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Vineyards of Colonial Algeria: A History of French or Algerian Wine?

[1910 postcard displaying an image of wine shipments departing from Oran, Algeria for France. Image from Wikimedia Commons.] [1910 postcard displaying an image of wine shipments departing from Oran, Algeria for France. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

The history of wine production in Algeria during French colonial rule reflects the role of food and drink in enhancing, building, and contrasting national identities, and in mirroring the power relationship that connects the colonized to the colonizer. Algerian wine represents a particularly interesting example of the gap between the role that the colonizer intended for wine to serve and the ambiguous consequences of wine production in French Algeria. Wine also offers an acute illustration of the multi-faceted perception and relation to wine production among the native Algerian elites and peasantry.

From 1830 to 1962, France exercised a large control over Algerian territory, especially after Algeria became an integral part of France in 1848. On these lands, which witnessed the unfolding of colonial rule and a struggle for independence achieved through a devastating war, one mark of Algeria’s colonial past did not entirely disappear. Some of the vines French settlers planted and proliferated throughout the country in the 1880s remain on these lands, although many were uprooted and replaced by other kinds of crops. Those vineyards affected more than the local landscapes; they influenced the place of settlers and natives in colonial society, transformed the economic perspectives of both, and confronted the native population with a dual and subjected identity while settlers themselves grew into a new “Pied-Noir” identity.

Wine and Economic Power

In the second half of the nineteenth century, cultivating vines in Algeria became an important location for many winegrowers living in the Midi region, as a severe Phylloxera epidemic struck Southern French vines starting 1863.[1] Close to fifty thousand French households, many of whom were winegrowers, were reported to have left for Algeria between 1871 and 1900.[2] Algerian vineyards were initially planted to remedy the reduced quality and quantity of Southern French wines. France started important wines produced in Algeria to increase the alcohol concentration of French wines and enhance their taste.[3] In addition to climate and pandemic conditions, credits from the Caisse régionale de Crédit Agricole (CACAM) as well as other institutions provided central financial support for settlers in the initial years of wine production in Algeria.[4] This combination of conjectural factors and political decisions led to the multiplication of vine plantations starting the 1880s, and the transformation of the Algerian wheat economy into a wine export economy.[5]

Thus, French settlers benefited from the substantial growth of the wine industry throughout the twentieth century, right up until Algerian independence, enjoying the revenues of Algerian wine exports to the French market. The spread of vineyards and the influx of French immigrants restructured the Algerian economy, but also resulted into the expansion of French control over Algerian territory. The development of the vineyard economy took shape through the forceful transformation of the indigenous land-owning structure from tribal to individualized property.[6] Algerian peasants’ ancestral ownership of fertile lands in the coastal and plain areas (such as the Mitidja Plain) was gradually eliminated by French texts like the Senatus Consulte Law in 1863.[7] At the dawn of Algerian independence, European settlers owned ninety percent of some four hundred thousand hectares of vines in Algeria.[8] While dispossessed Algerian peasants, or “fellahin,” only received meager, unfertile, mountainous lands in return, fertile areas were privatized and the richest settlers bought these areas.[9] Facing economic austerity and unemployment, indigenous agricultural workers (who were not landowners), and even the fellahin, gravitated toward the European-held plains, providing a large and cheap labor force.[10]

Wine and Cultural Domination

By taking over the land and the economic infrastructure, mechanizing the agricultural sector, and altering traditional patterns of land tenure, French colonists continued to build the foundations of a colonial society that elevated settlers while limiting the agency of the indigenous population. Settlers exploited a rhetoric aimed at justifying their domination over Algerian agriculture while they received most of the wine production’s profits. The French “civilizing mission” discourse claimed to bring advanced and mechanized techniques to the Algerian agrarian sector,[11] although winegrowing techniques and know-how were kept among French and Spanish vine workers, unwilling to share this capital of knowledge with the indigenous labor.

Moreover, wine production illustrated the cultural domination of the Christian and Jewish colonists over the native Muslim population, often pointing to the fact that the consumption of wine was forbidden by the Quran. Although Algerian peasants gladly welcomed employment opportunities provided by the vineyards, an indigenous debate would emerge especially after independence on Algeria’s concurrent wine production and attachment to Quranic principles, which prohibit Muslims from participating in the making and trading of wine.[12] Colonist winegrowers thus easily justified keeping indigenous labor away from more skilled positions by the Quranic prohibition on wine and winemaking. Yet, Muslim and Arab workers gradually represented a majority of the labor on vine plantations in the aftermath of World War II, and as the colony moved closer to independence.[13] Management and technical tasks remained almost exclusively in the hands of Europeans.

As Algerian wine was exported into the French market as a “cure” or a partial substitute for weaker Midi wines, colonist winegrowers thus spread French Algerian wine labels and became Midi winegrowers’ competitors.[14] The problematic and paradoxical consequence of higher French profits in Algeria caused the uproar of Midi producers, and prompted the French administration to react in the form of the “Appellation” label regulation system, intended to signal the “authenticity” of Southern French production in opposition to Algerian production.[15] Midi winegrowers reminded the French Administration that the secondary function of the colony’s wines could not compete with the culinary prestige of French wines, for which vineyards had initially been planted. Simultaneously, French producers stressed the contrast between the so-called backwardness of the population that participated into the colonists’ production, and the modernity of Southern French wine production.

