The French As Colonizers

North Africa the Field of Their Most Successful Work—How
They Have Civilized the People and Enriched the Land
While Building for Themselves a Commercial
Empire and a New Army

By Charles Wellington Furlong

[The World's Work, October 1917]

The Qui vive? of the French videttes guarding the frontier of France's possessions has echoed among the fertile valleys of the Atlas, across the silent sands of the Sahara, and along the fever-reeking reaches of the Congo: it has rung out in the wilds of Madagascar and along the coast of the Marquesas: in Guiana, it has challenged on the banks of the miasmic Maroni and Oyapok: it has resounded through the deathlike stillness of the slime-and-verdure-platinated ruins of ancient Cambodia, and died away in the cobra-infested jungles of Pondicherry.

But of all French colonies and dependencies, those of Africa are most extensive, most developed, and most vital to her existence. In the European picture-puzzle game entitled "Acquiring Africa," France to-day has succeeded in filling out the map with more pieces than any other competitor.

Her first acquisition was Senegal, back in the seventeenth century; then the French Congo, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Madagascar, French Guiana, Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, and even a bit of Somaliland at the entrance of the Red Sea. Then came the great coup de main, the capture of Timbuctoo and the flinging of the tricolor over the Sahara, Morocco, and the Sudan, thus linking by continuous territory every one of her African colonies, with the exception of French Somaliland. To-day France boasts an African Empire which, including Madagascar, extends over a third of that vast continent, and includes more territory than the United States with Alaska thrown in.

One may well ask how these vast areas were first penetrated and a foothold established, how France as a colonizer controlled and administered them. French African explorers were not infrequently French army officers, with specific missions, whose ultimate object was to plant the French flag in new territory. The names of Caillie, De Brazza, Campel, Gentil, Marchand, Foreau, Lamy, Lyautey, the beloved Joffre, and others will be written large on the escutcheon of the colonization of Africa.

These expeditions, each led by a mere handful of brave Frenchmen, with their native guides and escort, suffered untold hardships in a land of treacherous climate and more treacherous men: all were involved in that strange romance and adventure which seem to permeate the very atmosphere of fabulous Africa.

But not all these expeditions reached their goal. I recall to mind three instances where small-bands of the White Fathers (French missioners), of which more later, relied upon the word of the Tuaregs (desert tribes) for a safe escort, only to be murdered when far on their journey. Also the case of the ill-fated Flatters Expedition, which left southern Algeria to study questions of railway communication across the Sahara. This company left Ouargla, Algeria, about a hundred strong—French native Tirailleurs, Arab guides, and enough camel-drivers to attend to the caravan of some three hundred camels all told.

Attached to the party were a number of Tuaregs. Week after week, they toiled in measured march south, passed Amgid, and entered the very heart of the Hoggar country. Here they were led into a Tuareg ambush. Those who escaped took up, without adequate transport or provisions, a fearful retreat over their trail, harassed by Tuaregs and dying from starvation, sickness, and exhaustion. Every Frenchman succumbed, and at last four survivors, covering a distance of fifteen hundred kilometres north, crept back to Ouargla.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the Moslem stronghold of Timbuctoo was taken, under fire by a French lieutenant and nineteen soldiers, twelve f them Negroes; and when the French troops approached the walls of Kairwan, in Tunis, the sacred Moslem city of the West, where a strong resistance was expected, behold, the gates were flung open wide, and the French passed into its possession without firing a shot. 'But—Allah wills!

Yet, over the mountains and valleys of the Atlas, the sun-scorched sands of the mighty Sahara, the undulating lands of the Sudan, and the dense forest jungle of the Congo, France wields unquestioned control. The means by which this stupendous task is accomplished, and its attendant results, bring us to that interesting subject—France as a colonizer.

Whatever criticism may be made of France's colonizing policy, we must not only admit its success, but stand in admiration before its achievements. Perhaps nowhere is this more noticeable than in her North African possessions—Tunis, Algeria, Morocco. It has been in her ability to handle those two fundamentals of colonization—treatment of a dependent people and the development of the colony —that her success has lain.

Since the crusades, when St. Louis fell on the heights of Carthage, to the North African. "Frank" has stood for "European," synonymous with "Roman" among a people who even to-day hiss the hated epithet "Roumi" on dogs of Christians—a people satisfied to plow in the same furrows of custom, with the same kind of plow, as their forefathers did since the time when Abraham came up out of Ur—a contemplative folk, with a religion and literature full of poetry, yet fierce, temperamental, and independent withal, by whose creed—Islam—all lines are drawn, all distinctions made.

