The Sahara In The Nineteenth Century – S. Baier
In the nineteenth century the Sahara, remote though it was, came into increasingly close contact with the world economy. By the close of the century European economic penetration had affected the lives of many people, and the European conquest of the desert, though far from complete, had produced fundamental change in the nature of relationships between the Sahara and the outside world.
The paucity of data for history at either level presents both problems and challenges and points to the need for research in Ottoman, French, Italian, Egyptian, and Moroccan archives and in private collections. By the nineteenth century European interest in the desert increased because European powers viewed it as a commercial avenue to the Sudan, and European sources provide data that give some notion of historical processes. All written accounts, whether in European languages, Turkish, or Arabic, need to be filled out with oral histories, which have been collected only in a piecemeal fashion. For example, the Tuareg of the central Sahara have been well researched, but for other groups very little historical material exists. In some Saharan societies the lack of depth in genealogies and the absence of local Arabic historical writings present the historian with problems that may never be solved.
This history of the Sahara in the nineteenth century will be focusing on the camel nomads, the inhabitants of the desert who lived from their herds. In good times wealth in camels conferred awesome military power on their owners by giving them the ability to mount lightning raids on oasis dwellers and sedentary agriculturalists, and then to escape into the wilderness with impunity. This military advantage allowed them to raid for slaves, as they often did along the southern shore of the desert, the Sahel; or to dominate sedentary agriculturalists living in oases or in the Sahel by demanding tribute in return for protection. Although nomads could enslave, destroy date palms or standing crops, steal grain stores, and disrupt trade, more often their goal was to control and appropriate the production of agriculturalists, not to annihilate them. The nomads are therefore the proper focus for much social and economic history, as well as key actors in political, military, and religious change.
Society and environment
Pastoral nomadism is of course a complete and perfect adaptation to the arid environment of the desert. But within the deceptively simple framework implied by the word desert, as defined by low rainfall, there exists a rich variety of climate and landform that has shaped the societies of the Sahara. At the risk of simplification it may be said that the desert is subject to two rainfall regimes, with the southern desert receiving precipitation in the summer and the northern desert in the winter, and some overlap of the two along the Atlantic coast. Little rain falls, and even that is extremely unevenly distributed in time and space, so that in the most arid parts of the desert some locations may not have had rain for ten years or more.
The desert is driest in the central portions and especially in the eastern central desert, in present-day Egypt and eastern Libya. Three ‘bridges’ of higher than average rainfall traverse the central, dry portions of the desert from north to south, the first joining Senegal to Morocco slightly inland from the drier Atlantic coast, the second connecting the Niger bend to Algeria, and the third following the high ground bordering on the Red Sea. Not surprisingly, population is concentrated in relatively well-watered portions of the desert, and caravaneers have usually avoided the most arid regions of Egypt and Libya. Precipitation increases with altitude up to a certain height, and the landform of the Sahara has as many nuances as does its climate. After rains, formerly dry river beds or wädts may flow for hundreds of kilometres, and for great distances just under the surface of the sand.
In some cases irrigated agriculture is possible because of the high water table. In areas of dunes called ergs the sand itself holds great quantities of moisture; dunes absorb almost all rainfall and give off very little water to underground aquifers. In addition, the sand loses moisture to the atmosphere very slowly, since drifting exposes only the windward surface of the dunes. Herders and their animals can live in the desert only if they move from place to place to take advantage of scattered and short-lived pasture. But in the desert fringes a variety of human adaptations to the environment are possible, including various degrees of dependence on agriculture and various mixes of animals in the herds.
In the Sahel, cattle nomads lived in symbiotic relationships with sedentary agriculturalists, and some camel nomads divided the labour of their families between herding and farming. Others sacrificed crop yields to the needs of the herds by sowing crops, leaving with the herds to search for pasture, and returning to harvest the meagre returns of the fields. In the central, dry parts of the desert, nomadic pastoralists kept several kinds of animals, but they relied heavily on the camel because of its adaptation to aridity. Camels needed various kinds of pasture to do well and therefore had to be taken periodically from ergs to rocky ground (regs).