The French Colonial Enterprise, Reinforced or Weakened?

Vineyards marked the conflict of interests that the French colonial enterprise in Algeria generated - both between the metropole and the colony, and within Algerian colonial society. First, wine production showed the socio-cultural division between colonists and their counterparts in Southern France. Although colonists thrived economically while French wine producers experienced austerity, colonists remained associated with a land perceived as uncivilized and inferior. By contesting the French identity of wines produced in Algeria, Midi winegrowers were also challenging the “Frenchness” of the colonists, whose new descendants born in Algeria were called “Pieds-Noirs.” The Pieds-Noirs themselves were exploiting the opposition between French and Algerian identities as colonists while trying to lessen it as winegrowers, since they exported their production under French labels. Within colonial society, wine production also enhanced a socio-economic fracture between big landowners and the lower colonist peasantry who could only afford shares in wine “cooperatives.”[16]

These issues weakened the credibility of the colonizer in the eyes of the colonized, particularly as Algerian nationalists formed a strong independence movement in the 1950s. In those years, the “colonizer versus colonized” framework served to reverse the colonial discourse and denounce the colonizer’s immorality in the National Liberation Front (FLN)’s anti-colonial rhetoric,[17] and indigenous uprisings increasingly targeted European vineyards and farms, such as in the important northwestern province of Aïn Temouchent.[18] Thus, native Algerians were attacking the symbol of the wine production system’s injustice, which granted neither professional recognition nor equal economic profits to the local peasantry. Although vineyards came to embody colonial oppression, the first governments of independent Algeria would inherit, as we will see, an ambiguous relationship with the wine sector.

Shared Identities?

Incontestably, the spread of French vineyards in Algeria aggravated both the disunion of the colonizers and the divide between the European and indigenous communities. However, as colonial rule continued and new generations of Pieds-Noirs were born, a shared experience of winegrowing emerged. The role of Algerian men on the plantations gained importance especially during the Second World War, which brought French colonists to the battlefield.[19] The relationship between European landowners and permanent Algerian workers who were given housing on the winegrowers’ property contributed to cultural exchange. These permanent workers represented a privileged minority, however, and boundaries remained visible overall as most indigenous workers were hired seasonally and lived in informal housing in surrounding villages.[20]

The vineyard economy pushed indigenous populations closer to Pied-Noir communities and urban centers because of unemployment. These migrations fueled the proletarianization of an uprooted class of indigenous rural workers.[21] The Algerian fellah also wanted to imitate the very man who had dispossessed him from his lands, vines appearing as a safer long-term investment.[22] Yet the inequality and discrimination between the few Algerian landowners and the colonists was particularly evident through the difficulty of the fellahin to access credits from the Caisse de Crédit Agricole, and the necessity for them to join other collective agricultural funds, the Sociétés Indigènes de Prévoyance (S.I.P.) and after 1952, the Sociétés Agricoles de Prévoyance (S.A.P), whose credits remained very limited.[23]

Although they did not bring equality, vineyards increasingly forced the colonists to turn to the help of indigenous peasants, and alternatively, peasants to rely on the colonists as a source of employment.[24] However unevenly, wine had inevitably linked the daily lives of the colonists and the natives.

The Inherited Ambiguities of the Algerian Wine Sector

The ambiguity of these colonial identities and practices had consequences even after the golden age of wine production in Algeria, which started slowing down with the Statut Viticole policies in the 1930s, and more so throughout the Second World War.[25] Unanswered questions on who really “owned” and knew this wine enough to sustain its production came into sharp relief after independence, as the the French winegrowers abandoned the country. The economic relevance of the wine industry in a post-colonial context, as well as its moral acceptability once the oppression of the colonizer was lifted, were both brought into question. Interestingly, early FLN governments tried to sustain the wine economy in the years following independence. This changed during the 1971-1973 reconversion plan under the presidency of Houari Boumediene, with which ninety percent of the vines were uprooted and partly replaced by raisin and table grape vines.[26]

Algeria was also confronted with the symbolic and cultural paradox of keeping colonial vineyards on the land of a ninety-nine percent Sunni Muslim population who had violently fought to assert its cultural and political independence.[27] The government was left with a sensitive nationalized sector that had never catered to the indigenous market, and that embodied the subjection of the Algerian people to the French oppressor.[28] However, it was rather the increasingly low profits of the production, caused by the departure of most colonist producers and by the French government dramatically cutting down imports despite its 1964 commitment, that precipitated the industry’s decline and reconversion plans. Boumediene’s government tried to engage in trade relations with the Soviet Union in the 1970s to maintain wine export revenues and avoid aggravating unemployment issues, [29] but production continued to fall significantly.[30]

By 2000, Algeria still engaged in minimal exports with France, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Belgium, but vineyards were covering as few as twenty-five thousand hectares, about fifteen of Algeria’s vineyards upon independence.[31] Yet, vineyards remained part of the Algerian landscape, and a reminder of the ex-colony’s connection to the metropole.

