France’s colonial exploits in the Saharan World began in Algeria, which was under Turkish rule in the early 19th century. On April 28th, 1827 the Turkish appointed governor of Algeria, Dey Husain, slapped a minor French diplomat named Pierre Duval with a fly whisk, because he refused to answer questions about a longstanding French debt. A fly whisk is essentially a fly swatter: a bundle of feathers or horse hair at the end of a rod. The French king, Charles X, was quite unpopular at the time. He capitalized on the Dey’s outburst by insisting that the slap was an insult to French honor. His claim resonated with the French people in part because the Dey was a ‘Moor’. Even though as a governor the Dey held a higher political office than the consul he struck, he was considered racially and culturally inferior in the eyes of the French.
This was the pretext for the French conquest of Algeria. It is a rather flimsy excuse for a war of conquest, and it may not have even been possible outside of a context informed by orientalism. The French conquest of Algeria was bloody. The image above this section depicts the decapitation of Algerian militants ordered by Colonel Lucien de Montagnac. By 1834 France had formally annexed and occupied portions of Algeria and appointed a colonial governor to oversee its administration. France’s effort to incorporate Algeria into its empire met resistance, and Algeria won its independence in 1962.
As the colonial government ruled Arab and Berber subjects, and fought pockets of resistance it created a body of knowledge about its allies, subjects and enemies around the Sahara. In many cases this new knowledge about the various indigenous Muslims the French encountered in the Sahara conformed to earlier ideas about Arab barbarity and cruelty. The colonial officers imagined that their new ‘Moorish’ enemies were fierce and savage just like the ‘Moors’ who occupied medieval Iberia.
The Moorish Warrior - William Merritt Chase 1876
But to say that Westerners only thought about the people of the Orient as inferiors is an oversimplification of orientalism. They also thought of their enemies as tough and cunning. As strange as it may seem, colonial officers needed their enemies to be both. By fighting worthy opponents, like the nomadic warriors of the Sahara, officers were able to distinguish themselves as solders. Stressing the savagery of their enemy legitimized the act of conquest.