M’hamed Oualdi, A Slave Between Empires: A Transimperial History of North Africa (Columbia University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

M’hamed Oualdi (MO): This book was born mainly out of dissatisfaction. I have been teaching the history of modern North Africa for more than a decade now. As also emphasized by other historians such as Julia Clancy Smith, James McDougall, and Raphaelle Branche, while teaching and writing about this history, I kept on noticing the extent to which North Africanists have studied the history of colonial Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya by predominantly using European colonial archives, as if the history of these countries could only matter as fragments of bigger European colonial histories.

At the same time, after having read nineteenth-century/pre-colonial Arabic primary sources for many years in order to prepare my dissertation about the Ottoman province of Tunis, I wanted to write a book that would bring together this provincial Ottoman culture of administrative writings in Tunisia and the French colonial archives. I envisioned a book that would contribute to reassessing the history of colonial Tunisia by paying full attention to an Ottoman-Tunisian political, social, and economic culture that was still crucial for Tunisian colonized subjects up until the 1920s.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MO: To understand how this Ottoman provincial culture survived and why it was still instrumental for Tunisian colonized subjects, despite the violence of French domination, I took a different route. I did not follow a broad historical approach which encompasses a major number of cases or a top-down approach focusing, for instance, on state transformations and their impact on Tunisian society. Instead, I decided to study both the life and the after-life of Husayn Ibn ‘Abdallah (pictured on the book cover). Husayn was a slave born in the Caucasus in the 1820s, raised in the palace of the Ottoman governors in Tunis. He became the first mayor of Tunis in the 1860s and the first minister of education for this country, before passing away in 1887, far from the Maghreb, in Florence (Tuscany), six years after the French took over Tunisia.

By following this case study and the many conflicts over Husayn’s inheritance across the Mediterranean, Europe, and the main cities of the Ottoman Empire, I was able to show that the history of colonial Tunisia, and more broadly, of North Africa, is more than a fragment of a French/European history. Rather, it is the outcome of broad trans-imperial histories and debates that deeply involved North Africans, Middle Eastern Ottoman subjects, Italians, and other African-Mediterranean societies.

Through this lens, plenty of issues can be reassessed. For instance, the legal abolition of slavery in Tunisia since the 1840s cannot be seen as merely the result of a confrontation between British diplomats and Tunisian governors. As a statesman and a manumitted slave, characters like Husayn contributed to the push for the demise of slavery. In the same vein, while the French colonial system resulted in major land appropriation for the sole benefit of European settlers in Algeria, this colonial dispossession in Tunisia occurred against the backdrop of Ottomans reforms that had been implemented since the 1850s, reconfigurations of public land and private property as in other empires at that time. In the book, the main idea here was to use a trans-imperial life to open up new historical perspectives and reconnect a regional history to the history of surrounding societies. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MO: I first met Husayn Ibn ‘Abdallah and his story in my previous work on the mamluks, who served the Ottoman governors of Tunis from the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. As in the history of Egypt and the Levant, where this social category has been central, in Tunisia the mamluks were also slaves who had converted to Islam and had been promoted to the highest military and administrative positions. Husayn was one of the last mamluk slaves in nineteenth-century Ottoman Tunisia. And among these last mamluks who passed away in the 1880s, during the first decade of French colonization of Tunisia, he was one of the very few, if not the only one, who died far from Tunis in exile in Europe. This made his case very intriguing to me. 

But, as in my previously published work in French by Sorbonne University Press, I wanted to show that besides actual slaves like Husayn, the mamluk category in Ottoman Tunisia also consisted of local free Muslim men, and even their sons and grandsons, who were born both free and Muslim by Islamic legal definition. This has been a crucial point to make because, for a long time, Orientalists such as Patricia Crone have claimed that the very existence of mamluk slaves and foreigners, and even more so the strange paradox of mamluks governing Muslim free subjects, showcased the inability of Muslim governors to rely on their own free subjects, the lack of legitimacy of local Islamic powers, and therefore a so-called inevitable and ongoing gap between state and society that would explain the persistence of authoritarianism in the Muslim world. On the contrary, and as in my previous book, I stood against this essentialist approach and argued that precisely because they were slaves, servants, foreigners, and natives, mamluks allowed their masters, the governors of Tunisia, to create forms of social distinctions and connections with their Tunisian provincial subjects in order to govern a patrimonial state.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MO: When it comes to readership, I have three overlapping audiences in mind: historians of the French empire, historians of modern Maghreb, and Ottomanists. 

