When researching the history of Algiers, and how it became the largely colonial-style city that it is, I was intrigued to find out more about how it came about. What was in the minds of the French colonial settlers when they demolished large swathes of the Ottoman city? What were they trying to achieve? What were their plans and aspirations?
So far I have not been able to find a book or even a decent article on the subject. It’s as if the memory of the destruction and rebuilding of much of the city is forgotten. One of the great mysteries of Algeria is how so many Algerians seem to have forgotten their history.
I met a director of one of the big national museums who told me sadly that so few local people came to look at the wonderful treasures in the museums of Algiers. Indeed, when I visited, I had the place to myself.
Why is this, and how can it be? It’s as if a nation is suffering from historical amnesia. Actually, it is not as strange or as unusual as you might imagine, and seems to be have been common in colonised countries. Think of how the history of the Native Peoples of America and Australia was forgotten until recently.
What happened in Algeria is that after the French conquest of 1830, so much of the historical memory of what happened before was systematically destroyed as Algeria was forcibly integrated into France. It’s not going too far to say that the process of colonisation was a catastrophe for the Algerian people.
Dr James McDougall in his recently published and excellent ‘History of Algeria’ (Cambridge University Press 2017) estimates that up to 825,000 Algerians were killed or died of wounds in the conquest and subsequent rebellions 1830-75, with at least as many dying of famine and disease. Vast tracts of the best land were taken and given to European settlers. It’s entirely possible that the shock of conquest and the unhappy colonial period erased memories of the past from popular memory.
Algiers was at the epicentre of this wholesale dispossession. Was there a plan or settled purpose in the settlers’ minds? The argument from silence is that such a plan as existed was to seize what they could.
Despite the motives of greed and lack of respect for private property that the French colonists showed, it is amazing how graceful and fine the buildings are that they left behind. Huge amounts of money and effort were expended in making Algiers a beautiful white city, gleaming in the Mediterranean sun. It really is a jewel of Africa. It’s such a pity that so much of the history of this work seems to have been forgotten.
However, when you have finished reading this blog, you might like to follow the link to some great photos of the colonial style buildings in Algiers.