- The Sands of Rhyme: Thackeray and Abd al Qadir 1
The intense rivalry between Britain and France for colonial possessions in the nineteenth century and the profound antipathy that many Britons felt at the time towards the French, especially in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, account for much of the sympathetic support that Emir Abd al Qadir received in the United Kingdom. It was, after all, the British who sold the Emir much of his weaponry, which made it possible for him to hold the French army in check for over fifteen years, until his surrender in late December 1847. No one embodied more outlandishly British antipathy for the French than the Victorian novelist and satirist William Makepeace Thackeray, author of, among other numerous works, Vanity Fair and The Book of Snobs. At the same time, no one more staunchly supported the Emir’s cause than Thackeray, whether at Punch, where he was a regular contributor during the crucial years of Abd al Qadir’s resistance, or in his public speeches.
In discussing Thackeray’s denunciation of French colonial adventurism in Algeria and in his siding with Abd al Qadir, this paper will focus mainly on a poem that Thackeray probably wrote in 1848 (no date of composition is given) when Abd al Qadir was in captivity in Toulon. The objective here is to determine whether the idealized figure of the Emir is used by Thackeray as a mere ploy (the enemy of my enemy is my friend) to further tantalize and discredit his bête noire, Louis-Philippe, and the Orleanists and through them the French people in general, or as a genuine tribute to an Arabian hero who also happened to personify the idealized Bedouin prince, a fantasy that excited the imagination of many Victorians. Moreover, the essay will argue, in the context of the current Algerian predicament, that Thackeray’s symbolic and emblematic treatment of the figure of Abd al Qadir resonates strongly with that of the Algerian elite in general, particularly Algerian francophone writers.
The fact that Thackeray’s biographers and critics, without exception, totally overlooked or ignored his admiration and support of Abd al Qadir is a clear indication of its marginality in his rich life and work. True, nothing in Thackeray’s social or political background seemed to destine him for this role of advocacy. Born in Calcutta on 18 July 1811 to privileged Anglo-Indians, from early childhood Thackeray was imbued with the colonialist and racist ideology of his social class and remained, until his death, a firm believer in British imperialism. On the contrary, everything about him—his refined cosmopolitan culture, his many linguistic talents, his love of the arts, his frequent visits to France, not to mention his antinative attitude—should have made him, one would think, if not a francophile, at least an objective ally of the French “civilizing mission” in Algeria and an unlikely sympathizer of Abd al Qadir’s anticolonialism. [End Page 194]
Yet if not francophile, francophone he was! He spoke the language with native fluency and wrote it with flair. His knowledge of French culture, politics, and arts was both broad and deep. He even authored a delightful and insightful little book about his experiences in France (1832–37) entitled The Paris Sketch-Book. But despite all of these qualifications, he grew to be a rabid French-hater, who genuinely believed the French to be inferior to the British. This outrageously snobbish sentiment he frequently and unabashedly expressed both in his private conversations and in his writings, especially in his many contributions to the satirical magazine Punch:
My dear brother reader say, as a man of honour, if you are not of this opinion. Do you think a Frenchman your equal? You don’t—you gallant British Snob—you know you don’t: no more, perhaps, does the Snob your humble servant, brother.(The Books of Snobs 110)
None more grotesquely embodied for him French evil and his own francophobia than Napoleon Bonaparte; he would later feel the same way about his nephew Napoleon III. This personal antipathy had been with him as far in the past as he could...