaffection with the FLN government became significant — they looked at me with incredulity. “Do you think we were meant to be slaves?” they asked. “Of course not,” I replied, “but the war began in 1954 and Algeria had been colonized since 1830. Why did the war for national liberation begin in 1954?” They understood. They appreciated the question. They began to think like historians. I find this question — why then? — to be the best means to get students to think historically. It gives them a tool to resist teleological thinking, to resist reading history backwards. It helps liberate them from political rhetoric and encourages them to take a closer look, a look behind the official story to see the complexities, to see the other stories that were actually there, but may be hidden like the horsemen beneath the, perhaps temporary, concrete shroud.

8 thoughts on “Case Studies in Colonialism: Algeria and Morocco

  1. the "war" of independance from 1954/1962 was a phase more like a batle ,was not the war that made algeria gained independance cause algeria gained its independance after a series of revolutions" you underesmated " -the slave starts to think about freedom the moment he is enslaved or he would never gained i again – but as a historian you already know that.still I could not understand you asked the last question though.

  2. What you fail to mention is that Morocco has fought in bloody wars against both Spanish and French occupations…in the rif region between 1880 and 1926 before any Algerian war against France. This bloody war was the inspiration for Algeria to fight against colonial french presence

  3. As a historian, you probably don't know much about Algerian History and most of your statistics are wrong (10% of Algerians were educated, are you serious ? is this the reason why Algeria had 2 lawyers for 9 millions people in 1962 ?)

    Resistance began in 1830, there were numerous battles and many people who fought against the french since the very beginning (Ahmed Bey, Emir Abdelkader, El mokrani, Cheikh Haddad, Lala Fatma Nsoumer , Boubeghla … etc) until 1908 with the revolt of Cheikh Bouamama.
    After that, algerians tried political and ideological revolutions, with ibn baddis and messali lhadj.
    However algerians understood that they will not recover their independance after the end of world was 2 (1945) where they were promised to be independant if they help France in its war against Germany, but France didn't respect its promise.

    Since then a group of young algerians were preparing for a military opposition, they understood that they need a big coordination in this massive country and in 1954 the war started.

  4. Arab Muslims need someone to hate and blame for all their ills. Granted, France committed many atrocities in Algeria, it probably would have been better for France to pay them reparations than invite them to live in France with all the problems they have been creating and will continue to create for many decades to come. Arab Muslims will blame Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and yes even Switzerland for being deserving of the terrorism they committ aginst these countries, so if you are western , you are the enemy , and the one to blame. Ironically The Ottomans did the same thing to the Arabs, and they were the largest colonizing power in modern history , but no one is asking for revenge-simply because the Ottomans were Muslims, but make no mistake , they were as brutal toward the indigenous people without the building of scholls, roads, and technology that the Europeans did.

  5. I’m Algerian and this woman knows nothing about the history of Algeria .
    All what she said is hilariously wrong . First of all , there were many battles fighting colonialism and they are all famous and known named as well as their heroes starting from Emir Abdelkader and cheikh Heddad , El Mokrani …etc the war of 1954-1962 was the last war that ultimately brought independence .
    This lady wants to defend colonialism lol
    She knows nothing

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