Prof. Brower recipient of 2009 prize by The Society for French Historical Studies
Assistant Prof. Benjamin C. Brower is the recipient of the best book on French history by The Society for French Historical Studies (SFHS).
Posted: April 9, 2010
Assistant Prof. Benjamin C. Brower
Brower's book is entitled, A Desert Named Peace, The Violence of France's Empire in the Algerian Sahara, 1844-1902, (Columbia University Press, July 2009). He will receive the SFHS's David H. Pinkney Prize at the society's 56th annual convention at Arizona State University, April 8-10, 2010.
The prize is named after the internationally renowned historian of French history, David H. Pinkney, who was a founder of the SFHS. The $1,500 prize and certificate is awarded annually. The subject of the book can be on any period of French history and must be authored by a North American scholar.
A Desert Named Peace is on the mid-nineteenth century French colonial period. It examines the French colonial leaders in Algeria who started pushing southward into the Sahara setting off a 50-year period of violence. Lying in the shadow of the colonization of northern Algeria, which claimed the lives of over a million people, French empire in the Sahara sought power through physical force as it had elsewhere.
"Based on extensive archival research in France and Algeria and an innovative interrogation of sources, this book demonstrates that the French conquest of Algeria was from its beginnings shaped by violence and domination," Dr. Sarah Curtis wrote in the citation as chair of the selection committee. "It moves easily among political, military, and intellectual history, eschewing simple dichotomies in favor of a nuanced, layered analysis.
"In its consideration of the persistence of slavery and the pan-African slave trade especially, it breaks new ground in French colonial and Algerian history.... In its geographical focus and choice of subjects, this book both broadens and deepens our understanding of the Franco-Algerian encounter in the nineteenth century."
A Desert Named Peace examines colonial violence through multiple stories and across several fields of research. "Violence in the Algerian Sahara followed a more complicated logic than the old argument that it was simply a way to get empire on the cheap," Brower explains. It presents four case-studies:
- the military conquests of the French army in the oases and officers' predisposition to use extreme violence in colonial conflicts,
- a spontaneous nighttime attack made by Algerian pastoralists on a French village, as notable for its brutality as for its obscure causes,
- the violence of indigenous forms of slavery and the colonial accommodations that preserved it during the era of abolition, and
- the struggles of French Romantics whose debates about art and politics arrived from Paris with disastrous consequences.
This book charts new ways of thinking about the violence of colonialism in historical terms. It shows that colonial violence was not always about the force of France’s military campaigns or the uprisings of Algerians fighting oppression (the “Wretched” as Franz Fanon named them), even as it was strongly linked to this basic struggle.
This book stresses the unexpected and overlooked examples of violence in the colonial period. These include the violence of indigenous slavery, the violence imbedded in Algerian Sufism’s paths to authority, and the dangerous implications of French Romantics’ fascination with a desert sublime.
"It offers much-needed background for contextualizing the brutality of the Algerian war of independence (1954-62), as well as Algeria’s ongoing internal war between the government and armed groups fighting in the name of an Islamist revolution, a war that began in 1992," Brower said.
A Desert Named Peace of which the title comes from the Roman historian Tacitus’s account of the conquest of Britain—(“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”)—this book shows the devastation of France’s Saharan empire.
The role of violence in colonial conquests has been in the public eye since European powers first embarked upon modern empire with what Rudyard Kipling famously called the "savage wars of peace." For many decades historians have generally accepted the idea that violence and colonialism go together.
And in recent years, public figures ranging from the neo-conservative author Max Boot to President Obama have shown that they share a fundamental belief in Kipling’s idea that violence can bring something called “civilization.” Brower argues, "This book marks a departure from such thinking."