“Carrying the War into Africa”

July 30, 1881

Thomas Nast

“Carrying the War into Africa”


Bismarck, Otto von; Garibaldi, Giuseppe;

Africa; France; Germany; Italy;

No caption

In this cartoon, Italy (left) and France (right) face off over Tunisia, represented by a stereotyped black doll on the ground.  In the background, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany offers his observation to Giuseppe Garibaldi, hero of Italian unification, that a possible war between the two countries "may be Nice."  The remark has a dual meaning.  An armed conflict between the rival European states would focus their resources and attention on Tunisia, allowing Germany to expand its colonial holdings in Africa unimpeded.  Furthermore, a settlement of the situation might be similar to the one in 1861 in which the newly unified kingdom of Italy ceded the city of Nice, Garibaldi's birthplace, to France.

For most of the nineteenth century, Tunisia, on the northern African coast of the Mediterranean Sea, was officially a province within the Ottoman Empire, although in practice it was largely autonomous.  France invaded Tunisia in 1830, assuring the ruling bey, Husayn, that they would not colonize the country.  Husayn accepted a French presence because he feared encroachments from the neighboring state of Algeria.  

Advisors from France and other European nations assisted Tunisia in modernizing its military and establishing industries, but the economy was plagued by high taxes and debt.  In 1857, the new bey, Muhammad, was forced by France and Britain to sign a document respecting civil rights.  In 1861, Tunisia enacted the first constitution in the Arab world, but a move toward a republic was hampered by the poor economy and political unrest.

In 1869, Tunisia declared bankruptcy, compelling an international commission, consisting of representatives from France, Britain, and Italy, to oversee the country's finances.  In 1878, Tunisia's sovereignty was further undermined by the European powers when the Congress of Berlin recognized Tunisia as part of France's sphere of influence.  

Since becoming a member of the international financial commission in 1869, Italy had maintained a presence in Tunisia, and the Italian government viewed the African country, which lies only 90 miles south of Sicily, as a natural extension of its national interests.  In early 1881, it was not clear whether Italy or France would emerge dominant in Tunisia.  The Italian government, though, was itself teetering on the brink of insolvency, so it could not afford a military undertaking abroad.

In the spring of 1881, France invaded Tunisia claiming that the country had trespassed onto the territory of Algeria, France's major colony in Africa.  Italy was unable to do anything except protest, but without success.  The Tunisian government was forced to sign a treaty transferring authority to the French.  In July, an uprising erupted in southern Tunisia, which the French finally quashed in November 1881.  Two years later, the French forced Tunisian officials to institute political and fiscal reforms in an agreement that consolidated French control.  Tunisia remained a protectorate of France until it achieved independence in 1956.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Carrying the War into Africa”
June 17, 2024

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