This necessity, as well as the search for pasture, determined the amplitude of movements of camel nomads. Those whose territory included adjacent areas of rocky and sandy ground, such as the Chaamba, migrated shorter distances than those without both kinds of terrain, such as the Regibat, despite other similarities in their respective territories. The arid environment has encouraged the evolution of similar uncentralized political systems among most nomadic people, systems that balance the need for dispersal in the search for pasture with the necessity of unified action in the face of an outside threat. These societies, which have been described in the anthropological literature as segmentary lineage systems, place each person in a series of widening and overlapping descent groups that are larger the more distant an ancestor is chosen as a point of reference.
Genealogy can be used to divide a society into x number of maximal segments, each of which is in turn divided into y number of segments and z number of clans, on down through intermediate levels to the extended family. Societies organized according to descent may resolve internal conflict without recourse to central authority if the power of segments at an appropriate level in the genealogical structure is in balance, and the history of these societies often exhibits this mechanism in operation. But history also demonstrates that segments may unite to face an outside threat, and that military exigency may even give rise to something resembling central authority. Sedentary or semi-sedentary people have often assimilated nonkin who migrated to their territory, and in these societies residence in the same territory may replace kinship as a principle of association. Even societies that are organized according to descent may have leaders or councils at various levels in the segmentary structure or distributed throughout it; wealthy men may attract followers who are not kin; or alliances may contradict or partially offset the notion of kinship as a determinant of allegiance. Another similarity among Saharan people was hierarchical social structure, a consequence of the power of warriors to concentrate wealth so as to reinforce their own position of dominance. A common pattern was that lineages of aristocratic warriors controlled groups of free but politically subordinate people, the descendants of conquered nomads. People of lower status, slaves or the descendants of slaves, worked as servants, herders, artisans, trade specialists, or farmers.
Changing relations with the outside world
Desert nomads lived in a world of their own, but they were not immune from influences from the outside. For one thing they were so specialized in animal husbandry that to obtain grain and other items they depended not only on plunder and tribute, but also on peaceful trade with sedentary states. Another factor was that their military advantage of mobility did not extend far beyond the desert fringe. More fertile regions supported larger populations, and these thickly settled areas could muster enough defenders to offset the advantage that the less numerous nomads enjoyed in their own realm.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the style of interaction between nomads and sedentary states differed greatly at the northern and southern edges of the desert. In West and Central Africa a principal for sedentary rulers was to keep the nomads at a safe distance, a problem mitigated somewhat in North Africa by geographical barriers such as the Atlas and other mountain ranges. South of the desert the best strategy was to involve nomads in the economy of the fertile areas by giving them a stake in desert-edge commerce, urban growth, and agriculture, and by using nomadic contingents in armies fighting other sedentary states. It was also prudent, as in China, to use one group of nomads as ‘hired guns’ to keep others at bay. The same principles applied north of the desert, but in the nineteenth century the Ottoman regencies and the sultanate of Morocco showed considerable skill in maintaining balances of power among nomads and sparing themselves direct confrontations.
A principal difference was their wealth relative to sub-Saharan states, which facilitated ruling through favoured groups and allowed North African rulers to support small but well-armed forces which might intervene from time to time in the affairs of nomads. In addition, Maghribi authorities enjoyed prestige as the spiritual as well as temporal rulers of Muslim states, or their representatives, a status that enabled skilful or revered sultans or governors to use diplomacy to maximize the effect of their small armed contingents. The advance of the Ottomans in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania and the French in Algeria marked a turning point in relationships between Saharan societies and outsiders. The French and Ottoman advances southward into the desert had similar timing in the early stages and derived from analogous strategic considerations, namely the desire to control and tax trans-Saharan trade and to prevent other powers from annexing the hinterland of footholds near the Mediterranean. Despite the similar speed of the advance, the style of the two powers differed greatly. Since Ottoman governors had fewer means at their disposal than the French, their relations with nomads in the hinterland of their domains in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were far more discreet.
