Algerians today look with pride to the 16th century Ottoman vassal state known as the Regency of Algiers, in a manner akin to how modern Scandinavians would speak of the Vikings or how Ghanaians aim to educate on the ancient majesty of that country’s name.
The Regency collapsed in 1830 due to the imperial ambitions of France which looked to reassert itself as a European power to be feared after the demise of Napoleon Bonaparte. But the invasion of Algiers lives in the minds of history students anywhere by the dint of one very bizarre occurrence in 1827.
They have come to call it the Fan Affair. It is the story of an altercation between the Ottoman ruler of Algiers, Hussein Dey, and Pierre Deval, the French Consul-General in Algiers. Provoked by what he saw as connivance between Deval and two Jewish merchants who owed money to Algiers, Dey struck Deval in the face with his fly swatter, which was also a hand-held fan.
The plans to invade Algiers had been drawn under Napoleon as far back as 1808. Deval, and indeed France, were all too gladdened by the intransigence of Dey who refused to apologize for hitting Deval. By the middle of 1830, three years after the incident, Dey was ousted in the war that effectively confirmed France’s colonization of the place Arabs called Al Jazâ’ir (The Islands).
In invading Algiers, the French did not only fight a war of territorial conquest but sought to crush Algerian spirits. The resistance to the invasion was buoyed by a few things, among which included a 23-feet long cannon that almost completely fortified Algiers. The cannon was founded in 1542 under the commission of Hasan Pasha, a ruler of Algiers.
In 1683, the French themselves were witnessed first hand, how much faith the Regency placed in the cannon. Jean La Vacher, the French consul in Algiers at the time, was shot out from the cannon by the Algerians in an exaggerated effort to put across a point. The French never forgave and they never forgot.
But in the centuries after this episode, the Algerians called their protector cannon Baba Merzoug (Marzoug). It meant Blessed Father, apt for the blessing of protection it rendered. However, what happened in 1830 was clearly the unfolding of the Napoleon-ordered “How To Overcome Merzoug” plan.
Admiral Guy-Victor Duperré and his men laid waste to Algiers in July of 1830 and seized the cannon. They then shipped it to France, to the northwestern city of Brest and placed it in a public square. The French had their own name for Merzoug – La Consulaire, or The Consul, in memory of the man shot out of the gun.
Looting the gun was the process of crushing the Algerian spirit. But that itself was not even complete until France placed atop the cannon, a metallic sculpture of a national totem, the Gallic Cockerel. The metaphor was every bit as intentional as Baba Merzoug had been a symbol in its former home.
Algeria and France would later a bloody war that culminated in the former’s independence in 1962. The bitter aftertaste of that affair still lingers in the mouth of either party. And in what has been a painful rapprochement between the two countries over the last few decades, Algeria has not sought to make topical its desire to see Baba Merzoug returned.
But the North Africans do want their cannon back. And their hopes rest on this new French attitude of making restitution under the leadership of Emmanuel Macron. Although a significant bulk of what was stolen and seized during colonization still sits in French museums, the country has gradually been returning many artefacts to their homes in Africa.
To Algeria in particular, a hooded white garment owned by Emir Abdelkader, a hero of the war against the invasion in 1830, may be returned by France after nearly 200 years. The French Parliament has been discussing that.
It would seem hope among Algerians for the return of Baba Merzoug is well-founded.