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Sessions, Jennifer E. By Sword and Plow: France and the Conquest of Algeria. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. Pp. 325. ISBN: 0801449758

Jennifer Sessions's recent work is a marvelous success on its own terms. It is well-researched, introduces new perspectives into French history of the nineteenth century, and the writing is fluid and clear. In the introduction, she lays out the groundwork for her enquiry:

My concerns in this book are both historical and theoretical, and stem from two sets of questions that are too often isolated from each other. On the one hand, I seek to explain the policy choices that led France back on the colonial stage between 1830 and 1848. On the other hand, I aim to understand how contemporary culture shaped the culture of military conquest and settler colonization that made Algeria French.


The author transmits an authoritative understanding of the period and her ability to mobilize a breadth of primary and secondary sources makes for engaging arguments about the relationship between politics and culture (both high and low).

Chapters on both official and popular imagery produced around this period, interlaced with discussions of festivals sponsored by the government, serve to illustrate [End Page 334] French martial culture and responses to it with some complexity. Though she does not approach the paintings, cartoons and prints with the same concerns as an art historian, her interpretations of their imagery are nuanced and add much to an understanding of the ways colonial history was mediated through images in France during this era. Following this path, her work builds on the examples of Maurice Samuels and John MacKenzie, who have embraced a wider frame of cultural practices and products in order to account for historical change in France.

The greatest strength of the book is the chapter "The Blood of Brothers" because here the central issues she wishes to address are consolidated in order to recast French political history. She explains:

In the tensions between popular and official representations of the conquest, we can see the extent to which the postrevolutionary politics of empire were a matter not only of French power over Algerians, but also of power, citizenship and sovereignty within France itself.


This chapter carefully demonstrates how a variety of forms of information about colonial exploits, in image, print and song, were engaged by the French government and public.

The argument is subtle here, with the concurrent development of free compulsory public education mixed with new technological developments in image reproduction that allowed for a more rapid transfer of colonial news. The prototypes of Napoleonic military exploits—in Egypt, but also in continental Europe—are given in-depth treatment and the author demonstrates how national heroism, recast in Algeria, allowed the French citizenry to imagine a new era of heroic exploits.

Sessions is particularly concerned with questions of sovereignty, citizenship and political power and the way that these post-revolutionary notions were expanded in the colonial crucible of Algeria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Napoleon's legacy is central, but as successive generations of French kings attempt to come to terms with a newly-empowered political class, the Algerian affair, then project, absorbs a considerable amount of their attention and energy. She takes a two-pronged approach in the presentation of the chapters, considering the significance of both military conquest (the sword) and colonization (the plow). Her definition of colonization is the literal one, meaning the task of transforming this foreign soil into a French homeland across the Mediterranean through settlement and the adoption of European agricultural practices.

To her credit, Sessions considers French settlement in both theoretical and literal terms. She not only devotes a chapter to the turn to settler colonialism (the beginning of the second wave of French colonial activity inaugurated by the development of Algeria), but the difficulty of finding French citizens to take possession of these lands and the further challenge of making the colony profitable to France. Her arguments regarding French political culture and the problems that develop from colonial [End Page 335] expansion are persuasive. If there is a weakness here, it is her focus on metropolitan considerations as...


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pp. 334-336
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