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Kabylia: Between Colonial Myths and Algerian Realities

[Image of a village in Kabylia. Image by Yves Jalabert/Flickr] [Image of a village in Kabylia. Image by Yves Jalabert/Flickr]

[La genèse de la Kabylie. Aux origines de l’affirmation berbère en Algérie (1830-1962), by researcher and journalist Yassine Temlali was published by Barzakh (Alger). The excerpt we are publishing below is an extract from the chapter entitled “La politique berbère (kabyle) de la France en Algérie : mythes et réalités.”] 

[...] The image that French colonizers had of the indigenous Algerians was determined, first, by the pseudoscientific and racialist dogma that professed the existence of essential differences between ‘races’ in their behavior and ability to develop. On the other hand, it was determined by a profound ignorance of the Muslim world, seen through the narrow scope of conquering orientalism, and imbued by the idea of a European superiority. Ignorance of the ‘Orient,’ stereotyped by writers such as Chateaubriand,[1] was all the more striking when it came to the ‘Barbarian’ world. The latter was only known through the rare stories of travelers and Christian prisoners who had experienced the jails of the Regency.

Even the Encyclopedia, regarded in many ways as a masterpiece, echoed these stereotypes. As such, the definition of ‘Azuagues’[2] (the curious result of a double misformation of ‘Azwaw,’ which could be translated as ‘Kabyle’[3] and of ‘Zouagha,’ a Berber tribe) is nothing but an impressive amount of half-truths, idées reçues, and diverse confusions. The ‘Azuagues,’ according to the text of the article drawn-up by Denis Diderot and Jean D’Alembert, are ‘peoples of Africa, widespread in Barbary and Numidia,’ where ‘some are dependent [and] others live free [and] live mainly in the provinces of Tremecen [sic] and Fez [Fes]. It adds: ‘The bravest occupy the land that is between Tunis and Bilidulgerid [the Djérid country, in southern Tunisia]. [...] Their commander has the title of King of Cuco [the king of Koukou]. They speak the language of the Berbers, and Arabic.’ The two French philosophers were confusing the Kabyle—some of which were leaders in Great Kabylia, bearing, indeed, the title of ‘King of Koukou’—with the Zouagha, a Berber tribe whose territory, in the eighteenth century, straddled Tunisia and the Algerian East, but where a few centuries before, extended, according to medieval chroniclers, from Libya to Morocco, which probably marked the provinces of Tlemcen and Fez. This article from the Encyclopedia can be held as a summary draft of the colonial discourse on the Berbers, especially on the Kabyle: the ‘Azuagues’ it reads, ‘are honored to be Christians of origin [and] hate Arabs and other peoples of Africa [sic].’[4

Scientific exploration of the newly conquered country did not escape the burdens of racialism and ignorance of the ‘Orient.’ Therefore, there will be, from the outset, two dissimilar if not enemy races, the Berbers, and the Arabs: the first had been sedentary since immemorial times, indigenous with a shallow religiosity; the second, unrepentantly nomadic, fundamentally fanatics, and descendants of the Hilalian invaders.  

Since the beginning of the occupation, the creation of favorable prejudices toward Berbers, namely the Kabyles, could only serve the project of dividing the ‘indigènes.’ This project is one that colonialist zeal, doctor Eugène Bodichon, formulated in 1845, in a way that could not be more explicit: ‘France must develop this disagreeable sentiment between Arabs and Kabyles and put at its use the convenience of two races struggling against one another.’[5] These prejudices were reinforced with the following: the lack of solidarity from a majority of the Berbers with the attacked Regency, and a few years later, the Grand Kabylia tribes' refusal to recognize the authority of Emir Abdelkader in the struggle against the armed troops of the invasion. However, what should have been read in the first case as an unsurprising indifference to the fate of the dreaded Janissaries, and in the second case, as an eloquent manifestation of the Turkish regime's division of ‘indigènes’ communities, were instead interpreted, in the blinding light of racialism, as a natural Kabyle predisposition to collaborate with the conquerors. This predisposition lends itself even less to ‘Arabs’ who had already revolted against the French, with their territories in the lowlands being the most coveted by the military and early settlers.

