Skulls repatriated to Algeria but history still to be rewritten

Beyond whatever excuses France might offer Algeria for its past behaviour, it is up to French society –indeed for English and American societies as well, to get better acquainted with their history.
Tuesday 07/07/2020
Algeria's President Abdelmajid Tebboune observes a moment of silence during a ceremony to lay to rest the remains of 24 resistance fighters, returned from Paris after more than a century and a half. (AFP)
Algeria's President Abdelmajid Tebboune observes a moment of silence during a ceremony to lay to rest the remains of 24 resistance fighters, returned from Paris after more than a century and a half. (AFP)

On November 26, 1849, after a four month siege, 6,000 French troops led by General Herbillon stormed the fortified oasis of Zaatcha in south-eastern Algeria. Only three people survived out of 800 inhabitants — Sheikh Ahmed Benziane, his 15-year old son and a marabout. They were promptly decapitated and their heads stuck on pikes in the nearby town of Biskra. Four years later, journalist Louis Baudricourt gave a graphic description of the acts of wanton cruelty perpetrated by the French troops against women and children after they entered Zlaata.

Such behaviour was all too familiar in the French conquest of Algeria, which began in 1830. Early governor-generals spoke of eliminating the Arabs as the US colonialists mulled wiping out Native Americans. General Thomas Bugeaud, the French governor in the 1840s, wrote to a friend after the rendition of one of the great Algerian resistance fighters, Emir Abdelkader: “they are sick of fighting…and no wonder. What ravages! What destruction.” Burning crops, cutting down trees  and poisoning wells was a deliberate policy that historian James McDougall describes in his masterful “A History of Algeria” (CUP 2017) as “laying waste the ecological base of Algerian society.” Noted French politician and historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in a report to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in 1834: “Algeria is France minus laws and hypocrisy… In a word, we have outdone in barbarism the barbarians we had come to civilise and then we complain of not having been able to civilise them!”

The eastern capital of Constantine was reduced to the ground after the French took it– in their second attempt – in 1837. The Kabyle mountains were fought over inch by inch in the 1860s and utterly destroyed when they rebelled in 1871. By then the losses suffered in land and lives were and remain incalculable. Much of the country’s best agricultural land passed into colonial hands and Algerian deaths numbered “perhaps 650,000, perhaps 825,00. Famine and disease killed at least as many, very possibly many more,” according to McDougall.

It is in this context between France and Algeria and the broader revisiting of the violence inflicted by European states and America on the people they colonised or reduced to slavery over centuries that the repatriation to Algeria of 40 skulls of resistance fighters, including the ones from Zaatcha, must be set.

It occurred on the 58th anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France after a war that revisited on that country many atrocities and witnessed a generalised practice of torture by the French army. Napalm was used, thousands “disappeared” and the memory of those years refuses to go away. While recent books have made a broader French audience aware of what happened between 1954 and 1962, the school curriculum says virtually nothing of the history of the conquest.

Since the turn of the century, the Paris Musee de l’Histoire de l’Homme has returned former colonial or anthropological “trophies” to New Zealand and South Africa. In 2011, Algerian anthropologist Farid Belkadi came across the aforementioned forty skulls among 18,000 others stored in the Paris museum. He appealed for their return to his home country but it was only when his request was taken up by leading historians such as Pascal Blanchard and Benjamin Stora, followed by a petition in the daily Le Monde in 2016, that things began to move. During his visit to Algiers in December 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron said he was willing to give back the skulls to Algeria, and in January of this year, an official Algerian request followed. After military honours and a “laying in state” at the Palais de la Culture in the capital, the skulls were buried in the El Alia cemetery, next to those of other martyrs, Emir Abdelkader and former presidents. The emotion in Algeria was intense and for good reason.

Unlike neighbouring Tunisia and Morocco, which were conquered later by France but remained nominally “protectorates” under the French foreign office and kept their titular sovereigns, the Algerian state collapsed and the very fabric of its society was torn to shreds.

Algeria’s image today is tainted by French colonial attitudes, “une poussiere d’hommes,” as General de Gaulle once remarked with disdain. “A nest of wasps, this den of thieves,” as an English commentator raved in 1728. The legacy of the fantastic and sexualised images of the depredations of corsair “piracy” have not quite gone away.

Beyond whatever excuses France might offer Algeria for its past behaviour, it is up to French society –indeed for English and American societies, as well — to get better acquainted with their history. At exactly the time when the European bourgeoisie’s own developing liberalism was tending to restrict the unaccountable power of its rulers and build up the rule of law against the abuse of authority for the protection of the simplest and most natural rights of peoples, such rights, and the rule of law that would protect them, were to be systematically denied by these liberal powers’ newly conquered people. That pattern was to last for a century and more. But, by an ironic twist, history today is being rewritten by its victims, not by its victors. In the broader Middle East, that is bound to happen, sooner or later, with Palestinian history.