Their knowledge of the structure of local politics enabled them to exploit the changing pattern of feuds, warfare between groups, and alliances. They drew upon a long experience of governing segmentary societies and carrying on diplomatic relations with those they could not govern, and they were also accorded legitimacy and status as representatives of the political centre of the Muslim world. In 1835, the Ottomans took direct control of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica from the semi-autonomous Karamànli dynasty in an effort to block the inroads of French influence from Egypt. A series of incidents in Ottoman efforts to extend their control of the desert in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica illustrate the character of their government. In theory a kaimakam resided in Djalo, and it was his duty to oversee efforts to collect taxes levied on the date palms of Djalo and Awdjila and to maintain order in the surrounding desert. But by 1869 the kaimakam spent most of the time in Benghazi, and so a tax collector, who visited the oasis once a year, was the only regular Ottoman representative in the interior.
In return for the tax they paid, oasis dwellers of Awdjila asked for protection from the nomadic Zuwaya, who were interfering with the flow of trans-Saharan trade and attempting to extend control over the oasis. J. P. Mason recorded an oral tradition telling of the visit of an Ottoman official to Awdjila to make peace with the Zuwaya, whom the Ottomans had apparentlybeen fighting. In 1856, the kaimakam of Benghazi ruled through the shaykh of the Bara’asa, a Beduin group, which he supported with fifty armed soldiers. The influence of the Ottoman government never reached very far into the Cyrenaican desert, and by the later decades of the century the Sanüsiyya, a süß tarlka (brotherhood) founded in the 1840s, had become the effective government in the interior. Even the limited ability of the Ottomans to tax date production or interfere in the affairs of nomads met with resistance. The Ottoman governor, ‘All Askar who arrived in Tripoli in 1838, encountered three resistance leaders in the Tripolitanian hinterland, and the experience of one of these leaders, cAbd al-Djalil of the Awlad Sulayman, a nomadic group of the Fezzan and the Syrte, is instructive. The Pasha first negotiated with ‘Abd al-Djalfl, recognizing him as the legitimate ruler of his domains in return for a promise not to disrupt trade between Tripoli and the interior. But cAbd al-Djalfl proved too powerful for Ottoman purposes when he initiated contacts with commercial interests in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrating that he had at least the potential to threaten the prosperity of Tripoli. ‘All Askar used diplomatic contacts to discredit ‘Abd al-Djalfl in the eyes of his allies, who recognized the threat posed by a concentration of power. On three critical occasions when cAbd al-Djalfl faced Ottoman forces on the battlefield in 1840 and 1841, he was “deserted and turned upon by former allies.
In the final fight, cAbd al-Djalfl was killed and his forces nearly wiped out, but the defeated Awläd Sulaymän fled south along the caravan route from the Fezzän to Borno. Previously ‘Abd al-Djalfl had formed marriage alliances with important families in Borno as~part of a strategy of building a commercial empire that would have included contacts in the Sudanese kingdom. Capitalizing on these alliances, surviving Awläd Sulaymän took up positions on the nomadic frontier of Borno, where they were of use to the Borno ruler to block the depredations of the Tuareg. But in 1850 the Awläd Sulaymän were soundly defeated by these nomadic foes. Twice in a decade they had nearly been annihilated, but they survived to become the scourge of trade and of neighbouring nomads and agricultural people. They augmented their numbers by assimilating slaves taken in raids and by calling on their former soff allies from the Syrte and the Fezzän.
The experience of the Awläd Sulaymän demonstrates that even the limited military resources of the Ottoman pasha of Tripoli could produce disruption among nomads, and it shows that the ability of the Ottomans to manipulate segmentary politics and to shift io$~alliances was an important skill. The French, on the other hand, had no so such advantage and relied almost entirely on the force of arms. The first obstacle to the expansion of the French in Algeria was the state formed by ‘Abd al-Kädir, but after defeating him in 1847 they turned their attention towards the desert, and in the 1850s under General Randon they took an interest in re-establishing commercial relations between Algeria and the Western Sudan. To provide security for the trade they hoped to promote, they established outposts at Géryville and Laghwat in 1852, Wargla in 1853, and Tuggurt in 1854. In the west, military expansion south of Géryville halted with the revolt of the Awläd Sidi Shaykh, which lasted intermittently for nearly twenty years, and suffered other temporary setbacks with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and a serious uprising in the Kabylia Mountains in 1871.
