By Gary Oswald
In 1830 France invaded Algiers, which had long been a centre of Islamic piracy and where French merchants did significant business, after a diplomatic spat over unpaid loans and the Dey of Algiers hitting a French Ambassador. The French King, Charles X, and his conservative Prime Minister wished for a foreign policy victory to win over the French people because they were increasingly unpopular. An Army of 34,000 soldiers was sent to Algiers, where it defeated the Dey's troops and then conquered the city, plundering tens of millions of francs worth of goods and freeing European slaves held there.
Around two weeks after this, Charles X was deposed by the July Revolution and a new liberal government was formed. Had the Algiers invasion been delayed a handful of months, it almost certainly wouldn't have happened at all. But once it had happened, it was incredibly popular and France was unable to pull out. By 1834 they had fully annexed the cities they had conquered. And over the next few decades they created large agricultural tracts, built factories and businesses and invited in settlers.
They also fought a lot of battles against Algerian resistance to French rule, as they expanded from Algiers to conquer most of the modern day country. This included a gruelling 15 year war against Emir Abdelkader, an invasion of neighbouring Morocco to stop them supporting the Algerians and a series of chastening defeats, with some estimates that as many as 480,000 French soldiers and settlers were killed in Algeria from 1830 to 1862. But their financial investment meant they had to stay the course and ultimately they resorted to a violent pacification of the country through the use of huge armies numbering more than a million men in the country and brutal scorched earth tactics that are sometimes classed as genocides. By 1881, Algeria was firmly French but the conquest had been incredibly expensive in both coin and blood and so a chastening reminder of the costs of Empire.
Thus the 1830 invasion hadn't triggered fresh conquests elsewhere in Africa either by the French, whose army was tied up in Algeria, or her rivals. Between 1830 and 1881, there were European pushes into Africa but most only had mixed results. A British attempt at colonising Nigeria in the 1841 Niger Expedition was a complete failure. The Portuguese launched a major military invasion from Angola and Mozambique in the late 1850s but gave up on it due to rising expenses. Likewise the British pushed forward from the Cape Colony in the late 1870s but lost wars to the Boers and Sotho and battles to the Bapedi and Zulu and so their imperialist faction was discredited and no further advances were planned. The French themselves had advanced in Senegal during the 1850s but that advance had faltered after War broke out, in Europe, between France and Prussia.
It's not that there wasn't interest in Africa, by the 1860s the exploration of the continent was big news and even new players like Italy, Germany and Belgium began to develop factions interested in expansion in Africa, it was that there was serious doubt about the economics of direct conquest. Indirect control, through trade and economic domination, such as had been established over Morocco, Egypt and Zanzibar was seen as superior.
Thus in 1878, when at the peace conference at the end of the Russo-Turkish War, Germany and Britain said they'd be happy for France to extend their control of Algeria into neighbouring Tunisia, where the Bey of Tunis ruled as a de facto independent vassal of the Ottomans, France wasn't that keen on taking them up on it and did nothing for three years. They were worried about over extension, and being dragged into another brutal war in Africa in a way which would leave them weaker in Europe. After all attempts to advance South from Algeria, into Mali, had ended with the humiliation of the Flatters expedition being wiped out by Tuaregs so why risk a similar result when advancing East?
And they already had some control in Tunis, the Bey's lover and prime minister Mustapha Ben Ismaïl had been bought by the French ambassador and so France got offered the best financial deals by the Bey, winning contracts to build ports and railways in the country. Surely, it was argued, this indirect Empire was more profitable and less risky than direct control? The counter argument was based nominally on securing the borders of Algeria, given cross border raids happened and Algerian rebels often took refuge in Tunis. But it was more than that, a large part of the Military and Navy desperately wanted French advancement anywhere just to prove, in the aftermath of their defeat by Prussia, that France was still a great power. Why not challenge Britain for control of the Niger Delta, why not seize all of the Sudan and use that power base as a French India that meant they could challenge Germany in Europe once again? Why not conquer something just to prove you can?
And along side the carrot of victory was the stick that if they didn't do that, the other Europeans would. Italian traders and diplomats were also active in Tunisia and while Italy didn't have the money for a military expedition there in 1881, they were borrowing huge amounts of money to get their new state together. French imperialists worried that if they missed their chance in 1881, Italy would beat them to it.
And this wasn't baseless, in 1880 Mustapha Ben Ismaïl turned on France after a coastal estate he was bidding on was instead bought by a French Bank. From then on, the Bey began to favour the Italians. France reacted by sending a French Battleship to Tunis, but this was contested by a British Battleship, who also had traders in Tunis, and both ships awkwardly backed down. France could have won back the Bey with money and patience, but being suddenly shunted to the back of the queue in terms of deals, reminded them of the vulnerability of their position as long as the Bey was independent.
As, Alphonse Chodron de Courcel, the French Ambassador to Germany put it in a letter urging an invasion of Tunis, France was at a crossroads. Their choices were between an acceptance of humiliation and feebleness that would see France having to back down to new powers like Italy and Germany, or a display of firmness and energetic will that would see them regain their place at the top table. France picked the latter, it picked war, with 30,000 men sweeping across the Algerian border in April 1881.
France claimed to its parliament that they were there as allies to the Bey, to fight rebellious hill tribes in Tunisia who the Bey was having difficulty with and whom had raided Algeria. The Beylik had after all been the first Muslim state to abolish slavery so it was difficult to justify an assault on it for moral reasons, instead France was there simply to restore order. Except their armies were heading straight for Tunis with little effort made to attack the rebels at all.
