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MESA 2019 Talk: Ottoman Governors and Algerian Elites in Constantine, 1567-1837

MESA 2019 Talk: Ottoman Governors and Algerian Elites in Constantine, 1567-1837

This prosopographical study of Constantine’s provincial governors reveals the ways in which Ottoman governance worked on the ground and the essential roles that local Algerian notables played in the effectiveness of Ottoman administrators.

In 1713 Ottoman General Kelian-Hussein found himself in Constantine, Algeria to reestablish peace and preserve Ottoman sovereignty in the defiant region, but military acumen alone was not enough. Multiple governors had come and gone so frequently in the preceding six years that little, apart from their names, found its way into the historical record, and tribes in the Aurès Mountains were in full armed rebellion. Kelian’s first expedition to quell the mutiny met only embarrassing defeat at the hands of the locals. Nineteenth-century French Arabist, Ernest Mercier, attributed Kelian’s later military successes to his travels throughout the province and the increase in tax revenues from the south to fund further exploits.[1] This seems a reasonable explanation, but it elides the significant fact that Kelian married into one of the prominent Aurès tribes. Despite Ottoman strictures against such marriages, this became common practice in Constantine to shore up support among influential local leaders. Marriage into a prominent Algerian family provided an Ottoman official military and political backing that was essential to his success and longevity. Without such ties, provincial governors did not last long, often suffering dismissal or, increasingly in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, exile and assassination.

For many of Constantine’s governors, only traces of their history remain in eighteenth-century European travel narratives, nineteenth-century French and Arabic chronicles, and diplomatic records. Through reconstructing the details of their lives, I argue, first, that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, ethnicity, real and fictive kinship networks, and integration into Constantinois society determined the success and longevity of an Ottoman governor’s tenure in office. Secondly, my evidence shows that local Algerian elites contributed to both the selection and removal of governors in Constantine, demonstrating a greater role in Ottoman governance than hitherto recognized. Third, by the nineteenth century, a rising numbers of Kulughli governors suggests that the dual processes of Ottomanization and localization, observed in other Arab provinces, had finally taken root in Constantine in the last three decades of Ottoman rule.  Frequently overshadowed by the weight of French colonialism’s legacy, the Regency period remains an understudied era in the history of Algeria.

[1] Ernest Mercier, Histoire de Constantine (Constantine, Algeria: J. Marle et F. Biron, 1903), 245.

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