Abd al-Qadir Fights Back

by pamela on January 20, 2015

Abd al-Qadir by Rudolf Ernst


If the French hadn’t invaded Algeria in 1830, Algerian emir Abd al-Qadir would probably have been content to follow his grandfather and father as the spiritual leader of the Qadiriyah Sufi order. In the fall of 1832, when the French began to expand their control into the Algerian interior, the Arab tribes of Oran elected al-Qadir as both the head of the Qadiriyah order and as their military leader.

Al-Qadir led Arab resistance against French expansion in North Africa from 1832 to 1847. He was so successful that at one point two-thirds of Algeria recognized him as its ruler. The French signed treaties with al-Qadir and broke them. (Similarities to the United States’ relationship to its native peoples, anyone? ) After a crushing defeat in 1843, he was hunted across North Africa as an outlaw.

Abd al-Qadir surrendered at the end of 1847 and was imprisoned in France until 1853. Following his release, he settled in Damascus, where he entered the stage of world history one last time. In 1860, the Muslims of Damascus rose and began slaughtering the city’s Christians. When the Turkish authorities did nothing to stop the massacre, Abd al-Qadir and 300 followers rescued over 12,0000 Christians from the massacre. Once hunted by the French as a dangerous outlaw, Abd al-Qadir received the Legion of Honor from Napoleon III for his efforts.

Heroism is in the eye of the beholder.



Let Them Eat Cake?

by pamela on January 16, 2015


Today we’re going to take a little side trip from French Algeria to think about grain*, thanks to Paul Hancq, who responded to my recent attempts to convert the price of an eighteenth century grain purchase into modern American dollars with the comment, “At any rate, that is a LOT of expensive grain!”

He’s right. That is a lot of grain. The army of the French Republic was large (in theory reaching a million and a half men following the unpopular levée en masse of 1793*) and it subsisted largely on bread.**

And grain was expensive. Fluctuations in the price of grain, and consequently bread, was a regular source of unrest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe. In France the price of bread and its effect on the urban poor helped trigger the French Revolution–leading to the popular story that Marie Antoinette, on learning that the peasants could not afford bread, said “Let them eat cake”*–thereby demonstrating her fundamental lack of understanding of the realities of daily life for anyone other than a queen.

* In some ways, it’s not a detour at all. North Africa was the breadbasket of the Mediterranean from the time of imperial Rome through the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962).

**A million and a half on paper probably translated to 800,000 fighting men on the field. That’s still large compared to the British army in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, which totaled 40,000 in 1793 and peaked at 250,000 in 1815. (I’d love to know the size of the army Russia fielded in the same wars, but Google has failed me. Any suggestions, Marginians?)

***There’s a reason they call it the “staff of life”.

****The source for this is Rousseau’s notoriously unreliable Confessions–in which he claimed that an unnamed “great princess” said “Let them eat brioche.” Not quite as snappy as the cake line. Not necessarily Marie Antoinette. (Antonia Fraser attributes the statement to Queen Maria Therese, 100 years earlier.) Possibly no one ever said it. In short, another example of what we’ve come to call “comic book history” here at the Margins–historical stories that are emotionally satisfying but factually untrue. They just keep coming.


The Incident of the Flyswatter

by pamela on January 13, 2015

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a friend and regular reader of History in the Margins suggesting I write a post about the long, complex, and often difficult relationship between France and its Muslim citizens, hoping it would give her/you a context for the Charlie Hebdo killings and their aftermath. I will admit that I hesitated.  I’m a historian, not a political commentator.

But in fact, I feel strongly that the West in general and Americans in particular need to know more about this history of other parts of the world in order to understand how we got to where we are today, and more importantly to understand that no single perspective of the past is universally shared.  I say so right on my website.

This is exactly the type of moment where some historical context might be useful.  That said, I’m not going to give you a pundit-style analysis of current events. Instead, over the next several blog posts I’m going to tell you some stories about the French in North Africa and Muslim resistance to their presence, with perhaps a few detours that catch my attention.  These are not intended as explanation for the recent events in France.  They are simply pieces of the past that are part of the shared French and North African experience.

Let’s start at the beginning:

French conquest of Algeria

Anon. French illustration. I’d love to see its Algerian counterpart. Anyone?

In 1795, revolutionary France bought 8 million francs* of Algerian grain to feed its army.  The French Republic failed to pay its debt, as did the French empire which succeeded it.  When Napoleon was overthrown in 1815, the newly restored Bourbon monarchy disavowed the debt.  From the French perspective, the matter was done but the Algerians weren’t willing to let it go.  Not surprisingly, given the amount of money involved.

