Algerian Guerrilla War II: Les Portes de fer – The Iron Gates of Subjugation

Pictorial Reports from the Algerian Guerrilla War  II

After a series of devastating defeats against the insurgent Arab militias led by Abd el-Kader, the French tried to gain valuable time through the Treaty of Tafna to consolidate their military. The agreement, concluded in May 1837, granted Abd el- Kader sovereignty over the largest part of the hinterland, particularly the western provinces, and limited French control mainly to the strategically and economically important coastal region. While the capture of Constantine in fall of the same year had already been a blunt provocation (1),  two years later, in October 1839, a momentous violation of the treaty occurred when a military expedition led by Duc d’Orleans, the eldest son of Louis-Philippe, attempted to penetrate through the area of Abd el-Kader on a route from Skikda via Constantine to Algiers. It was a highly explosive symbolic act, since it was a targeted territorial violation of Arab sovereign rights and therefore manifested the French claim to all of Algeria. The peace treaty deemed a national disgrace by chauvinist factions in France was thus factually repealed.

Raffet / Hebert, Duc de Orleans, in: Journal de L’expédition des Portes De Fer. Paris 1844 (MePri-Coll.)

Raffet / Hebert: Journal de L’expédition des Portes De Fer. Paris 1844  (MePri-Coll.)

The course of the expedition, which resulted in a phase of total war between the colonisers and the indigenous population, was described a few years later in the travel report L’ Expedition des Portes de Fer. It was published in spring of 1844 and addressed the exclusive circle of the expedition members. The well-known writer and literary critic Charles Nodier, who was a close friend of the Duc d’Orleans, who had died shortly beforehand, was responsible for the text. The illustration work featured three of the most prominent exponents of artistic Orientalism, the two painters Adrien Dauzats and Gabriele Descamps and draughtsman Auguste Raffet. But the work was also a milestone in regard to reproduction graphics. Henri Bouchot, head of the graphic collection of the Bibliothèque nationale, described the illustrations in 1887, in a contribution dedicated to the history of French xylography, as the “peak of the first period” which was characterised by facsimile engraving. “The Portes de fer will forever remain the masterpiece in the history of modern French wood engraving.”(2) In more recent studies on the history of French xylography (3), it also appears as an important work of reference, since the best engravers of the time were involved in executing the 193 wood engravings, including forty full-page prints on China paper. Among them were Jean Emile Montigneul and Hippolyte Augustin Lavoignat, who were both outstanding landscape painters. Lavoignat worked in the context of the early-Impressionist school of Barbizon and later concentrated on reproduction engravings after works of his friends Corot and Daubigny. Césare Auguste Hébert and Jean Francois Delduc ranked among the most outstanding interpreters of French social realism, while an entire group of participating engravers including Adrien Lavieille, Antoine Piaud and Héliodore Pisan later distinguished themselves as seminal proponents of painterly clay engraving in collaboration with Gustave Doré.

That the work hardly receives art-historical attention anymore – with the exception of a study by American Orientalism expert Grant Crichfield4 – certainly has the least to do with its poor availability, as Crichfield presumes with a slightly ironic tone, but probably more with the indigestible political background. For the passage through the dark narrow pass of Les Portes de Fer in the Algerian Djurdjura Mountains, which the expedition had to surmount on their way from Constantine to Algiers, marked the beginning of one of the darkest chapters in European colonial politics. It was the most dangerous part of the journey, because the expedition was most vulnerable here and had to reckon with attacks by the Arab militias. Adrien Dauzats, the only illustrator who was also an eyewitness of the journey, immortalized the crossing of the “iron gates” in a series of watercolours and paintings that were presented to the Parisian audience in 1841. The picturesque images show the process of occupation and colonisation in a complex metaphoric style as a sexualised act of penetrating and domesticating an unruly nature, which appeared as yet untouched by any attested civilisational claims of ownership. Almost simultaneously, the British propaganda created a parallel icon of a colonial claim of ownership in the picture of traversing the Afghan Bolan Pass (5). In both cases, the successful end of a risky endeavour was judged as a positive omen for occupying the entire country.