Such were the Arabs and Berbers of Barbary whom the Frank met when he began the invasion of Algeria in 1830 and succeeded in subduing only after a tremendous expenditure in men and money.

The French have, above all else, distinctive national character, born of a high social instinct. With a strong sense of gregariousness, the Frenchman is an analyst, frank, frugal, industrious, on the whole temperate, and even calculates his pleasures. His many-sidedness goes to make up that indefinable, psychological something which makes us think of them as "the French." It is this many-sidedness, coupled with a keen sense of the fitness of things, his inherent desire to create, which have made him a successful colonizer. The great aim of France with her dependent peoples, particularly the Arabs, was assimilation, incorporating her dependents, as far as it was possible and feasible, into her body politic—a psychological process—by invitation rather than by coercion; stimulating the desire by association and influence.

Military service is one of the greatest of assimilators; so France at the start-off organized her native Spahis and Chasseurs d'Afrique. The North Africans were natural fighters; thus the uniform, regular pay, and éclat were made attractive: Frenchman and Arab lived, fought, and died side by side, and it was through military assimilation more than in any other way that the prejudices of Islam were broken down.

As time went on, France extended her Algerian military system. Trained native troops were substituted for French regiments, into which there was always a sprinkling of French. The Frenchman knows his Arab better than any other European, and has faith in him, just as he has faith in his own genius and his colonies.

In the spring of 1867, there came a new force into Algeria—Cardinal Charles Martial Lavigerie, who conceived an imperial plan of organizing a militant corps of missioners—the White Fathers, sometimes called "The Armed Brethren of the Sahara." Its purpose was to assist in the papal crusade against slavery, by protecting its missions and missioners; but chiefly to extend French influence. So they wove their cordon of French influence south about the Sahara and the Sudan; but it is as opponents of the African slave trade that these noble pioneers will blaze their mark on the mile-posts of its history. No more destructive shaft could be hurled against the barrier of Mohammedanism than the abolition of slavery, upon which its whole social structure is built.

Their methods of reaching the natives were unique. This order known as the "Pères Blancs" not only adopted the white burnoose and turban of the Arabs, but in many instances ate the same kind of food, and, so far as possible, adapted their manner of living to that of the Moslems about them. They incorporated Mohammedan forms with their religious teaching, refrained from coercion, and through example showed the natives that they may glean a comfortable living at the very doors of their tents and houses. To receive bread for a stone from one who had power created a new sensation in the Arab mind, nor were they slow to appreciate other French reforms—fair pay was introduced in place of the curse and the lash, education encouraged, industrial arts developed, and higher forms of social morality inculcated. It was practical Christianity.


Gradually that movable Algerian frontier, the French picket-line, extended until, by the acquisition of new territories to the south, Algeria extends over about 343,500 square miles, and supports a population of more than five million. The native population—Berbers, Arabs, and Negroes—is entirely Mussulman, the Algerian Jews now being regarded as French citizens—aye, there's the rub. No more just reward in expression of French appreciation of Arab loyalty and aid during the war can be shown than giving the Arab citizenship at its close. However, the vox populi is to-day expressed through senators and deputies sent by Algeria to what corresponds in France to our Congress, also financial delegations representing the French colonies; the French taxpayers other than colonists, as well as the native Arabs, being allowed to vote on the budget. Natives pay only direct taxes.

The government is centralized at Algiers, under a governor-general who represents the Republic throughout Algeria, the administration being controlled by the Ministry of Colonies, organized as a separate government in 1894. In fact, Algeria to-day is regarded as a part of France, while Tunis and Morocco are protectorates and are attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although Tunis still has its Bey and Morocco its Sultan, yet both are virtually French colonies, and of vital importance to France in the present war.

The education system is being constantly enlarged. In Algiers there is the university, which just prior to the war enrolled more than eight hundred students in law, medicine and pharmacy, science, and letters. Both in Algiers and in Tunis there is a large college or Lycée for European or native boys; Petits Lycées for youngsters. Many public schools, laic or Catholic, are distributed throughout Algiers, Tunis, and the other important cities, and scattered over the land. In Algiers alone there are 220 Mussulman schools. Several thousand Arab boys come under French instructors each year, but most of the Arab schools are Koranic, with Arab teachers. The French idea is to produce tactfully a class of French Arabs that can raise these schools to a higher level.