Despite ongoing negotiations, the matter was still unresolved by April, 1827 when a meeting between the Ottoman regent of Algiers, Hussein Dey, and the French consul, Pierre Duval, turned ugly  Reportedly, when Hussein Dey pressed for an answer, Duval told him that France didn’t discuss money with Arabs. (!!!) The governor hit Duval in the face with the fly whisk that formed part of his royal regalia.**  The French press dubbed the incident “the affair of the fly-swatter”–a term that magnified the insult.

Charles X demanded an apology for the insult to his representative.  When no apology was forthcoming, he sent French ships to blockade the harbor of Algiers–a”cut off your nose to spite your face”  technique that limited French access to much needed Algerian grain for almost three years.

In June, 1830, tensions between Charles X and French republicans were coming to a head.  The French king attempted to distract his detractors by accelerating tensions in Algeria.  On June 12, 1830, using a plan originally developed by Napoleon, 34,000 French troops landed in Algeria.  Three weeks later, Dey had fled into exile and the French military found itself the occupying power in coastal Algeria.  France’s decades- long struggle to conquer North Africa had begun.

The invasion did nothing to help Charles X, who was forced to abdicate on July 30.


*How much is that in today’s money?  Good question, and not easily answered. The short answer is billions, if not gazillions.

If anyone knows of a good resource for translating 18th century francs to 21st century dollars, let me know.  I spent way too much time chasing this down the rabbit hole.  Eventually I found a site that gave me a conversion rate between francs and pounds sterling in the 1780s (1 pound =23 livres and a bit), then a site that gave me a rate for converting  pounds to dollars in 1795 (1 pound=$4.53), and finally a site that gave me the relative worth of American dollars from 1795 and 2013.  The answer ranged from $28,200,000 to $68,900,000,000–depending on the measures you use. (If you’re interested in the possibilities, I refer you to MeasuringWorth.com . And that’s not even taking into account my own questionable methodology in sliding from 1780s values to 1795.

**Is “royal regalia” redundant?






Cities of Empire

by pamela on January 9, 2015

In Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World, historian Tristram Hunt (author of Marx’s General) explores Britain’s imperial history through the lens of the formerly colonial cities that he argues are her greatest legacy to the modern world.

Hunt organizes his work around ten cities and their role in the development of the British empire.  Most, such as Boston and New Delhi,  were founded as part of the empire.  Others, such as Dublin and Liverpool, were transformed by the empire’s expansion.  Hunt considers the history of each city’s creation or annexation not simply as an imperial act but as a series of negotiations and exchanges between two cultures, though admittedly often on unequal terms.  He looks at their architecture, civic institutions and street names as imperial artifacts.  He discusses the role of each city as both an entrepôt within the imperial network and a hub of the economy that developed around it.  Working more or less chronologically, he traces the history of the empire from Boston’s transformation of itself from a colonial to a revolutionary city through Liverpool’s post-imperial decline.  The book ends with Hunt’s assertion that Britain is now on the receiving end of the empire it created, shaped by exchanges and negotiations with its former colonies.

Cities of Empire is informed by post-colonial theory, urban history, and Hunt’s own Labour Party politics, but Hunt uses them with a light hand, creating a work of colonial history that is both lively and authoritative.  If you’re fascinated by the British empire, this one’s for you.


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Working on the assumption that if you enjoy History in the Margins you might enjoy other history blogs, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites for your reading pleasure. Some appear every day. Some appear on a schedule known only to their creators. All of them are blogs that I greet with glee when they appear in my inbox.* Here they are:

