Abd el-Kadir

The Algerian political and religious leader Abd el-Kadir (1807-1883) was the first national hero of Algeria. In 15 years of armed struggle against the French occupation of Algeria, he became a symbol of tenacious resistance to colonialism.

In May 1807 Abd el-Kadir was born in the province of Oran into a famous family of marabouts (holy men). He received a traditional education and mastered the subtleties of Islamic theology. At the end of his adolescence he visited Mecca and several Middle Eastern countries. The trip greatly influenced his development.

In November 1832, 2 years after the French occupation of Algiers had begun, the Algerian tribes designated Abd el-Kadir to conduct a holy war against the invaders. At the age of 24 this pious marabout became transformed into an energetic and highly capable warrior. In the struggle that followed, his vision was always more religious than nationalistic, but his example helped forge the embryo of the Algerian nation.

Abd el-Kadir's first task was to unite under his authority tribes torn by internal rivalries and others content to collaborate with the invaders. French errors facilitated his task: in an 1834 treaty they recognized Abd el-Kadir's sovereignty over the province of Oran and gave him the arms and the money to consolidate his power.

Once Abd el-Kadir felt strong enough, he revolted against the French, who reacted in 1836 by sending to Algeria the 19th-century master of counter insurgency warfare, Marshal Bugeaud de la Piconnerie. Bugeaud defeated his adversary but proved to be a better soldier than a diplomat, since the Treaty of Tafna (1837), which he negotiated with Abd el-Kadir, extended the control of the marabout over a portion of the province of Algiers.

During the following years Abd el-Kadir reorganized the territory under his command and founded a theocratic state. He set up an administration, organized a regular army, levied taxes, and created an arsenal. By 1839 two-thirds of Algeria acknowledged his sovereignty.

Disturbed by his success, the French government again ordered Bugeaud to contain the upstart. Abd el-Kadir was defeated and took refuge in Morocco. The French used his presence there to declare war against the Moroccans and defeated them at the battle of Isly in 1844. Abd el-Kadir returned to Algeria and organized the resistance anew. Abandoned by his followers and declared an outlaw by the Moroccan sultan, Abd el-Kadir surrendered in 1847.

He ended up in a French prison, where he remained until 1852, when the French allowed him to retire to Damascus. In 1865 he refused the offer of Napoleon III to become the viceroy of Algeria. In 1870 he condemned the insurrection of the Algerian Kabyle Berbers. Abd el-Kadir died in Damascus on May 26, 1883.

Further Reading on Abd el-Kadir

The most complete biography of Abd el-Kadir in English is Wilfrid Blunt, Desert Hawk: Abd el Kadir and the French Conquest of Algeria (1947). An older study is Charles Henry Churchill, The Life of Abdel Kader (1867). Background information is contained in G. B. Laurie's military history, The French Conquest of Algeria (1909).