Observations of Local People: The Kabyles

“The Kabyle character lends itself more readily to social progress than that of the Arab: he is less distrustful, more industrious, and less disposed to that life of lazy indifference which is characteristic of the latter. He is surrounded on all sides by European colonisation, and willingly frequents the farms of colonists in search of work; while the greater part of the Arabs live in isolated tribes, and have rarely an opportunity of seriously appreciating the advantages of civilisation.”

Sir R. Lambert Playfair, author of the Murray's Guide, writes this of the Kabyles, a Berber ethnic group who inhabited the mountains of Northern Algeria, in the Population & Races and Languages sections of Murray’s Hand-book. He presents them from the outset as sharing blood and other traits with Europeans because of their genetic history and “fair complexion, blue eyes, and red hair.” And throughout the guide, he pits the Kabyles against the Arabs, criticizing Arab customs which oppose European ones and complimenting the Kabyles’ similarities to Europeans. For example, he states that Arab tribes’ collective rather than individual land ownership “prevents good cultivation or any hope of increased civilisation amongst the Arabs.” These descriptions employ paternalism: Lambert Playfair’s deep contempt for Arab customs is justified by his interest in bringing them to “civilization,” which he believes their customs prevent.

Phrases like “Kabyle character” and Arab “disposition” in the above quote also provide a veneer of scientific objectivity to his description of these ethnic groups. Yet this language conceals imperial interests. As is stated elsewhere in the guide, the English author and his audience have an interest in establishing commercial relationships with -- and economic power over -- natives of Algeria. Thus Lambert Playfair’s note that Kabyle people are more “trustful” is useful to colonizers because it advises them on who to trade with and employ: Kabyles rather than Arabs.

Edward Said famously argued that Orientalism creates the colonized country as a foil to a colonizer’s identity. Thus these descriptions go even further than simply advising businessmen and plantation owners on who to employ; they instruct its readers on the superiority of English and other European societies to Northern African societies.


Observations of Local People: The Kabyles