In June 1830, the French Restoration government sent an expeditionary force to Algeria to bring to book the Bey whom they accused of humiliating the French representative. Three weeks after their arrival, French troops had taken Algiers and the strategic objective had changed to complete occupation of the country. The occupation of the coastal area posed no problems, but the mountainous and desertic hinterland proved much trickier. Resistance there against the invading infidels was tenacious.
Abd el-Kader was of august lineage. His father was a descendant of the Prophet, chief of the Hachem tribe, and Sheikh of Kadiria, a powerful confraternity in the Oran region, and in that role he proclaimed jihad or Holy War against the French. During the initial fighting near Oran, the young Abd el-Kader distinguished himself and his miraculous escape from death led people to believe that he was protected by Allah. When in November 1832 the tribes decided to elect an Emir, a war chief to fight the invaders, they initially approached Abd el-Kader’s father. On his refusal, the tribes naturally turned towards the son. Abd el soon became the soul of Algerian resistance, stretching his authority throughout the hinterland and laying the foundations of a state with its capital at Tagdemt. The war of attrition which he waged bore fruit and forced the occupying French to come to the negotiating table. The Treaty of Tafna, signed on 30 May 1837, recognised the Emir’s sovereignty over an independent territory. However when French troops entered the defile of the Iron Gates, in October 1839, the Emir considered this a violation of the treaty and hostilities began again. General Bugeaud, appointed Governor General of Algeria, began a total war, even massacring civilians in order to break resistance. After his capital was taken, Abd el-Kader went into the wilderness with his smala, an immense encampment of nearly 60,000 people.
The smala was however betrayed and taken (when the Emir was absent) on 16 May 1843, by the Duc d’Aumale, son of Louis-Philippe. Weakened and harassed, Abd el-Kader fled to Marocco where the Sultan gave him protection, although the Sultan too abandoned the Emir on being defeated by Bugeaud at Isly on 14 August 1844. In December 1847, the Emir surrendered to General Lamoricière in return for a promise that he would be authorised to go into exile in Alexandria or Saint John d’Acre. As a guarantee of his surrender, he handed over his sword and his famous black horse. The French King however did not respect the engagement made by his son and his general. Abd el-Kader and his retinue of 97 people (including his mother and his three wives) were put on board a ship heading for Toulon where they were detained in very poor conditions. When Louis-Philippe fell and the Second Republic was installed, the Emir found ground for new hope for the French and Arab peoples, and even hoped for his release. He reminded the Provisional government of his surrender and asked to be allowed to visit Mecca and Medina before dying: «I do not ask for pardon or favour. I simply demand that the promises made to me be respected». The government was however divided, concerned with other pressing matters and influenced by some generals from Africa, and so decided to maintain the Emir’s captivity, although his conditions were to be improved. In April he was transferred to the Château de Pau, and then in the November to the Château d’Amboise which enabled him to receive a great number of visitors. All sorts of people came to see him, and he professed to them his desire to bring Christianity and Islam, the West and East, closer together, and he published several works on the subject.
Whilst Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was not particularly interested in colonisation, he did think – like the Saint Simonians, and especially Enfantin père, whom he greatly admired – that Algeria was a special case. He also thought that the Arabs were a people worthy of interest. Finally, as a man of honour, he thought that the July government had broken its word by not freeing the Emir and that the republicans had done little better by extending his captivity. After his election on 10 December 1848, as President of the Republic he desired to free the Emir. The following January, during one of the first councils of ministers over which he was President and to which he had summoned Marshal Bugeaud, he found that support for this move was not necessarily forthcoming. His War Minster, General Rullière, who himself had won his honours in Algeria, was particularly hostile. The majority at the Assemblée Nationale was similarly negative, so the President was forced to back down. However, he was able to foster good relations with the Emir via his intermediary, Captain Buissonet, and also to improve his conditions. He also promised to act as soon the circumstances were more favourable. Abd el-Kader was greatly encouraged not only by this but also by the fact that the President’s uncle, General Bonaparte, had shown himself tolerant to Islam during the Egyptian expedition.