Adrien Dauzats: Passage des Portes de Fer, fond du ravin, 1839 (Chantilly ; musée Condé)

Adrien Dauzats: Le Passage de Portes de fer en Algérie (Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille)

In L’ Expedition des Portes de Fer, Adrien Dauzats staged the nerve-racking passage in a sequence of five large-format engravings, forming the dramaturgical climax of the book. Both the scenery and the manner in which suspense is created through a sequence of landscape shots from shifted viewer perspectives are reminiscent of moments in a John Ford western, a genre whose subject matter, like Nodier’s expedition report, is the mythification of a territorial raid. Yet the pictorial programme of Nodier’s expedition report is by far not just a blunt apologia of colonial claims to power, as Grant Crichfield has shown in his analysis. Instead, many depictions subtly express the smouldering tensions and the cultural gap between the invaders and the local population. In stark contrast to the chauvinist grounding of the text, colonisation is shown here also as a hostile civilisational clash. In some cases, the illustrators even seem to take on an anti-hegemonic standpoint, for example, Gabriele Descamps’ engraving Arabs in embuscade, in which French soldiers on the hunt suddenly find themselves in the role of game threatened to be bagged by native guerrillas. The occupation of Algeria is illustrated in a much more multifaceted way than the propagandistic intention of the work leads one to assume. The extraordinarily balanced illustration was guaranteed by a type of cooperation that granted each of the three participating artists their own autonomous perspective on the colonial conflict.

Dauzats / Pisan: Journal de L’expédition des Portes De Fer. Paris 1844 (MePri-Coll.)

Auguste Raffet, who drew the models for more than half of the illustrations, was in charge of the narrative guideline relating the events of the expedition predominantly from the perspective of the invaders. He had already recommended himself through the two Constantine cycles and his illustrations for Leon Galibert’s Histoire de l’Algérie ancienne et moderne as a specialist for journalistically researched event graphics. In this case, as well, he was able to fall back on sketches by military draughtsmen and on the accounts of his friend Adrien Dauzats, whom he had extensively questioned on botanical and geographical details. He owed his exact knowledge of the constitution of the French military machinery and its troop movements to repeated study stays at the military training area of Compiégne near Paris. (6)

Auguste Raffet: Journal de L’expédition. Paris 1844 (MePri-Coll.)

Due to his extensive travels, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps had become one of the most intimate experts on the Maghreb and the Berber cultures. He was responsible for representing the autochthonous perspective and, as a former staff member of Philipon’s La Caricature magazine, also possessed the required sense of subversive humour to counter the hegemonic tenor of the work. Finally, Adrien Dauzats, who was in charge of the underlying illustrational concept and supervised the work after the sudden death of the author Nodier, created the authentic setting in his illustrations, against the background of which the two contrary perspectives encountered each other.

Decamps / Montigneul, Arabs in embuscade, in: Journal de L’expédition. Paris 1844 (MePri-Coll.)

Dauzats / Pisan: Journal de L’expédition. Paris 1844 (MePri-Coll.)

“The art of subjugating a people consists in making oneself popular with them.” (7) That was the concluding comment on the expedition report in face of the enthusiastic reception that was given to the participants when they arrived in Algiers. Immediately after the expedition, which passed without serious consequences, there was still reason for guarded optimism, but when the work was printed this was definitely no longer the case. Just a few weeks later, Abd el-Kader responded to the targeted violation of territorial sovereign rights by proclaiming jihad. His adversary, governor-general Thomas Bugeaud who was experienced in guerrilla warfare, reacted with a series of excessively violent measures and a strategy of scorched earth, as it had been practiced since the early 1830s by the North American army against insurgent Indian tribes. With their terrorist measures, Bugeaud and his generals even exceeded the level of atrocities of the American Indian wars.

French troops attacking an Arab encampment, The Illustrated London News, 1846 (MePri-Coll.)

