The Archive Box #5: Chasing Archives in Ottoman Tunis

By Youssef Ben Ismail, Harvard University

The Archive Box is a series featuring global urban historians reflecting on their archival experience, and on the practical and theoretical challenges they faced while working with a variety of archives in different cities across the world.

What happens to the sovereign status of a polity when it is the object of a global imperial rivalry, and how do the archives of its capital city tell this story? From the French colonial heritage of the Tunisian National Archives to the multilingual informal correspondences of Tunisians across the Ottoman Mediterranean, Youssef Ben Ismail takes us through Tunis’ Ottoman archives, wrestling the city away from archetypal imperial representations, and revealing deep contestations over this North African past.

My research examines the imperial rivalry between France and the Ottoman Empire in nineteenth-century North Africa, with a particular focus on modern-day Tunisia. In 1830, French troops conquered Algiers. Five years later, and partly in reaction to the French conquest, the Ottomans established direct rule over Tripolitania (modern-day Libya), which was previously ruled by a local dynasty. The small Tunisian polity found itself squeezed between these two newly-occupied territories and cornered between two global empires. What was the sovereignty status of this polity in the nineteenth century?

The challenge with this project is that different actors give entirely different answers to this question. After they conquered Algiers, the French sought to extend their imperial influence eastward, treating Tunis as a sovereign and independent kingdom in order to sever it from the global politics of the so-called “Eastern Question.” For the Ottomans, however, Tunis was an imperial province, albeit one led by the governors of the Husaynid dynasty, known as Beys. Was Tunis an independent kingdom or an Ottoman province?Approaching Tunis’ sovereignty status by asking an “either-or” question is not generative – and yet that is exactly how French and Ottoman statesmen sought to portray the situation. They went to great lengths in order to depict Tunis in a way that was consonant with the imperial policy of their respective governments, even when those policies relied on claims that were mostly aspirational. 

As a result, the French and Ottoman governments produced official archives that portrayed Tunis as opposite ideal-types, neither of which really accounted for the nuances of what reality looked like on the ground. This in turn had a tremendous impact on the conventional historiography of nineteenth-century Tunis. Relying almost exclusively on French archives, this literature took France’s claims about Tunisian independence at face value. It adopted the arguments of nineteenth-century French diplomats about the “fictional” nature of Ottoman sovereignty in Tunis.

Cartoons representing a Tunisian historian chasing Ottoman history in order to re-write the history of nineteenth-century Tunis (Hatem El Mekki, L’Action, ca. 1950s)

Around the middle of the twentieth century, prominent French historians such as Robert Mantran and Charles-André Julien urged their colleagues to study the history of nineteenth-century Tunis using Tunisian and Ottoman archival sources. This was a period of great hope for Tunisia. The country had recently gained independence from France in 1956 and the new government immediately opened its precolonial archives to researchers. In 1960, Mantran was invited to write a full inventory of Ottoman Turkish documents found in Tunisian archives. The future of Ottoman Tunisia, as it were, looked bright! In subsequent decades, however, these sources remained largely untapped. Tunisian universities never taught Ottoman Turkish, and the nationalist historiography found the traditional French-leaning historiography quite convenient: by dismissing Ottoman sovereignty claims over Tunis, nationalist historians were able to write a history of national independence that extended back into precolonial times. Ironically, their agenda was identical to that of imperial France.

Though the Tunisian archives house a wealth of documents produced by the Tunisian government in the nineteenth century, they are essentially a colonial invention. After France established a protectorate over Tunis in 1881, French colonial authorities re-organized the archives of the precolonial Tunisian government in a way that fit their policy regarding Tunis’ precolonial independence. Files were re-named and organized thematically in order to conform to this view: one such file was named “Tunis’ desire (velléités) of independence vis-à-vis the Ottoman Empire.” Files containing documents pertaining to Tunisian-Ottoman relations mysteriously disappeared or were partially stripped of their content. The file that was supposed to contain the official correspondence between the Tunisian government and the Ottoman grand vizier features several inventories made by precolonial Tunisian officials, yet only a fraction of the documents listed in these inventories are actually included in the file.

Precolonial inventory of the official letters received from the Ottoman grand vizier (Tunisian National Archives, H/220/343)

How does one write a history of Ottoman Tunis in light of this archival predicament? In my work, I try to read these archives against the grain. I look at claims made in French diplomatic archives as evidence of France’s efforts to further its own policy and try to understand the processes by which it erases the bits of the story that do not fit its imperial doctrine. As for Tunisian national archives, I take them for what they are: a palimpsest containing important documents pertaining to the history of Ottoman Tunis, but one that still bears the traces of the French colonial intervention.

Practically speaking, that means wandering away from the archival beaten paths and looking into corners of the collection that may have eluded French colonial scrutiny. For instance, I spend a lot of time reading the prolific correspondence between the Tunisian government and the informal agents it maintained in various Ottoman cities such as Izmir, Alexandria, or Tripoli. These agents wrote long reports about all things relevant to Tunis but their letters are difficult to read. They often include a mix of nineteenth-century Arabic, colloquial Tunisian dialect, and Ottoman Turkish administrative jargon. In addition, they are written in a cursive form of North African (Maghribī) script which is unlike Arabic scripts found elsewhere.

Letter from ʿUmar al-ʿAbrī, the Tunisian agent in Istanbul, written in colloquial Tunisian and in Maghribī script (Tunisian National Archives, H/223/392)

Most importantly, I triangulate French and Tunisian sources with documents from the Ottoman state archives in Istanbul. They have proven to be a wonderful resource for the study of nineteenth-century Tunisian history. Ottoman archival documents shed light on the position of the Ottoman government vis-à-vis Tunis, thus providing an essential counterpoint to French claims.

These archives still house many letters exchanged between the Husaynid governors and the Ottoman government – most of which are absent from the files of the national archives in Tunis. These letters are telling. The so-called “desire of independence” which the French sought to ascribe to the Tunisian polity, is simply not there. In contrast, the Husaynid governors portrayed themselves as faithful provincial administrators. Of course, this does not mean that they were any more truthful in their exchanges with Istanbul than they were in their letters to Paris. The aim should not be to replace the French narrative about Tunisian independence with the Ottoman narrative about Tunisian provinciality. Rather, these documents help us trace the nuances of Tunis’ position and how the Husaynid government navigated the tumultuous waters of the French-Ottoman rivalry.

Letter from Muḥammad al-Ṣādiq Bey to the Ottoman government (Ottoman State Archives, İ..DH.. 760/62002-03

Youssef Ben Ismail is a historian of Ottoman North Africa. His work examines the legal, social, and cultural manifestations of Ottoman sovereignty in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripolitania from the early eighteenth to the early twentieth century. He is completing a dissertation at Harvard University on the history of the French-Ottoman imperial rivalry over sovereignty in Tunis between 1830 and 1914. Beginning in fall 2021, he will be a fellow in the Columbia Society of Fellows and a lecturer in the MESAAS department. His article on the cultural history of the fez trade in the early modern Ottoman Mediterranean will be published in 2021 in Muqarnas.

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