“A Slave Between Empires: A Transimperial History of North Africa” by M’hamed Oualdi

Dar Husayn, Tunis via (Wikimedia Commons) Dar Husayn, Tunis via (Wikimedia Commons)

Husayn ibn ‘Abdallah, more usually known as General Husayn, died in Florence in 1887. Born in Circassia in the late 1820s, he was sold as a slave to agents of the bey of Tunis, raised and trained there, ultimately rising to hold some of the most senior positions in the government.

Husayn was one of the last mamluks, the peculiar institution in which children were  taken as slaves and raised to be warriors and soldiers, and which persisted, evidently, well into the 19th century, surprisingly close to the present day. He was born when the Caucasus was part of an Ottoman/Persian area of influence and died when the Russians had pushed well into Anatolia. His world was multilingual and multicultural in a way that seems unimaginable now: Circassian, Arabic, Turkish, French, Italian.


A Slave Between Empires: A Transimperial History of North Africa, M'hamed Oualdi (Columbia University Press, February 2020)
A Slave Between Empires: A Transimperial History of North Africa, M’hamed Oualdi (Columbia University Press, February 2020)

Husayn’s life would surely make a terrific story. But that is not the book that M’hamed Oualdi has written. In A Slave Between Empires, Oualdi wants to use Husayn’s life (and death) as a case study to argue that


historians must transcend any vision of a modern history of the Maghreb [Western North Africa] perceived solely through the prism of European colonization… It argues for a reinterpretation of the modern period, and of colonialism itself, based on a careful study of what preceded and overlapped with European colonialism in North Africa from the 1880s until the 1920s—namely, the Ottoman provincial culture developed on the southern shores of the Mediterranean for more than three centuries… The book therefore advocates for an entangled history of the Maghreb written not only by European colonial powers but also by provincial Ottoman people.


As a non-specialist, it never would have occurred to me that this was a point that needed demonstrating. Those not concerned with this specific question, however, will find that Oualdi has pulled back the curtain on a number of fascinating personalities and situations.

At the political level is Tunisia itself. This was a time of considerable political transition: Europeans were picking apart the Ottoman Empire: in 1881, France made Tunisia a protectorate.


In 1881, the subjects and dignitaries of the former Ottoman province of Tunis were deeply affected when the French occupied their country, putting an end to three centuries of Ottoman rule. French colonial rule weighed heavily on Tunisians’ minds. Even their bodies seemed to register the blow. Far away, in the Italian city of Florence, the health of former Tunisian dignitary Husayn Ibn ‘Abdallah deteriorated.


Yet, like Husayn’s own life, things were not quite that simple. Another view (admittedly not one deployed in this book) is that from the perspective of the locals, one imperial overlord was replacing another. But by the 19th century, Ottoman suzerainty over Tunisia was more nominal than real and Oualdi often refers to the “Tunisian state”. Sometimes “Ottoman” and “Tunisian state” are used in the same sentence:


The Ottoman administration faced serious financial issues: the Tunisian state went bankrupt in 1867… In this new economic context, Husayn and other landlords in Ottoman Tunis had to cope with the International Finance Commission, a new institution implemented in 1869 to manage Tunisian public debt.


The beys, the rulers of Tunis (until 1957), were actually of Turkish-Cretan origin. Oualdi mentions but does not explore the multiple loyalties and identities that subjects of a multi-polity, multi-cultural empire, must have held in various degrees: Muslim, Arab, Tunisian, Ottoman or any of the other ethnic groups that circulated through Ottoman lands, the Circassian-born, Arabic-speaking Husayn himself being a case in point.


Part of Husayn’s identity was his background. Although “Husayn had no difficulty labeling himself a ‘mamluk’,”


even mamluks like Husayn started to redefine themselves not as personal servants or slaves of the Ottoman governors of Tunis, but as civil servants.


Ironically, when the United States was considering the abolition of slavery during the Civil War, Tunisia was one place they turned to for advice. The US consul in Tunis, Amos Perry, wrote the bey on the subject, wondering


“whether its abolition was met by Tunisians with sorrow or with joy” and “which of the two kinds of service has been proved by experience to be more suitable, compulsory service, i.e., the service of slaves without pay, or voluntary service, i.e., service for specific pay.”


It fell to Husayn to reply. He noted that


Nowadays, countries where full liberty exists and no enslavement is permitted are more prosperous than other countries.


When Husayn died, however, there was a considerable legal tussle over his estate due to his prior status:


By the end of his life, Husayn was an emancipated slave who was no longer married and had no recognized descendants. In such a situation, according to Islamic law, Husayn could only bequeath his estate to his former master and his family—that is, to the Ottoman governor of Tunisia and his dynasty.


That would have been ‘Ali Bey, but the French, as the new rulers, thought (with no apparent sense of irony of their own) that they had certain rights regarding the estate.


Several other personalities make their appearance. One is Angiolina Fortunata Bertucci, who worked in his household in Tuscany and with whom Husayn had a child. She moved to Tunis, converted and married. Angiolina’s daughter with Husayn, also converted, married a Tunisian and moved to Istanbul. The pull of the empire was still palpable even in the 20th century.

Another is Léon Elmilik, an Algerian Jew and naturalized Frenchman, and Husayn’s former right-hand man when Husayn was representing the Tunisian state’s interests from Italy. Oualdi has much to say about North African Jews, but Elmilik individually is almost the book’s protagonist. He turned against his erstwhile employer, claimed he was owed money for services rendered, pilfered some documents from Husayn, and after Husayn’s death, filed lawsuits hither and yon, and catalysed international incidents.

Oualdi has set out “an entangled history” indeed, one worthy of non-academic treatments, if not novels or a movie or two.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.