The theory and practice of agricultural colonialism
To expand the colonial dynamics in agriculture, French colonists studied Tunisia’s ecology of farming and environment and later on institutionalized agricultural colonialism.
According to some French colonists, colonialism was a vocation. Among those who held such a view was Charles Géniaux, an author who settled in Tunisia and wrote a ‘colonial manual’ entitled “Comment on devient Colon.” In his pamphlet, published in Paris in 1908, he asserts that colonialism is a “difficult vocation” and that a colonist has to have extensive knowledge of the colony:
La colonisation est un métier qui s’apprend comme les autres; c’est même un métier plus difficile, car il est complexe et il oblige le colon à posséder une science étendu.
Géniaux shares an anecdote to draw attention to the importance of knowing the colony before moving to it.
The writer met a Frenchman who was planning to move to Tunisia or Algeria to invest in agricultural activities like other colonists. He asked the man if he knew the agricultural sectors and regions of those colonies but the latter appeared ignorant. He humorously ended the conversation saying that he would become a cowboy there and it would be fun!
[Géniaux] Quelle profession voulez-vous donc exercer avec cet équipement ?
[French man] Je vais coloniser.
[Géniaux] Coloniser? Dans quelle branche et en quelle région?
[French man] Enfin être colon, voilà tout! En Algérie ou en Tunisie, je ne sais pas encore…cela dépendra des occasions…si l’on m’offre une bonne affaire…
[Géniaux] Une bonne affaire, en quoi?
[French man] En quoi? Comme vous êtes curieux, monsieur! Mais en n’importe quoi…d’avantageux…Viticulteur! Oléiculteur…je deviendrai un cow-boy, ce serait amusant!
After such observations and encounters, Géniaux decided to take on the task of informing his compatriots about Tunisia through “Comment on devient Colon.”
Apparently, Charles Géniaux believed in the dictum “knowledge is power.” For him, a colonist’s knowledge of Tunisia would set the ground for a better exploitation of resources and fertile lands of the “granary of Rome.” In his pamphlet, he looks at different aspects of Tunisia’s agriculture, the ecology of farming, and the labor force that French masters would later exploit.
Both Charles Géniaux and Robert Wastelier offered a detailed description of Tunisia’s agricultural regions and climates. Théier efforts aimed both to inform the French colonists about a new land of colonial opportunities and to encourage them to populate it. This would ensure that the French outnumber the Italians who were already engaged in agricultural activities in Tunisia.
Géniaux mentions several regions and their agricultural hallmarks. He informs his compatriots that inhabitants of Sfax are specialized in olive cultivation, and that Béja’s residents have fertile wheat fields. He advises his fellow colonists to visit La Mornagia and L’oued Zarga where there was an association of French colonists, L’association des colons français de la Mornagia.
Similarly, R. Wastelier informs French colonists about Tunisia’s appealing climate:
Au point de vue du climat…La Tunisie, dont les vallées sont largement ouvertes aux brises marines, jouit d’une température plus régulière, plus douce et moins sèche que sa voisine de l’Ouest.
Likewise, reports sent in the 1880’s from explorer Henri Duveyrier to Paul Cambon, then Resident-General in Tunisia, portray the country as the best place for colonists to recreate the French habitat. For Duveyrier, the north of Tunisia and its coastal regions are “better than the southern regions of Europe.”
Lastly, Wastelier reminds French agricultural colonists of the natural resources that will be at their disposal once they arrive in “the granary of Rome”:
Les ressources de la Tunisie pour la culture sont variées…Le sol…se prête à toutes les productions: Les céréales, la vigne…l’olivier, l’oranger…
Along with the theoretical aspects of French agricultural colonialism in Tunisia, there was an institutional aspect at play. To concretize their ambitions, French colonists established several agricultural schools with the aim of producing well trained French colonists who would later exploit the colony’s natural resources.
The schools were established in Metropolitan France and its colonies. In the 12th issue of the periodical “La Dépêche Coloniale,” published in 1909, we read a lengthy article on the technologies, laboratories, and agricultural techniques used in what the French called the “Jardin colonial,” literally the “Colonial Garden.”