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Setting up a Comparison: Settler Colonization in the American Midwest and French Algeria

Posted in Percolating Ideas

Why do a comparative study? Why choose these two very different and seemingly unrelated regions? I’ve received these questions often enough that they merit an explanation. Please bear with me as my response is a little lengthy. This is a complex project! I’ve added subheadings to make navigating this post a little easier. Please ask questions or pose suggestions in the comments section below!

Why a comparative study of settler colonialism?

Little is known about how or why settler colonies formed, but as scholars of colonization, we need to understand the factors that motivated the formation of settler colonies and the processes by which they formed. Therefore, the two archetypes of settler colonialism – the United States and French Algeria – provide excellent case studies for this purpose.  Secondly, even though the métropoles chosen underwent different political transformations during this time, both were in transitory states as they sought to make or remake themselves, and the colonies in the Midwest and in Algeria were an important part of these changes.  In addition, the two regions chosen for this study possess similar geographic characteristics and were strategically significant in the colonization process.  Finally, the process of colonization proceeded through similar stages in both regions and analogous colonial structures emerged, despite the differences in demographics and metropolitan governments.

North America was one of the first early-modern settler colonies, and this study examines its evolution from a European settler colony into an American settler empire and argues that the United States also became an important model for modern settler colonialism and Indigenous policy. [1]  Likewise, Algeria has long been considered a model for settler colonialism but the process of its formation as such has not yet been studied in depth.[2] It is hoped that the comparison of these two archetypes, then, will yield powerful insights into how and why they formed that may also help us understand the development of other settler colonies.

Why the United States and French Algeria?

Both the French conquest of Algeria and the expansion of the United States into the Old Northwest Territory, the present-day “Midwest” region, marked the beginning of new colonial eras for both métropoles.  For France, the conquest and subsequent settlement of Algiers inaugurated its “second colonial empire.” As the United States fought for its own independence from England, Americans began an assault on Midwestern Native American tribes, their land, and the British who claimed the territory.  As in Algeria, settlers moved in on the heels of the military, and the young United States government became the political head of both a confederation of states and a nascent settler empire. Thus, the “conquests” of these regions marked the commencement of two settler colonies as well as significant periods of metropolitan change.  In recognition of the importance of founding moments, my study will compare the inception of these settler colonies with the understanding that they were also highly significant for the métropoles, even if recognized as such only in retrospect.

Why this time period?

In this study, I will analyze the foundational eras in the establishment of settler colonies in the American Midwest (1778 ~ 1830) and French Algeria (1830 – 1871). These periods were dynamic, characterized by substantial political transformations and encompass conquest/occupation, initial settlement, and the development of stable settler governments.  The United States metamorphosed from a colony into an independent nation whose political character changed appreciably between the Revolution and the 1830s. France, a monarchy in 1830 under the Restoration government of King Charles X, was soon overthrown by the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe d’Orleans (1830-1848), which was, in turn, ousted by the Second Republican government, and finally (for this study’s purposes) replaced by the Second Empire (1852-1871) under Napoleon III four years later.  The transformations that took place in both the métropoles and the colonies affected each other to varying degrees and in different ways in each location, but the relationship proved important in the development of the settler colonies, the establishment of settler governments, and the shape of each.

Why the American Midwest and Constantine, Algeria?

The Algerian province of Constantine and Illinois/Indiana in the United States provide an interesting and useful comparison. Both were recognized as vital to American and French colonization efforts.  Geographically, both bordered other imperial territories at the time of occupation and colonization, and both were fertile inland territories that were significant sites of agriculture.  They were also strategically significant for military purposes and provided access to lucrative commercial networks.  The indigenous populations in both areas practiced extensive agriculture, were already culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse, and had long-established relations with the colonizers through trade.

Comparing Colonization Methods:

Preliminary research indicates that the colonization of each location proceeded in a similar manner. Colonization began in both before the métropole gave its official assent. The colonial governments were therefore left to acknowledge the colonies and craft legislation ex-post-facto, which suggests that these settler colonies began from bottom-up impulses and processes, making the actions of the settlers, Indigenous populations, and the military even more significant.

During colonization, both Constantine and the American Midwest became important sites of Indigenous resistance.  However, a number of powerful competing Native groups resided in both places, some of which saw advantages to accommodating and allying with the colonizers against neighboring Indigenous communities. French and American colonizers employed comparable methods and sought to capitalize on these divisions to achieve similar objectives. Each wanted to populate the territory with small freeholders, generally as quickly as possible by legal (treaties) or extra-legal means (forcefully acquiring land).  However, France never achieved a colony of freeholders, unlike the United States, which provides an interesting point of comparison between the two.