The Bey appealed to the other European powers to protect him against French aggression, but Britain and Germany had already agreed to not interfere three years ago and Italy, while very angry about the move, could not stand alone against Paris. Faced with no allies and an overwhelming force set against him, the Bey of Tunis choose not to fight and instead signed the treaty of protection France handed him. This meant they took de facto control of his country, with the French Resident being simultaneously Prime Minister, controller of the State's finances, and Commander in Chief of its armed forces, though Tunis was de jure still a part of the Ottoman Empire.
But just because the Bey felt surrender was better than resistance, didn't mean his people did. In June 1881, a popular rebellion broke out against the French in Southern Tunis with tens of thousands raising arms against their new colonial master. The French army quickly put it down but only with the help of another 30,000 troops and disease and attrition meant French casualties were high. Moreover hundreds of thousands of France's new subjects fled over the border to Libya, to avoid the bloodshed. Rather than a bloodless show of France's superior will, it became an embarrassment and Jules Ferry stood down as Prime Minister after being savaged in the Chamber of Deputies. But Tunisia remained French and it become only the first of many blows struck for France in Africa as the imperialist faction regained control.
But why? After all the bloodshed in Algeria had discredited further moves. Why did the initial embarrassment over the bloodshed in Tunisia quickly get forgotten when there were calls over the next decade for attacks in Madagascar, Benin, Guinea, the Congo and Mali?
Well partly because white French casualties became much rarer in later wars, both because the French had the advantages of new Machine guns, which nudged the odds in their favour, and because their later armies were primarily black and recruited from conquered areas so even when they lost battles, which they did, it wasn't white voters who were grieving. But also partly because the invasion of Algeria was on outlier in terms of European relations with Africa, whereas Tunisia was part of a pattern. In 1881 there was much more interest in the continent and therefore much more reason for France to think that if they didn't go for it, Britain or Italy or Belgium or Portugal or Germany would. The Arms Race had begun which meant nobody wanted to back down lest they miss out.
The French would learn that the hard way, the following year in Egypt. Egyptian finances had, at this point, already fallen under the control of European governments after Egypt's Khedive Ismali had been unable to service his huge debts of 100 million pounds because cotton prices had fallen in the aftermath of the American South reopening for business after the end of the Civil War. In response, the bankers orchestrated what was essentially a coup, Ismail was forced to retire in 1879 and the Europeans forced multiple concessions on his young son. European financers approved Egyptian budgets, reduced spending, kept the interest rates on the debt high and introduced new taxes, even during crop failures, which resulted in famines. Unsurprisingly, this was resented and there was increasing signs of Egyptian Nationalism emerging and mutinies among the army. The new Khedive attempted to see this off by introducing an elected government at the rebel's urging in 1881 and appointing nationalists and reformers to his cabinet.
On January 8, 1882, the French and British sent a joint note that asserted the primacy of the Khedive's authority and their willingness to protect the Khedive from any threats, external or internal. The newly elected government correctly read that as a threat and they were not willing to see what had happened in Tunis, happen again in Cairo.
In February 1882, the new budget came up for review. Half of it, 4.5 million pounds, was pledged to pay foreign bond holders but the Parliament insisted the other 4.5 million pounds was theirs to spend and they wanted more investment in the army, which was fighting a rebellion in the Sudan and had been halved in size during the 1870s to save money. Britain and France firmly refused, ordered that budget not to be passed and sent out a joint fleet to Alexandria as a show of force.
In reaction there were anti foreigner riots in Alexandria and the situation escalated to a full on European Invasion to overthrow the Egyptian government. But only by the British. Léon Gambetta's imperialist government had fallen over electoral reform and so a motion for the French to participate with the British in the Egyptian war was rejected overwhelmingly in the Chamber. Instead, while France would back the intervention, Britain would fight the main battles alone and so govern Egypt alone, with the French reduced to a minor influence in the country and the joint control they had previously enjoyed abolished.
This would not be forgotten by the French imperialists, with the French press making much of this humiliation and betrayal. The combination of the examples of Tunisia, where France had pre-empted Italy, and Egypt, where France had been pre-empted by Britain, was a ready made argument for them and the French Army in Western Africa increasingly began to invade countries without asking for France's permission in case it was refused again. And they were not the only ones to get this message. Britain had been convinced by the riots in Alexandria that informal rule was not enough and formal rule must sometimes be applied. And Germany would soon end up taking the previously French position of provider of loans to Egypt. This gave them a lever that meant Britain had to play relatively nice elsewhere if Germany wished for its own colonies. From there the situation snowballed.
If Tunisia and Egypt had not been conquered, that does not mean the Scramble would not have happened of course. Leopold had already started his International Congo Society and colonialist factions existed in every major European country. By 1882, the French army in Senegal and Mali was already very powerful, the Italians were in the Horn of Africa and Cecil Rhodes had arrived in Kimberley. Some sort of aggression was pretty much inevitable by the late 1870s. I don't think it had to happen as fast as it did or even be as prevalent but it was obvious to most people that it was happening just from the way Africa was being talked about in Europe, the very public exploration of the continent and the increasingly aggressive moves of Europeans in the existing ports. I can certainly see timelines where things slow down and so many more interior countries survive in the way Ethiopia did, but no expansion at all is I think a difficult sell by 1881.
But Tunisia and Egypt were still important tipping points that helped accelerate the era of conquest and in both cases the governments could have easily chosen otherwise. Gladstone had been advised to just write off the Egyptian debt rather than risk an expensive occupation and the chaos of doing so. And France had initially turned down the idea of intervening in Tunis as politically dangerous before changing their mind. Indirect governance could have lingered on at least in parts of Africa for decades longer.