Jacob Lasry (1793-1869), a North African Jewish merchant, offers a useful optic for reevaluating Jews' role and influence in pre- and early-colonial North Africa, as well as the early effects of colonialism on the society and economy of the small Mediterranean port of Oran. Against traditional accounts that emphasize the pre-colonial desolation of Oran and the precarious status of most Algerian Jews, this study underlines Oran's nascent revival, as well as the influence, dynamism, and worldliness of Jews such as Lasry in late Ottoman/early colonial Oran. French forces actually relied on local North African talent (such as Lasry) not only to help finance and coordinate the conquest, but even to direct some of colonialism's "ideological" work, such as bringing local Jews into the French orbit. By following these threads, this study offers an unprecedented "personal" account of French colonialism in Algeria.
This chapter recounts Oran's history over the longue durée. It speaks of a city situated on the northern coast of Africa, but also on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Oran was a creation of Spain and southern Europe as well as of Tlemcen, the Sahara, and the African sources of goods that lay beyond it. Indeed, in the first century or two of its existence, Oran owed its existence to its proximity to the Iberian Peninsula. The westernmost section of the Mediterranean, stretching from Cape Tenès in the east to the Straights of Gibraltar in the west, has been described as a medieval "Ibero-African English Channel," linking North Africa and Spain with a constant flow of commercial ships. Oran's dependence on larger circuits of western Mediterranean commerce would continue into the nineteenth century.
2Rebuilding Oran: Jews, Beys, and Commerce, 1792-1830
After 1792, the regency of Algiers invited Jews and Muslims to settle in Oran, opened Oran to the interior, and reopened the Iberian peninsula to products shipped from Oran. As a result, many of the late medieval commercial links discussed in the last chapter were renewed, with Oran increasingly seeing ships arrive from Iberian, European, and other North African ports. Drawing on commercial records of and consular notes from the years before the conquest, this chapter argues that late Ottoman Oran was well integrated into the economic life of the western Mediterranean and showed signs of growth. This runs counter to a colonial historiography that emphasized its pre-colonial marginality and insignificance. Jewish merchants were key to this small port city's commerce and society.
3Making Money in a Time of Conquest
This chapter offers a fresh perspective on the onset of French colonialism. Rather than seeing the French conquest of Algeria as ending a static old order and initiating a modern, integrated, and dynamic (if oppressive and racist) new order, this chapter argues that the French military presence in the Maghreb interrupted commerce and spread confusion and violence to Oran. Focusing on a business deal that the merchant Jacob Lasry attempted to carry out in this chaotic early period shows how North African Jewish merchants, as well as western Algerian traders more generally, were not simply victims or hapless observers of the French conquest. Rather, men like Lasry continued to operate in the upper echelons of Oran's commercial life and push back on policies that harmed their interests.
4Struggles For and Between the Merchants of Oran
This chapter explores a series of rivalries between Jewish merchants whom in order to illuminate the intricacies of Jewish power and identity in Oran at the dawn of conquest. It illustrates the remarkable power of certain Jewish merchants in Oran and highlights the serious conflicts that erupted between them. It also underlines how rivalries could prove threatening for European consuls involved in the region's commercial life. Among merchants, business interests (as well as the disputes they engendered) could be more meaningful than boundaries of religious affiliation—especially in a town that was so Jewish. These stories allow us to consider the French conquest of Algeria through the history of local merchants, revealing how the conquest caused problems for Jewish merchants, and how their commercial importance and adaptive strategies forced the French to adjust their policies.
5Jacob Lasry and the Business of Conquest
This chapter examines two episodes in which Jacob Lasry both cooperated with and frustrated French generals. The episodes provide examples of how members of a certain class of North African merchants installed in North Africa before the conquest participated in business deals upon which military campaigns relied, and how these deals advanced and exemplified their own transition from membership in a pre-colonial Mediterranean commercial elite to their place in a French colonial elite. This chapter also illuminates how generals depended on influential local experts, whether businessmen and hired military commanders to organize, underwrite, and carry out the conquest.
6From "Juifs de Gibraltar" and "Algerine Jews" to Israélites Indigènes
This chapter explores a series of interactions and struggles involving synagogues, religious rituals, and the meaning of "indigenous," to demonstrate how French colonial policies fashioned new lines of identification. The French casting of a diverse, feuding, and recently established array of Oran's inhabitants as a single community of "indigenous Jews" changed Oran's social landscape. Notably, it helped create what was later understood to be a religious "minority." Institutions such as the consistory (and later, Jewish naturalization), seeking to remedy newly conceived pathologies such as "jealousies" or "problems of civilization," formed a new Jewish subjectivity. French policies did not reflect existing racial or religious topographies in Algeria so much as reify or even create them. In the place of the collection of diverse, dynamic, and often powerful individuals explored in previous chapters, French imperialism posited an identifiable community of israélites indigènes.
Conclusion: Moralities and Mythologies
French civil status records reveal that in all likelihood, Jacob Lasry was married simultaneously to two women. This returns a paradox discussed in the introduction, notably that Jacob Lasry, France's chosen agent of "civilization" in Oran, apparently maintained practices that French colonial law singled out as "indigenous." Civilizing mission notwithstanding, France could not afford to alienate this class of local Jewish merchants. It follows that colonial Oran was deeply shaped by them. With the introduction of new ideas, institutions and laws, however, all classes of Jews were increasingly understood to be "indigenous." This process led, after several decades, to a naturalization decree based entirely on religion. "Jew" evolved into a subset of "French citizen," while "Muslim" increasingly described the "colonial subject." France had initiated the process of Jewish reification, minoritization, and isolation from their Muslim neighbors.