For example, I see the relevance of French imperial history to highlight, for instance, the many political contradictions between French republican principles and French policies on the colonial ground. Nonetheless, I do question the limits of a history that is mainly based on French sources and that tends to perceive North African individuals from afar and as shadows in the background of a grand Euro-centered imperial narrative, rather than as protagonists of their own history. 

I also focused on a specific part of the Maghreb Ottomanist’s efforts and explored the issue of Ottomanness or Ottoman identity and Ottoman legacies, far away from the imperial center. 

But at the end of the day, both Ottoman and French imperial history—or even Italian imperial history—are more than useful to shake up North Africanists by forcing us to reshape and readapt our analytical frameworks. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MO: This academic year, I undertook an ambitious project at Sciences Po Paris about slave testimonies in North Africa and the western Mediterranean during the abolition era and alongside the demise of the slave trade between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1930s. This project, entitled “Slavevoices,” is funded by a European Research Council grant and will allow me and my team of researchers to collect documents written by slaves, or documents where slaves conveyed testimonies and biographical fragments. These includes petitions, court cases, and slave narratives. 

We will investigate four major groups of slaves: North African men and women enslaved in Europe; Europeans enslaved in the Maghreb until the first decade of the nineteenth century; mamluks like Husayn and concubines originating from Greece and the Caucasus; and Western and Eastern African men and women who were exploited in North Africa, or transited from this region to end their lives in Asia, Europe, and, in some cases, North America. 

The first goal of this project is to renew our approach to exploring the end of slavery in the Maghreb. So far, historians have explained the abolition and slow vanishing of slavery in this region either as the outcome of European imperialistic interventions or, to a lesser extent, as a result of debates among Muslim scholars and local leaders who owned slaves. In this project, we seek instead to interpret the end of slavery through the testimonies of those who experienced and acted for the end of slavery, namely slaves themselves—and their descendants. 

Second, by studying together—and not apart, as is often the case—the various groups of slaves in North Africa hailing from Africa, Europe, and Asia, we want to contribute to new ways of conceiving and writing the history of North Africa. Instead of studying each historical phenomenon according to its national part of this region (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya), as has often been the case in the past, we aim to write a globalized and connected history of modern North Africa. Our goal will be to explore the reshaping of the connections that groups of slaves built in the abolition era within North African societies, and between this part of the Muslim world and other adjoining societies in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Excerpt from the book (from the introduction)

In 1881, the subjects and dignitaries of the former Ottoman province of Tunis were deeply affected when the French occupied their country, putting an end to three centuries of Ottoman rule. French colonial rule weighed heavily on Tunisians’ minds. Even their bodies seemed to register the blow. Far away, in the Italian city of Florence, the health of former Tunisian dignitary Husayn Ibn ‘Abdallah deteriorated. The more Husayn rooted himself in Florence and the more he distanced himself from Tunis, the more physical pain crippled the sixty-year-old man. During the winter of 1882, shortly after the French conquest of Tunis, Husayn came down with a fever and remained in his bed for “almost 2 entire months.” Rumors spread across Tunis, insinuating that Husayn had passed away. While convalescing, Husayn contracted whooping cough before deciding that a change of “air in Naples, on Vesuvius” would do him good. The following year, in his final spring, Husayn found himself successively unable to read and speak. He lost hearing in one ear and could only walk with a cane. […]

The physical and mental traumas of colonization endured by North Africans such as Husayn were so profound that historians of North Africa have primarily concentrated their studies on colonial shock, not just in Tunisia but in several other countries in this region, also called the Maghreb, or “western part of the Muslim lands” in Arabic. The focus on the effects of colonial domination is even stronger in the neighboring country of Algeria, occupied by France more harshly and for a longer period—from 1830 up until its liberation, after a bloody war, in 1962. But which aspects of colonialism and its terrible effects might a man such as Husayn Ibn ‘Abdallah embody? Is he simply a dignitary of Ottoman North Africa that is undergoing collapse as a new colonial world is emerging?

In fact, Husayn Ibn ‘Abdallah’s life’s journey and the disputes over his estate—which lie at the heart of this book—tell a rather different story about this part of the Mediterranean. By following Husayn and the history of his estate after his death, this book argues that historians must transcend any vision of a modern history of the Maghreb perceived solely through the prism of European colonization. This book does not seek to erase the region’s colonial past. Rather, it argues for a reinterpretation of the modern period, and of colonialism itself, based on a careful study of what pre-ceded and overlapped with European colonialism in North Africa from the 1880s until the 1920s—namely, the Ottoman provincial culture developed on the southern shores of the Mediterranean for more than three centuries, beginning in the second half of the sixteenth century. The book therefore advocates for an entangled history of the Maghreb written not only by European colonial powers but also by provincial Ottoman people. Such an approach helps cast the history of North Africa and its colonization in broader terms: it reveals significant financial, intellectual, and kinship networks across the Mediterranean that historians have either underestimated or simply ignored. 