For in the mid-1840s, Bugeaud’s generals Cavaignac, Pélissier and de Saint-Arnaud began suffocating entire Berber tribes with carbon monoxide in their hideouts in the cave region of the Dahra Mountains. According to research conducted by Asia Djebar, far more than two thousand tribe members of the Sbéah and the Ouled Riah were killed.(8) “Smoke them out like foxes,” was Bugeaud’s order involving these genocidal measures which had been made public in a meticulous report by Pélissier. But the subsequent parliamentary investigation which the governor-general had to face in Paris led to no disciplinary measures. Yet it did not remain hidden to the outraged public that the 1834 massacre of Parisian workers’ families in the Rue Transnonain, which was attributed to Bugeaud by the republican side, along with the gassing operations in the Dahran Mountains marked a new dimension of authoritarian state terror against civilians. In both cases the victims were “Arabs” or “Bedouins”, for these pejorative terms were used by the upper classes to subsume not only the unemployed and vagabonds, but all kinds of rebellious subjects.

The victims of the Parisian massacre had found their pictorial chronicler in Daumier and his republican publisher Philipon. The Dahran tragedies, on the other hand, remained pictorially concealed. Even the Francophobe British press avoided the visual reconstruction of the events. Among imperial competitors, colonial crimes were regarded as mere peccadilloes that were mutually forgiven. Only the notorious grouser and critic of colonialism, Walter Savage Landor, dared to dress the events in an artistic form in his Imaginary Conversations, thus preserving them for posterity.(9) The most widespread French illustrated paper, L’Illustration, in its report on the parliamentary investigation of the Dahran events, decided in favour of a topographical depiction of the region, which in its stressed objectivity and harmlessness was just about the opposite of the picturesque drama unfolded in Dauzats’ Portes de Fer graphics.(10) While in Dauzats the darkness of the narrow pass was set in the picture as a magnetic attraction that was to be conquered, the darkness of the Dahran cave in the L’Illustration picture remains dull and trivial so that, if possible, no emotional afterimage can be associated with it.

Grottes du Dahra en Algérie, L´ Illustration 1845 (MePri-Coll.)

To the extent to which a liberal public in France and abroad averted their eyes in disgust from the excessive violence of the Algerian governor-general Bugeaud, his reputation as a specialist in unconventional and effective guerrilla war strategies rose with the military. Particularly Prussia began taking interest in his teachings on mobile warfare and a reordering of the system of outposts.(11) The expert and apologist of French colonial policy, Alexis de Tocqueville, who had travelled through Algeria in 1841 and 1846, was an advocate of Bugeaud’s “new science” of total war. Yet as much as he esteemed the tough actions of the French Africa army, he was frightened by the thought of  “what to do with such a large number of men when they return to us.”(12) The Algerian War was a school of cruelty and unscrupulousness, and de Tocqueville by no means wanted to see its students in French politics. But precisely that occurred when in 1848 representatives of the Second Republic, including de Tocqueville himself, granted the notorious general Louis-Eugène Cavaignac dictatorial powers to quell the socialist workers’ uprising in June of the same year with unprecedented atrocities. He had three thousand insurgents, who were armed in a makeshift way, surrounded and gunned to death by his artillery. Numerous survivors were subsequently executed and more than one thousand were deported to Algeria. In this way, the war criminal Cavaignac, who along with Bugeaud was the actual inventor and first practitioner of the gassing strategy, became the executor of the power interests of the Parisian upper classes.(13)

L´ Illustration, 1848 (MePri-Coll.)

What was directly inspired by the success of Cavaignac’s Algerian method were the bloody counterrevolutions, which were later staged in rapid sequence throughout Europe, modelled on the crushing of the Parisian June uprising. The pictorial reports of the Algerian guerrilla war, for example, were directly continued in the depictions of the massacre of 1848 and the accounts of the bloody May week of 1871, when 30,000 communards were massacred in Paris upon the order of the interim state president, Adolphe Thiers á la Cavaignac. A further war criminal of the French Africa army, Armand-Jacques-Leroy de Saint-Arnaud, who had also “distinguished” himself in crushing the June uprising, struck a brilliant pose as the chief military strategist of the coup d’état of December 2, through which Bonapartism, revitalised by the campaigns of the Algerian War, was able to reinstall itself. The new Emperor Napoleon III created a metropolis to his autocratic taste, which was to be clearly structured and easy to control. This restructuring of Paris was inspired by Thomas Bugeaud’s Algerian anti-guerrilla measures, by means of which he had large parts of the labyrinthine Kasbah of Algiers demolished for the sake of enhanced controllability and permeated by a network of broad avenues. Bugeaud drew up his urban surveillance recipes, in which he also fell back on the experiences of the revolution of 1848, in the seminal study “La guerre des rues et des maisons.” (Paris 1849)

