The French Conquest of Algiers

How France became caught up in an unexpectedly complicated imperial adventure in 1830, eventually adding almost all of what is now Algeria to its empire.

The bombardment of Algiers, 1830. Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. Public Domain.

In July 1830 a French expeditionary force conquered the city of Algiers and by 1847, almost all of the territory of what is now Algeria north of the Sahara had been subdued. The conquest brought to an end nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule and inaugurated what was to be a French colony for over 130 years. At the time, neither outcome was recognized for what they were and the immediate intentions of the French government – still, just, a Bourbon monarchy – were short-term and governed by domestic considerations.

In 1830 Algiers was, with Tunis and Tripoli, one of three regencies under the suzerainty of the Sultan in Constantinople. The Sultan’s control was little more than nominal, but it was still acknowledged to the extent that the ruler (Dey) of each regency took his authority from investiture by the Sultan and that the Sultan expected and received regular tribute. Similarly all European powers with an interest in the trade and politics of the Mediterranean accepted that the regencies were an integral part of the Ottoman empire and, except during the Napoleonic wars, made few attempts to occupy or conquer them.

Algiers was, however, to all intents and purposes an independent state. Its population in the city and surrounding countryside was around three million and was a mixture of Arab, Kabyle (Berber) and Moor, with a ruling class of predominantly Turkish origin and a significant Jewish minority. Its economy was based mostly on the production of grain, wool and timber, but in the nineteenth century there had been a resurgence of piracy, which contributed significantly to the Dey's income. Piracy had been a way of life on the North African coast since at least the sixteenth century and had proved resistant to attempts by other trading nations to root it out: starting with an expedition by the Emperor Charles V in 1541 there had been at least fifteen attempts to limit the activities of the corsairs but a combination of factors, including the difficult coastline and a lack of co-ordination on the part of the European states had meant that none had succeeded. Moreover, both the Dey and some European states had a vested interest in allowing the corsairs freedom of action, at least within limits. From about the sixteenth century the Dey assumed rights of search and inspection over passing ships. By permitting corsairs to carry out this semi-official function he both gave them protection and shared their plunder, which consisted mainly of treasure and Christian slaves, some of whom could be ransomed. The Dey also granted exemptions from being exposed to the search and inspection regime; states whose ships enjoyed the exemption paid a fee in proportion to the yield from the corsairs that had just been foregone - the Dey's opportunity cost, in other words. Most European states expressed a public repugnance for the principle of exemption but most - Great Britain, France, Spain, Sweden, the United Provinces - had at one time or another such a working relationship with the Dey: they considered that it was in their interests to allow the corsairs to plunder their rivals' ships rather than their own.

During the eighteenth century the extent of corsair activity diminished, possibly because the Dey benefited more from the granting of exemptions than the profits from plunder, but more probably because the development of convoys escorted by heavily gunned warships made the activity more risky. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars diverted naval escorts from the corsair risk and allowed their activity to resume to the point where its elimination (and that of its counterparts in Greek and Caribbean waters) was on the agenda of the international conferences in Vienna and Aix-laChapelle in 1815-16.

Forceful naval action was effective in reducing the extent of corsair activity and even eliminating it as far as the ships of some countries, such as the United States, were concerned. It had little prospect of rooting it out entirely unless the Dey of Algiers saw it as in his own interests to co-operate or was compelled to do so. It is arguable that, in the years following the defeat of Napoleon, the British were best placed to achieve that goal, having by far the most powerful naval forces and with a long-standing and apparently influential diplomatic presence in Algiers. But it was the French who actually did.

France's association with Algiers arose from her interest in both the North African littoral trade and the direct trade, mostly through Marseilles. There had been French trading concessions at Bone and La Calle since at least the sixteenth century and the regency had been an important source of grain during years of poor harvests in France. In particular there had been shipments in 1794 and 1798, the latter as part of the supplies for Napoleon's expedition against Egypt: it was the question of payment for these shipments that led, indirectly and without any expectation of the eventual outcome, to France's justification for the conquest and occupation.

Relations between France and Algiers had been continuous but not always harmonious. Correspondence between the Dey and the French Foreign Ministry show them often to have been quite tense, with low points seeming to coincide with the Dey's perception that official gifts had fallen short of expectations. Letters show that the discussion of payment for the grain bought in 1798 continued throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century and that it was complicated by uncertainty as to the exact amount due, and to whom: both parties had used financial intermediaries who had themselves borrowed money in anticipation of the settlement of their accounts. The French governments over the whole period (Directory, Consulate, Empire and Restoration) acknowledged that a debt existed and in 1801, 1817 and 1821 sanctioned its full or partial settlement. The execution of payment each time fell victim to other priorities, to disputes with the creditors or to disagreements between government and the chamber of deputies over the control of funds or the propriety of the debt. It is not entirely clear whether the shipment of 1798 was ever even partially paid for.

