Divided Rule: Sovereignty and Empire in French Tunisia, 1881-1938

Divided Rule: Sovereignty and Empire in French Tunisia, 1881-1938

Divided Rule: Sovereignty and Empire in French Tunisia, 1881-1938

Divided Rule: Sovereignty and Empire in French Tunisia, 1881-1938

Synopsis

After invading Tunisia in 1881, the French installed a protectorate in which they shared power with the Tunisian ruling dynasty and, due to the dynasty's treaties with other European powers, with some of their imperial rivals. This "indirect" form of colonization was intended to prevent the violent clashes marking France's outright annexation of neighboring Algeria. But as Mary Dewhurst Lewis shows in Divided Rule, France's method of governance in Tunisia actually created a whole new set of conflicts. In one of the most dynamic crossroads of the Mediterranean world, residents of Tunisia-- whether Muslim, Jewish, or Christian--navigated through the competing power structures to further their civil rights and individual interests and often thwarted the aims of the French state in the process.

Over time, these everyday challenges to colonial authority led France to institute reforms that slowly undermined Tunisian sovereignty and replaced it with a more heavy-handed form of rule--a move also intended to ward off France's European rivals, who still sought influence in Tunisia. In so doing, the French inadvertently encouraged a powerful backlash with major historical consequences, as Tunisians developed one of the earliest and most successful nationalist movements in the French empire. Based on archival research in four countries, Lewis uncovers important links between international power politics and everyday matters of rights, identity, and resistance to colonial authority, while re-interpreting the whole arc of French rule in Tunisia from the 1880s to the mid-20th century. Scholars, students, and anyone interested in the history of politics and rights in North Africa, or in the nature of imperialism more generally, will gain a deeper understanding of these issues from this sophisticated study of colonial Tunisia.

Excerpt

On 24 April 1881, French military forces entered Tunisia, ostensibly to quell the Khmir tribe’s incursions across the Tunisian border into Algeria, France’s most cherished colony. This task momentarily achieved, the thirty thousand troops did not withdraw; instead, over the course of the next three weeks, their presence solidified into an occupation. From this position of strength, French authorities issued an ultimatum to the bey of Tunis, Muhammad al-Sadiq, and on 12 May, both sides signed the Treaty of Ksar Said (Bardo Treaty), an armistice agreement that abruptly established what amounted to a French protectorate over Tunisia—a country that had been, for roughly three hundred years, a virtually autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire.

Although French military leaders might have preferred to annex Tunisia, particularly as violent resistance erupted there in the wake of the Bardo Treaty, civilian officials rebuffed them. Instead of claiming that Tunisia, like Algeria, was an integral part of France, the foreign affairs ministry contended that it was a distinct state. Muhammad al-Sadiq would remain sovereign, and France would protect the Husaynid dynasty of beys he represented, while at the same time safeguarding its own interests in North Africa by securing a buffer on Algeria’s eastern border. This was hardly the only way France could have tried to control its new imperial acquisition. Given Tunisia’s diverse population—the result of its location at the crossroads of traditional Mediterranean commercial and trans-Saharan trade routes—one might have expected French officials to practice “divide and rule” tactics, manipulating or even fabricating factions among colonial subjects in an effort to achieve a more secure “imperium”—as the Latin phrase divide et impera implies. Instead, the French in Tunisia confronted a problem of “divided rule.”

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