American Writings on Tunisia since the early 19th Century

Adel Manai, PhD,                                                                                                           Associate Professor of Modern History,                                                             Department of Humanities, Qatar University

Abstract:

Since the late 18th century and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Tunis and the newly independent republic of America, Americans had contact with Tunis the former Ottoman regency and the French protectorate since 1881. These relations were overtime fostered through occasional conflicts over the question of piracy and the captivity of American ships and citizens in the Mediterranean, which emerged in the early years of these relations, the medium of trade, diplomatic contact and a significant amount of literature written by Americans who visited Tunis then. The French colonial presence in Algeria since 1830 saw a rapid expansion of European contact with Tunis, which encouraged more Americans to visit the country. The development of steamship travel further increased the contact and brought Tunis closer to American public attention.

This paper is an examination of how some of these American writers experienced and recreated Tunisian society since the 19th century in their individual work. It argues that these writings are more complex than the negative perspective the present scholarship on American/Arab/Moslem encounter offers. It also suggests that there is some shift in these writings from an enlightened, politicized, realistic and didactic view of Tunisia characteristic of the early writers to a more subjective, romantic and nostalgic one. This paper is motivated by the absence of work on cross-cultural encounters between Tunisians and Americans during this period and even later and equally triggered by a growing American interest in Tunisia after the 2011 revolution, the transition to democracy and the implications that its effects have had and could have on the US-Tunisian (and more generally North Africa) encounters and relations today. Similarly, it aims at providing further historical background for a better understanding of American engagement with Tunisian society and American perceptions of Tunisia and how these developed over the period under review. Many of these writings, to be sure, are dull, monotonous, and cumbered by factual information; but they are also informative, vivid, rich, and are, therefore, worth exploring.

Key words: Tunisia; American writers, representations; enlightenment; romanticism; cosmopolitanism.

Background:

The Americans who wrote about Tunisian society and culture since the early nineteenth century belonged to a cultured elite of a certain status and even power. They were diplomats and politicians who spent a certain number of years in Tunis, travelled around the country and wrote substantial travel-historical accounts like James L. Cathcart, William Eaton, Noah Mordecai, Perry Amos, Charles Sumner and Bowles Chester; artists (Darhris Martin), academics and literary critics (George Woodberry, Stoddard Lothrop), writers (Franck Vincent, Harry Foster, Frank Carpenter and Clara E. Laughlin), merchants and bankers (Francis Sessions), reporters, correspondents and photographers (Alexander Powell, Burton Holmes and Margaret Bottome), businessmen and philanthropists (John Guy Vassar and William Vanderbilt), surgeons (David S Edwards) and intelligence officers (Archibald Roosevelt) . Some described themselves as travelers or travel writers only like Emma Burbank, Ditson Leighton, Samuel Woodruff and Alice Paddock Wright 1. These Americans wrote travel accounts, travel-historical books, journals, letter books, diaries, reports and letters. Leisure and pleasure, work and business or a mix of both were what these Americans made the long trip to Tunis for, which most often was part of a larger European tour.

American writings on Tunisian society since the nineteenth century offer a wide panoply of views, for they did not march in lockstep as a uniform group gazing on Tunisia. In general, Americans knew very little about Tunisia and Tunisians; the same was true of the latter with respect to Americans. Given that cross-cultural relations were infrequent, each one’s notions of the other depended mostly on certain stereotypes transmitted by European writers, particularly the British, who were present in Tunis since the mid-16th century2. “The American perception of the Maghreb, Carl Brown wrote in the 1970s, “has always been not only faint but also distorted by venerable prejudice and pervasive romanticism. To most Americans North Africa is the land of Barbary pirates and Beau Geste, Casablanca a movie starring Humphrey Boggart and Ingrid Bergman…” (Brown 1976, 279-290).This explains the “backwater image” North Africa, including Tunisia, has had for long in the United States.

