2. The U. S. and European colonial expansion in North Africa, 1830-1912.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the lands on the southern shore of the Mediterranean became a target of European colonial expansion. France’s expansionist policies concentrated initially on the western Mediterranean, starting with the conquest of Algeria (1830), the establishment of a protectorate over Tunisia (1881) and East Morocco (1912). The period was also marked by Spain’s engagement in the Spanish-Moroccan war (1859-60). At the end of that war in 1860, Morocco ceded Sidi Ifni to Spain as part of the Treaty of Tangier. The following decades of Franco-Spanish collaboration resulted in the establishment and extension of Spanish protectorates south of the port city of Tangier. At the Berlin Conference (1884-85) which was convened to settle the problems connected with the European “scramble” for African territories, Spain’s claims over part of the Moroccan territory obtained international recognition. Following a brief war in 1893, Spain expanded her influence south of Melilla. In 1911, Morocco was divided between the French and the Spanish, while in the same year, Italian troops landed in Tripolitania (present day Libya) which became an Italian colony by the Treaty of Lausanne-Ouchy (1912).

The first decades of the nineteenth century also saw the territorial expansion of the United States across the North American continent from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean, largely defining the borders of the United States as they are today. The French and Spanish were dislodged from North America. The Jefferson administration doubled the territory of the United States by purchasing the Louisiana territory from France in 1803. In 1819, Spain agreed to cede the old province of Florida to the United States. British claims on the Oregon Country were forestalled while the Anglo-American Convention (1818) provided for a joint occupation of the territory where thousands of American settlers flocked in the 1840’s. The Mexican-American War in 1846 paved the way for the annexation of Texas and the recognition of the Rio Grande as its border; it also led to the Mexican cession of California and New Mexico to the United States, whose territory was increased by a third, reaching now to the Pacific Ocean shores. This effort to expand and secure the country’s borders was accompanied by a strong message to the European Powers.


It was formulated in the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which became a centrepiece of U.S. foreign policy. It warned that the United States would not tolerate any European intervention or colonization in the Western Hemisphere and proclaimed that the United States, for their part, would not interfere in European affairs or in their existing colonies.

The United States and Emir Abd el-Kader’s resistance to the French conquest

On 14 June 1830, a French expeditionary force under the command of General de Bourmont and Admiral Duperré landed at Sidi Ferruch, a cape thirteen miles west of Algiers. The official objective of the operation was to avenge an affront to the French consul by the Dey of Algiers and to put an end to Algerine piracy in the area. The real aim of the expedition was actually to restore the prestige of the French crown and establish a foothold in North Africa, thus preventing the British from having a free hand in the Mediterranean. On 5 July the French troops entered Algiers after the Dey had signed a convention surrendering the city to General de Bourmont, the commander of the French forces. The French took possession of the harbour, of the fleet, and of the Dey’s treasury the content of which, valued at two million pound sterling in precious metals, far exceeded the cost of the expedition. The Dey was deposed and escorted into exile. Thus came to an end three hundred years of Ottoman presence in Algiers; a new chapter, that of the Algerian resistance to French rule, had just begun,

The most formidable adversary to rise against the French armies was Abd el-Kader, a young Arab chieftain who, for nearly fifteen years, led resistance to French penetration. A scion of a family of religious leaders who belonged to the Qadiriya, one of the most influential Sufi orders in western Algeria, Abd el-Kader was acclaimed by three powerful tribes of the western province of Oran, to lead them to battle against the French invaders.

In the early stage of the conquest, the French were undecided about whether they should confine themselves to holding a few key positions along the coast or extend their occupation to the whole country. So, in 1834, they signed an agreement with Abd el-Kader, recognizing his sovereignty over the western province of Oran but changes in the military hierarchy in 1835 brought the truce to an end. Deeply concerned by the growing influence of the Emir who was extending his authority over central and southern Algeria, the French broke off their engagement as the troops of General Clauzel marched on Constantine

The first clash between Abd el-Kader’s troops and those of General Trezel in the western province of Oran, ended in favour of the French. Abd el-Kader retaliated almost immediately, inflicting heavy losses upon a French column in the marshes of La Macta, near Oran. The disaster of La Macta was one of the worst military defeats sustained by the French during their Algerian campaign. The French counter-attack when it came dealt a severe blow to Abd el-Kader: Mascara, his capital and military base was rampaged and burnt; Tlemcen was occupied, and he was defeated at the battle of Sikkat.


