Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


French protectorate on the northern coast of Africa

Click to enlarge

Tunis, French protectorate on the northern coast of Africa. About the twelfth century before Christ Phoenicians settled on the coast of what is now Tunis and founded colonies there, which soon attained great economic importance. Among them were: Hippo Zarytus, Utica, Carthage, Hadrumetum, and Tunes. Ultimately all these cities were obliged to acknowledge the suzerainty of Carthage, which ruled a territory almost as extensive as the present Tunis. The fall of Carthage, B.C. 146, made the Romans masters of the country, which as the Province of Africa became one of the granaries of Italy. Numerous ruins of palaces, temples, Christian churches, amphitheatres, aqueducts, etc., which are still to be found, give proof of the high civilization existing under Roman sway. Christianity also flourished at an early era. In 439 the country was conquered by the Vandals, and in 533 Belisarius retook it and made it a part of the Eastern Empire. The supremacy of Constantinople was not of long duration. First the Patrician Gregorius, Governor of North Africa for the Emperor Heraclius, proclaimed his independence. However, on the incursion of the Arabs from the East, Gregorius was overthrown in 648 by the Arabian commander Abdallah, who returned to Egypt with enormous booty. In 670 the Arabs again entered the country, conquered Biserta, and founded the City of Kairwan in the region beyond Susa. In 697 they also took the City of Carthage, up to then successfully defended by the Eastern Empire, and reduced it to a heap of ruins. Tunis, a town formerly of small importance, now took the place of Carthage in commerce and traffic. When the Ommayyad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbassids, almost all Africa regained independence, and it was not until 772 that the caliphs again acquired control over it. Caliph Haroun al Raschid made the vigorous Ibrahim ibn el Aghlab Governor of Africa, but in 800 Ibrahim threw off the supremacy of the caliphate. Kairwan remained the capital of the Aghlabite Kingdom, which embraced Tripoli, Algiers, the greater part of Tunis, and also the Arabic possessions in Sicily and Sardinia. The last of the Aghlabite dynasty made Tunis the capital of the country, and gave the name of the city to the entire country. In 908 the Aghlabite dynasty was over-thrown by Obeid Allah, founder of the dynasty of the Fatimites, which in the course of the tenth century conquered the whole of North Africa. After the conquest of Egypt the Fatimites transferred the seat of their power to Cairo and gave the regions in Western Africa in fief to the Zirite family in 972.

From the middle of the twelfth century Tunis was ruled by the Almohade dynasty, which, weakened by its struggles with the Christian kingdoms of Spain, was driven out of Tunis in 1206 by a Berber, Abel Hafs, who founded the dynasty of the Hafsites that ruled until 1574. In 1240 Eastern Algeria was united to Tunis. Thus in the course of time the great centralized Arabic Empire was replaced in North Africa by several independent states, such as Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis. In this way the strength of Islam, as contrasted with that of Christian Western Europe, was weakened, and the Christian countries were now able to prepare to attack the Mohammedan power. Thus, King St. Louis of France undertook a crusade against Tunis in 1270 which was unsuccessful; Louis himself died the same year during the siege of the City of Tunis. During the last centuries of the medieval era Tunis was the most flourishing of the North African countries; the cities of Tunis and Kairwan were centers of Eastern civilization and learning.

The rule of the Arabic Emirs in Tunis was over-thrown by the Turks. Turkish corsairs led by the Greek renegade Horuk Barbarossa appeared in the western part of the Mediterranean about 1510. By gifts they won over the ruler of Tunis, Mulei Mohammed, who permitted them to make the City of Tunis the base for their piratical expeditions. In a short time Horuk Barbarossa gathered a large fleet manned chiefly by Turks, and became master of the City of Algiers and several towns along the African coast. His brother, Khair al-Din Barbarossa, increased these possessions on the coast and sought to give his conquests permanence by placing them under the suzerainty of the Porte. When disputes over the succession to the throne arose in the Hafsite dynasty, Barbarossa skillfully used the opportunity to over-throw Mulei Hassan and to make himself the ruler of Tunis. Mulei Hassan appealed to the Emperor Charles V, who responded by landing near Carthage with a fleet, capturing Tunis and Goletta in July, 1535, and liberating nearly 20,000 Christian slaves. Mulei Hassan was restored to power in Tunis as a Spanish vassal, but was obliged to promise to suppress Christian slavery in his domain, to grant religious liberty, and to close his ports to the pirates. As a pledge Spain retained the citadels of Tunis and Goletta, which it garrisoned. On the way home the Spanish fleet completed the destruction of Carthage, but failed in an attack on Algiers. Mulei Hassan, who was hated by his people, was overthrown in 1542 by his own son Mulei Hamid. When in 1570 the Turks entered Tunis from Algiers Mulei Hamid appealed to Spain for aid, and as a result Tunis was captured by Don Juan of Austria in 1573. Jealous of his half-brother, however, King Philip recalled him and offered no resistance when the Turks conquered the entire country in 1574. Thus the military supremacy of the Turks was established in Tunis. The real masters of the country were the Turkish garrisons, beside whom the dey, appointed by the Sultan as the possessor of the highest authority, was a mere shadow. As early as the administration of the third dey, the bey, Murad, originally an officer to collect the tribute, gained the chief authority for himself and made it hereditary in his family.