Things changed significantly after the Coup d’État of 2 December 1851. As Emperor, Louis-Napoleon now had greater freedom. At the end of his visit to the south of France (made to test public opinion in France on the re-establishment of the Empire), Napoleon III stopped at Bordeaux on 9 October, 1852, and gave a speech which laid out his programme, reminding listeners that “opposite Marseilles, there exists a vast kingdom to assimilate to France, [Algeria]”. This policy could only work with peace on both sides of the Mediterranean. A few days later, he stopped at Amboise to free Abd el-Kader, only asking for a promise that he would never try to return to Algeria. This act of one sovereign to another was performed against the advice of ministers and civil servants in his party (including General Saint-Arnaud, War Minister, Bineau, Finance Minister and Baroche, Vice-President of the Council of State). “You have been an enemy of France”, he said to the Emir, “but I respect your courage, your character, and your resignation in misfortune; this is why I feel honour-bound to bring your captivity to an end, trusting you entirely because you have given your word.” The head of state even gave the ex-captive a pension of 150,000 francs as compensation. This meeting was immortalised in a painting by Ange Tissier.
Abd-el-Kader then came to Paris. He approved the referendum re-establishing the Empire and was invited to the principal celebrations marking the change of regime. On 2 December 1852, the day on which the Empire was resuscitated, the Emir was at the Tuileries Palace. When it was known that he was to go to the Opera, seat prices there went through the roof. During the opera, he publicly embraced his friend, the “Sultan” Napoleon III. He visited the Emperor at Saint-Cloud, a meeting which was reproduced in a marble bas-relief by Carpeaux. Abd el-Kader visited Notre-Dame, the Madeleine and the Imprimerie Nationale (where he was shown translated copies of his promises), he visited Napoleon’s tomb and inspected a review at Satory astride a white horse which the Emperor had just given him. At the end of a triumphal progress through France, he boarded a ship in Marseilles on 21 December 1852, for the Middle East. Shortly afterwards, Eugène de Civry published a book entitled Napoléon III et Abd el-Kader in which the Emperor and his new friend were depicted as the two heroes of modern times.
The Emir arrived in Constantinople on 7 January 1853, and soon moved to Bursa (south of the Sea of Marmara). In July 1854 he sent three magnificent horses to Napoleon III as a token of his friendship, each decked with verses which he had composed. A year later, he returned to Paris for the Exposition Universelle and showed a great interest in the inventions exhibited there. He was even present at the Te Deum sung in Notre-Dame in celebration for the taking of Sebastopol, in the Crimea. After an earthquake in Bursa, he requested to be allowed to go to reside closer to the holy sites of Islam, choosing Damascus in Syria where Ibn Arabi, the 12th-century Sufi master, was buried. With the support of Napoleon III, his request was accepted by the Turkish Sultan. In his new residence, Abd el-Kader spent his time in study, prayer and teaching theology in the holy sites of the city (notably, the Mosque of the Omeyyades). He was so well known in the Arab world that he also gave daily audiences at his palace, and he required three secretaries to deal with his correspondence and to manage his rural estates. He remained in contact with his native land and many of his fellow natives came to live nearby. The French consulate however had to remain vigilant and to protect the Emir because the Sultan was unhappy with the Emir’s influence and soon longed for his departure. The Emir’s interpreter, Bullad, was in fact one of the Sultan’s spies.
After the pacification of Algeria by General Randon, Napoleon III decided on a policy of appeasement towards the Arabs. A Ministry for Algeria and the Colonies was created in June 1858, and there were great hopes. The two successive ministers, the Prince Napoleon and the Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat, were both friends of the Emir’s. However, in November 1860, after having visited the country and having seen the discontent between the civilians and soldiers, the Emperor decided to reintroduce the military government. Abd el-Kader did not oppose the move. Such a regime was better placed to protect the Arabs: Napoleon III had made a speech to colonists in Algiers stating: “Our first duty is to ensure the happiness of the three million Arabs whom military conquest has put under our domination”. If the Emir’s biographer, Bruno Étienne, is to be believed, Napoleon III had proposed that the Emir be placed at the head of an Arab kingdom stretching from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Akaba, the aim being to hinder British imperial pretentions, but that the Emir had refused.
