In 1865, an overly aggressive missionary in the Kabyle mountains of French Algeria was tricked into sitting in human excrement, publicly humiliated by the tribe he hoped to convert. Or was he? Historians of French Algeria have recounted this story as confirmation of the scholarly consensus: that public missions to Muslims were either nonexistent or delusional and short-lived in the early decades of French Algeria. But these historians have relied on a version of the incident that was authored by an unsympathetic military administrator. This article argues that the excremental incident in Kabylie—and the competing versions of what happened there—should be understood as a site of contestation between missionaries and militaires over ethnographic authority, over who had the right to speak for the Kabyles. The incident also became a site of competing discourses about the role of religion in Muslim society and in the civilizing process. While missionaries wanted to convert indigenous Algerians to Christianity, they nevertheless admired and wanted to maintain what they perceived as the Muslims’ natural religiosity. Military administrators, conversely, insisted that while Algerians should not be pressured to convert, they should be taught to domesticate and interiorize their religious sentiments. Missionary efforts to convert Algeria’s Muslims were more frequent and sustained than previous scholarship has allowed. And although they may have been unsuccessful, these efforts generated a fertile but hitherto neglected archive of how French Catholics have thought about Islam, and of how Algeria’s Muslims exploited and navigated between missionaries and militaires.
Journal of Modern History
(2021). Honor, Excrement, Ethnography: Colonial Knowledge Between Missionary and Militaire In French Algeria. Journal of Modern History, 93(1), 34-67.
Available at: https://aquila.usm.edu/fac_pubs/18893