Colonialist Fantasies 

During the first years of the occupation, the scientific observation of the indigenous society, seeking to understand it better in order to ‘erase its ability to resist,’[6] made a decisive contribution in the formation of the ‘Berber’s’ colonial depiction: a peasant rooted in the land, sometimes a clever peddler, so different from the Arab, a bedouin that disdains the ‘vile’ crafts that are agriculture and trade. 

The Berber myth, which transformed mainly into a Kabyle myth, predates the occupation of Kabylia: In 1841, eight years prior to General Bugeaud’s conquest of the Babors, General Duvivier wrote: ‘The steadiness of this race and its love for work will have to be the strongest pivots of our policy to establish ourselves in Africa.’[7] This myth would be embodied in numerous political endeavors and policies, some of which, properly chimerical, like ‘making Kabyles auxiliaries of colonization’ in Arab land [8], never succeeded. It would play mostly into a Kabylophile discourse, sincere or interested, born with the first studies of the Berbers, belonging to those of military ethnography. 

The Kabyles are the first Berbers in which the French were interested. They represented a main feature of the ethnic mosaic of Algiers, and provided the French, just a few weeks following the capture of Algiers, with the first contingents of the famous Zouaves,[9] who would later gain fame in the War of Crimea (1853-1856), on the German front (1870), and in distant Mexico, during the intervention of Napoleon III’s army (1862-1867). 

The pseudo-Kabylophile colonial discourse shapes a large corpus that is still validated nowadays.[10] When examining the personalities associated with colonization, the officers, politicians, scientists, and writers who popularized it, it is difficult to say, like Salem Chaker, that it has mainly been the result of a ‘second fiddle’[11] or that it is found in ‘sub-literature and scientific underproduction.’[12] Additionally, qualifying this myth of a ‘second fiddle,’ ‘sub-literature,’ and ‘scientific underproduction’ is not rigorous. In this sense, political leaders who have played a major role in directing and conducting colonial policy could be considered, with regards to history, as cohorts without scale. Similarly, what has not been entitled to eternity in literature and scientific knowledge on the Berbers had been regarded in its day extremely positively. Kabylophile politician Auguste Warnier was, after all, nothing but a local figure. Yet, as a fiery leader of the camp allegedly hostile to Napoleon III’s Arabophile policy, he had considerable influence in Algeria and the ‘Metropole.’ The ‘doctrinal weakness’ and ‘scientific voidness’ of Camille Sabatier’s works are appalling, whereas the works of Émile Masqueray differed in substance [13]. Still, the author of Essai sur l’origine, l’évolution et les conditions actuelles des Berbères sédentaires (1882) [14] and that of Formation des cités chez les populations sédentaires d’Algérie[15] shared both an opportunistic Kabylophilie as well as equal ascendency over the colonialist circles. 

The military, the first Frenchmen to establish contact with ‘indigenous’ Algerians, laid the foundations of the pseudo-Kabylophile colonial discourse. In 1847, Colonel Daumas and Captain Fabre mentioned the ‘Kabyle race’ as having ‘industrial, pacifist, hard-working tendencies.’ Captain Ernest Carette wrote in 1848: ‘As reckless as this view may seem, we believe that the Kabyle, which remained to this day outside our direct contact, in conflict with all previous rulers, must become in a few years the smartest auxiliary of our endeavours.’[16] Henri Aucapitaine, better known as ‘Baron Aucapitaine,’ proclaimed in 1857: ‘Brought to us by their character and habits [...], in a hundred years, the Kabyle will be French.’[17] These officers were not the only ones to nourish the roots of the Kabyle myth. Many others contributed to it. Among them, we can cite General Édmond Pélissier de Reynaud, who professed that the fusion between Europeans and ‘Kabyle Barbarians.’[18] Additionally, there was Admiral Louis-Henri de Gueydon, who saw a future in the ‘assimilation of the Kabyle people’ and who defended, with conviction to his superiors, the project of a purely Kabyle administrative entity in which French law would be applied.[19]

Were the military-men who participated in establishing the Kabyle myth essentially a ‘second fiddle?’ Many of them assumed important political responsibilities. Colonel Daumas had, among other tasks, that of leading the ‘Algerian Affairs’ Bureau at the Ministry of War. Captain Carette was the secretary of the ‘Scientific Commission in Algeria;’ he is the author of Études sur la Kabylie proprement dite, a seminal work on the Kabyle before the conquest.[20] General Édmond Pélissier de Reynaud was the director of ‘Arab Affairs,’ at the very heart of the French domination apparatus. Admiral Louis-Henri de Gueydon, a most-renowned Army leader, led policy as a General Governor. [...] 