In 1827 the French consul in Algiers was Pierre Deval. He had been appointed in 1815, but had never been popular either with other members of the diplomatic corps, who did not trust him, or with the trading companies of Marseilles, who felt that he was insufficiently protective of their interests. Most damaging of all was the Dey's strong dislike of him. The Dey regarded Deval as arrogant and an intriguer, and on more than one occasion demanded his recall. In 1827 the dislike was compounded by Deval's support for the illegal construction of fortifications at La Calle and Bone. These were quickly demolished by the Dey's troops, but the relationship between the two men was sour by the time of the notorious coup d'eventail in April 1827. This incident, in which the Dey struck Deval with his fly whisk, may have been provoked by Deval's contemptuous response to the Dey's request for news about the progress of some correspondence between the courts of Paris and Algiers: 'Le Roi et l'etat ne peuvent envoyer de réponses aux lettres que tu leur as adressées.'

The steps that led from the trading of some relatively trivial diplomatic insults to invasion and occupation were slow and haphazard and it is unlikely that either party foresaw or intended the eventual outcome. Deval himself seems to have taken over a month to report his version of the incident and it is possible that the first knowledge that the French government had of the meeting came from the Dey rather than their own representative. The government's severe reaction was unexpected and a shock to both parties, and the terms set out by France for the resolution of the incident were described by the Dey 'comme composés par des fous': their rejection must have been intended and provided the justification for the mounting of a full naval blockade of the port of Algiers in June 1827.

The decision to take a strong line with Algiers, and subsequently to escalate it, was not a foregone conclusion and needs to be seen in the context of French domestic politics and of her wider foreign policy. By 1827, Charles X had been on the throne for three years and his style of government derived from a firm belief in the principles of royal power, the Catholic Church and the rights of the nobility. On his accession Charles had accepted the principles of the charter of 1814 which guaranteed a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy. But his government was in a permanent state of tension with the elected Chamber of Deputies. The issue of Algiers barely registered on the scale of the Chamber's interests, but some of the King's ministers, including his chief minister Villele and minister of war Clermont-Tonnerre, argued strongly that a foreign policy success - such as the bringing to heel of the Dey of Algiers - would redound to the credit and glory of the King, possibly at the expense of the Chamber. That such arguments were couched in terms of coming to the Chamber 'les clés d'Alger à la main' suggests that the ministers saw a possible expedition in terms of the King's relationship with the Chamber and were already at least considering events beyond the blockade. Charles X himself was certainly sensitive to the advantages of glory and his faith would automatically have clothed that glory in Christian, and crusading, armour. From the start of the crisis, therefore, the royal government was in favour of firm action for these rather abstract reasons; the more concrete objectives of the elimination of piracy and the ending of Christian slavery were only declared later.

Other advisers and interests were more cautious. First, the army was a royal rather than a national institution and owed its loyalty to the King. There were grumbles in the ranks about low pay and poor promotion prospects but there is no evidence that the army initiated or encouraged the proposals for an eventual invasion. In fact, the reverse is more likely to be true, for there were many in the war ministry who considered that French naval and military resources were already overstretched: there were commitments in Spain, South America and Greece, all areas thought to be of greater strategic relevance to France than North Africa.

Second, Marseilles trading interests had nothing to gain either from the prolongation of the blockade or from stronger action. The blockade was estimated to be costing 8 million francs in 1828 and was too easily evaded by Algerine ships. It was clearly ineffective in achieving its objective of the diplomatic humbling of the Dey and a number of companies urged the government to bring the dispute to a close so that normal trading could resume. Such trading did not require an invasion or an occupation and therefore it is more likely that the Marseilles interests were seeking a diplomatic settlement rather than colonization: there is little evidence of anything that could be described as a strong colonial lobby, although any solution that restored some stability would no doubt have found favour.

By 1829 the issue of Algiers had begun to feature in parliamentary debates but usually in the context of more general criticism of royal policy rather than any clear declaration of what should happen there. The government, with some gentle pressure from the Sultan and the Khedive of Egypt, had been attempting a new diplomatic approach to the Dey, but the stakes were raised in August 1829 when the ship carrying the government's representative, La Bretonnière, was fired on by Algerine coastal batteries. There was no serious damage, but the incident was a clear breach of diplomatic protocol. It is still not obvious why the batteries fired, but their action allowed the ground to be cleared for punitive action on the part of France.

