Fly Whisk Incident (1827)

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Diplomatic cause célèbre of 1827 in which the Algerian ruler, Husayn Dey, struck the French consul, Pierre Deval, with a fly whisk.

The Fly Whisk Incident was caused by friction over FrancoAlgerian business transactions dating from the late eighteenth century. In the 1790s, the French government customarily purchased Algerian wheat, most of it through two Jewish commercial families by the names of Busnach and Baqri. By the turn of the century, France owed these Algerian suppliers several million francs.

This debt remained outstanding at the time of Husayn's accession in 1818. It attracted his attention because both the Busnachs and the Baqris owed money to the Algerian government but insisted they could not afford to pay until they had recovered what was owed to them by France. When the French government arranged a financial settlement in 1820 that ignored the claims put forward by successive deys since 1802, Husayn concluded that France and his Jewish debtors had colluded to keep the money from him. In a further irritant to FrancoAlgerian relations, the vice-consul at Bône fortified several French trading posts in eastern Algeria in 1825, in direct contravention of existing treaties. Despite Husayn's complaints, the French government took no steps to reprimand its officials.

These tensions exploded in a meeting between Deval and Husayn on 29 April 1827. In the consul's version of the event, the session rapidly degenerated into an exchange of insults culminating with the dey striking Deval three times with his fly whisk and ordering him from the rooman accusation Husayn did not refute but justified on the basis of crude comments made by the consul about Islam and Muslims. Enraged by Deval's behavior, the dey rejected the French government's demand for an apology.

In retaliation, French warships instituted a blockade of Algiers, which Husayn countered by ordering the destruction of French trading posts in the country. The confrontation dragged on for more than two years, but the dey, backed by the Ottoman sultan and encouraged by Great Britain's consul in Algiers, refused to yield. His own corsair captains proved adept at running the blockade, which proved far more damaging to the Marseilles merchants engaged in trans-Mediterranean commerce than to Algerians. By 1828, businessmen from the south of France had begun urging the government to undertake a campaign against Algiers that would restore trade to its previous level. When the dey responded to a French invitation to send a negotiating delegation to Paris in the summer of 1829 by firing on a French vessel, the pressures on the French government to mount an expedition to Algiers peaked. With liberal deputies challenging his power, King Charles X viewed such an undertaking as a means of reasserting royal prerogatives and providing a distraction from domestic issues. The decision to invade Algeria was announced in March; the fleet sailed in May; and Algiers fell in July.

Although the need to avenge the dey's insult gave the monarchy a dramatic issue upon which it seized to rally popular support for an attack against Algeria, this contretemps was not as crucial a cause of the French invasion of Algeria as it has sometimes been portrayed. French commercial interests in North Africa and a last-ditch effort to shore up the monarchy by diverting public attention to an overseas adventure suggest that the encounter between Deval and Husayn was an excuse for, rather than the cause of, the events that followed.

See also Algeria: Overview; Baqri Family; Busnach Family; Corsairs.

Kenneth J. Perkins