Like Algiers and Morocco, Tunis developed in this period into a much dreaded pirate state, The Tunisian galleys sailed along all the coasts of the Mediterranean, devastating and plundering. They stopped foreign ships on the open sea and dragged them as prizes to Tunis, where the cargo would be discharged and the crew and passengers sold as slaves. For a long time Christian Western Europe did nothing to put an end to this impudent piracy. Although the English Admiral Blake in 1665 burned nine large Tunisian pirate ships in the harbor of Porto Farina, yet, as the struggle against the pirates was not continued, no permanent improvement of conditions was attained. At a later date treaties were made between Tunis and the powers interested in commerce in the Mediterranean. Venice, Spain, Portugal, England, Holland, Denmark, and even the United States paid an annual tribute to Tunis. In return Tunis bound itself not to attack the ships that sailed under the flag of the treaty-making powers. For two hundred years Europe endured this nest of pirates. For Tunis it was a brilliant period in which enormous treasures accumulated in the country, and during which the supremacy of the Porte was almost nominal.

The nineteenth century completely altered the situation. Sharp resolutions against piracy in the Mediterranean were passed by the Congress of Vienna and England was authorized by the powers to enforce these resolutions by sending a fleet against the piratical countries. In 1816 Lord Exmouth, by the bombardment and partial destruction of the City of Algiers, forced the ruler of Algiers to put an end to Christian slavery. The terrified Bey of Tunis also promised to do the same, yet, in spite of this, Christian ships were repeatedly attacked by Tunisian vessels. When in 1830 the French began the conquest of Algiers, Tunis at first aided the Algerian leader Abd el Kader, but in retaliation the French forced Tunis to suppress piracy completely, to yield an island on the coast, and to pay a sum of money. Alarmed at the danger from France, the Porte now sought to form closer relations with Tunis and to make the country an immediate Turkish province. These efforts, which were successful at that date in Tripoli, failed in Tunis on account of the opposition of French diplomacy. In order to be better able to maintain his position in regard to the Porte, the Bey Sidi Ahmed (1837-55) entered into closer relations with France, and even tried to introduce western reforms; in 1842 he abolished slavery, and in 1846 the slave-trade. Under French and English influence his cousin Sidi Mohammed (1855-59) introduced liberal legislation and reorganized the administration. His brother Mohammed es-Sadok (1859-82) even gave the country a liberal constitution in 1861, but had to withdraw it owing to the opposition of the Arabs and Moors. His extravagant tastes forced the bey to borrow money, thus bringing him into financial dependence on France, which showed more and more undisguisedly its desire to control Tunis. However, the Franco-German War (1870-71) forced France to restrain its hand.

In 1871 the sultan granted the hereditary right to rule according to primogeniture to the family of the bey and abandoned all claim to tribute, in return for which the bey promised not to go to war without the permission of the Porte, and to enter into no diplomatic negotiations with foreign powers. France protested against this and would not recognize the suzerainty of the Porte over Tunis, but could not enforce its protests. In the years succeeding the foreign element in Tunis constantly gained in importance, and the Italian Government, especially, sought to acquire a strong economic position in the country. France began to fear that she might be outwitted by Italy in Tunis, so in 1881 she used the disturbances on the boundary of Algiers and Tunis as a pretext for military interference. In April, 1881, in spite of the protests of the bey and the Porte, an army of 30,000 French soldiers advanced from Algiers into Tunis, and readily overcame the resistance of the tribes. A French fleet appeared before the capital, and a squadron landed at Biserta a brigade which advanced against the City of Tunis from the land side. Unable to oppose this force, the bey was obliged to sign on May 12 the Treaty of Kasr el-Said, also called the Bardo Treaty, which transformed Tunis into a French protectorate. The revolt of the native tribes against the French was crushed in the years 1881-82. Although at the beginning of the expedition France had declared that the occupation would only be a temporary one, yet ever since then the French have remained in the country. Economically the control by an European power has proved advantageous to the country. Mohammed es-Sadok was succeeded by his brother Sidi Ali Pasha (1882-1902), who was followed by his son Sidi Mohammed.

The regency of Tunis has an area of 45,779 sq. miles and contained, in 1911, 1,923,217 inhabitants, of whom 1,706,830 were natives, 49,245 Jews, 42,410 French, 107,905 Italians, 12,258 English and Maltese, 1307 Spanish. Politically, Tunis forms a French protectorate; France represents the country in foreign relations, makes all the treaties with foreign powers, decides as to peace and war. In return it protects the bey against any threatened attack upon his land and guarantees the state debt. In internal affairs the bey has nominally the legislative power, but decrees and laws are not valid until they have received the Signature of the resident-general representing the French Government. The budget is not submitted to the bey for his approval until it has been discussed by the ministerial council and examined by the French Government. The resident-general is the representative of the French Government at Tunis, and is subordinate to the French minister of foreign affairs. He unites in his person all the authority of the French Government, is the official intermediary between the Tunisian Government and the representatives of foreign powers, is the presiding officer of the ministerial council, and of all the higher administration of Tunis. He can veto the actions of the bey, and in case the bey fails to act he can order the necessary regulations or open the way for them. The ministerial council consists of the resident-general, two native ministers, and seven French ministers; the council settles the most important matters and especially determines the budget. The two native ministers direct internal affairs, the administration of justice for the natives, and the supervision of the landed property of the natives. The other branches of the administration are directed by the French ministers. The administration of justice is a double one: all legal disputes in which Europeans are concerned are settled by French law; the natives are under Mohammedan law. As regards the Catholic Church Tunis forms the Archdiocese of Carthage; cf. also the article .


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!