It was against these set-backs that Abd el-Kader made his first overtures to the American government following an unsuccessful offer made to the British (1).

In January 1836, he sent off an emissary to Drummond Hay, the British consul in Tangier, with a letter to King William IV of England. In return for British support and mediation in his conflict with the French, Abd el-Kader was offering the use of an Algerian port for their commerce and its supply with provisions from the provinces under his control. The British government turned down the offer and firmly instructed Drummond Hay to avoid getting involved in correspondence with Abd el-Kader for fear of antagonizing the French in the Mediterranean. The British foreign policy in the region was founded on two fundamental principles: the first one was to endorse France’s conquest of Algeria as a means of counterbalancing her eviction from Egypt; the second was to preserve the independence of Morocco and thus prevent any European power, and more particularly France, from threatening British control of the Straits of Gibraltar which was vital for the route to the Middle East and to India, the jewel in the British Imperial crown.

In April 1836, Abd el-Kader addressed a message to James R. Leib, the American consul in Tangier. In return for a treaty of friendship and assistance, he offered the Americans possession of an Algerian port as well as supplies from the provinces under his authority. At the time, the relations between the United States and France, previously soured by a crisis over reparations for seizure of American vessels during the Napoleonic Wars, had greatly improved so that there was little to be gained in antagonizing an old ally such as France. More importantly, the Monroe Doctrine which still provided the guiding lines of American foreign policy proclaimed, as one of its basic tenets that the U.S. government would not interfere into the internal affairs of European powers or in their existing colonies. Under the circumstances, Abd el-Kader‘s appeal to the Americans had little chance to be heeded.

In Algeria, total military conquest was proclaimed in 1840, and a new offensive, led by General Bugeaud, marked the real start of the country’s conquest. Instead of the defensive strategy followed hitherto by an army organized for European battlegrounds, and depending on heavy artillery and complicated supply lines, Bugeaud advocated a continual offensive carried out by mobile columns and light infantry, claiming that repeated raids were essential to destroy the power of Abd el-Kader and ruin the tribes that supported him. The means employed were ruthless: villages were destroyed; crops were confiscated or burned; livestock were driven off or slaughtered; orchards were destroyed. Abd el-Kader continued to fight, using his rifle-armed cavalry in an incessant war of skirmishes and harassment, but it was clear that his resistance was becoming desperate.

The official indifference of the U.S. government was largely counterbalanced by such American popular periodicals as Littel’s Living Age, which continued throughout the 1840s to carry reports expressing sympathy for Abd el-Kader’s resistance and echoing or reprinting articles from the English Times or the Illustrated London News. In 1846, Timothy Davis, a lawyer from Dubuque, named a new settlement on the Turkey River in Iowa corn country, Elkader in Abd el-kader’s honour.


A reader of Littel’s Living Age, a digest of international news, Davis had come to admire the young Arab chief whose resistance to the invading French armies had won him wide recognition. It is no coincidence that the 1846 first quarter issue of Littel’s living Age was largely devoted to the Emir, and that it was in June of the same year that a small farming community in the American Middle-West was named after him.

Alexis de Tocqueville on the colonization of Algeria

In a pattern that was repeated more than a century later, the Algerian issue divided France and distorted the judgement of even the most liberal of Frenchmen. Little of what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the colonization of Algeria bears any resemblance to the liberal ideas he expressed in Democracy in America (1835), insisting more specifically on the principles that needed to be upheld by the European powers in their confrontation with the native inhabitants of the conquered territories.

