The Land and Colonizers
Even before the decision was made to annex Algeria, major changes had taken place. In a bargain-hunting frenzy to take over or buy at low prices all manner of property--homes, shops, farms and factories--Europeans poured into Algiers after it fell. French authorities took possession of the beylik lands, from which Ottoman officials had derived income. Over time, as pressures increased to obtain more land for settlement by Europeans, the state seized more categories of land, particularly that used by tribes, religious foundations, and villages.
Soon after the conquest of Algiers, the soldier-politician Bertrand Clauzel and others formed a company to acquire agricultural land and, despite official discouragement, to subsidize its settlement by European farmers, triggering a land rush. Clauzel recognized the farming potential of the Mitidja Plain and envisioned the production there of cotton on a large scale. As governor general (1835-36), he used his office to make private investments in land and encouraged army officers and bureaucrats in his administration to do the same. This development created a vested interest among government officials in greater French involvement in Algeria. Commercial interests with influence in the government also began to recognize the prospects for profitable land speculation in expanding the French zone of occupation. They created large agricultural tracts, built factories and businesses, and exploited cheap local labor.
Called colons (colonists) or, more popularly, pieds noirs (literally, black feet), the European settlers were largely of peasant farmer or working-class origin from the poor southern areas of Italy, Spain, and France. Others were criminal and political deportees from France, transported under sentence in large numbers to Algeria. In the 1840s and 1850s, to encourage settlement in rural areas official policy was to offer grants of land for a fee and a promise that improvements would be made. A distinction soon developed between the grands colons (great colonists) at one end of the scale, often self-made men who had accumulated large estates or built successful businesses, and the petits blancs (little whites), smallholders and workers at the other end, whose lot was often not much better than that of their Muslim counterparts. According to historian John Ruedy, although by 1848 only 15,000 of the 109,000 European settlers were in rural areas, "by systematically expropriating both pastoralists and farmers, rural colonization was the most important single factor in the destructuring of traditional society."
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