The nature of initial settlement, the settlers themselves, and the circumstances surrounding conquest and occupation suggest that the founding moments were important to the development of each settler colony. Colonists migrated to the American Midwest to farm, but many settlers in Algeria took advantage of the extensive trade networks and established themselves in urban communities. It is unclear in the secondary literature how many settlers in Constantine chose to farm or chose to settle in the cities. Both sought to abolish Native communities’ communal land rights by instituting various measures to force the division of land into individual holdings and developed reservation systems for Indigenous societies (in Algeria, called cantonnement).

How similar were they, really?

One important contrast between the two colonies was the significance of land to individual settlers.  While a small number of Europeans bought large tracts of Algerian land, a majority of individuals and families settled in towns, as opposed to the American Midwest, where the majority of the settlers bought land to farm.[3]  The obvious reason for this difference was the availability of houses in extant Algerian cities, which did not exist in America in the same way.[4]  Only sections of a relatively narrow band of land about 200 miles wide along the coast of Algeria was available for farming and since the military launched total war on the land and its people, hundreds of acres of trees and crops were destroyed, making it less appealing for those who sought quick returns on their investment.  There were also fewer barriers to entry into commercial networks in Algeria than there were in Indian Territory and former Indian lands.  This calls into question scholars’ assumption that land was the primary motivating factor in settler colonialism.

In the American Midwest, settlers eventually outnumbered the Indigenous population, but this was a rare occurrence in Algeria. The Indigenous cultures in each location differed from each other in significant ways, from community and family structures to their life-ways and the extent of Indigenous urbanization. Regardless, similar colonial structures developed in both places, which implies that each métropole faced similar problems in governing the territories and the people in them.

Is this comparison synthetic or organic? Did 19th c. Americans or Frenchmen draw such parallels?

In a word, yes. This study is not the first comparison of these two regions.  Nineteenth-century Frenchmen were equally interested and debated how alike (or not) the two colonial projects were.  In addition to Tocqueville’s initial study, Democracy in America, Michel Chevalier traveled to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century to compare its development with that of French Algeria, and found Algeria sadly lacking in terms of immigration and the development of industry.  However, Algerian Governor-General MacMahon wrote a rebuttal to Chevalier’s stance, which was presented before the Senate in 1870.  MacMahon maintained that, given the immense Indigenous population the French faced in Algeria, their colonization was proceeding well by 1870:

On arrival in America, the Europeans found there a territory of immense expanse, inhabited by a population, which by comparison, was insignificant.  Understanding the advantages of colonization, of civilization, they were able, without great injustice, to repel the hunters who were before them in the vast forests which covered a part of the country, forests in which these people were able to continue to live by hunting as they had in the past.

It is not the same in Algeria, where the Europeans found a limited territory, inhabited by a population of 2,500,000 inhabitants of a proud, energetic, [and] militant race, who in every case had the enjoyment of all of the country’s land, and who, moreover were supported more or less directly by the Muslim country which neighbored it. …

I regret that M. Michel Chevalier, who reported to us very interesting documents from the United States, has not I believe been obliged to visit our colony.  I think that if he had traveled not only the cities in the Littoral, but the agricultural centers of the interior, he would have had better impressions of the state of the country.  I believe it to be true to say that these centers, with the exception of a very small number, which were established principally in less-viable and unfavorable conditions, are in a satisfactory state.  The occasional hardships through three years of drought and from diverse scourges are today in great part repaired and the villages are in a state of prosperity equal at least to that of the villages of France.[5]

Thus, to understand how the French viewed Algeria, determined how to proceed with colonization, and measured their progress, it is essential to understand the process and initial results of the establishment of settler colonies in both locations.


[1] Lisa Ford, Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788-1836. Harvard Historical Studies 166. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010), 21.

[2] John Ruedy, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 51.

[3] More than 60 percent of settlers in Algeria lived in urban areas. (David Prochaska, Making Algeria French, 11).  For this reason, Constantine is especially important because it was one of the largest cities in Algeria, and as Prochaska notes, “whoever controlled the urban centers, especially the major cities of the littoral, controlled to a large extent what went on in the colony itself” (Ibid).

[4] Although some American frontier homes resembled Indigenous structures, settlers would not have lived in Indian homes, even if they had had the opportunity. However, there were few occasions in which they would have been able to make the choice, as many Indigenous structures were portable and thus migrated with the Indian communities or were destroyed during frontier warfare.

[5] Patrice de Mac Mahon, duc de Magenta, “Discours au Sénat du duc de Magenta sur une pétition relative à la constitution de l’Algérie” (Paris, 1870), pp. 4-5. Centre des Archives d’outre-mer, Aix-en-Provence, France. File: F/ 80/ 1681. Translation Mine.

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