    • Alison Taylor Brown’s wonderful blog about the sixteenth century, Wolfgang Capito’s View, has been on hiatus for a while now.  I missed it, so I was glad to learn she’s returned to the past with 30-Second Renaissance.  Quick bites of history that include a picture, an insight and a flash of wit.
    • Historical novelist Sandra Galland blogs about her research into 17th and 18th century life at Baroque Explorations.  Sumptuous stuff.  (I also enjoy her blog on surviving the writing life, but I promised myself I wouldn’t talk about writing blogs, book blogs, cooking blogs, needlework blogs or any of my other bloggish passions here.  This is, after all, a place for history buffs to hang out.)
    • Nancy Marie Brown’s God of Wednesday is a fascinating mix of Viking history, Norse mythology, Icelandic horses, miscellaneous things medieval and her personal relationship with all of the above.  (If these topics are among your passions, I also recommend the Icelandic Language Blog –which is far more interesting than its title would suggest.)
    • I return regularly to the late M.M. Bennett‘s blog on life in the eighteenth century.  She knew her stuff.
    • Military History Now looks at “the strange, off-beat and lesser-known aspects of military history”–just the kind of military history I like.  Unlike many of the military history places I hang out, it considers social and cultural history as well as what I think of as “technical military history”.  One of my favorite recent posts: The Secret Life of Napoleon Bonaparte.  This is not your weird uncle Albert’s military history.
    • Bart Ingraldi, regular commenter here at the Margins, explores historical ephemera at Paper Sleuth, where he uses literal scraps to illuminate bigger issues .
    • Donna Seger’s Streets of Salem is local history at its best.  She uses the history of Salem, Massachusetts, as a jumping off point for topics large and small, from historical ephemera** to world-shaking events.
    • Two Nerdy History Girls is the on-line home of novelists Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott. What female history nerd can resist eighteenth century fashion and mores, historical hotties, and tough broads from the past?  Not me.
    • Alphabetically last, but definitely not least, the award-winning group blog Wonders and Marvels.***  The tag line says it all: A community for curious minds who love history, its odd stories, and good reads.  That’s you, right?

Those are my recommendations: a wide range of styles, periods and general approaches because that’s the way I read. I hope you enjoy them: just don’t forget to find your way back here when you’re done.

What history blogs would you suggest I check out?


*I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to keep up with blogs that don’t let me subscribe by e-mail. I have a Feedly account, but find I go there rarely. Which means I miss some great stuff. (Now that I think about it, this is closely related to my relationship with my filing cabinet.)

**Hmmm, I’m seeing a pattern here.

***Just so we’re clear: I loved Wonders and Marvels long before I became a regular contributor.  In fact, writing for Wonders & Marvels was one of my goals when I started writing.



Another Year of History Ahead of Us

by pamela on January 2, 2015

It’s a new year, which for history buffs means not only the chance to make changes moving forward but also the chance to look toward the past with a different focus.  A new period.  A new theme.  A new set of questions.  Or at least a bunch of new books about old stuff to read.

I start every year with a set of topics that I plan to explore. Every year some piece of the past sticks out its foot and trips me.  So with caveat that an unexpected historical figure/period/event/theme will probably ambush me, here are some of the topics that I know I’m going to be thinking about in 2015:

I’m not quite sure when I became a military historian of sorts, but war is a constant in my historical universe. There are a few anniversaries in 2015 that will be hard to ignore:  the ongoing centennial of World War I, the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo. I’m already in the first stages of a project related to Gettysburg and plotting a visit to the World War I exhibition at the Getty Museum.

Vikings and medieval sagas, with a nod to Nancy Marie Brown

Tough broads, whether armed with swords or only with their wits (Do not underestimate a smart woman with a metaphorical axe to grind)

Romantic nationalism, or how an interest in linguistics and poetry turned ugly

What historical topics do you see in your immediate future?

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George III

King George III in Coronation Robes

Quick, name two things you know about King George III of England.

If you’re an American, I’m pretty sure I know what you said:

He held the throne during the American Revolution. If you’re a history buff (and I assume you are), you may have added that on July 4, 1776 he wrote “Nothing of importance happened today” in his diary.*

He slipped into madness–a condition summarized by his addressing Parliament as “my lords and peacocks”.

In A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III, Janice Hadlow presents a richer portrait of the king, showing him as son, husband, and father as well as ruler.

The Hanoverian kings of England were notorious for hating their heirs. They displayed that hatred in a public and often vicious fashion. Their heirs retaliated with equally public acts of political defiance. When George III inherited the throne from his grandfather at the age of 22 he was determined to build a family life different from the one he experienced as a child.

Hadlow begins with the three generations of Hanoverian royalty who preceded George III, describing dysfunctional family relationships that make soap opera plots look tame by comparison: loveless marriages, obsessive marriages, parents separated from their children against their will, a wife imprisoned for adultery (or at least considering adultery), a mother who refused to see her son on her deathbed. With that context in place, the heart of the book explores King George’s efforts to be the moral compass of his nation and to reconcile the values of domesticity with the demands of kingship–a noble experiment with mixed results and long-term consequences for the modern idea of monarchy.