The King announced his decision to authorize an expedition to Algiers in February 1830 but, before it could be launched, a number of domestic and international hurdles had to be overcome. Charles X's chief minister now was the Prince de Polignac, a former ambassador to London who shared the King's belief in the royal prerogative; he was unpopular both with the Chamber of Deputies and with any who feared for the survival of the constitutional rights granted in 1814. The domestic debate was therefore closely bound up with parliamentary concerns that a military-success might give the King encouragement to threaten those rights. Before its prorogation, the Chamber of Deputies wished the expedition every success, but there was concern that the original cause of France's dispute with Algiers was minor and that the timing of the much firmer action had been dictated by domestic considerations. There was also concern over the shroud of mystery that surrounded the government's military and diplomatic preparations and suspicion that these only accelerated steps towards more extensive personal rule by Charles X and Polignac and towards what some termed 'liberticide'.

The diplomatic manoeuvres were complex. Polignac's starting assumption was that the Ottoman empire was on the point of collapse and that that event, most likely to be hastened by Russian intervention, would lead to a general distribution of territories in Europe. In Polignac's view, France's primary goals should be the restoration of her 'natural frontiers', which would be achieved by the annexation of Belgium and/or the adjustment of the borders of Lorraine in relation to Luxembourg or Prussia. Success in these goals would undoubtedly bring the King glory, but the conquest of Algiers could be either an additional feather in the royal cap or something to be going on with pending the resolution of the wider issues. Even before the expedition to Algiers had been authorized by the King, Polignac had been in discussion with the Khedive of Egypt, Mehemet Ali, about the prospect of a joint campaign by France and Egypt against the Dey. The outcome of this campaign would be the resolution of France's quarrel and the control of North Africa falling to Mehemet AH (including the regencies of Tunis and Tripoli which had not had any disputes with France or Egypt.) The negotiations came to nothing for a number of reasons: Mehemet Ali's demands from France in terms of ships and money were too high; the French military and naval commands were sceptical that any such combined operation with land and sea forces could be practical; and the Sultan, who had been presented with the plan as a means of allowing him to reassert control over the regencies, was reluctant to reinforce the prestige of the Khedive or to encourage the latter's independent relations with France.

One of the many charges that the parliamentary debates laid against the government was that their operations against Algiers would provoke international opposition: why risk a war over a small issue? The reverse argument, that failure to act firmly was a result of being forced to back down in the face of British opposition was also employed, confirming that, for the chamber, the defining issue was their relationship with the King and not Algiers itself. The government took the precaution of notifying its embassies abroad of their intentions and of briefing them with the reasons for the use of force: these were given as the restoration of French honour; the redress of grievances; the protection of French property; the elimination of piracy; the abolition of Christian slavery. The last two items were consistent with how the King and Polignac saw the expedition but were new elements in France's diplomatic priorities: there is little evidence that these had been considered to be relevant much before 1830 and France had opposed the 1815-16 agreements at Aix-la-Chapelle to tackle piracy through international co-operation.

Most European powers were indifferent or supportive. Russia hoped that the French expedition might hasten the dissolution of the Ottoman empire; Prussia believed that a successful expedition would stabilize the French crown and would distract it from the failure in recent negotiations with Prussia to secure a realignment of its north-eastern frontier. Great Britain acknowledged that France had a legitimate grievance but asked for clarification and reassurance: Wellington's ministry had been suspicious of French motives in the discussions with Mehemet Ali and had made it clear that it opposed any linkage of the Algiers dispute with the wider question of the Ottoman empire and its security. British policy had consistently been to support the status quo and the Wellington government wanted assurances that the expedition would not lead to permanent occupation or colonization. Polignac refused to give any such assurance, preferring to wait and see what the outcome of the expeditionwas and then to take the question of any further action to a general conference of European powers. There is also a distinct tone, in the comments of some of the French ministers, and of Talleyrand in London, of desire to score a diplomatic success over Great Britain.

The decision to face down British opposition was correct: the Wellington government was facing the prospect of a change of monarch (George IV was to die in June 1830) and knew that there would be little or no popular support for a war with France over such a small issue. Polignac's wait-and-see response to the British is also instructive as it raises the question whether the French, at this stage of March-April 1830, had any prior intention of colonizing Algiers. There does not seem to have been any detailed discussion or consideration about post-conquest policy. Indeed, apart from in the companies in Marseilles, there seems to have been little idea, either in government or in the wider population, of the character of Algiers or what it might offer. Newspaper articles include a range of speculation about economic possibilities and the scope for exploitation, but the ideas discussed were often based on little more than guesswork or on the assumption that Algiers would be similar to France's other colonies of exploitation in the West Indies. Some commentators questioned the morality of the expedition, while others interpreted it as a war of liberation for the subjects of the sultan. It must be emphasized, however, that these opinions only began to be expressed to a meaningful extent after the decision to mount a punitive expedition had been taken.

