SHARE
COPY LINK

FRENCH HISTORY

‘Silent pain’ of Algerians banished by France to the Pacific

On the 60th anniversary of Algeria's independence from France, descendants of the North Africans deported to the Pacific territory of New Caledonia remember the "silent pain" of their ancestors.

'Silent pain' of Algerians banished by France to the Pacific
(Photo: Theo Rouby / AFP)

Between 1864 and 1897, as French colonial troops advanced through Algeria, 2,100 people were tried by special or military courts and deported.

They were sent in chains around 18,500 kilometres to the other side of the world, to a penal colony on the Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia.

The palm-fringed islands east of Australia are one of France’s biggest overseas territories.

“The number of dead, whose bodies were thrown overboard, during the crossing, remains unknown,” said Taieb Aifa, whose father was on the last convoy of convicts bought to the colony in 1898.

Those who survived the tough journey became known as the “straw hats” – a nod to the convicts’ headgear as they worked in the blazing sun.

Today, their descendants say that so great is the pain, the story has to be “almost prized from them,” Aifa told AFP.

Aifa described a five-month journey to the islands, during which convicts were “chained in the holds” of ships.

For many years, even speaking about his ancestors’ tale was taboo.

“A code of silence reigned in the families of deportees,” said 89-year-old Aifa, now regarded as a pillar of New Caledonia’s “Arab community” after serving as mayor of the small town of Bourail for 30 years.

‘Transformed into colonists’

Aifa’s father was sentenced to 25 years for fighting against the French army in Setif, in eastern Algeria.

“From the colonised in Algeria, they became colonisers… on land confiscated from the Kanaks”, he said, referring to New Caledonia’s indigenous inhabitants.

“In New Caledonia, the French state aimed, as in Algeria, to create a settlement,” Aifa said.

Christophe Sand, an archaeologist at the IRD Research Centre in Noumea, who is also the descendant of convicts, said that “the deportees were transformed into colonists”.

While some French convicts were later able to bring their wives, it was forbidden for the Algerians.

Those sentenced to more than eight years in prison – the majority – were not allowed to return to Algeria after their sentence, said Sand.

“This process must have abandoned 3,000 to 5,000 orphans in Algeria”, he said.

Maurice Sotirio, the grandson of a convict from Constantine in northeast Algeria, described the heartbreaking trauma of his family’s past.

“My grandfather left two children in Algeria whom he never saw again”, Sotirio said.

The suffering continued even in freedom.

In New Caledonia, the Algerians were second-class citizens since they often did not speak French, but Arabic or Berber, said Sand.

Their children suffered from the stigma, and only a few families kept hold of their origins.

At the end of the 1960s, the descendants came together to form an association, the “Arabs and friends of the Arabs of New Caledonia”.

The islands – so-called because a British sailor thought they looked like Scotland – have been French territory since 1853.

Today, they have about 270,000 inhabitants, with the economy’s mainstays the production of metals, especially nickel, of which New Caledonia is a major global producer.

Algeria, which Paris regarded as an integral part of France, is this year marking six decades since its 1962 independence following a devastating eight-year war.

Healing

In 2006, Aifa took his first trip to Algeria.

He said the visit was like “bringing back his father who, like other Arabs, had suffered from not being able to return and die in his native country”.

Aifa, while proud of his Caledonian heritage, also celebrates his roots in Algeria.

“I am also Algerian, I have a link with Algeria, family, land… I managed to obtain my Algerian papers 20 years ago”, he said.

Sand, who also travelled to Algeria with two other descendants, said he felt he was “carrying his ancestor on his shoulders” on the flight.

“When I saw, through the porthole, the port of Algiers, where my great-grandfather and his companions had been thrown into the hold, I felt the urge to scream,” he said.

Arriving at his ancestral home in the village of Agraradj in the northern Kabylia region, he bent down to touch the earth.

“I felt that the symbolic weight that I had on my shoulders since the beginning of the journey had disappeared,” he said. “I brought his exiled spirit back to the place where he was born”.

For Sand, you have to go through “this process of healing, of closing the door” to “build a future” in New Caledonia.

“Healing from the trauma of exile allows the Caledonians that we are today to project ourselves into the future, without remaining prisoners of the past,” Sand said.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

FRENCH HISTORY

Malik Oussekine: Who is ‘France’s George Floyd’, portrayed in the new Disney+ series?

A new Disney+ mini-series tells the story of Malik Oussekine, the man often referred to as "France's Arab George Floyd". Here's what you need to know about him and his brutal death at the hands of French police.

Malik Oussekine: Who is 'France's George Floyd', portrayed in the new Disney+ series?

The latest French show to grab ahold of international audiences, “Oussekine” a Disney+ mini-series of four episodes, reinvestigates a dark part of France’s history. It became available for streaming worldwide on May 11th, and is available in English.

Long before Adama Traoré, whose death ignited Black Lives Matter protests across France, was the night of December 6th, 1986, when two police officers beat to death the 22-year-old French-Algerian on the sidelines of a student protest in Paris.

He had not been involved in the demonstration, and his killing became a turning point – triggering weeks of unrest and leading to the unprecedented conviction of the officers.

A march in memory of Malik Oussekine on December 4, 1987, a year after he was killed by the police (Photo by Jean-Loup GAUTREAU / AFP)

While Oussekine’s name has continued to reverberate among minorities, his story has never been adapted for the screen until now.

As if making up for lost time, two versions are being released this month: a film, “Our Brothers”, premieres at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Disney+ mini-series, “Oussekine.”

“He was attacked because of the colour of his skin. He is France’s Arab George Floyd,” historian Pascal Blanchard told AFP, referring to the African-American whose death at the hands of police in 2020 sparked massive international protests.

He said much of French society had allowed Oussekine’s story to be brushed under the carpet as with so much of its troubled history with immigrant populations.

“It’s not a question of whether Malik Oussekine has been forgotten, but by who?” said Blanchard.

France is still wrestling with the trauma of its colonial period, particularly the bloody war of independence in Algeria from 1954 to 1962.

Among its darkest moments was the massacre of up to 200 Algerian protesters by police in Paris on October 17th, 1961 — many of them shot dead and their bodies thrown into the Seine.

The events of that day went officially unacknowledged for decades until President Emmanuel Macron finally described them as “inexcusable crimes” at the 60th anniversary last year – though without apologising.

Oussekine’s death was crucial in marking the end of total police impunity – the first time that officers were convicted for this type of crime, according to the family’s lawyer, Georges Kiejman.

As the grandchildren of the original wave of North African immigrants come of age, there is increasing interest and willingness to address the past.

“For our generation, it is important to say that these individual stories form part of the French national story. They are not separate. These are French stories,” said Faiza Guene, 36 and born to Algerian parents, who helped write the screenplay for “Oussekine”.

Its director, Antoine Chevrollier, was part of the team behind hit spy series “The Bureau”, and the lauded political saga “Baron Noir”.

“The important thing is to make this name and this story resonate so that we never forget,” he told AFP.

Chevrollier, who grew up in a small village in the Loire Valley, says he only became fully aware of the power of Oussekine’s name when he moved to Paris and began to hang out with people from different backgrounds.

“I hope the series will help ease the tensions that are unsettling the country. It is time that we in France begin to treat these historical cancers.”

SHOW COMMENTS