A Royal Experiment will appeal to lovers of biography, Georgian England or royal scandal

* This quotation turns out to be another of the emotionally satisfying historical myths that shape our understanding of the past. King George didn’t keep a diary and the quotation should be attributed to Louis XVI on the day the Parisian mob stormed the Bastille. See the details here.


The guts of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


100 Years Later: The Christmas Truce of 1914

by pamela on December 25, 2014

I’ve run this post before, but I don’t think there is any historical Christmas story more appropriate to tell this year. A hundred years ago, men on the Western Front stopped fighting and celebrated the holiday together.

German and British soldiers photographed together in No Man’s Land on the Western Front.

For most of us, the most vivid images of World War I are the trenches on the Western front. Men dug into positions on either side of a no-man’s land of craters and burned out buildings. Barbed wire and sandbags provided little protection from enemy shelling or snipers; they provided no protection from rats, lice, flooding, or the dreaded “trench foot”. The battlefields were noxious with the smell of rotting corpses, overflowing latrines and poison gas fumes.

Trench warfare was hell. It also made possible one of the most extraordinary events of the war: the unofficial Christmas armistice of 1914. The truce began when some German troops decorated their trenches with candles and Christmas trees and sang carols. British troops responded with carols of their own. On Christmas Day, some groups ventured into “no-man’s land” to share food, sing carols, hold joint services for their dead and play soccer matches.

One German soldier, Josef Wenzel, described the scene in a letter to his parents:

One Englishman was playing on the harmonica of a German lad, some were dancing, while others were proud as peacocks to wear German helmets on their heads. The British burst into a song with a carol, to which we replied with “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. It was a very moving moment–hated and embittered enemies were singing carols around the Christmas tree. All my life I will never forget that sight.

It is estimated that 100,000 men took part in the Christmas truce. In some places, the truce lasted only through Christmas day. In others, it lasted until New Year’s Day. In some sectors, the war continued unabated.

The Christmas truce did not recur in 1915. Both the British and the German high commands were appalled at the blatant fraternization with the enemy and gave strict orders against future incidents. After all, how do you fight a war if the men at the front decide not to fight?

Peace on earth, good will to men.



My friend Nancy Friesen brought this lovely version of the story to my attention:

Thanks, Nancy.


Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

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1814: The Year in Review

by pamela on December 23, 2014

Napoleon's exile to Elba

I wish I could tell you that 1814 was a year of peace compared to 1914–but it wouldn’t be true. In fact, the two years look an awful lot alike–emphasis on the awful. The allied powers of Europe fighting an aggressive empire. A generation of young men damaged by war. Belgian fields trampled into mud by booted feet.

Here are some of the highlights (or low points, depending on your point of view):

The British burned Washington D.C. during the War of 1812, much of which actually took place in 1814. (From the American perspective, the War of 1812 was a final blow for independence. From the British perspective, it was an annoying distraction from their war against Napoleon.)

Among the buildings burned was the fledging Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his private library (6487 books!) to Congress as a replacement. It was a good deal for both the American people and Jefferson, who was good at just about everything except managing his money.

Mexico took advantage of the confusion caused by the Napoleonic Wars and declared its independence after three hundred years of Spanish rule.

Napoleon was exiled to Elba Island with a pension from the French government. He was given sovereignty over the island and allowed to retain the title of Emperor. How could anyone have thought this would turn out well?

Sir Walter Scott published his first novel, Waverly–which went on to become the first international bestseller.

What would you add to the list?


1914: The Year in Review

by pamela on December 19, 2014

Like most people who write about history online, this year I’ve spent a lot of time and virtual ink on the beginning of the First World War this year. * It’s easy to forget that the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and Europe’s tumble into war wasn’t the only thing that happened in 1914.

Charlie Chaplin

Here are some of the highlights:

 James Joyce published Dubliners and Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan of the Apes.  You could argue that Tarzan was the more important in terms of the extent of its cultural influence.

Charlie Chaplin made his first film: an improvised short titled Kid Auto Races at Venice.

Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on his third and most famous expedition to Antarctica.  His ship, the badly named Endurance, was crushed by ice and Shackleton and his crew floated on sheets of ice for months.

The first ship sailed through the Panama Canal, ending its journey on August 3.  No one paid much attention because German troops marched into neutral Belgium the next morning.

The first electric traffic light was installed–not in New York, Paris, or London but in Cleveland, Ohio, at the corner of Euclid and 105th

* Ten posts since June.  Unless the Marginites rise up and scream “no more WWI! Please!”, there will be more to come over the next few years.