Though they accounted for the minutest aspects of Tunisian society and covered the artistic, the socio-historical and political frameworks, these American writings on Tunis focused on specific issues which caught the writers’ attention, stimulated their interest and reflected their concern about the search for the authentic. They paid special attention to Tunisian history, the landscape, customs and traditions, the local character, women, religion, the court, local communities, slavery and captivity, the flora and fauna, local tribes, French Tunisia, and World War II. They wrote indeed about what they liked most in Tunis or loathed most or discovered or what could be compared or contrasted with what was American. “Home, sweet home,” America was their source of inspiration and point of reference. Most often the object of their representation is Tunisian and the modality or point of view is American. It is also western, but not too often. Americans seemed to keep a certain distance from the so-called “western civilization” with which they identified, but did not fully commit themselves to.

Some of these American writers tapped into older “orientalist” lines on Tunisia depicting it as old, wild, cruel, backward, fanatic and definitely “other.” “Barbary is hell” William Eaton, first US consul in Tunis (1797-1803) (Wright and McLeod 1945, 32) wrote in his journal a few days after his arrival, though he showed full commitment to the promotion of the relationships between his country and the regency of Tunis. Such an attitude did not disappear altogether and the negative catalogue of images and conceptions continued and persisted into the twentieth century. Some have rigidified into stereotypes. Tunisians, Arabs, Moors, Moslems, Mohammedans, the natives, Berbers, Orientals, a whole assortment of interchangeable names Americans used in their writings to refer to the local people, did not lose any of their barbaric, violent, fanatical, mendacious and larcenous features even after the advent of the French and western “civilization” with it towards the late nineteenth century. “They still were essentially Arabs,” Harry Foster wrote in A Vagabond in Barbary in 1930 (294).

Today, a whole body of literature about American popular images of the East, the orient, the Levant, the Arab world, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean world highlights the American unmitigated animus towards the peoples in this part of the world often lumped together as one and underscores the American negative reaction to Arab/Moslem culture and society including McGready, Hammons, Alaswad, Jacobson Matthew Frye, Suleiman, Zingg, Heggoy, Shaaban, Shaheen, and Douglas. More cautionary representations such as Allison Robert’s The Crescent Obscured: The Unites States and the Muslim World 1776-1815 (1995) and Susan Nance’s “Crossing Over: A Cultural History of American Engagement with the Muslim World, 1840-1940” (1999) argue that the Americans failed to understand the complexities of the Moslem world but do not necessarily view Arabs and Moslems in unfavourabe light, while Richard Parker underlines the difficulties of assessing the extent to which these negative images were true and the impact they could have today. (2004)

A close analysis of these American writings, however, reveals a more complicated experience and perspective. These writings are not uniform but a mixture of criticism and appreciation, repulsion and attraction, condemnation and admiration, reflecting the diversity, individualism and personal tastes, views and judgments of the writers. “In practice as well as in theory, foreign intercourse remained in large an affair of individuals.” (Field 1969, 25) When they intersected, many of these views did not only disapprove and censure or judge and reproach. American writers on Tunis paused, pondered, contemplated, temporized, reconsidered and then depicted. What they wrote about this part of the world is more complex than the tarnished image and antagonistic perspective which most of the scholarship on the subject fitted them in. True, the early writers, such as Eaton, Mordecai, Amos, and Woodruff showed a strong nationalist bias and used a politically conservative discourse aimed at informing and instructing their audiences. They wrote in a didactic way inspired by the Scottish common sense philosophy tradition with its empiricist analytical approach. Their writings were a mix of history, travel literature and politics. These were after all the most popular genres at the time. Their representations were meant to be real, but many embraced both the positive and negative aspects of Tunisia.