Both the French navy and army argued for expeditions that would give their service the dominant role. The decision, based largely on plans drawn up for Napoleon in 1804, settled for a landing at Sidi Ferrukh, about 30 miles west of Algiers, and a campaign to attack the city from its landward side. The expedition, commanded by the Minister of War, General Bourmont, sailed in April 1830 and consisted of about 40,000 men and a fleet of 675 ships, both naval and transport. It achieved its main objective quickly. An unopposed landing in June was followed by a skirmish at Staouli and, on July 5th, by the capture of Algiers after a short siege; the cost to France in terms of casualties was about 3,000 dead and wounded.

The news of the capture of Algiers reached Paris on July 9th, and was quickly submerged in the confusion of the July Days (Les Trois Glorieuses m which the Bourbon monarchy was overthrown) of July 27th-29th, 1830. It is possible to argue that the victory in Algiers was a factor in Charles X's rash decision to abolish the constitutional rights embedded in the charter of 1814 and to suspend the newly elected Chamber of Deputies. If it was, it was probably no more than the final argument for a decision that Charles X and Polignac had long been considering. The upshot was the loss of his throne and his replacement as king on August 7th, 1830, by Louis-Philippe d'Orléans, the son of Philippe Egalité, Duc d'Orléans, who had been guillotined in 1793.

The new Orléans government had, of course, had no part in the original decision to invade Algiers, but it now had quickly to form a policy of what to do with it. LouisPhilippe's first instinct was almost certainly to evacuate Algiers as soon as possible once it seemed that the expedition's professed objectives of eliminating piracy and abolishing Christian slavery had been achieved. As a usurper in a largely conservative Europe, he needed all the friends he could get and he had no wish to start his reign by offending Britain: although it is unlikely that British politics at the beginning of William IV's reign would have taken any military steps, British congratulations on the success of the expedition had pointedly included an expectation that the French troops would now leave Algiers.

Moreover, although the absence of the Algiers expeditionary force may have eased his accession to the throne, the new lung had little reason to doubt that it was now loyal to him and it did represent a significant proportion of the whole army. Louis Philippe would prefer to have these troops nearer to home so that it could allow him more leverage in diplomatic manoeuvres, for example in Belgium, where, in August 1830, nationalists had rebelled against Dutch rule. (Despite its hope for an evacuation, Britain was, in contrast, relieved that some French forces had been diverted from immediate intervention in the Belgian crisis and eventually was ready to accept the continued occupation of Algiers as a quid pro quo for a French withdrawal from Antwerp.)

Nevertheless, it became clear early on that disengagement from Algiers was not a realistic option. In the first instance, there was an immediate need to pacify small pockets of resistance and to come to terms with the Beyliks of Constantine and Oran which had been subordinate to the Dey of Algiers but owed their final loyalty to the sultan. What started out as mopping-up operations gradually escalated into a much wider war against the resourceful guerilla leader Abd-el-Kader; any withdrawal before that battle had been won would have been interpreted by the army and in the chamber and press as dishonourable, or, worse, as a surrender to British pressure. This war was not won until 1847, by which time the army in Algiers (now titled l'Armée d'Afrique) had grown to over 70,000 men.

A second issue was how to replace the Dey's administrative structures: the fact that the expedition had sailed without any clear idea of how to govern a conquered city is strong evidence that permanent occupation was not at the forefront of its leaders' minds. To begin with, the administration was governed by military considerations, but the government in France established parliamentary commissions in 1833 and 1834 to explore the issues of whether to maintain the presence in Algiers and, if so, what sort of regime should be established there. Both concluded that the foothold should be kept and that it should be developed with a civilian administration. This was interpreted as the encouragement of settlement rather than the use of Algiers as a place for convicts and, although incentives were slow to develop and their presence was not always encouraged by the military commanders, there were about 40,000 European civilians, mainly in towns, by 1840.

In the language of the day, a 'colony' was not synonymous with a 'possession', with the former having economic connotations that did not immediately apply to Algiers. It is remarkable how quickly Algiers became 'ours': l'armée d'Afrique became a core part of the French military resource, the source of elite regiments and the training ground for several generals and ministers in future governments, including one president of the Third Republic, Patrice MacMahon. It provided the focus for the foundation of the French Foreign Legion in March 1831. It became an integral part of Metropolitan France in 1848 and remained so until 1962. It is also striking, in retrospect, how easily a part of the Ottoman empire was detached without leading to a chain reaction in the remainder, or to a scramble for other strategic possessions: that would come later.

Nigel Falls read history at Cambridge and worked at the Bank of England until retirement.