Back to Paris after the American tour that had generated the book by which he is best remembered, de Tocqueville turned his attention to Algeria, the newly French conquered colony, making two trips there in 1841 and 1846. He soon became one of France’s best informed experts on the country and wrote a series of essays, articles, and parliamentary reports on such topics as France’s occupation of Algeria, the state of the region and its people, and expressing his views on France’s military and administrative policies. Throughout, de Tocqueville was a steadfast defender of France’s colonisation of Algeria. He strongly advocated a more determined colonist stance and condoned French military methods. Following his first trip to Algeria in the spring of 1841, he wrote:

“In France I have often heard people I respect, but do not approve, deplore the burning of harvests, the emptying of granaries and the seizing of unarmed men, women and children. As I see it, these are unfortunate necessities that any people wishing to make war on the Arabs must accept.” (2)

De Tocqueville returned in the winter of 1845-1846 as a member of a commission appointed by the National Assembly, and presented a report in which he advocated a rapid colonization of Algeria in order to establish lasting control over the country. He clearly approved General Bugeaud’s methods and defended them publicly, arguing that full-scale war against the tribes which supported Abd el-Kader was essential to destroy his power-base and deprive him of men and supplies. De Tocqueville had no qualms suggesting that the French government should encourage colonization by carrying out legalised expropriations for the benefit of French and other European settlers. With the help of the government and the army, they would then build colonist villages, all with roads, fortifications, schools and churches. As for the native rural tribes, deprived of their material means of existence, they would gradually die out. That these radical measures were tantamount to genocide did not seem to bother in the least the celebrated theoretician of liberalism and democracy.


It revealed the contradictions of a system that proclaimed universal emancipation, equality, and the rule of law for the men who belonged to civilized Europe, but condoning at the same time, political and economic discrimination against the colonized populations

In 1847, after more than ten years of ruthless fighting, Abd el-Kader was eventually forced to lay down his arms. Following one of his attacks on French troops from a basis in the Riff country, pressure was brought to bear by the British government on the Sultan of Morocco to deny Abd el-Kader sanctuary in Moroccan territory. The British feared that the French would take it as a pretext to invade Morocco. Pressed and hemmed in on all sides, cut from his bases, abandoned by supporters and allies, the Algerian chief turned himself over to General Lamoricière and to the Duc d’Aumale, King Louis-Philippe’s son, who solemnly promised his safe passage to St Jean d’Acre or to Alexandria. In violation of that promise, Abd el-Kader, and his family and entourage were detained in France, first at Toulon, then at Pau before he was transferred to the Chateau d’Amboise. There he remained until October 1852 when he was released by Napoleon III.

The Emir then took up his residence in Bursa, Turkey and eventually settled in Damascus in 1855. Hundreds of his followers walked overland across North Africa to join him in exile. The conquest of kabylia in 1857 brought more people as did the repression which followed the 1870 uprisings. Exile was one of the few alternatives of those who rejected the colonial order and who wanted to preserve their identity and culture. An important Algerian community gathered around Abd el-Kader in a quarter of the old city that is still known as the Maghrebi quarter.

In the summer of 1859, sectarian riots opposing Christian Maronites to Muslim Druzes erupted in Damascus. For days, terror raged in the city. Christian quarters were rampaged; foreign consulates were burned down. Standing up to the Turkish authorities which favoured the Druze against the Maronites who were nominally under British protection, Abd el-Kader, crossed to the Christian quarters with his Algerian militia to offer his protection to thousands of Damascene Christians, bringing them to safety to his own premises, and looked after them during the whole period of troubles. Like many of his colleagues, the American consul in Damascus found asylum in Abd el-Kader’s house. Echoes of these events in the Western press turned Abd el-Kader into a living legend. Recollections of his earlier career as the gallant warrior fighting for his native land were fused with the image of the great champion of religious tolerance and humanism, challenging de Tocqueville’s developments on Arab fanaticism.

During his exile in Damascus, Abd el-Kader became a close friend of Richard and Isabel Burton. Richard Burton was another living legend in his own age. With the exception of the Swiss-born Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, he was the only European, at the time, to have penetrated in Mecca and Al-Madina, the holy cities of Islam. Later, he returned to the Orient as British consul in Damascus. The Burtons arrived in Damascus in Syria in the summer of 1869 and became close friends of Abd el-Kader. He was now holding his own princely court in Damascus and basking in the glow of the honours that European nations had bestowed on him. For his action during the Damascene sectarian strife, France, Russia, Prussia, and Greece had presented him with their highest decorations.


