"Honourable bandits": fighters or thieves? Why they caused a crisis between Algeria and France

Warriors or thieves? What is the story of the "honourable bandits" whose skulls caused a crisis between Algeria and France

Warriors or thieves? What is the story of the "honourable bandits" whose skulls caused a crisis between Algeria and France.

"How to distinguish between a conscious fighter of anti-colonial political resistance and an anti-colonial thief? The line between the two is very thin." This was the response of the French historian Benjamin Stora, who is close to the ruling circles in Paris. This is in the middle of his response to the American investigation by the New York Times. 

The newspaper claimed that among the 24 human remains recovered by Algeria from France were "imprisoned thieves". The newspaper said it had obtained the documents from the Musée de l'Homme -"Museum of Mankind" or "Museum of Humanity" - and the French government.


There has been no official comment from the French or Algerian governments on the content of the New York Times investigation. Stora's clarification, in his brief statement to the French newspaper 'Libération', removes some of the ambiguity and confusion surrounding this complex and intertwined historical dossier.

The importance of Stora's statement lies not in his capacity as a historian specialising in the French colonial period in Algeria, but rather in his 'official' monitoring of the file of shared "memory" between the two countries.

French President Emmanuel Macron had previously asked him to produce a report on what Paris calls the "Algerian war". Some of the report's recommendations have already been implemented.

Stora accompanied Macron on his most recent visit to Algeria in August. He also accompanied the French prime minister, Elisabeth Bourne, last October. He is expected to play a role in the creation of the joint committee of historians.

One of the main tasks of this committee, the first of its kind in the history of the two countries, will be to harmonise terminology. This is necessary because someone who is considered a prisoner or a thief by the French can be considered a hero and a fighter by the Algerians. This is a problem that the New York Times did not notice, and Stora tried to clarify it.

"Honourable bandits"

Historian Stora's discussion of "Algerian thieves who opposed French colonialism" as distinct from politically conscious resistance fighters brings to light another type of "resistance" that has received little attention from historians and media professionals. Although, it had a reputation among local communities at the time.

This type of anti-colonialism can be called 'individual resistance'. The resistance was known for the men who carried arms, and most of them settled in the mountains and dense forests. They acted alone or with their wives, attacking members of the French army and settlers, robbing them of their money, weapons and supplies.

The Algerians called them 'honourable bandits' because they distributed the food and money they stole to the poor. They saw them as a symbol of courage and defiance against colonialism, even 'blocking the roads' in front of the French who were stealing a whole country.
As a result, at weddings, poems and songs were sung in praise of the heroism of the 'honourable bandits', each with a name and in the region where he was famous.

The colonial authorities called them 'thieves', 'outlaws', 'bandits'... and rewarded those who provided information that could lead to their arrest. The 'honourable bandits' had no organisation that brought them together, no idea that encompassed them, and no single area in which they operated. They were scattered in different regions and at different times.

But what they had in common was their refusal to submit to colonialism and the injustice it inflicted on the Algerian people. Where their land was seized, they were subjected to heavy taxes and restrictions on their worship and beliefs.

The phenomenon of "honourable bandits"

 The phenomenon became widespread at times when organised popular resistance was weak. Especially after the end of the resistance of Amir Abdul Qadir in 1847 and then the resistance of Sheikh Muhammad al-Maqrani in 1871.

Individual resistance flourished again during the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945), when France imposed conscription on Algerians. This led many young men to flee to the mountains and refuse to fight in defence of the occupying power. Some of them took up arms to defend themselves against the French army that was chasing them.

When the revolution broke out in 1954, the Algerian Liberation Army tried to recruit "honourable bandits" into its ranks. The idea was to make use of their experience in combat and guerrilla warfare based on ambushes. Not to mention their intimate knowledge of the rugged mountain and forest terrain in which they operate. This is what Colonel Al-Taher Al-Zubayri referred to in the first part of his memoirs, "The Last Historical Chiefs of the Auras".

Skulls of thieves or resistance fighters?

Historian Stora makes it clear that the skulls of what the New York Times described as thieves are nothing other than resistance to colonialism. These resisters lacked the political awareness and military organisation to overthrow the colonial system, but they resisted it with everything they had, however simple and limited. The individual resistance to French colonialism reflects the general atmosphere of the Algerian people in the mid-19th century, which rejected occupation by any means.

Even if the American newspaper mentioned the skulls of 3 Algerian soldiers who served in the French army and were received by Algeria as part of 24 skulls, this needs to be studied and investigated further. Many leaders of the Algerian Liberation Army served in the French army and were forcibly recruited. The most prominent examples are Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of Algeria, Mohamed Boudiaf, the coordinator of the revolution. There is also Mustafa Ben Boulaid, the first commander of the first military region of the revolution (Auras).

It is the Joint Committee of Historians that can give a precise answer to the identity of the 24 skulls. The French Foreign Ministry did not deny the veracity of the New York Times investigation. On the contrary, it threw the ball into the Algerians' court by stating in its reply that the list of skulls returned had been "approved by both parties".

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