Yet little in English has been written on the history of Algiers and popular and academic histories do little to question the view of Algiers as portrayed by Goodwin. It remains a musky, sweaty den of pirates, where both white and black captives tremble under the might of a piratical predatory Islam. This survey counters this impression and seeks to offer an initial introduction to Ottoman Algiers in the early modern period by outlining its political development and attempting to define its geography, people and economy.
The re-capture of Algiers in 1525 by the corsair Hayreddin began three centuries of Ottoman control of the port city and its kingdom.4 In 1513, following the execution of their patron by Sultan Selim I, Hayreddin and his elder brother Uruç had fled the Aegean and commenced privateering in the western Mediterranean.5 By 1519, they ruled Algiers and Tunis but confronted by local political opposition and Spanish forces had requested support from the Sultan to consolidate their territory.
Though Algiers was temporarily lost to Spain, by 1525 a permanent Ottoman presence had been established in the territory and Hayreddin began organising its military control through the introduction of Janissary troops from Anatolia. Combined with the multi-ethnic ta’ifa (community of seamen), these constituted a foreign military ruling group named the ujaq. The ujaq would continue to dominate Algiers until the French conquest in 1830.6
The first official appointment by Istanbul to Algiers was Hayreddin’s son, Hassān, who in 1544 was given the title beylerbey and was installed as the governor of the Ottoman regency. This institution lasted until 1587 when the governorship of the regency was reformed and triennial periods of office were established under a pasha appointed by Istanbul, to whom a military council, the diwan al-‘askar, served as an advisory body.7
Throughout the sixteenth century, Algiers was the centre of Ottoman power in the Maghreb and a base from which both offensive and defensive operations against Habsburg Spain were undertaken. In August 1580, this conflict drew to a close and Ottoman aggression towards Spain declined as Istanbul’s attention was drawn to southeast Europe.8
This new direction in policy significantly altered the strategic importance of Algiers within the Ottoman Empire and Algiers developed into a ‘semi-autonomous’ state.9 The Sultan continued to send pashas to Algiers but in 1659 the commander of the Janissaries, the agha, took control of its government claiming the pashas were corrupt and their methods of rule were hindering the development of relationships with European states.
Only four aghas would rule Algiers. In 1671, a rebellion of ra’ises, the regency’s naval commanders, led to the assassination of Agha ‘Ali and the formation of the institution of dey, who now held ultimate authority in Algiers. The dey continued to be appointed by the ra’ises until 1689 when the office was directly elected by the Janissaries.10
Istanbul’s pashas now held little power but the Sultan remained the symbolic head of Algiers. Constitutionally, the dey’s power was separated from the Janissaries who now numbered an estimated 12,000 men in the regency.11 A process of succession was developed in which the dey’s first minister, the khaznaji (state treasurer), was recognized as his successor. Following him was the agha. When the khaznaji became dey, the agha became khaznaji. It was hoped that this would enable a smooth succession to authority. However, the period between the 1680s and first decade of the 1700s witnessed many rulers and was characterized by assassinations and expulsions. In 1711, Sökeli Ali Bey took control of the political system and created his own dynasty within it. He combined the roles of pasha and dey into a system of rule that lasted until 1830.12
The dey controlled the beylik (state) of Algiers which was a military oligarchy. Under him, the agha governed the Dar al-Sultan, the territory surrounding Algiers and three beys (military governors) were responsible for the security of and taxes raised in three beyliks (provinces): the beylik of Constantine, the beylik of Tittare and the beylik al-Gharb. In addition to these beyliks an officer was appointed to administer the valley of the Sibaw in Grand Kabylia. His title was qa’id, which was given to all commanders of the districts into which each beylik and the Dar al-Sultan were divided. The authority of the dey was supported by military garrisons formed by both Janissary troops and auxiliaries from the makhzan tribes stationed throughout the regency. These tribes were exempted from taxation and in return supported the local garrisons and the authority of the dey.13
Algerian society was both rural and tribal with distinct regional contrasts. Eastern Algeria was most populous and agriculture dominated. Western and southern Algeria were pastoral. Further south, in the mountainous areas of Kabylia, Wanshiris and Awras, villages practiced both agriculture and arboriculture. In 1830, having occupied Algiers, French estimates of the major coastal towns of Constantine, Oran and Tilimsan gave their populations as between 10,000 and 25,000. Algiers was the largest urban centre and had expanded significantly under the Ottomans when it is likely to have reached 100,000 inhabitants. Overall in 1830, the regency’s population was estimated to have been 3,000,000 of which 95% lived in rural areas.14
Algiers ran a trading defecit and a large number of goods were imported from Tunis and Morocco. Constantine and Tilimsan were established centres of internal trade and were sites on the traditional caravan routes but Algiers’ income came principally from piracy and taxation. However, surrounding the urban areas extensive farming enabled wheat exports to Europe in the eighteenth century. Agricultural production was taxed via the ‘ushr (tithe) and a gharama (indemnity) was raised upon the income of pastoralists. Further taxes were generated from rural areas. The lazma (obligation) or ma’una (support) was paid to finance war against Christians and the beys were required to send the dannush (present) to Algiers every six months from each of their provinces.15
In the early years of Ottoman rule the city of Algiers was weakly fortified but was quickly transformed into an ‘impregnable fortress’ and a secure naval base.16 In the early sixteenth century, migration from Andalusia accounted for a steep rise in population and accelerated Algiers’ economic and military growth. It also ensured a deep enmity against Spain that was exacerbated following the deportation of 50,000 Moriscos after the ending of the War of the Alpujarras in 1570. These Spanish Muslims integrated with Ottomans, Jews, Christian converts to Islam, Berbers and Christian slaves to form a multi-ethnic society of which the Spanish immigrants formed the majority group.17 The final expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain, between 1609-1614, further enlarged this population and increased existing hatred toward Spain.
