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Title: Surfacing Indigenous Perspectives on the French Conquest of Algeria in a Graduate DH Course
Description: In response to a scandal involving a fly swatter, as well as local social and political turmoil, France invaded Algeria in 1830 and eventually colonized the former Ottoman territory. The history of France’s 132-year occupation of Algeria is fraught and complicated, and most studies approach it from a single perspective – that of the conquering French, while scholars often struggle to access non-French primary and secondary sources. This presentation showcases the many possibilities that DH offers to de-center and decolonize the historical narrative by demonstrating how graduate students used text analysis and network visualization to uncover and share the complexity of Algerians’ identities, roles in society, and diplomatic relationships between 1830 and 1847.
Algeria was a complicated, heterogeneous world in the mid-nineteenth century, but much of that complexity is lost in colonial record. As part of the reclamation of this history, it is important to provide both students and scholars the chance to interact with Indigenous sources. Through the memoir of Ahmed Bey, Algerian governor and resistance leader, students learned both close and distant reading techniques, as well as how to structure unstructured data and use social network analysis to better understand his world.
By integrating the aforementioned methods, the students developed greater empathy for Ahmed Bey and the Algerians, as well as a deeper understanding of the intricate web of relationships, motivations, and evolving alliances during the French conquest. By organizing information about the actors that Ahmed Bey described, as well as their religion, place of origin, ethnic identities, allegiances, and actions, the students began to understand the socio-political landscape and how it shifted over time in response to the incursion of the French. Through careful analysis of Ahmed Bey’s social network, they grappled with the complicated choices that Algerians faced as they sought to flee, resist, manipulate, or negotiate with the French.
As students experimented with network visualizations in Palladio and analyzed the memoir with Voyant Tools, they shared their questions and conclusions on their individual websites. Making their findings openly available and accessible increases the academic material available in English on the French colonization of Algeria. What is more, their digital scholarship surfaces Indigenous perspectives and voices, and continues the important work of repositioning Indigenous people at the center of this historical narrative. These projects reveal how DH research methods can enable students to develop a nuanced understanding of Indigenous cultures and make meaningful contributions to the scholarly conversation.