Renewed interest in trans-Saharan commerce and ill-considered plans for a transSaharan railway spurred further penetration into the desert in the 1870s. The southern portion of the Algerian desert remained beyond French control, and the advance south of Wargla was halted when Ahaggar Tuareg massacred the second Flatters expedition in 1881, demonstrating that the occupation of Tuareg country could prove costly indeed. After 1890, the French had the approval of the British for further Saharan conquest, and the final phase began in 1899 with the occupation of In Salah. The last serious resistance was put down in 1902 with the defeat of the Ahaggar. In these final operations the French turned to the new expedient of recruiting nomadic people en masse into their service as irregulars, and this allowed them to combine the mobility and local knowledge of nomads with the vastly superior firepower of the French army. In the defeat of the Ahaggar in 1902 the French took advantage of long-standing animosity between Chaamba and Tuareg; in the final battle a single French officer led a force composed entirely of well-trained and heavily-armed Chaamba mounted on their best camels.
Unlike the French, the Moroccan central government, despite economic reforms in the second half of the nineteenth century, did not have the means to finance an army capable of extending effective occupation beyond the Atlas mountains to the pre-Saharan fringe. Nor could the Moroccans stand up to the French army, which exerted pressure on the frontier with Algeria and sometimes pursued dissident groups into Moroccan territory. The pre-Saharan fringe of Morocco belonged to the biläd al-sibä, or land of dissidence, but this translation obscures long-standing and important economic, religious and social ties between siba and Makhzen, the territory where the sultan could collect taxes and exert his authority. Morocco enjoyed the informal protection of the British, who controlled the lion’s share of Moroccan import-export trade, and British interest in Morocco helped to postpone the French takeover. In efforts to protect their territory beyond the Atlas, Moroccan sultans took care to throw into relief existing political and diplomatic ties with the south-east. Even if Moroccan sultans could not tax or control nomadic groups beyond the Atlas, they could enter into local politics by throwing their weight behind one faction or another, by mediating disputes, or by capitalizing on their prestige as religious leaders.
The religious influence of the Moroccan sultan extended as far as the Niger bend; the Kunta shaykh Ahmad al-Bekkai, leader of the Kadiriyya in the Sudan, recognized Mawlay ‘Abd al-Rahmän as imam of all Muslims and carried on diplomatic correspondence with the Moroccan crown. The real significance of the French occupation of the Algerian desert was that it was a phenomenon of an entirely new order. It was far more permanent than the occasional expeditions of the Moroccan sultan into the desert, journeys whose main purpose was to make and renew acquaintances with important local people. It also contrasted sharply with the infrequent visits of Ottoman officials to the oases of Cyrenaica and with the Ottoman policy of leaving the nomads to themselves except for occasional attempts to tip the balance in disputes between groups. For the first time, nomads had to contend with an army of occupation that was armed with modern weapons and staffed with local guides and irregulars who knew the desert. The French army administered nomads through the Bureaux arabes, an elite group of officers, some of whom spoke Arabic. These officers gathered intelligence on Muslim leaders and brotherhoods, dispensed justice, and ruled their charges through appointed chiefs. While it would not be advisable to overstate the degree of control that the French actually had in the early years in the desert, it is necessary to point out that the French occupation was far more complete than sedentary states on the periphery of the Sahara had ever even attempted. It was also very expensive, especially in relation to the ability of marginal land in the desert and desert fringe to produce a surplus.
Historians have explored the impoverishment of the Muslim population as a result of losses of land and livestock, and the revolts that were caused by the French policy of cantonnement. It would, however, be instructive to assess to what extent Saharan people, as opposed to Algerians in general, had to pay for the occupation of the desert, but this will have to await further research. While it is not possible to give a full account of resistance to the French in the Algerian Sahara, a history of this resistance would benefit from the framework worked out by Ross Dunn for responses to the French in the pre-Saharan fringe of Morocco. This conceptual framework draws attention to the uncertain nature of alliance groups in nomadic societies, and the extreme unpredictability of the French invasion. The French could destroy standing crops, palm plantations, irrigation works, and livestock. On the other hand, they established conditions for permanent peace on their terms, a peace which might nonetheless promote expanded trade.