The French, serious and constructive, have made astonishing strides in the development of North Africa. From Tunis south you can see the successive waves of French agricultural development by the heights of the successive olive groves they have planted, finally dwindling to the last plantings but a foot or two high fringing the Sahara's edge, south of Gabes. Through the valleys of the Tunisian and Algerian Atlas, one passes well-tilled fields and thriving fruit-trees, and draws up now and again at little well-kept, white-walled stations, such as one might see from Dieppe to Paris, even to their settings of flowers. In the Atlas there are plantations, such as Ksar Tyr, which I once visited, twelve miles in extent, from which each year rumbles load after load of vast quantities of grain, wine, and honey. It has been said that once one could walk from Tripoli to the Pillars of Hercules under the shade of forests, and that Tunisia once supported twenty million people, as against a million and a half to-day; but France is doing much to regenerate this granary of the ancient Roman Empire.

The Arab is a natural agriculturist. Formerly he was overtaxed and exploited, now he has an incentive.

The Arab is encouraged in every way to develop the land; and even in the sale of agricultural products, and otherwise, his customs and prejudices are respected. For instance, a form of welcome in an Arab's house or tent is the presentation, as a form only, of a small sugar cone. The regular commercial three-pound cones being too heavy for such use, the French manufacture special ones of a pound and a few grams' weight for that particular use. One interesting and important fact, however, which should be borne in mind in connection with the development of agriculture in this land of much sun and little water, is that the Arab is the original dry farmer.

French architecture has been splendidly adapted in many ways to that of the Arab, while French appreciation of Moorish architecture has led the French not only to build in harmony, but often to preserve entire the old Arab sections of the towns. Both the municipal governments of the principal cities and the cities themselves have been remodeled on French lines; and though the spirit of the Saracen has been kept, you will see more high-grade civilization in an hour in Algiers and Tunis than you will see in many of our American cities in a week.

From the cities, the magnificent boulevards become numerous roadways cutting through the hills of Kabylia. Over these march France's colonial products, her armies, and her progress.

Along these roadways and beyond, ten thousand miles of telegraph string their way for the four million annual messages. Beyond the antennae of the railroads and the automobiles, camels are the rural free delivery, which help deliver that portion of the seventy millions of mail handled yearly by the seven hundred post offices of Algeria alone. Already, airplanes are being introduced in this service, which extends clear across the Sahara.

It is by modern engineering that the Frank, more than in any other way, is revolutionizing this ancient granary of the Romans. It is not to be expected that a nation which dug the Suez Canal and showed us the way at Panama should fail in this phase of her colonial development. Even to-day, in the desert south of Tunisia, is a living tribute to the great De Lesseps—an artesian well constructed by him more than thirty years ago, the water from which rises twenty-five feet into the air and is made to irrigate four to five hundred acres of land, on which are growing date-palms, pomegranates, tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, where before its construction there was but barren sand. It is the artesian well, the conservation of water, and irrigation projects upon which the development of these colonies primarily depends, and in which France has shown consummate skill.

The camel caravans, slow-moving at from two and a half to three kilometres an hour, now compete with or supplement the iron horse, for oasis after oasis is now being linked with lines of steel. From the present terminus of the Algerian system through the Sahara, the French have planned a railroad southwest into the Congo State. There it will meet the Cape-to-Cairo Line, which will run a branch to Lake Victoria Nyanza, meeting there the twelve-year-old Uganda Line, from Mombassa on the West Coast. More than three thousand miles of rail silver-threads its way through Tunisia and Algeria, and already the first lap has been laid, from Oran to Timbuctoo. Another important railway system now runs between the Sahara and the Congo State, beginning at Dakar in Senegal, connecting this coast with the Niger, thus forming an outlet for that great interior trade.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the expiration of certain treaties with other European Powers gave France an opportunity to pursue a discriminating policy. With tariff regulations prohibitive to foreign competition, but admitting French products almost duty-free, the Ultima Thule of the administration seemed to aim at the greatest profit to France and French trade consistent with preserving the solvency of her Empire and the development of her colonies.

France believes she has a right to the ground-floor of her own establishment. Before the war, every month steamers bore to Tunis and Algeria hundreds of colonists, tempted by the inducements of the French Government to increase immigration. So it is but natural that France should also administer the country more in the interests of the French colonists than in those of the natives—of whom, however, she has keen understanding and high appreciation.