Americans Construct Tunisia

There is a clear concern in these writings with history used as a major trope, a means to form a sound idea of Tunisian society and one of the underlying themes. Tunis was indeed perceived as a living history and was synonymous and often interchangeable with “Carthage.” Few were those writings which did not devote a substantial chapter to Carthage and most often the latter replaced Tunis as the major subject matter and the title of the account. In these writings, past and present interplayed and the sense of time occasionally vanished. “Centuries have passed since their destruction,” Noah Mordecai observed, “yet the fields looked green and smiling, the sun yet shone on the hills of Carthage, and on the spot where once stood the Temple of Esculpius, the Palace of Dido and the Citadel of Byrsa (1819, 245). American writers were fascinated by the history of Carthage and many retold it in full with special emphasis on the last stages of the history of this famous city and republic with the Punic wars, the defeat of Hannibal and its fall. The magnetism for Carthage lies in the fact that Americans did not have much history compared to Tunisia, which was the theatre of world dramas and the blending of old and new civilizations. The journey to Tunisia did not entail only a geographical movement but also a figurative trip across the many and different historical and cultural periods of the country from the Vandals in the fifth century through to the French in the late nineteenth. America was a new nation still in the process of building its nationhood and Carthage was regarded as a splendid model of a nation having shown courage, perseverance and sacrifice. America seemed to share a great deal with Carthage; it defeated the “Old regime” and founded a republic on democratic principles. Most often, these writings associated Washington with Hannibal. The past was also opposed to the present and glorified, while the present was censured and dwarfed. Americans writers were disappointed by the state of decay and ruin in which they found Carthage and many other great historical sites not seen elsewhere. “Behold the land of Hannibal!” Perry Amos wrote, “Still rich in natural resources, but, in fact, poor and wretched!” (1869, 233). Yet, Carthage remained alluring to most American writers.    

Tunis was also described as a picturesque, authentic and static country. Though anchored in economic and cultural stagnation, it offered to American writers the exoticism of its oriental past. John Guy Vassar noted: “in this city of one hundred thousand inhabitants, one finds himself out of the pale of civilization.” (1861, 485) It is a representation that plays on the romantic reaction to industrialization and change taking place in American society and a nostalgic view of Tunis as a motionless country and therefore a rich source of sketches, compositions and landscapes. The idea of a scenic romantic Tunis goes back to the late 18th century when many British travellers in search of the picturesque began to look for untrodden touristic routes. Tunis was one of these. Alice Paddock Wright had no doubt that “here is one of the most oriental places in the world.” (1947, 60); a view which underscores the primitive underside of Tunisian society and hoped Tunisia could remain unspoiled by modern conveniences and widespread tourism. American writers indulged in the Tunisian old towns, gates, bazaars, oriental life, the characters and mores of native Tunisians, trading practices, and local feasts and celebrations. “There was a charm even in the persistent cries of the beggars,” (Foster 1930, 305), one American writer about to leave the city of kairouan, the former religious capital of Tunisia observed. If there is a consensus in these writings, it is surely about the natural beauty of Tunisia, which has become by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a tourist resort for many including motto drivers. A whole road infrastructure was set by then by the French and encouraged many Americans to visit the country. Tunisia was on the list of the American Automobile Association (AAA) which organized tours and advised motorists on motor trips. A ten-franc tax a day for up to two month was the tax American motorists had to pay for a trip in Tunisia. They had in addition an advantage over many countries including Algeria and Morocco since motorists did not have to pay a tax on their automobiles based on the length of their stay (Motoring Abroad 1937, 24-25). Their descriptions of the country as a “garden spot”, “ a gem”, and “a bounteous gift of providence” is testimony to their appreciation of it. “What a country for an artist to visit,” Burbank remarked. (1911, 434)

