Power Struggles

Commodification of Resources

One might expect Algiers’ Economy to dominate a large portion of the book as one primary reason for colonization is to extract wealth for the benefit of the colonizer. However, commerce is described only sparsely and only when it pertains to the already existing sections. To the casual reader, it might appear as if Lambert Playfair realized after finishing the book the absence of this information and carelessly attempted to paste it into what he deemed the appropriate sections. To others, it may suggest that Lambert Playfair was instead catering to the visiting tourist over the potential settler yet this is contradicted with the exceptional detail with regards to every other facet of life in Algeria. Instead, Lambert Playfair utilizes tourism as a guise in which to examine the zoology, mineralogy, forests, and fauna with the true intent of commodifying the natural resources of Algeria.

At first glance it may appear as the literature on the natural elements of Algiers is to tout their beauty to the prospective tourist. In reality, the majority of Lambert Playfair’s examinations of nature are intended to highlight profitable business opportunities. When fish are examined in the Zoology section, it is not to discuss the qualities of those unique to Algiers but instead to examine the economic benefit that can be extracted. “Algeria contains twenty-one species of fish, none of which are much value from an economic point of view, with the exception of two species.” Furthermore, forests are described in a similar manner. The trees examined in fine detail are those that provide “the most valuable timber” including the Cork Oak and the sweet acorn oak which “produces a large harvest without labor or expense.” Like the anti-conquest narratives of old, rather than use scientific exploration as the means in which to extend the empire, Lambert Playfair utilizes a guidebook as a means or excuse to innocently examine the natural world. But this examination is not for the purposes of tourism and the enjoyment of Algeria but rather for the commodification of that which is described within the handbook. While the segmentation of the natural elements in the book appears rather innocent, it is in fact divided in such a way to highlight the various ways in which to profit from nature.

Lambert Playfair continually downplays the types of commerce that can’t be advantageous for the western settler. The way that Lambert Playfair only briefly describes native commerce (because it lacks any future) furthers the idea that that which is important is not the current economy but the potential economies to be created by the western settler. While he states that the Arabs “reckon their wealth by the number of camels they possess,” the only real business that Lambert Playfair legitimately acknowledges the natives partaking in is the exportation of sheep to France. Yet, what’s more, there is the likelihood that this is not included because of its importance to Algeria’s economy but because it implies to the settler another source of income. When discussing the “boundless” wealth of the mineralogy found on Algiers, it is not to simply educate but to highlight that the proportion of certain “metals in the ore are sufficient to enable it to pay a heavy freight to Europe.” In complete opposition with the traditional tour guide, Lambert Playfair highlights potential revenue sources that not only benefit the individual but the colonizing nation as well. Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Algeria and Tunisia is aptly named as it suffices less as a way in which to guide the tourist but more so as a way in which to provide potential business opportunities to the prospective westerner by commodifying Algeria’s land for its resources and its people for their labor. (HC)

Encounters with local Algerians, or lack thereof

One might be hard-pressed to find evidence that the author of or those contributing to Murray’s Handbook interacted with any locals — encounters of any kind seem to be entirely omitted from the guidebook. The absence of such interactions perhaps says more about the intention of the guidebook as a whole: a guide to colonize Algeria. To unpack what makes this true, we must consider the distinction between encounters and observations. Lambert Playfair describes in a myriad of ways how Algerians looked, how they conducted business, and the way they dressed, but it should be noted that these act as a stand-in for person-to-person encounters. Because the early modern tourist pursued the exotic while assuming the role as their own documentarian, tourists felt it unnecessary to view foreign inhabitants as anything other than a prop of the scenery. Instead of conversations, personal interactions, or perhaps lesser-known customs being included in the guidebook, it reads as an instructional for how to watch from afar, relegating locals to something akin to a science experiment. This trend is of course perpetuated by the fact that nearly all travel writing subscribed to the documentarian mentality, and most, if not all, travel writing failed to include or encourage interacting with locals.

Yet, people, mainly Algerians, are not entirely excluded in the Algerian narrative. Our understanding of the distinction between encounter versus observation allows us to reconcile this about Murray’s Handbook. Any instances resembling encounters can be found in a description of religious rituals in St. Eugene, wherein Lambert Playfair sensationally details glass-eating and erratic dancing. It’s not clear if the author does anything besides merely watch the rituals, but regardless chooses to omit any “encounter” from the description. For Europeans traveling abroad, it would behoove them to include the most bizarre and phantasmal as a means to garner interest in a potential site for settlement.

These rituals, to Murray’s firm, are as vital to the empire’s colonial project as are the geography, agriculture, and fauna of Algeria. They are vital to the colonial project because the people themselves are considered as exploitable as the raw materials themselves as evidenced by the degradation of local culture, economy, and politics as empires moved in to settle. The routes at the end of the guidebook hardly describe any locals either despite advertising multitudes of villages to explore. Again, the people can only occupy the space of the spectacle in the eyes of the European tourist, and when they are not in that space, they’re absent.

One route in particular includes a passage through the town of Mansoura, a small Kabyle village. Lambert Playfair paints this picture for the reader, “Many wild violets grow in the neighborhood and are brought by Kabyle boys as the train passes” (169). The focus here is hardly the boys themselves, but rather the flowers they carry to our the passenger. We do not know if the author accepts the flowers, nor if he even speaks to the Kabyle boys. The only thing we can ascertain is that the violets seem worthier of attention, and that the Kabyle boys, like the rest of Lambert Playfair’s Algerians, are once again relegated to mere spectacle, a part of the backdrop for the passing train.

Power Struggles