A fly-whisk provoked the French occupation of Algeria and the establishment of the protectorate

French troops landing at Sidi Feruch / photo G.Garitan on Wikimedia Commons

Most readers will be aware of the historical link between France and Algeria, if only because of the number of immigrants from the North African country on French soil or, above all, because of the famous people who have Algerian ancestors or roots, such as the sportsmen Zidane and Benzemá or the minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. It is the result of the French presence in that protectorate during a long century, until its independence in 1962. But what led the French to occupy Algeria in the first half of the 19th century? The answer lies in a simple fan.

Algiers attacked from the sea (Antoine Leon Morel-Fatio)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

On May 16, 1830, a fleet of more than a hundred warships and nearly 500 auxiliary ships set sail from the port of Toulon under the command of Admiral Duperré, carrying an army of 37,612 men under the tricolor flag. Two weeks later, the vanguard sighted the coast of Algiers, anchoring to await the arrival of the bulk of the squadron. On June 14, the troops landed in Sidi Ferruch with little opposition, although a few days later Hussein Dey, the Ottoman regent, presented them with an army of 10,000 troops, half of which were Maghribians plus 3,000 Berbers and a thousand Janissaries. He could gather little more, since his effective control was limited to cities and the coast.

Charles X (François Gérard)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The Count of Ghaisnes de Bourmont, who commanded the invading contingent on land, rejected the attacks without any problem and later launched an assault on the fortress of Sultan-Khalessi, the main defensive bastion some few kilometers from Algiers, which could only resist one month; its surrender opened the gates of the city to the French. Hussein Dey agreed to surrender in exchange for being able to march with his wealth and his harem; he was even given a ship, the Jeanne d’Arc, to go to Naples (then in Austrian control), since France refused to welcome him. He lived there for three years and then went to Alexandria, where he died in 1838. Thus, the Gallic army became the masters of the country after a three-week lightning campaign that cost them only 415 casualties, belieing the initial fears of Duperré, who, despite being given the command, had been reluctant to embark on such an adventure.

So the Ottoman period ended to give way to the colonial period under the government of Paris, where, in parallel, that month of July, the violent repression of popular protests led to a revolution that overthrew King Charles X and appointed Louis-Philippe d’Orléans as Lieutenant General of the kingdom, before proclaiming him monarch. There was certain poetic justice, for if Hussein had been the last Ottoman ruler of Algeria, Charles X went down in history as the last Bourbon to sit on the French throne; both practically at the same time. Charles, brother of the hapless Louis XVI, had succeeded the other brother, Louis XVIII, and had not learned from the deadly experience of the first. He carried out an ultramontane reign that made one suspect that he intended to return to absolutism and removed popular favor from him, putting him in successive conflicts with the liberals, the parliamentary chambers and even the National Guard.

The disrepute became so great that it was necessary to look for a way to divert attention and give back some prestige, presenting itself in the spring of 1827 the most propitious occasion. It was in Algeria, obviously, and it came in the form of a diplomatic incident, an episode that has gone down in history as the Affaire de l’éventail ( The Fan Affair). We already know one of its protagonists: Hussein Dey, a native of Izmir, who had governed the country since 1818 with a fairly open policy, releasing prisoners for example, or guaranteeing freedom of worship to the resident Jews. The other was Pierre Deval, born paradoxically in Constantinople because he was the son of a dragoman (linguistic interpreter, translator).

Hussein Pacha, dey of Argel (M. Fernel)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

With long experience in diplomacy in the Middle East, Deval was assigned to the Regency of Algiers as Consul General in 1814, his main mission being to negotiate the dispute that two merchants had with the dey for the purchase of wheat for the French army twenty years earlier, who claimed they could not pay him because France had not yet paid them. The Algerian effort to provide supplies had been so great that when this period passed, coinciding with the arrival of the Bourbon restoration to France and the maritime dominion of the Royal Navy, the lack of resources forced the dey to a hard increase in taxes, causing unrest in the inhabitants and instability in the country that led to the proliferation of piracy. And, as a consequence of this, the two so-called Barbary wars against the United States.

An artistic vision of the Affaire de l’éventail/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Time went by without an agreement on the debt and in 1820, when he learned that Deval’s nephew, consul in Bône, was fortifying the Gallic settlement in La Rue (today El Kala) without authorization, Hussein was furious. Deval had to appear before him to give explanations but these were not satisfactory and, in the middle of the discussion, the dey hit him with his fan (actually a typical African fly-whisk). It was April 29, 1827 and the consul returned offended to his country, where, of course, the action of the Ottoman governor caused indignation.

The government rubbed its hands together because that’s what they expected, especially when their demand for an official apology fell on deaf ears. However, things did not go as initially planned because a three-year blockade was decreed, which was more negative for French merchants than for Algerians, as the former were deprived of a market where they had important interests while the latter found it relatively easy to avoid it. That’s why in 1829, the same year Deval died of malaria, an ambassador was sent to negotiate. But he was received with a warning shot and had to turn back; France already had its casus belli.


Sources

A history of the Maghrib in the Islamic period (Jamil M. Abun-Nasr)/By sword and plow. France and the Conquest of Algeria (Jennifer E. Sessions)/Historia de Francia (Roger Price)/Wikipedia