Yet, Tunis was condemned for its excessive morality, fanaticism and religious bigotry. According to some of these writings, Islam usurped Tunisians’ their former religion: Christianity. Islam was decried because it failed to make Tunisians a cultured and civilized people and this explains its decay, American writers   believed. Amos, Sessions, Vincent, Vassar, Mordecai and others all showed antipathy to the Tunisians’ religious creed, which they termed Mohammedanism and depicted it as intolerant, cruel, inhuman, despotic and unfair to women. The same American writers, nevertheless, celebrated some of the Muslims’ virtues and praised the prophet Mohamed, many condemned as an impostor. These American writings revealed a major ignorance of the true tenets of Islam and the role the prophet played in the promotion of the creed. This explains their ambivalence. Those who had frequent contacts with Tunisians were more explicit in their attitudes. “The sincerity of the faith,” Woodberry stated, “is the first thing one learns about it in practical observations.” (1914, 10), while Wright proposed that Mohamed must be conceded a place among the world’s great …he sought to substitute for idolatry the worship of one God.” (1947, 80) By the end of the day, Islam remained a more “acceptable” religion to these American writers than Catholicism though a Protestant bias was evident in this scholarship. Obviously, some American writers were more open to otherness than others.

Besides Tunis was depicted as an arena of struggle between Beylik despotism and republican constitutionalism. These writings informed and edified their American readership by means of a discourse which was charged with a strong Republican prejudice and which criticised despotism in Tunisia, which they thought was at the origin of its backwardness. Eaton, Cathcart, Mordecai and Amos used the rhetoric of the rational Enlightenment to present Tunis as a disagreeable remnant of what used to be a powerful country. The “Bey of Tunis is the absolute master of his kingdom, from who emanates all religious and civil authority… in short he is the State.” (Amos 1869, 462) Such concentration of power in the hands of one man would of course involve abuses and despotism. Corruption, American writers argued, prevailed and justice was nothing but an article of commerce which could easily be purchased. This made the success of a litigant or the fate of a criminal a matter of fortune. To “Barbary justice” and “Turkish despotism”, American writers opposed the American republican constitutional system, an outcome of a revolution against despotism. Theirs was “the only republic on earth”. (1819, 268) consul Mordecai reminded us. Yet, this did not prevent him from being full of eulogy for Hamouda Pacha (1782-1814), the Bey of Tunis then whom he found shrewd, comprehensive and prompt in the management of public affairs. That was not albeit the case with Mordecai’s representation of his successor Mahmoud Pacha (1814-1824)who, Mordecai thought, was incapable of properly conducting public affairs because of his ignorance of these, if not his indifference. Mordecai, like some early American writers on Tunis, went further into explaining his view and provided his readers with a long historical lesson on the fall of powerful republics like Carthage and warned his countrymen of the defects of poor government based on self-interest and the monopoly of power.

In addition, American writers insisted on the wide gap between religious despotism, which used to characterize the Tunisian political system and which was, they thought, at the origin of its failure, and Republican constitutionalism, which was typical of the revolutionary enlightenment, which separated State and church and which they cherished.

Though these cross-cultural comparisons between Tunisia on the one hand and America on the other were often to the advantage of the latter, many of these American writers gave Tunisians due respect and praised some of the virtues Tunisians possessed like their proverbial hospitality, courteousness, simplicity, and respect for the elderly . “To this Andalusian infusion is also traced the charm of the manners of the Tunisians, that gentleness of breeding, softness, and urbanity, blended with an immovable dignity…it is a fine race.” (Woodberry 1914, 28-29) Nonetheless, no one was closer than Dahris Martin, the American artist and fellow of Mac Dowell Colony at Peterborough, New Hampshire, to a full appreciation of Tunisian culture. Her three-year stay in Kairouan, where she lived among Khalifa Ben Kacem’s family, even though she first came as a tourist, was illustrative of an exceptional cultural encounter presented in a light-hearted narrative offering a profound insight into the inner lives of Tunisians, their manners, practices, customs, values and mindsets. It is the story of a friendship which developed between an American young woman and an ordinary Tunisian family. ‘This experience which I was sharing with them,” Martin wrote in I Know Tunisia,” was bringing us humanly closer…they were my friends; they trusted me. I had gained more than a set of lively impressions and sensations, something infinitely precious, more enduring.’(1943, 99-100) Martin became so acquainted and comfortable in the Tunisian community where she lived and where she became known to the local community that she invited an international colony of artists to Kairouan, including American painters like Harry Shokler and Meyer Wolfe and photographers like Louise Dahl and Consuelo Kanaga.