The French appreciate that a people who built the Giralda Tower, who gave to the Barbarians of the North the libraries of Cordova and Seville, who gave to us our sciences of algebra and geometry, much of our mathematics, some of our metaphysics, many forms of architecture and literature, not to mention the very symbols we use in our numerical system daily in-our scientific and commercial life—that this people, though now in the hollow of the wave, command respect and contain great possibilities. They are a people, too, who in many ways—in looks, build, temperament, and certain phases of character—have much in common with the French; and when in uniform of Spahi or Tirailleur, I would defy the uninitiated in many instances to distinguish between Frenchman and Arab.

The French found the Arabs excellent mathematicians, and particularly efficient as electrical engineers. They were not slow in putting them in charge of much of the million dollars' worth of machinery imported into Algeria every year, and often in responsible positions. They encouraged initiative, among both their colonists and the Arabs. Britain in many ways is an ideal colonizer, but limits initiative by holding it along British ideas. The French have a less patronizing justice and control over their colonials and dependants. I have not infrequently found an Arab conductor over a French porter on their trains, or an Arab engineer over French workmen. The Arab is not elbowed aside, and his women are respected. The Frenchman, with characteristic discrimination, treats the Arab as a brother, but not as a brother-in-law, and "never forgets that the Arab is his inferior, but acts as if he had forgotten it."


Though North Africa has oft been revolutionized, the Arab, from necessity, not from choice, has passively resisted the white man and his civilization, and has stuck to his clothes, Koran, and coos-coos as tightly as a burr to a sheep's back. Thus, picturesque, likable, commanding respect, he has plodded unchanged down the centuries. But the psychological French have adopted native customs, and even costumes to some extent, and encouraged reciprocation and assimilation; and, through a policy of tact and conciliation, "have made it easy for the Arab to become a Frenchman."

Thus France is at the threshold of a new problem: with new graftings come new diseases; and the Frenchified Arab with a snatching of education easily picks up European vices as a reinforcement to his own. Thus is introduced that inevitable, insidious Occidental disease, "civilizitis." But the possibilities of the Arab race are great, and through the French it is now, I believe, in the first stages of regeneration. France must steady the Moslem "as the power of his creed weakens," and poise well her structure, which she "superimposes upon a Mohammedan foundation."

The French policy of extending Algerian territory, acquiring Tunis and later Morocco, was by the so-called pénétration pacifique—French signs on the streets of Tangier and in the magasin Grand Paris in its Sok-el-Chico; French loans were floated; trade and literature advanced; and contrasts made with the bettered conditions of the Algerian and Tunisian nativry. I have known of hundreds of Tripolitans traveling hundreds of miles of desert to work in the Tunisian harvests under the sure and better pay of the Frank. Tunis was practically acquired with scarcely a fight, but not so Morocco, with its independent, wild hill-people of Kabylia and Riff—to any of whom, no greater insult can be offered than to say, "Your father died in his bed." It was a short but hard and bloody campaign when the French pushed in from Casablanca in 1908, after the 1904 treaty with Britain had given her a free hand in Al Moghreb—Land of the West.

Since the French marines passed through the Porte de la Marine in 1908, the development of the country has been stupendous, particularly considering the delicacy of the native situation. To-day in Morocco France finds herself the possessor of a white man's country half again the size of France—the most productive state of North Africa, perhaps the most productive area of the entire African continent: the duplicate key to the Mediterranean. Almost touching Europe, it is a veritable market-garden for that continent, contiguous to the French territory of Algeria and but seven hundred miles from Marseille; with good climate, fertile, and with mountains, and plains.

By the creation of Bizerta, French engineers have given France one of the greatest naval harbors of the world. They have created the port of Algiers, the most important coaling station of the Mediterranean, with Oran and other ports as havens and lairs for French destroyers—all of inestimable value in the present war, not only in protecting Allied and neutral shipping, but in convoying troops and the vast food supplies of French North Africa to France. The Nile Valley never meant more to the banquet halls of ancient Rome, than sunny Algeria is meaning to-day to the camp kitchens along the west front. Of sheep alone, she has shipped to Marseille in a twelve-month almost a million; and of grains, three hundred and fifty thousand tons. When in Morocco not very long ago, I saw, in Saffi and elsewhere, more than twelve thousand tons of corn, barley, wheat, and beans, which, with the entire year's crop, was commandeered for the French troops.