Above all, according to Dunn, the arrival of the French created a new degree of uncertainty in the life of nomads and oasis dwellers: In short, their coming added to the extreme caprices of nature a whole new set of economic uncertainties. Consequently, every tribe and qsar, indeed every group, large or small, with shared interests in resources, was obliged to weigh its response to the French army against the effects, for better or worse, on its economic well-being. The crisis produced not an adjournment, but an intensification of the struggle to outwit the environment, as cooperating groups and individuals sought simultaneously to protect their vital resources and to avoid unconditional submission to the advancing army. Dunn observes that the ideology of kinship could form a basis for military unity in the face of an ephemeral outside threat. But it was of little value ‘in circumstances where survival depended essentially upon the ability of groups with shared resources to reconcile their politics to their economic interests through a fragmented, contradictory process of attack, compromise, and evasion’. Although this conclusion is intended for the Dawi Mani, it might well apply to the history of many other Saharan societies.
Unity in resistance was of course possible despite the uncertainties of the environment and the fission inherent in nomadic society, and religion provided the framework for most large-scale movements. In the normal course of desert life süß tarlka, with their zawiyas or centres of learning, which drew followers and attracted students, performed valuable political services by dispensing justice and mediating disputes between factions, segments, or whole peoples. The need for education and the arbitration of disputes won respect for süß saints and leaders and earned them reputations as scholars, mystics, and jurists. In a crisis it was natural that the orders and their respected leaders would be thrust into political and military roles.
Before the French conquest the Darkäwiyya channelled opposition to Ottoman rule among the Kabyles and south of Oran. Similarly, resistance to the French coalesced around religious leaders and their orders, as for example the movement led by lAbd al-Kädir, the revolt of Awlad Sidi Shaykh, and resistance organized by the Sanüsiyya in Libya, Chad, and ÑTger after 1900. In another case unusual economic circumstances resulting from the French push into the desert in the 1850s and 1860s helped bring about unified action among the Ahaggar Tuareg. Cut off from northern markets, Ahaggar transformed the basis of their economy. Because of relative stability under the leadership of the amenukal al-Hadjdj Ahmed (1830-77), it was possible to extend cultivation in Ahaggar with the labour of servile agriculturalists.
The attack on the Flatters mission in 1881 occurred during a severe drought in 1880-3. Later, as the French occupied the oases of the central Sahara, Ahaggar responded by using pastures in what is today north-western Niger and by caravan trade with the southern desert fringe. They took salt from the sebkhra or salt plain at Amadror, along with dates and small quantities of imported British cotton goods, to Damergu, at the northernmost limit of sedentary agriculture on the Tripoli-Kano route north of Zinder. The unity of the Ahaggar confederation, which facilitated these economic adjustments, was without doubt the product of conflict with neighbours. In the 1870s, the Ahaggar had mounted a serious challenge to the Ajjer Tuareg to their east and north, which was growing rich with the boom conditions in Tripoli-Kano trade during that decade, and they faced hostile Tuareg groups in other directions, such as the Oulliminden to the south-west and certain Air Tuareg to the south-east. A full account of resistance would also call attention to the mobility of camel nomads and their ability to migrate with their herds from one end of the Sahara to the other as long as they were willing to take up a life fraught with danger and uncertainty. A case in point is the fifty years’ odyssey of the Djeramna, who first ran afoul of the French in 1881 near Géry ville during the revolt of the Awlad Sidi Shaykh, an uprising sparked by land shortage, news of the massacre of theTIatters expedition, and the departure of French troops to help in the Tunisian campaign. When Bü Amäma, the leader of the uprising, was deserted by his partisans, the Djeramna left to join the Ahaggar Tuareg.
In 1889, they took part in a raid led by the Chaamba on the Tripoli-Kano road south of Ghadämes; somewhat later they were reported to have taken part in a raid in the Fezzän and another in southern Tunisia. With the collapse of Tuareg resistance they retreated to the Tripolitanian highlands bordering on southern Tunisia and Algeria and their raids became an issue in territorial rivalry between the French and the Turks. In 1925, they finally returned to surrender at Géry ville nearly fifty years after having “left on their wanderings.


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