1871: the Commune and the Kabylia

On the Paris Commune’s 150th anniversary, Rosa Moussaoui recalls the uprising that swept colonised Algeria at the same moment that a Universal Republic was proclaimed in Paris. This article was originally published in French in l’Humanité and in English translation on al-Muzāharāt

An engraving depicting a battlefield with burning houses and wounded combatants
1871 engraving depicting the revolt, by Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio
An historical overview is provided with the article:

1832-1837: Abd El Kader rose against French colonial occupation, which led to the Tafna Treaty. [1]

1848: After the surrender of Abd El Kader, Algeria was officially proclaimed as ‘French territory’.

1850-1870: Revolts in the Aurès Mountains and the Kabylia regions, bloodily suppressed. Famine ravages Algeria.

March-April 1871: The Kabylie insurrection, led by El Mokrani and Sheikh Aheddad, spread to neighbouring regions.


 

Since the beginning of the era of French colonisation, revolts convulsed Algeria. One of the most important, led by Sheikh El Mokrani, extended across three-quarters of the country before his bloody death.

Freedom is the most contagious of desires; always, a people’s rising up ignites the fire of revolt elsewhere – and the Commune was contemporary with an insurrection which could have halted the French colonial enterprise in Algeria. In March 1871, due to the instability caused by the Sedan defeat and the insurrectional mood that had gripped Paris, on the other side of the Mediterranean, in the Kabylia region, tribal confederations would trigger a veritable war against the occupier. The insurrection, the most important in terms of size and (tragic) outcome since the start of the conquest in 1830, was led by an enigmatic and feared chief, Sheikh El Mokrani, whose real name was Mohand Aït Mokrane

‘A great lord of the sword’

Son of a customary chief of [north-central] Medjana, on the high plains, El Mokrani, born in 1815, did not always embody a spirit of rebellion against the French invaders. His family refused, even in 1830, to gather under the banner of the Amir Abd El Kader. Colonial historiography paints a portrait of El Mokrani as a ‘grand seigneur d’épée’ with a ‘chivalric bravery’, who was acknowledged to have been ‘master of all the lands neighbouring the territory of his tribe’, such that France initially sought, if not his support, then at least his neutrality. Yet the barbarity of the conquerors, the arbitrariness and injustice of the colonial order, strained this unspoken pact of non-aggression beyond breaking point. Though subdued in 1857 after fourteen successive military campaigns – resulting in destruction of an unusual brutality – Kabylia had not, in fact, ever fully submitted to colonial domination.

From poverty, rebellion

Numerous revolts had already occurred in reaction to the humiliation, to the confiscation of lands, to the displacement of populations, to the dismantling of the social structure: above all, to the poverty to which the population was reduced, with famines, in particular the great famine of 1857, fuelling rebellion. Yet ‘the revolts were done for, until the war against Prussia reawakened anew the idea of independence amongst the natives [indigènes]’, wrote Just-Jean Étienne Roy in his 1880 Histoire de l’Algérie.

‘What is more (continued Roy), we no longer had an army in Africa, as so needed to command respect. The occasion was thus too favourable for these populations not to have taken advantage of; populations which have always supported our domination only with impatience, and who have never submitted except so as to rebuild their forces, waiting to rise again.’

An army of 10,000

Over the previous year, a clamour had arisen across the village communities. Despite the formal ban by colonial authorities, tijmaain, or village assemblies, were elected. On the 12 June 1869, Marshall MacMahon alerted Paris: ‘The Kabyles will remain tranquil, so long as they do not see the possibility of chasing us from their country!’ It was El Mokrani, at the head of a 10,000-strong army, who on 15 March 1871 gave the signal for the insurrection, which first showed its spectacular strength on 8 April with the call to rise up from the aged Sheikh Aheddad, spiritual chief of the Rahmaniya confederation – one to which 250 tribes responded, bringing together tens of thousands of fighters.

The insurrection spread like wildfire to the east and south of the country, across the coast, reaching the people of Constantine. To the west, the insurgents would approach the very gates of Algiers – though the crushing of the Paris Commune would prove the Algerian insurgents’ loss. With the people of Paris massacred, the military authority freed its hands to reconstitute a powerful African army: Admiral Gueydon mobilised 100,000 soldiers and a military machine superior to even that which forced the subduing of the Kabylia in 1857.

Killed, deported, forcibly enlisted

On the 5 May, El Mokrani was killed, and with his death the spirit of insurrection was broken. It continued, however, over the following nine months, as did its pitiless repression. All the population was targeted, and many tens of thousands of insurgents were killed. Entire villages were destroyed, with families decimated or thrown into vagrancy. The rebellion smashed, 450,000 hectares of land were confiscated and distributed to the new colonists coming from Alsace-Lorraine. In 1873, more than 200 insurgent chiefs were tried before the Constantine court and condemned to deportation to the penal colonies of Cayenne or New Caledonia, where they would meet Communards. ‘We saw them arrive in the great, white burnouses [Maghrebi cloaks]’, wrote Louise Michel in her memoirs. ‘The Arabs, deported for having themselves risen against oppression. These Orientals (…) were simple and good, with a grand sense of justice; they understood nothing of how we acted towards them.’ [2]

Some of the men who had taken part in the insurrection were forcibly enlisted into the Madagascar campaign. In the name of ‘collective responsibility of the insurgent tribes’, Kabylia was struck with a 36 million gold franc reparation. Wounded, bruised, the village communities had experienced a terrible tragedy, the memory of which would come to be transmitted – through literature and oral poetry – generation to generation.

Footnotes

[1] On Tafna, ‘The Treaty’s stipulations disclosed that the French interpreted the Amir’s territory as sovereign, underscoring the idea of an Algerian statehood. It also stipulated that Abd al-Qadir could purchase arms. Given the expedient negotiation and the conflicting ambitions of the Amir and the French, the treaty was in effect for only two years’ – Naylor’s 1994 Historical Dictionary of Algeria.

[2]Aussi ne comprenaient-ils rien à la façon dont on avait agi avec eux’: it seems to us that Michele was referring to the various exiles relationships, i.e., not to the Paris Commune’s relationship to the uprising, or the French authorities’ treatment of them as tribal leaders.

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