But the greatest military asset of France's North African colonies is men. By acquiring Morocco, France absorbed another ten million people—the hardiest in Africa—from whom to recruit a possible army of more than half a million men to enhance the great numbers she has already culled from the forty millions of her African Empire.

In writing in WORLD'S WORK on "The French Conquest of Morocco," in 1911, I stated: "I believe that in thus augmenting her military strength, France has in mind not only the protection of her North African colonies, but the building of an auxiliary army for defensive or offensive use at home, in the event of war with a European Power, appreciating the fact that that Power is most likely to be Germany." I also ventured that: "In my opinion, while Germany is seeking expansion in Africa, it is not only the acquisition of Morocco as a country which has caused apprehension to the far-sighted Emperor William, but the acquisition of the Moroccans as additional corps to the French military machine. Consequently…Germany has vainly sought to block the French acquisition of Morocco."

The results are speaking for themselves. At every hand France has thwarted German intrigue, from international Tangier, from the neighboring neutral Spanish areas of Larash, Ceuta, and Melilla, and even within the borders of Morocco itself. The most marvelous feat is the degree to which she has partially assimilated and influenced the Moroccans themselves. Where a people are busy and interested in peaceful pursuits, revolution does not thrive. Less than two years ago I wandered through replicated palaces of Araby on the grounds of the Franco-Moroccan Exposition in Casablanca, the first of its kind ever held in Morocco. Each building, mostly replicas of some famous mosque, Kasbah, or city-gate of the great Moroccan cities there represented—Casablanca, Marrakesh, Mazagan, Mogador, Fez, etc.—these structures contained the beautiful native industrial products of the respective regions of which these cities were the centres: pottery, weavings, leatherwork, rugs, cloths, embroideries, woodcarvings, weapons and articles of hammered silver and brass. Thus France, with an artistic appreciation, deftly encourages native arts; links Arabic with French on the street signs, that he who runs may learn, and even on the bow of the little French revenue-cutter Marakchi. And on the Exposition grounds, the idea of assimilation and reciprocity was found expressed by a bronze statue of two figures, the native Spahi and the French colonial trooper—comrades. Here indeed, on the westernmost fringe of the Orient, in the Land of the Evening, the East and the West have met.

Of the many hard colonial training grounds in which France schools her troops, North Africa has contributed most to give the French regular "edge." In hard uphill fighting in and about Morocco alone, France has probably made more than one hundred thousand veterans since 1902.


How colonial and native rallied to stem the tide of the Teutonic juggernaut is epitomized in the account of M. Charles Maxim Ferragu in the ride of the First Regiment Colonials. They were an expeditionary force on a special mission in the far interior of Morocco, when, in late August, 1914, orders came to turn in their tracks and with all speed make for Casablanca. For ten days, with but one relay of horses, they ran their animals—through valley and over mountain-pass, fording rivers and crossing plains. All knew that the urgency bespoke important orders, but not until—gaunt, dusty, and with fagged-out horses—they arrived at Casablanca, September 9th, did they learn of the Retreat of the Marne. In the words of the young trooper, "It was hard to keep them from riding into the water when they learned France had been invaded." Without respite, the following day, September 10th, they embarked for Marseille, where special trains awaited them, and they were shipped at once to the front. Gallant Ferragu and all that noble contingent of the First Colonials have made their last ride, but it was the colonials who fell into the breach; who stemmed the tide of the Marne.

In the fierce counter-attack which pushed the Teutons back and saved fair France from the hell-rake of the Hun, the "Turcos," as the North African troops were popularly called, and the Black troops of Senegal swept up across Africa, across the Mediterranean, on to the western front, and there fought like demons. None have proved their worth more than the Algerians and the more recently organized Moroccans—a great many of whom, be it remembered, are volunteers.

It was in the beautiful flower-scented gardens of a hospital in Rein that one of these Marroquaine volunteers was convalescing from that onslaught. He was a wealthy Arab farmer, and behind him he had voluntarily left his wives, seven farms, and a beautiful Moroccan hill-country.

"But why did you leave all this?" queried Ferraque, who was also recovering from his first wounds.

"Because I love France." A subtle radiance lit the finely-cut face of the Arab.

"And how did you come to love her?"

"Through her literature."

So, also, we of her sister-republic stand by her side because we too love her and that Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité for which she stands—jusqu'à bout.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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