Britain had sent a splendid double-barrel gun inlaid with gold and President Abraham Lincoln, a pair of pistols also inlaid with gold, as tokens of their gratitude. The poetic justice of that reversal of fortune was not lost on Abd el-Kader’s contemporaries: military defeat, transcended by spiritual and moral elevation, dawned ultimately as a victory of far greater significance.

Ahmed er-Raïsuli, and the Perdicaris incident.

The North African Kingdom of Morocco drew the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt administration and the American public in the early twentieth century on two occasions: first on the Perdicaris affair in 1904, and then on the Algeciras conference in 1906.

In May 1904, Ion Perdicaris, a Greek-American resident in Tangier and his stepson, an Englishman named Cromwell Varley were abducted from their villa in Tangier by a band of tribesmen on horseback. The leader of the band was a Berber chieftain from the rebellious Riff hills, known as Ahmed er-Raïsuli, who wanted to extort a ransom from the Sultan of Morocco while at the same time challenging the authority of the monarch for being incapable to protect foreign citizens in his kingdom. Raïsuli had, on an earlier kidnapping, raised 20,000 pound sterling in exchange for Caïd MacLean. A flamboyant figure of pre-protectorate Morocco, Sir Harry MacLean was a Scotsman and Commander-in-Chief in the Sultan’s army (3).

According to Walter Harris, correspondent of The Times in Morocco whom he briefly held to ransom in 1903, Raïsuli was a “typical and ideal bandit” (4), a sort of Robin Hood of the Atlas. Belonging to an aristocratic family, he had taken to the adventurous life of a cattle robber. Finally his raids and reign of terror became embarrassing for the Sultan who ordered his arrest. Betrayed by his greatest friend, he was captured and imprisoned in the dreaded fortress of Mogador for nearly five years. Finally released on the petition of Hadj Mohammed Torres, the Sultan’s representative at Tangier, he returned to his home only to discover that the close friend who had betrayed him had become Governor of Tangier and had confiscated all his properties. He applied for their return but could not get justice done so he took to his old profession and became a thorn in the flesh of the Sultan by kidnapping and holding rich foreigners to ransom.

The kidnapping of an American citizen at the hands of a local bandit in Tangier made the newspaper headlines, caused a public outcry, all the more embarrassing for Theodore Roosevelt as he was running for a second term in the November election that year. Although arrangements were already under way for the release of the hostage, Roosevelt ordered seven battleships from the South Atlantic fleet to the Mediterranean coast off Tangier. The President also had Secretary of State Hay send off a stirring telegram to the American consul in Tangier, stating in the strongest terms that the United States government wanted “Perdicaris alive or Raïsuli dead.” The telegram, read aloud at the Republican national convention meeting in Chicago to re-nominate Roosevelt for a second term, was clearly meant to fire the assembly with patriotic zeal.


But even with the public and press crying for blood, Roosevelt knew that he would not send the marines after Raïsuli’s bands, having received in the meanwhile a confidential message from the U.S. embassy in Greece saying that Perdicaris had renounced his American citizenship. The American fleet was allowed to pursue its route to the Moroccan coast but the marines did not have to land ashore and never fired a shot. The Sultan had already given in to the demands of Raïsuli: a ransom of $70,000 was paid, numerous prisoners had been exchanged for Perdicaris, and the Berber chieftain was officially appointed by the Sultan as Governor of Tangier and its provinces. Roosevelt’s “big stick” did not have to be used on that occasion but it allowed the United States to show its growing military might in the Mediterranean. But a fact that could have been embarrassing for Roosevelt at the time was kept confidential and was not revealed until 1933, long after the main protagonist in the Perdicaris incident had died. It was only then that a historian uncovered in official documents the truth which Roosevelt and his State secretary had kept highly confidential. What Roosevelt and Hay kept secret was that Perdicaris was not even an American citizen. Ion Hanford Perdicaris was born an American citizen in Greece, son of Gregory Perdicaris. The elder Perdicaris was a Greek who had migrated to the United States, married a wealthy young woman from South Carolina and returned to his native land to serve as American consul. When Ion was six, the family moved back to America and settled in booming industrial town of Trenton where Gregory Perdicaris made a fortune by creating the Trenton Gas Light company.

