Excerpt: Empire and Catastrophe

Spencer D. Segalla is a professor of history at the University of Tampa. He is the author of The Moroccan Soul: French Education, Colonial Ethnology, and Muslim Resistance, 1912–1956 (Nebraska, 2009). His new book, Empire and Catastrophe: Decolonization and Environmental Disaster in North Africa and Mediterranean France since 1954 (Nebraska, 2021) was published this month and is a part of the France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series.

Introduction

Almost four years after the French Algerian city of Orléansville was devastated by an earthquake in September 1954, the Franco-Algerian playwright Henri Kréa published a play that presented the seismic disaster as a harbinger of a painful but necessary decolonization. Kréa, a.k.a. Henri Cochin, son of a French father and Algerian mother, was an advocate of Algerian independence, and the struggle for decolonization was still underway when Kréa wrote Le séisme: Tragédie. The Algerian Revolution, which had begun just weeks after the earthquake, would not achieve the independence of Algeria from French rule until 1962. In the intervening years, North Africa and France would be wracked by a series of disasters: seismic aftershocks and years of brutal warfare in Algeria, a dam collapse in France, a mass poisoning, and another catastrophic earthquake in Morocco.

Kréa’s play, begun in 1956 and published in 1958 in both Paris and Tunis, was explicitly anti-imperialist. The play builds on the synchronicity of the Orléansville earthquake and the nationalist revolution that began a few weeks later. Yet Kréa’s play purports to render chronology irrelevant: Le séisme opens with a recitation of major earthquakes of the 1900s, from Calabria in 1905 to Orléansville in 1954, and then juxtaposes these disasters, particularly the Orléansville earthquake, with an ancient narrative of anti-colonial resistance in North Africa: the second-century BC rebellion of the Numidian king Jugartha against Roman occupation. The geoenvironmental disaster of 1954 was linked to colonial violence through the category of malheur (misfortune, woe); the revolution of 1954 was linked to antiquity through the theme of oppression and anti-colonial rebellion.

At the outset, the play’s portrayal of natural disasters is intertwined with its portrayal of Roman/French colonialism in North Africa. The prologue begins with a voiceover explaining geological theories of earthquake production and then turns to antiquity, with the Romans invading North Africa like “locusts that periodically swoop down to bring famine to fertile Numidia.” After the prologue, however, the ancient setting abruptly dissolves, and the focus of the first act of the play (“Episode 1”) shifts to the 1954 earthquake as the play turns to the relationship between the seismic and political events in modern Algeria. Revising a trope that geographer El Djamhouria Slimani Aït Saada has traced back to the colonial discourses of the nineteenth century, Kréa portrayed a country battered by misfortune. Earthquakes, war, floods, locusts, and the tragedy of death in childbirth all converge in the suffering of the Algerian people. The choir chants in the final passage of the play:

This country, crucible of men of all origins of all poetic destinations

Collides

With clatterings of fire

With the deaf rhythm of blood

Flowing in streams

Like a flooding river

Breaking the dikes of the narrow valleys. . . .

The eternal wave of generations . . .

Crushed by the cosmic pestle

Of misfortune.

However, this grim finale, as well as the play’s subtitle—Tragédie—contradicts the dominant narrative of the play, which portrays the earthquake as a vehicle of salvation.

At first, the earthquake seems to sweep away the injustices of colonialism, offering death as the only liberation. However, the pessimism of the Old Man’s interpretation of the disaster is superseded by a vision of hope through catharsis, communicated at the end of “Episode 1” in a voiceover that reinforces the relationship between the seismic and political upheavals in Algeria: “Understand that the earth shook at the same time that the people arose from their torpor.” Thus the moral righteousness of the struggle for liberation gives meaning to all other forms of suffering. In Kréa’s play, the earthquake is not just a portent of the coming revolution, it is also retribution:

All the dead howl and stir in concert, these fields and these villages that were stolen from them. The trees open to battle the convoy of sacrilege. Nothing different, the insects, stones, man. Their planes like sharks are drowned by the welcome invasion of locusts. Their arms are of no use.

One disaster avenges another, and if the colonized suffer, the colonizer is also weakened. The earthquake is a disaster not only for the long-suffering Algerians but also for the French; as such, it is the first strike against empire. The varieties of catastrophe that afflict humanity blur into one another: sharks and aerial bombardments; childbirth and epidemics; earthquakes and locusts. Yet there is order and meaning in this litany of suffering:

The great day has arrived

With its procession of misfortunes

But misfortunes are good for something

For example the general suppression of misery

The resurrection of grand sentiments

Certainly One must die of hunger . . . to be human

The earthquake, and the war, serve a purpose: the liberation and redemption of the Algerian people.

Kréa’s association of French colonialism with natural scourges like sharks or locusts portrays individual human actors as overwhelmed by a situation they neither understand nor control. The French occupiers are confused, struggling to follow an imperial ideology but bewildered by the realities of colonial North Africa. Believing in the good works brought about by colonialism but pelted by children throwing potatoes “larded with razor blades,” the soldiers ask why their beneficence is welcomed with such hostility, even from the earth itself: “the stones themselves ruminate with menace.” Ultimately, the colonial situation leads the occupiers to extremes of evil. A soldier who was a surgeon in France, saving lives, becomes a torturer in Algeria, disemboweling prisoners. Another soldier speaks with regret of two children he slaughtered “like partridges”; another gleefully recounts the story of a humanist professor who spoke of ethics until he came under fire, at which point he became “as savage as a cannibal,” getting drunk and “thinking only of raping little girls.” This brutality, the play suggests, stems from colonial occupation; French intentions and the idea of a civilizing mission are irrelevant: they cannot mitigate the brutal nature of colonialism any more than they can alter the movement of tectonic plates.

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