Areia de Salamanca: The Razzia in the 16th century

5 February 2015

I borrowed Braudel’s discussion of the presidios on the North African coast yesterday to reflect on logistics… But as I read on, there was also the counterinsurgency element against the colonials (about which Braudel seems remarkably sanguine; remarkably without comment):

 Let us imagine the atmosphere in these garrisons. Each was the fief of its captain general, Melilla for many years that of the Medina Sidonia family, Oran that of the Alcaduete family; Tripoli was ceded in 1513 to Hugo de Moncada for life.  The governor reigned with his family and the lords who surrounded him. The favourite pastime of the rulers was the razzia, the planned sortie combining sport with work, and, it must be admitted, strict necessity: it was the duty of the garrisons to police the surrounding districts, protecting their inhabitants and dispersing intruders, collecting pledges, gathering information and requisitioning supplies. Necessity apart however, there was a certain temptation to play soldiers, to lay ambushes in the gardens of Tunis and kidnap unsuspecting farmers arriving to pick fruit or harvest a field of barley; or beyond the sebka at Oran, by turns glistening with salt or covered with water, to surprise douar, the presence of which had been betrayed by hired spies.  This was a more exciting, more dangerous and more profitable sport than hunting wild animals.  Everyone had their share of the booty and the Captain General sometimes took the ‘Quint’ or royal fifth, whether in grain, beasts, or humans.  Sometimes the soldiers themselves, tiring of their everyday fare, would go off in search of adventure, from a desire for fresh food, or money, or simply out of boredom.  In many cases, such raids naturally prevented the establishment of vital good relations between the fortress and its hinterland if, as they were intended to, they spread wide the terror of the name of Spain. Contemporary judgements are far from unanimous on this point.  We must strike hard, says Diego Suárez, and at the same time be accommodating, increase the number of Moros de paz [pacified Moors], the subdued populations who took shelter near the fortress and in turn protected it.  ‘Cuantos más moros más ganancias’, writes the soldier-chronicler, repeating the old proverb that the greater the number of the Moors, the greater the profit –in grain, everyday foods, and livestock. But was it possible to refrain from striking, terrorizing and therefore driving away the precious sources of supplies, without destroying what was by now the traditional way of life and pattern of defence of the presidios, the development, by persuasion or by force, of a zone of influence and protection as indispensable to the Spanish presidios as it was to the Portuguese presidio in Morocco? Without it the fort would have suffocated.

What struck me most forcefully about this passage when I read it last night was not just how degraded the use of the word “peace” was even then (those of us who work on Israel/Palestine sneer when we hear that word; for it means nothing but charlatanry and the consolidation of the asymmetric power of the settler).  It is also two other things: first that the razzia was what the Spanish did in the 16th century. Bugeaud When I was working on my counterinsurgency book, of course I read loads about the razzia as the French used it in the conquest and pacification of Algeria.  Thomas Rid’s “The Nineteenth Century Origins of Counterinsurgency Doctrine” for example argued that “The razzia, a tactic introduced by the French in North Africa around 1840, first thrust tribal populations into the focus of modern operational thinking.” And in his “Razzia: A Turning Point in Modern Strategy,” Rid argues that

The razzia, a tactic of swift and brutal raids used by the French military against recalcitrant tribes in Algeria in the 1840s, was a necessary step in modern military thought. At first glance the destructive and violent razzias stand in stark contrast to the constructive and non-violent bureaux arabes—an institutional ancestor of Provincial Reconstruction Teams. But both were developed in the same conflict and by the same men. These two innovations, this article argues, were also flipsides of the same coin: what today is called war ‘‘among the people.’’ The razzia consequently appears as a necessary historic precursor for contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine.

I myself didn’t make such primary claims for the French invention of razzia. I wish I had known that the Spanish had used it so extensively, rather than thinking of it as a local practice.  But in any case, as I wrote, the French deployed razzia with little reservation:

In the French version of the razzia in Algeria, the French forces “chopped down fruit trees, burned settlements and crops, and seized livestock. Few of the region’s numerous Arab villages escaped destruction. What once had been hillsides ‘teeming with rich crops’ were transformed into blackened wasteland”(quoting Gottman, “Bugeaud, Gallieni, Lyautey,” 236). The razzia served mundane functions (the plunder of crops and cattle alleviated logistical problems of supplies), strategic aims (it destroyed the local bases of the economy), provided the French with prisoners who were used as “barter to pressure the tribe in question into submission,” and terrorized the population (quoting Sullivan, Bugeaud, 123). When even the razzia was not sufficient, an officer serving Bugeaud ordered his subordinates to “kill all the men over the age of fifteen, and put all the women and children abroad ships bound for the Marquesas Islands or elsewhere. In a word, annihilate everyone who does not crawl at our feet like dogs” (quoting Rid, “Razzia,” 620).

So much hearts and minds then!