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  • By Sword and Plow: France and the Conquest of Algeria by Jennifer E. Sessions
  • Don Holsinger
By Sword and Plow: France and the Conquest of Algeria. By Jennifer E. Sessions. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2011. 365pp. $49.95 (cloth).

The 1830 French conquest of Algiers has long been recognized as the key turning point in modern North African history. Jennifer Sessions’s book, By Sword and Plow: France and the Conquest of Algeria, underscores the event’s central importance in the history of modern France. Her clear and thoughtful analysis of the cultural history of nineteenth-century French imperialism, based on wide-ranging written and visual sources, convincingly portrays the 1830 invasion as a watershed moment in modern world history. Moreover, this illuminating study of the interaction between political and cultural forces in the foundational stage of France’s North African empire continually evokes comparisons with the cultural and political dynamics of American imperialism in the early twenty-first century.

The French Revolution of 1789 generated conflicts over political sovereignty and male citizenship reflected in the imperialist iconography that provides much of the material for this book. Prior to the 1830 invasion of Algeria, there had been two French empires—the West Indian colonies centered on sugar production and the empire created by Napoleon Bonaparte. By Sword and Plow illustrates how France’s earlier culture of empire was revived through the colonial policies in Algeria beginning in 1830, and how the subsequent military domination and settler colonization of Algeria shaped French political culture up to the present day.

Given the book’s premise that French imperialism slowed rather than facilitated the development of capitalism, the motives for invasion, conquest, expansion, and settlement have to be sought in French political culture rather than political economy. The author combed national, departmental, metropolitan, and overseas archives to collect the documents in art, literature, and drama necessary to reconstruct nineteenth-century French imperial culture. Influenced by the textured approaches pioneered by Clifford Geertz, Pierre Bourdieu, and Edward Said, she sought a nuanced understanding that approaches cultural history through three sets of lenses—representation, system, and practice.

The first chapter, “A Tale of Two Despots,” reveals the political and cultural dynamics that influenced the fateful decision to send an invading force across the Mediterranean to capture the city of Algiers. Quotations and images convey the striking contradictions of French imperial actions. An invasion couched as a defense against political [End Page 896] despotism and religious fanaticism was celebrated by French royalists in the name of divinely inspired royal power. The liberals of 1830 who overthrew Charles X proceeded to redefine the capture of Algiers as a victory for freedom and the nation, laying the groundwork for the continuing conquest and colonization of Algeria. Rather than condemning the invasion and withdrawing the army, the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe embraced it as a step toward a productive agricultural colony that would benefit both sides of the Mediterranean. The war in Algeria perpetually served as a means to reinforce the legitimacy of the regime in power. Reverence for the brave self-sacrificing soldier became the sacred national touchstone.

The policies of the July Monarchy between 1830 and 1848 established a dynamic of territorial expansion that transcended the monarchy. When regime change occurred again in France in 1848, imperial expansion continued and intensified. As with the liberals of 1830 in relation to Charles X, the republican revolutionaries of 1848 rejected Louis-Philippe’s attempts to legitimize his regime through the war in Algeria. They then proceeded to commit even greater resources in support of military conquest and settler colonization, for Algeria had become a symbol central to French identity and national pride.

Despite burgeoning financial and human costs, French officials were unwilling to turn down military commanders’ requests for increased funds or proposals to turn Algeria into an agricultural colony populated by European settlers. The “plow” followed and worked in tandem with the “sword” as instruments of imperial expansion regardless of the political ideology of the regime back in Paris. Soldiers and settlers collaborated in making Algeria the jewel of the French Empire. By 1848 French Algeria was evolving into a dual role unique...


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