Ottoman Rule

Ottoman Rule

At about the time Spain was establishing its presidios in the Maghrib, the Muslim privateer brothers Aruj and Khair ad Din--the latter known to Europeans as Barbarossa, or Red Beard--were operating successfully off Tunisia under the Hafsids. In 1516 Aruj moved his base of operations to Algiers, but was killed in 1518 during his invasion of Tlemcen. Khair ad Din succeeded him as military commander of Algiers. The Ottoman sultan gave him the title of beylerbey (provincial governor) and a contingent of some 2,000 janissaries, well-armed Ottoman soldiers. With the aid of this force, Khair ad Din subdued the coastal region between Constantine and Oran (although the city of Oran remained in Spanish hands until 1791). Under Khair ad Din's regency, Algiers became the center of Ottoman authority in the Maghrib, from which Tunis, Tripoli, and Tlemcen would be overcome and Morocco's independence would be threatened.

So successful was Khair ad Din at Algiers that he was recalled to Constantinople in 1533 by the sultan, Süleyman I (r. 1520-66), known in Europe as Süleyman the Magnificent, and appointed admiral of the Ottoman fleet. The next year he mounted a successful seaborne assault on Tunis.

The next beylerbey was Khair ad Din's son Hassan, who assumed the position in 1544. Until 1587 the area was governed by officers who served terms with no fixed limits. Subsequently, with the institution of a regular Ottoman administration, governors with the title of pasha ruled for three-year terms. Turkish was the official language, and Arabs and Berbers were excluded from government posts.

The pasha was assisted by janissaries, known in Algeria as the ojaq and led by an agha. Recruited from Anatolian peasants, they were committed to a lifetime of service. Although isolated from the rest of society and subject to their own laws and courts, they depended on the ruler and the taifa for income. In the seventeenth century, the force numbered about 15,000, but it was to shrink to only 3,700 by 1830. Discontent among the ojaq rose in the mid-1600s because they were not paid regularly, and they repeatedly revolted against the pasha. As a result, the agha charged the pasha with corruption and incompetence and seized power in 1659.

The taifa had the last word, however, when in 1671 it rebelled, killed the agha, and placed one of its own in power. The new leader received the title of dey, which originated in Tunisia. After 1689 the right to select the dey passed to the divan, a council of some sixty notables. The divan at first was dominated by the ojaq, but by the eighteenth century it became the dey's instrument. In 1710 the dey persuaded the sultan to recognize him and his successors as regent, replacing the pasha in that role. Although Algiers remained a part of the Ottoman Empire, the Sublime Porte, or Ottoman government, ceased to have effective influence there.

The dey was in effect a constitutional autocrat, but his authority was restricted by the divan and the taifa, as well as by local political conditions. The dey was elected for a life term, but in the 159 years (1671-1830) that the system survived, fourteen of the twenty-nine deys were removed from office by assassination. Despite usurpation, military coups, and occasional mob rule, the day-to-day operation of government was remarkably orderly. In accordance with the millet system applied throughout the Ottoman Empire, each ethnic group--Turks, Arabs, Kabyles, Berbers, Jews, Europeans--was represented by a guild that exercised legal jurisdiction over its constituents.

The dey had direct administrative control only in the regent's enclave, the Dar as Sultan (Domain of the Sultan), which included the city of Algiers and its environs and the fertile Mitidja Plain. The rest of the territory under the regency was divided into three provinces (beyliks): Constantine in the east; Titteri in the central region, with its capital at Médéa; and a western province that after 1791 had its seat at Oran, abandoned that year by Spain when the city was destroyed in an earthquake. Each province was governed by a bey appointed by the dey, usually from the same circle of families.

A contingent of the ojaq was assigned to each bey, who also had at his disposal the provincial auxiliaries provided by the privileged makhzen tribes, traditionally exempted from paying taxes on condition that they collect them from other tribes. Tax revenues were conveyed from the provinces to Algiers twice yearly, but the beys were otherwise left to their own devices. Although the regency patronized the tribal chieftains, it never had the unanimous allegiance of the countryside, where heavy taxation frequently provoked unrest. Autonomous tribal states were tolerated, and the regency's authority was seldom applied in the Kabylie.


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