Piracy was a monopoly of the state and a minister, the wakil al-khari, was responsible for its supervision.18 The profits generated from captured ships, cargoes, crews and passengers were a significant income source for the ruler and members of the government, in addition to private individuals and organisations. In this Algiers was little different to other contemporary maritime states. The al-jihad fi’ l-bahr (holy war at sea) against Christian shipping and coasts shaped the nature and scope of these operations especially following Andalusi immigration.19 During the seventeenth century, as the intensity of Ottoman/Spanish aggression declined, the ujaq continued to depend on the profits derived from piracy and their loyalty to Algiers’ government was inextricably linked to its successful prosecution.
In summary, in the early modern period the state of Algiers was ruled by a foreign occupying power. Appointees from Istanbul held authority until 1659 when a military coup transferred power to the Ottoman forces garrisoned throughout the regency. Increasingly, these troops began to shed the influence of Istanbul. The beylik of Algiers was organized through a system of provinces led by military officials, whom backed by superior forces, guaranteed support and taxation from indigenous tribes. Ottoman/Spanish conflict in the western Mediterranean had led to intervention in Algiers and this shaped the foreign policy of its land and naval forces. Following a decline in Ottoman aggression, the final expulsion of the Moriscos revived this conflict, a policy that would find much support among the ujaq who were motivated by both religion and profit. Though the beylik exported wheat to Europe in the eighteenth century, its primary source of income remained piracy. It was this that dominated its encounters with European states.
The state of Algiers was therefore a complex interaction of ethnic groups and political interests. It was much more than the ‘nest of pirates’ offered by Goodwin. Though state sponsored piracy, like most early modern maritime states, was a great source of income, the city of Algiers was also home to over 100 mosques in the seventeenth century.20 To approach Algiers without seeking to understand it as a city and a state, is to follow a long tradition of orientalist writing. If we wish to accurately understand European relations with Algiers, we cannot neglect the historical context and realities of this early modern state. Hopefully, initial introductions such as this are a start.
- Goodwin, J. (1998) Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. London: Random House UK Limited, p.126.
- Colley, L. (2002) Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850. London: Jonathan Cape. Matar, N (2014). British Captives from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1563-1760. Boston: Brill. Parker, K. (2004) ‘Reading ‘Barbary’ in Early Modern England, 1550-1685’, The Seventeenth Century. Volume 19, Issue 1.
- Morgan, J. (1728). A Complete History of Algiers: Volume I. London: J. Bettenham p.ii.
- Abun-Nasr, J. (1987) A history of the Maghrib in the Islamic period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 151.
- Fleet, K. ‘Ottoman Expansion in the Mediterranean’ in Faroqhi, S. and Fleet, K (ed.) (2013) The Ottoman Empire as a World Power, 1453-1603. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 141.
- Abun-Nasr, J. (1987) pp. 153 and 158.
- ibid., p.153.
- Ibid., p.153.
- Imber, C. (2009). The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p.1.
- Abun-Nasr, J. (1987) pp. 160.
- ibid., p.159.
- ibid., p.160.
- ibid., p.164.
- ibid., p.161.
- ibid., pp. 161-165.
- Missoum, S. ‘Andalusi Immigration and Urban Development in Algiers (Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries)’ in Garcia-Arenal, M. and Wiegers, G. (ed.) (2013) The Expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain: A Mediterranean Diaspora. Valencia: Publicacions de la Universitat de Valencia, p. 333.
- ibid., p. 341.
- Abun-Nasr, J.(1987) pp. 165.
- ibid., (1987) pp. 159.
- ibid., (1987) pp. 162.