At the same time, in the Lebanon, the Druze (a people who practised a religion derived from Islam) had begun massacring their Christian neighbours, the Maronites. The movement had quickly spread to Syria. The Emir generously gave sanctuary in his house to French and Arab Christians threatened by bloodthirsty mobs, thus saving more than 1,500 of them from certain death – though several thousands were not so lucky. The massacres in Damascus caused a scandal in France, and the Emir’s noble action was praised. The Turkish Sultan who had allowed the first massacres but who was now not only greatly embarrassed but also faced with French military intervention decorated Abd el-Kader with the Order of Medjidie; simultaneously Napoleon III sent the Emir the Grand cordon of the Légion d’honneur. The Emir accepted the decoration and wore it with pride.
Ever since his visit to Algeria in 1860, Napoleon III was obsessed with Algeria and the Arabs. He wanted to bring them not only the “benefits of civilisation” but also “perfect equality” with Europeans. In November 1862, he invited five Arab chiefs to a hunting party at Compiègne. Influenced by the Saint Simonians, Ismaël Urbain and Colonel Lapasset, he developed a policy for an Arab kingdom. On 6 February 1863, he sent a (subsequently published) letter to the Governor General of Algeria, Marshal Pélissier, in which he said that he was “just as much the Emperor of the Arabs as Emperor of the French”, because “Algeria was not a colony as such but an Arab kingdom”. He affirmed that he wanted to “make the tribes and sub-tribes the irreplaceable owners of the territories which they occupied” and to limit agrarian colonisation. The sénatus-consulte of 22 April 1863, enshrined those desires. Abd el-Kader was delighted with the generous measure. However, the colonists were less impressed. Furthermore, many Arabs revolted. Napoleon III then decided to return to Algeria, in May 1865. On his thirty-six-day visit he covered 3,084 km, visiting the territories with the new governor general, Marshal Mac Mahon, and getting a fairly accurate picture of the situation, even though he was only shown the safest and most prosperous regions. On his return to Paris, he wrote a long letter of policy to the Governor General defining Algeria as “this country which is both an Arab kingdom, a European colony and a French military camp” and stating that it was his ambition to “reconcile the colonists and the Arabs, bringing both in line with the lines traced by the letter of 6 February 1863”. The land, rights, laws and religion of the Arabs were to be respected, but the Arabs were French and those who requested it could “unconditionally [be] invested with the rights of French citizens”. The sénatus-consulte dated 14 July 1865 – perhaps the most liberal of all the colonial legislation of the 19th century after the abolition of slavery – gave French nationality to all Arabs who asked for it, with the single condition that they abandon polygamy.
In 1867, Abd el-Kader went to France for the third time, on the occasion of the second Exposition universelle in Paris. He paid homage to his friend, the builder of splendid towns, and described the edifice erected to house the exhibits as “a palace of intelligence enlivened by the breath of God”. Did Napoleon III share with the Emir his projects for an Arab kingdom? Did he envisage the Emir as its viceroy? It is possible. The Emir was no longer the rebel of yesteryear, but rather a magnanimous sage. However, Abd el-Kader no longer desired a political role. In 1863, he had undertaken another pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and spent more and more time in meditation. Just like Napoléon III, he gave great support to Ferdinand de Lesseps’s project to cut the Suez isthmus and tried to persuade poor Arabs to participate in the construction. He even bought some shares in the company himself and was rewarded with a property alongside the canal. On 17 November, 1869, he was present with the Empress Eugenie at the inauguration of the Suez Canal – Napoleon III was ill and could not make the journey.
Abd el-Kader was a silent but saddened observer of the fall of the Empire. He survived the Emperor by ten years and died in 1883 on his farm in Dummar, in Syria. His body was first transported to Damascus, before being taken to Algeria after independence. Napoleon III’s body would remain in exile.