[…] But this book does not limit itself to North Africa. In the wake of the scholarship focusing on the Mediterranean in the nineteenth century, it seeks to foreground the many places in which North African populations acted, in and outside the Maghreb, across the Mediterranean, and throughout the Ottoman Empire. Outside the Maghreb, the book not only takes into account the colonial mainland (here, France) but also shows how exiled Tunisian notables such as Husayn and their entourages were active in Italy, Istanbul—the Ottoman mainland—and Cairo, another major Ottoman city that hosted strong communities of Maghrebi traders and students. […] 

It is unfortunately rare for scholars to consider colonial times in light of what preceded them and, more generally, to think through the history of the Maghreb in terms of the numerous remnants of the Ottoman presence. Despite the Ottoman sultans’ wielding tutelage over the region for four centuries, the extent to which the Maghreb was indeed Ottoman is still insufficiently acknowledged. Most historical studies still represent the Ottoman provinces of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli as autonomous regions, independent of Istanbul and the sultans’ power. […] Autonomy was indeed an ambition of the Ottoman governors, or beys, of Tunis in particular between the 1830s and 1870s, and for the beys of Tripoli up until 1835, when the Qaramanli Tripolitan dynasty was deposed and the beys replaced by governors from the center of the Ottoman Empire. But during the second half of the nineteenth century, European diplomats (followed by the French and Italian colonial authorities) over-estimated this desire for autonomy and established it as an untouchable principle, thereby seeking to preclude and delegitimize any Ottoman intervention in Algerian, Tunisian, and Libyan affairs. The Maghreb nationalist movements corroborated the French view of weak relationships between Istanbul and its provinces. After the 1920s, they gave credence to the idea of the Maghrebi Ottoman provinces’ supposed autonomy to support their own claims for independence. […]

In reassessing the Ottoman-ness of the Maghreb, this book builds on scholarship begun in the 1970s and takes into account questions raised about the colonial dimension of the late Ottoman Empire in the second half of the nineteenth century. It applies to North Africa a line of inquiry about the lasting effects of the Ottoman legacy that has already led to a reassessment of the history of the Levant. It shows in concrete terms how the effects of having belonged to the Ottoman Empire persisted into the late modern period, during the early days of French colonization in Tunisia. This book argues that North Africa was not just the borderland of an (Ottoman or colonial) empire; rather, it was one of many places for clashes and encounters between competing imperial ambitions. But in order to avoid a distant, top-down view of this Ottoman legacy, we will observe the minutiae of the imperial transition alongside those who experienced it, through a case study: that of the manumitted slave and former Tunisian general Husayn Ibn ‘Abdallah and the disputes surrounding his estate. […]

Unlike other mamluk dignitaries from Tunis, Husayn did not die in Tunisia or any other part of the empire still under Otto-man tutelage, such as Cairo or Istanbul. When Husayn passed away in 1887, six years after the establishment of the French protectorate over Tunisia, he was living in Florence, having represented the interests of the Tunisian state in various financial disputes in Tuscany since the 1870s. While we know very little about the estates of many Tunisian dignitaries, there are exhaustive primary sources about the disputes that sprang up around General Husayn’s estate in Tuscany from 1887 to the early 1890s. The primary sources from the French, Italian, Tunisian, Ottoman, and English archives are particularly rich and varied, both because of the administrative and financial interest of the papers drawn up by Husayn and because of the intensity of the competition between the French, Italian, and Ottoman authorities over Tunisia during this period.

[…] Following the trajectories of “socially situated individuals” forces us to stop thinking of the territories, categories, and languages within which people move as something predetermined. Thus, while situating the action between Ottoman and European lands, I do not presume any particular continuities or discontinuities between these political entities. I do not believe these worlds to be antagonistic, irreconcilable, or distinct in nature. What I hope to achieve by making intensive use of Husayn’s case study is to reconstitute social worlds and networks that tend to be hidden from view when colonization is the sole focus. […] This study differs however from other works about imperial and global lives, as my primary purpose is not to reconstitute Husayn’s life. Husayn’s existence will constitute the core of only the first chapters of this book. In the second half, I examine his death—and, more specifically, the disputes and claims surrounding his estate—in order to reconsider our historical interpretations of this part of the Mediterranean.