In 1862, while the Civil War was raging, Perdicaris junior then 22, went back to Greece to renounce his American citizenship and be naturalized a Greek citizen to protect his mother’s South Carolina plantation from being seized by the Confederacy. On a later trip in the Mediterranean, Ion Perdicaris fell under the spell of Tangier and decided to build a villa in the residential area outside the city walls, where most diplomats and rich foreigners had their homes. It was from that place that the 64-year-old Perdicaris and his son were seized by Raïsuli’s men who found them dining on their terrace (5).

A couple of years after the kidnapping incident, Roosevelt involved the United States in mediating a European dispute in the Algésiras Conference of 1906. The early twentieth century saw European powers vying for commercial interests in North Africa. In order to achieve ascendancy in Egypt and obtain a free hand there, Britain had given up its claims on Morocco in favour of France. By the Franco-Italian treaty of 1900, France had given Italy freedom of action in Libya in exchange for cessation of its activities in Tunisia. Morocco came under growing international pressures, notably in the economic field as France, Spain and Germany vied for dominance there.

In March 1905, Kaiser Wilhem II travelled to Tangier where he delivered a speech affirming his support for Morocco’s independence and its right to trade on equal terms with various nations, including Germany. The action was a direct challenge to France, which considered Morocco to be in its sphere of influence.


The Kaiser hoped to use the Moroccan crisis as a pretext for either a preventive showdown with France or at least to test the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale of 1904. Having both failed to drive a wedge between the French and the British and to get the support of the United States for his open-door-policy, Wilhem II requested a reluctant Roosevelt to help organize an international conference to solve the question peacefully. Roosevelt had mediated between Japan and Russia and had actually received the Nobel Prize for having brokered peace between the two belligerents. The American president persuaded Britain and France to agree to an international peace conference. The major powers assembled in Algeciras, Spain in 1906. Roosevelt, who did not personally attend the meetings, was represented by Henry White, the American ambassador to Italy who headed the U.S. delegation. In secret instructions to his envoy, Roosevelt told him to maintain formal American non-involvement in European affairs but to do nothing that would put at risk existing Franco-British agreements, whose maintenance was “to the best interests of the United States”. The Conference upheld territorial integrity of Morocco as a nominally independent state whose trade was to be open to all nations including Germany, but gave France two special privileges: she would control Moroccan customs and arms supplies and in conjunction with Spain, control the Moroccan police.

In the United States, many were critical of American participation in the Conference, for its breach of the Monroe doctrine. The Senate finally ratified the Algeciras Treaty, but did so only with a stipulation that American involvement did not represent a departure from its traditional policy of avoiding intervention in European disputes. War had been averted but the Conference was a telling pre-figuration of what was to come in the First Word War, with Germany and Austria-Hungary lining up on one side of the Moroccan territorial dispute, and France, Britain, and the United States on the other.


(1) Danziger, Raphael, “Abd al-Qadir’s First Overtures to the British and Americans (1835-1836).” Revue de l’’Occident musulman et de la Méditerranée (1974), pp.45-63.
On Abd el-Kader’s secret overture to the Americans: United States National Archives, Washington, D.C., vol. 5 (1831-1837).

(2) Alexis de Tocqueville, Travail sur l’Algérie in Oeuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1991, pp. 704-705.

(3) General Sir Harry Aubrey de MacLean (1848-1920) left the British army and Gibraltar toward 1875. He then entered into the service of Mulay Hassan as chief instructor of the Sultan’s army. He exercised a strong influence on Abdul Aziz from 1900 to 1906. Later it was revealed that he was a secret agent in the pay of the British government.

(4) Walter B. Harris, a seasoned traveller and accomplished journalist, was the London Times correspondent in Morocco for forty years, from before the turn of the century until after the establishment of the French protectorate. He was a friend to successive kings and developed a friendship with Raisuli, his own kidnapper.
He was the author of the book, The Morocco That Was, published by Blackwood’s in 1912.

(5) In 1975, the incident was turned into a romantic tale in the film, The Wind and the Lion, directed by John Milius who changed the abducted victims to an American woman and her two children. The film starred Candice Bergen as the widow Perdicaris and Sean Connery as the dashing abductor, while real life Cromwell Varley became a pair of kids. As for the American force which the film has invading Morocco and rescuing the hostages, it was entirely fictitious.


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