[This article is published in partnership with OrientXXI]


[1] On his journey to the Orient, which he described in Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem et de Jérusalem à Paris, en allant par la Grèce, en revenant par l’Égypte, la Barbarie, et l’Espagne (Paris : Le Normant, 1811, 3 volumes), Chateaubriand declares, with incomparable honesty : ‘I was looking for images: That is all.’ 

[2]Jean d’Alembert et Denis Diderot, «  Azuagues  » in : L’Encyclopédie de Diderot et d’Alembert.

[3] Cf. Salem Chaker, «  Note à propos de l’article de Jacques Lanfry ‘Les Zwawa (Igawawen) d’Algérie centrale (essai onomastique et ethnographique)’  », art. cit.

[4] Jean D’Alembert et Denis Diderot, art. cit.

[5] Cited in Charles-Robert Ageron, Les Algériens musulmans et la France. 1871-1919, Paris : PUF, 1968 (réédité en 2005, en deux volumes, aux éditions Bouchène, préf. : Gilbert Meynier), p. 269.

[6] Lahouari Addi, Deux anthropologues au Maghreb : Ernest Gellner et Clifford Geertz, Paris : Éditions des archives contemporaines, 2013, p. 6.

[7] Charles-Robert Ageron, Les Algériens musulmans et la France..., op. cit.,p. 269.

[8’We developed the idea of the possibility making the Kabyles auxiliaries of colonization; we dreamed of creating Kabyle village antennas on settlements in the Arab country, which would isolate the Arab tribes and advantageously replace the European military garrisons that would be reduced or recalled in the event of a war.’ Cf. Mahfoud Kaddache, «  L’utilisation du fait berbère comme facteur politique dans l’Algérie coloniale  », in : Actes du premier congrès international d’études des cultures méditerranéennes d’influence arabo-berbère, Alger, 1972, Alger : Société nationale d’édition et de distribution, 1973, p. 269-276.

[9] The French word ‘zouaves’ derives from Kabyle «  izwawen  » which signifies for the Kabyles, the inhabitants of Djurdjura Kabylie.

[10] We explain below how this speech was both a reflection of racialist prejudices, in vogue at the time, and weapon of war in the hands of the colonialists.

[11] Vincent Geisser and Aziz Zemouri studied the traces of colonial ethnographic discourse in today’s popular discourse on the Kabyle in France. Cf. Aziz Zemouri and Vincent Geisser, Marianne et Allah. Les politiques français face à la «  question musulmane  », Paris : La Découverte, 2007 (chapter 9).

[12] Salem Chaker, Berbères aujourd’hui, Paris : L’Harmattan, 1998, p. 112.1

[13] Charles-Robert Ageron, Les Algériens musulmans et la France..., op. cit.,p. 275.

[14] «  Essai sur l’origine, l’évolution et les conditions actuelles des Berbères sédentaires  », Revue d’anthropologie, 1882, 2e série, vol. 5, p. 413-442.

[15] Émile Masqueray, Formation des cités chez les populations sédentaires de l’Algérie : Kabyles du Djurdjura, Chaouïa de l’Aourâs, Beni Mezâb (éd. : Fanny Colonna), Aix-en- Provence : Edisud, 1983.

[16] Charles-Robert Ageron, «  La France a-t-elle eu une politique kabyle  ?  »,Revue historique, tome 223, fasc. 2, avril 1960, p. 311-352.

[17] M. le baron Henri Aucapitaine, Le pays et la société kabyle. (Expédition de 1857), Paris : A. Bertrand, 1857 (extract from Nouvelles annales des voyages, de la géographie et de l’histoire..., septembre 1857  ; cited in : Charles-Robert Ageron, Les Algériens musulmans et la France..., op. cit., p. 270.  »

[18] Charles-Robert Ageron, «  La France a-t-elle eu une politique kabyle  ?  », art. cit.

[19Ibid., p. 282.

[20] Camille Lacoste-Dujardin, Dictionnaire de la culture berbère en Kabylie,Paris : La Découverte, 2005, p. 83.

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