Le système Bugeaud

Algeria was invaded by France in 1830 but the country soon proved difficult to govern. The French army was harassed by Arab guerrilla fighters and in 1837 they were forced to conclude a treaty which gave Algerians control of two thirds of their territory. Yet the French ignored the agreement and the following year the war recommenced. Looking for a more effective way to fight the Arabs, general Thomas Robert Bugeaud, the Governor-General of the colony, developed a new method of warfare ― known as le système Bugeaud ― which he argued was more suitable to African conditions. A main feature of the système was the razzia — the destruction of all resources that supported the lives of the Arab community, their crops, orchards and cattle. Only by declaring war on civilians, Bugeaud argued, and by terrorizing and starving them, could the enemy be subdued. Yet, he insisted, there was nothing barbarian about such methods. After all, France’s aim was to civilize the Africans. “Gentlemen,” as he explained to the French parliament, “war is not made philanthropically; he who wills the end wills the means.”

Other European powers met with similar resistance. The British had to fight no fewer than five wars against the Asante, three wars in Afghanistan and Burma and two opium wars in China. The French fought two wars in Dahomey and the Germans were fiercely resisted by the Herero. The problem in all cases was that the enemies were far away, the European forces actually quite small, and that it was difficult to administer the lands to which they laid claims. Even if one expedition was successful, the natives soon reasserted themselves, and the European had to come back for a second expedition, and occasionally for several more. Colonial wars were not at all like wars in Europe, the Europeans concluded; they required tactics suitable to local conditions.

What settled these wars in the end was not military superiority as much as the ability to strike terror in the local population. Colonial warfare should have “pedagogical aims.” You should strike so hard and in such a devastating fashion that no one dared to resist. The système Bugeaud was an example of such state-sponsored terrorism, and it eventually proved effective. One by one the Algerian guerrilla fighters were killed or captured and in 1843 their independent state collapsed.

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