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Proposal for the Establishment of a Native Army in Algeria, 1830

Contributed by C. R. Pennell, University of Melbourne,

Translation of a letter from an unidentified senior French Army Officer to the French Minister for the Navy. The original is in the French National Archives in Paris - ANF Marine BB/4 1016 Dossier: "1830 (expédition d'Alger: Documents Divers)

To His Excellency the Minister Secretary of State for the Navy and Colonies.

Dear Minister,

At a moment when the government is considering abandoning one of its colonies, I think it is my duty, in the interests of the nation and in particular of the French army, to lay before Your Excellency my proposal for speeding up the pacification of the Regency of Algiers and ensuring that it will continue to be held.

Experience has shown that French soldiers are little suited to endure the fatigue of warfare under the burning African sun. It is not that they lack courage, but the climate is so much against them that they quickly succumb and in far too great numbers for war to be waged for any long period in this continent.

I believe, M. le Ministre, that the considerable losses we have suffered in Algeria, Madagascar and Senegal may be attributed to two causes: firstly, to the intemperate climate and secondly to the lack of those foodstuffs to which a Frenchman's body is accustomed. In France there is never a shortage of water, and it is usually fit to drink: it is what the soldiers do normally drink. In Africa, it is difficult to find and often unfit for consumption. Soldiers cannot always drink wine: there often is none, it is very expensive, and under a burning sky wine does not quench the thirst and is injurious to health. Some of the fruits found in Africa are also unhealthy, and a young soldier, unthinking of the harm he may be doing to himself, may eat them without taking proper precautions, sometime before they are properly ripe, and this can lead to death.

Let me return to my proposal:

After the colony of Ste Marie was founded in Madagascar, the government set up several companies of black soldiers, Wollofs from Senegal. These African soldiers have demonstrated that they are quite the equal of French soldiers in courage. They are intelligent and inured to fatigue. Military disciple is easily imposed upon them and they can be turned into excellent auxiliary troops, especially when they are employed in their own climates. With a few corps of these black soldiers, it would be easy to drive back the Kabyles into their mountains; we could then force into submission those Arabs who have so far not recognised the authority of the King of France. This would avoid the immense drain on the population of the mother country, and the soldiers whom we are presently sending to Algeria where they sicken and die in huge numbers, could be used to reinforce the active forces to carry out the important task of fighting our enemies in Europe. Lt General Count Clauzel has come to the firm conclusion that it will be impossible to hold onto the Regency of Algiers, and bring it under our control in order to turn it into a dynamic colony which would pay back all France's sacrifices, without using African soldiers, and he too has set up some detachments of Zouaves, which have already shown much promise.

However, it is important not to let these forces become too big, and so place in the hands of the Arabs an armed force which would be superior to our own. The slightest change in circumstances could be enough to make them change sides. Then they would be against us, and we would regret having strengthened our enemies.

If we employed detachments of Wollofs and others from the centre of Africa, the soldiers, who would not be slaves, would find it was in their interest to support us and to serve us well. But we would have to give them some advantages, and allow them to use the title of Soldiers of France, one which they would be proud to use.

This, then, is what I have the honour of proposing to Your Excellency.

We should set up in France, at l'Orient or Port Louis, for example, where sea transport is easy and where there are plenty of barracks available, a single regiment (as an experiment) made up of four battalions of Senegalese blacks. It would be a simple matter to set up an officer corps for this regiment. The Corps of Naval Artillery would be a valuable source, and officers in the Naval Infantry corps, who are distributed around the different ports and in ships of the line, would, I think, be generally quite happy to join the ranks of the active army by this means. The French African Regiment would, therefore, be composed of four battalions, one of which would be the garrison battalion. The ordinary soldiers would be recruited in Senegal or from among the blacks that the Government already employs in every colony, provided that they were in good enough physical shape for at least ten years' service.

The two companies at present in Madagascar and the two which would be set up in Senegal would form the nucleus. We could also allow to enlist those free men of colour from our other colonies who wish to join up.

The pay of these soldiers would be the same as the foot soldiers in the light infantry. Their clothing would also be the same, because we should make no distinctions between free men, whatever their colour. The soldiers should, moreover, be dressed like the officers.

When they are first set up, the officer corps should be made up of French officers, the senior n.c.o.s and corporals could be either Frenchmen or French Africans. But once the corps has be trained, we should allow a third, or even half of the personnel at every rank - except that of colonel - to be men of colour.

It would perhaps be a good idea to create a special military decoration for the men of colour employed in the Regency of Algiers, which could be called "the Order of Fidelity and Bravery" or the "Order of Military Merit." This decoration would consist of three classes and could also be awarded to Frenchmen employed in the auxiliary corps. It should attract a bonus payment, and the amount of the bonus would be paid with the regular salary. It may, of course, not be necessary to create an entirely new decoration: the Order of Miliary Merit or even the Legion of Honour (Légion d'Honneur) could fulfil the function which I propose, and which I believe to be necessary to encourage the loyalty and courage of these soldiers.

The soldiers in this corps should spend six months in the garrison, in order to learn a little of the French language and to be trained. At the end of this period, they could be sent to Algiers, marching them across France, in order to give them an idea of the advantages of civilisation, and to get them used to the rigours of marching.

The African soldiers would be enrolled for ten years, but at the end of their terminal leave, they would be allowed to stay on by signing on again. Those who did so would be given a bonus in their salary. Those who, having finished their term of service, wanted to stay in Algeria would be given land, and those who wished to return to their native land would be transported there by French government ships sent for the purpose. This would have the happy effect of spreading civilisation in central Africa, and to implant there, so to speak, the mores of France, which would be of great advantage to our trade.

The soldiers of the auxiliary units should be pensioned-off on the same basis as Frenchmen.

I have the honour to lay these ideas before your excellency, and I earnestly desire, in the interest of my country, that they should be considered and found acceptable.

Kindly deign to accept, M. le Ministre, this token of the most profound respect of your humble and most obedient servant.

[signature illegible] L'Orient, 23 December 1830