Historians once devoted considerably more attention to French atrocities during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62) than to the violence of the preceding 124 years of French colonialism in the region. No longer. William Gallois’s book joins recent studies by scholars such as Benjamin Brower, Jennifer Sessions, and Abdelmajid Hannoum in shedding new light on the nineteenth-century history of French military practices in Algeria. Less a conventional monograph than a scholarly manifesto, A History of Violence in the Early Algerian Colony is structured around a series of iconoclastic interpretive proclamations. These challenge other historians in such an intimate fashion that Gallois sometimes neglects to provide readers with his interlocutors’ first names or even citations to their work (see, e.g., pp. 56–57). Although he proposes a complex thesis composed of “seven interlocking claims” (23), the book essentially argues that French military violence in the early colony (1830–47) was so disproportionate to Algerian resistance and so systematically enacted against civilians that it is better understood as a series of “genocidal processes” (164) than as a war.
The book’s seven chapters are divided into two broad sections. The first (chapters 1–3), which Gallois invites expert readers to skip entirely, discusses French military culture in Algeria in general and theoretical terms. Following an essayistic introduction, he argues that French soldiers who arrived in Algeria in the 1830s viewed the territory through the lens of European textual representations of “Barbary” as a savage, radically alien realm. Military leaders therefore came to understand violence as the only possible “form of conversation with Algerians” (33). Moreover, they viewed the region’s inhabitants as combatants in a unified jihad, when in fact armed resistance was minimal and dispersed. Gallois insists, in particular, that historians have overstated the role of Abd el-Kader, who “was as much a fiction as he was a true threat to France” (52). These early chapters are weakened both by spotty engagement with key secondary literature, especially that surrounding Abd el-Kader and other anticolonial agents, and by insufficient evidence. For instance, the discussion of preconquest representations of “Barbary” that supposedly influenced French soldiers makes expansive claims about centuries of literary production based almost entirely on one French and two English texts from 1758, 1761, and 1788.
The book’s second section (chapters 4–7) deals with specific violent practices and is considerably stronger. Here Gallois uses archival materials from the Service Historique de la Défense as well as a superb 2001 inventory by Jean Nicot and Pascal Carré to provide some important insights into the nature of French violence in Algeria. He offers especially [End Page 211] chilling observations about the evolving horrors of the razzia, a form of scorched-earth raid. Gallois’s typology of the razzia illuminates how infamous massacres with which readers may already be familiar—the 1845 “smoke-out” in the Dahra caves, for instance—evolved from a wider set of methods for “punishing” Algerian communities. Readers might have been even better served by closer work with the archival materials documenting these practices: in many citations, no author is named and it is impossible to discern whether the source in question is a letter, an official report, an informal note, or even a paraphrase by Nicot and Carré. Correspondence between General Bugeaud in Algeria and Marshal Soult in Paris is an exception to this pattern, and Gallois uses it to good effect to demonstrate their shared responsibility for systemic atrocities. Here too, though, there is some confusion. For example, Gallois misattributes a famous statement by Soult to the historian Benjamin Brower (81), and the footnote to an 1842 statement putatively written by Bugeaud lists a letter by Soult (97). In addition, given Gallois’s reliance on the Nicot and Carré inventory, this source should have been formally credited rather than being mentioned only in passing in an early footnote. Some of these errors could have been corrected by more rigorous editing.
The final chapter presents the book’s most provocative argument. Drawing...