This article examines the rapid and dramatic shifts in position, perception, and possibility that characterized the onset of colonialism in the Maghrib. The focus is on a small, interrelated group of families of Algiers notables. Their heads, the merchant and state servant Ḥamdān ibn ʿUthmān Khoja and the banker and businessman Aḥmad Bū Ḍarba, played important roles in attempting to negotiate an accommodation with the French occupiers between 1830 and 1833. By 1836, they found themselves pushed out, both politically and physically, from the cité (both physical and symbolic) that they had, until then, imagined themselves as sharing on equal terms with interlocutors on the other shore of the Mediterranean. Closing down their possibilities of dialogue can be seen as the first, decisive step in the emergence of French definitions of a “monologic,” exclusively European articulation of the meaning of modernity in North Africa.
G. Weiss, Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011): 59; ambassador to the Two Sicilies, Naples, to Lemaire, Algiers, 23 September 1756. Centre des Archives Diplomatiques, Nantes, France (hereafter FR/CADN) Alger/Consulat/3, fols. 144-5.
Hamdan ben Uthman Khodja, Aperçu historique et statistique sur la Régence d’Alger, intitulé en arabe Le miroir, traduit de l’arabe par H . . . D . . ., oriental (Paris: de Goetschy, 1833): ii, 10-11, 426, 163-4. H.D. was Ḥassūna Daghīs, a Tripolitanian state servant, at one time responsible for foreign affairs under Yūsuf Qaramanlı Bey in Tripoli, who also collaborated with Jeremy Bentham and was in Hamdan’s circle in Paris. He had also gained some notoriety from his (unfounded) implication, by the British consul at Tripoli, in the death of the Scottish Saharan explorer Alexander Laing near Timbuktu in 1826. As Julien noted, contemporary sources do not mention the fact of the translation or its putative Arabic original, which has long been lost, if it ever existed, some suggesting that Hamdan dictated the text. Temimi (Recherches et documents: 21-6) dismisses this hypothesis and argues that there must indeed have been an Arabic original, as suggested by Hamdan’s son Ali in a later work (see below). Yver, in a generally hostile and dismissive account, attributes the work and its “philosophico-liberal jargon” (“Si Hamdan”: 113) to the pens of unknown European publicists whom he supposes Hamdan must have hired. It is certainly likely enough that Hamdan worked with associates in Paris, but no contemporary source seems to deny his primary authorship of Le miroir. The title itself is reminiscent of eighteenth-century savant writings on the Maghrib as well as closely echoing the title of the instructions produced for the army of occupation before the invasion. It is not inconceivable that the text was composed, whether partly by dictation or collaboratively, directly in French and that its claim to be “translated from the Arabic by H.D., an Oriental” was intended to add a colour of authenticity for the Parisian market. The comparison with the much later Esprit libéral du Coran by the Tunisian reformer ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Thaʿālibī (published in Paris in 1905, also in French—no Arabic original has ever been discovered) is hard to resist, except that more is known of Thaʿalibi’s collaborators, and he was certainly less multilingual than Hamdan. On Daghis, see Ian Coller, “African Liberalism in the Age of Empire? Hassuna D’ghies and Liberal Constitutionalism in North Africa, 1822-1835.” Modern Intellectual History 12/3 (Nov. 2015): 529-53.