The attempts to civilise exterior Africa led to measures aimed at domesticating an interior Africa which decisively determined the political structures of the imminent era of a new imperialism. The Portes des Fer marked the entrance into an iron pass possessing global dimensions. They had a symbolic power that went far beyond that which the propagandists of the June monarchy had intended.

Poursuite des insurges, L´ Illustration, 1848 (MePri-Coll.)

L´ Illustration, 1849 (MePri-Coll.)

 L´ Illustration, 1849 (MePri-Coll.)

Poursuite des insurges, L´ Illustration, 1848 (MePri-Coll.)


1  Alexander Roob: Pictorial Reports from the Algerian Guerrilla War  I: La Prise de Constantine – Pictures of Dynamized Masses and the Art of Reconstruction. MePri-Archive

2  in: Carl von Lützow: Der Holzschnitt der Gegenwart in Europa und Nord-Amerika. Vienna 1887, p. 143

3  Pierre Gusman: La gravure sur bois en France au XIXesiècle.Paris 1929/ Remi Blachon: La Gravure sur bois au XIXe Siècle. Láge du bois debout. Paris 2001

4 Grant Crichfield : “Apologia and ambiguity. Text and image in the Journal des Portes de fer” in Peripheries of Nineteenth-Century French Studies ; Views from the edge, Newark/ London 2002, pp. 84-102.

5 In the year of the Algerian expedition Les Portes de Fer, a huge British invasion force with ca. 60,000 troops advanced to Kandahar via this pass during the course of the first Anglo-Afghan war. In this case, as well, the occupiers made similar devastating experiences with an Islamic resistance organised by Wasir M. Akbar Khan.

6  Two longer study stays of Raffet in the manoeuvre area of Compiégne in September 1836 and October 1841 are confirmed.

7  “L´art de soumettre un peuple, c´est celui de s´en faire aimer.”

8 Assia Djebar, “Fantasia”, Zurich 1990, p. 98 ff. / Barnett Singer and John Langdon, in their apology of Bugeaud from 2004, “Makers and Defenders of the French Colonial Empire”, arrive at a much lower number of around 600 victims, but concede that it was a common practice of the French Africa army.

9 “Every child of Islam, near and far, roused by the conflagration in the cavern, will rush forward to exterminate the heartless murderers.” from: Marshal Bugeaud and an Arab Chief, in: The Works of Walter Savage Landor. Vol. II. London 1853. /  On Landor’s influence on William James Linton see: Alexander Roob: On the Cadaver of the Father of Supranationality. / Vom Kadaver des Vaters der Überstaatlichkeit – A further reading of Linton´s “Cetewayo and Dean Stanley” Conversation. MePri-Archive 03/13/2011 (https://meltonpriorinstitut.org/pages/textarchive.php5?view=text&ID=88&language=English)

10  L´Illustration Vol.1845 II, p. 425

11 In 1842 the Prussian military strategist General Carl von Decker, after visiting Bugeaud, published his book “Algerien und die dortige Kriegführung.” In addition, German translations of Bugeaud’s writings had been published since 1850.

12  Alexis de Tocqueville, “Travail sur l’Algérie” (1841), cited in the German translation: A. d. Tocqueville: Kleine Politische Schriften, ed. by Harald Bluhm, Berlin 2006, p. 126ff

13  On the influence of the Algerian extermination strategy on the crushing of the revolution of 1848, see: Olivier LeCour Grandmaison “Coloniser, Exterminer – Sur la guerre et l’Etat colonial,” Paris 2005, p. 308 ff.

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