Conclusion: From History to Historical Narrative

The central paradox of wine production history in colonial Algeria resides in the discrepancy between the initial role and the unintended consequences of French colonial economic policy in Algeria as experienced by colonists and natives. Vineyards did illustrate French colonial economic success, but they also became a threat to metropolitan producers - even while they were initially implanted as a cure to the plague afflicting French wine. Wine production weakened the colonizer in indigenous eyes and strengthened the grounds for resistance and grievances, as it fueled the unanticipated conflicts that divided the French, both in the colony and in the metrople. Nonetheless, the success of modern wine production in Algeria started and ended with the French. The attempts of post-independence Algerian governments to take over the industry showed that Algeria had inherited from the French an ambivalent relationship of support and rejection towards wine production. Despite the obvious economic, political, and cultural marks of the wine industry on the Algerian population, notably the redrawing of landowning lines, the transformation of the Algerian peasantry into a proletarian class, the transition from a wheat local economy to a wine export economy, and the challenge of socio-religious norms, Algerian peasants did not earn their place in the historical narrative of French wine production. Yet, over eighty years of production had showed that the wine made jointly by settlers and native Algerians was never entirely French, nor ever entirely Algerian, for the administrative and legal status of the Algerian colony remained controversial, and the lines between French, Pied-Noir, and Algerian identity, intertwined.

[1] Giulia Meloni and Johan Swinnen, “The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Wine Exporter and its Institutional Legacy”, in LICOS Centre for Institutions and Economic Performance Paper Series 327/2013, 6.

[2] Meloni and Swinnen, “The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Wine Exporter and its Institutional Legacy”, 7.

[3] Meloni et Swinnen, “The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Wine Exporter and its Institutional Legacy”, 5 and 8.

[4] Michel Launay, Paysans algériens: 1960-2006, 3rd edition (Paris: Karthala, 2004), 51.

[5] Meloni and Swinnen, “The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Wine Exporter and its Institutional Legacy”, 9.

[6] Kjell H. Halvorsen, “Colonial Transformation of Agrarian Society in Algeria”,

 in Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 15, No. 4 (1978), 334.

[7] Halvorsen, “Colonial Transformation of Agrarian Society in Algeria,” 335-337.

[8] Launay, Paysans algériens, 14 and 38-39.

[9] Launay, Paysans algériens, 23.

[10] Launay, Paysans algériens, 14.

[11] Kolleen M. Guy, “Culinary Connections and Colonial Memories in France and Algeria,” in Food and History, Volume 8, Number 1 (2010), 227.

[12] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, The lawful and the prohibited in Islam [Al-Halal wal Haram fil Islam] (Islamic Book Trust, 2001), 70 and 72-73.

[13] Tony Smith, “Muslim impoverishment in colonial Algeria,” in Revue de l'Occident musulman et de la Méditerranée N°17 (1974), 153.

[14] Meloni and Swinnen, “The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Wine Exporter and its Institutional Legacy, 14.

[15] Guy, “Culinary Connections and Colonial Memories in France and Algeria,” 235.

[16] Launay, Paysans algériens, 95.

[17] Willy Jansen, “French Bread and Algerian Wine: Conflicting Identities in French Algeria,” in Food, Drink, and Identity: Cooking Eating and Drinking in Europe since the Middle Ages, ed. Peter Scholliers (New York: Berg, 2001), 208; Guy, “Culinary Connections and Colonial Memories in France and Algeria,” 229.

[18] Launay, Paysans algériens, 135 and 178.

[19] Birebent, Hommes, vignes et vins de l’Algérie française 1830-1962, 23.

[20] Launay, Paysans algériens, 58-60.

[21] Launay, Paysans algériens, 60.

[22] Launay, Paysans algériens, 14.

[23] Roger Lequy, “L'agriculture algérienne de 1954 à 1962”, in Revue de l'Occident musulman et de la Méditerranée N°8 (1970), 54.

[24] Birebent, Hommes, vignes et vins de l’Algérie française 1830-1962, 73-75.

[25] Meloni and Swinnen, “The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Wine Exporter and its Institutional Legacy,” 20.

[26] A. Imache et al., “Questions à Yahia Bouarfa, Ancien Secrétaire Général du Ministère en charge de l’Agriculture,” in La Mitidja 20 ans après: Réalites agricoles aux portes d’Alger (Versailles: Editions Quae, 2011), 34-36.

[27] Sutton, “Algeria's vineyard: A problem of decolonization,” 64.

[28] Guy, “Culinary Connections and Colonial Memories in France and Algeria,” 228.

[29] Meloni and Swinnen, “The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Wine Exporter and its Institutional Legacy,” 24.

[30] Keith Sutton, “Algeria's vineyards: A problem of decolonization,” in Méditerranée, Troisième série, Tome 65, 3-1988 “Vignobles et vins dans les pays méditerranéens,” 59.

[31] Centre Français du Commerce Extérieur, Guide de L’exportateur des vins et spiritueux, Tome 6: Afrique et Moyen Orient (Paris: Editions du CFCE, 2003), 41-42. 

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