Martin’s comments reflect a shift towards the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American writings about Tunis away from politically loaded, republican and protestant biased if not rational and dogmatic representations to more subjective, nostalgic and aesthetic ones. The writings of Powell, Woodberry, Burbank, Frank, Paddock Wright, Foster, Bottome, Laughlin, Vanderbilt and Roosevelt markedly differed from what had been presented to the American reader until then. Tunisia was less perceived as a background between the forces of progress and reaction. For these writers, Tunisia no longer epitomized decay, wretchedness, filth, corruption, political disorder and lessons of the past. It became a subject to a romantic vision, a sort of retreat where the American writer could find inspiration and why not an insight for one’s future life. “I observed the faces, the attitudes, the doings of this strange people as if I had just landed from another world and I would gladly have stayed longer.” (Woodberry 1914, 6) Notwithstanding the French occupation, Tunis remains distinctly oriental. (Powell 1926, 23) This is why American writers visited Tunis in greater numbers during this period. In Tunis, many ignored the European part of the city and indulged in the old town, where they still found the authentic they made the long trip for. That glimpse on that Tunisia gave them and their readers a far prettier image of the country than the grim image of many of the early American writers. “Everything in native Tunis,” Foster observed, ’appeared bizarre and fantastic’(1930, 303).

From the late nineteenth century on and especially after World War I, one finds much less security in terms of ‘western superiority’ in these writings. The judgmentalism of earlier accounts somehow mellowed. Though some of these American writers concurred that the French protectorate in Tunisia was a blessing if not the unique avenue for the country to develop, many condemned the French for failing to implement the proper political and social policies, which explains the emergence of nationalist movements all over French North Africa against French colonialism.

Conclusion

From the early nineteenth century, many Americans visited Tunisia and wrote about it. They produced a fairly significant and eclectic body of literature, which until now is barely visible. Differently from the now prevailing orthodox orientalist view, which blanketed a single explanation of the nature of American representations of the “orient”, the Moslem world, the Mediterranean world, the Middle East, North Africa and following this Tunisia and analysed them solely in terms of a binary, restrictive, if not reductive opposition between the forces of progress on the one hand and those of reaction on the other, this article suggests that these representations are more varied and complex. This variety and complexity are reflected in the ambivalent discourse Americans writers on Tunisia used in their representations.

Similarly, these writings during the period under cover, gradually moved away from realistic, rational and openly politically charged representations promoted by writers such as Eaton, Mordecai and Amos, who wrote in a late enlightenment spirit, to milder, more subjective, nostalgic and poetic ones characteristic of the late nineteenth century and after. While the earlier view depicted Tunisia as a remnant of what used to be a glorious and powerful country, and resorted to didactic means to inform and educate their readers back in America, the latter portrayed it as a refuge from the pressures of modern life reminiscent of agrarian America. The former view perceived Tunisia as a terrain of struggle between despotism and constitutionalism and a historical exercise on how empires fall and provide a gloomy and somber representation of Tunisia, the latter painted a mild, tender, romantic and almost imaginary image of Tunisia. The security and confidence of earlier nationalist biased narratives gave place to more cosmopolitan, open and balanced ones.

Notes

  1. All the material used in this article is available in the Library of Congress, Washington DC. Some of it like Archibald Roosevelt Papers could be consulted in the Manuscript Division of the Library in Madison Building, the rest is available on the library online catalogue.
  2. See Manai, A. 2006. “Anglo-Tunisian Commercial Relations in the Nineteenth Century: A Travel Note.” Journal of North African Studies 11 (4): 365-372.

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