Beyond Dispossession: Colonial Primitive Accumulation as a Process of Race-Making in Tunisia

Mabrouka M'Barek, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The French colonization of Tunisia is often analyzed as an outcome of financial pressures leading to an unsustainable level of debt. Consequently, France took political control of Tunisia in 1881 with the prior blessing of the Berlin conference. From that point on, the main stories recount an unsuccessful guerrilla warfare, and massive dispossession and displacement. Yet, this analysis of power struggles ignores the process by which France's long term colonial strategy led the vast majority of Tunisians to be gradually made dependent on the global market by the eve of the second inter-imperial war of 1939-1945. To understand such a process, I focus on the land and labor question and highlight the contradictions between the local collective forms of resistance against the colonial power. Based on extensive empirical data on nomadic and semi-nomadic populations in the Tunisian hinterland, I posit that France, through land dispossession and redistribution of land, aimed at 1/a triple enclosure: land, social relations and mobility and 2/the institutionalization and normalization of hierarchies of race, in order to exert a social control over the local population and reify its imperial power in the region.

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 Presented in Session 36. Land and Empire in North Africa