Land dispute involving a Jew led to colonisation of Tunisia

How did North Africa come to be colonised by the French in the 19th century? The European powers seized the slightest pretext to intervene in local affairs. Some involved Jews.

According to Ron Boublil’s book Silencing the Past, a land dispute in 1880 in Tunisia led to the colonisation of the country by the French.

Silencing the Past: The Arab Spring, Israel and the Jews of Tunisia by [Ron Boublil]

A Tunisian general by the name of Kahyar tried to sell 250,000 acres of agricultural land between Tunis and Sousse to a Marseille company for two million francs. The Bey of Tunis objected, claiming  that the land was the property of the General for personal use and could not be transferred to foreigners. Also objecting was  Youssef Levy, a naturalised English Jew who owned the land adjacent to the property. He wished to buy the land in dispute.

The British sent battleships to uphold Levy’s rights. The French withdrew their support, not wanting to confront the British over this land deal. Levy remained in control of the disputed land until 1882, when it was purchased by the French soon after the Treaty of Bardo, by which Tunisia became a French protectorate.

Some argue that a property deal to a  non-Muslim was what triggered the colonisation of Tunisia. Land in Tunisia was then governed by Koranic law: in theory, it belonged to no one. Only God owned the land and claims to private property  could be made by individuals who proved their connections to the land – ergo, only Muslims. Koranic law allowed those who proved they worked the land and produced ‘the fruits of their labour’ to own land. But in 1887, under pressure on the Bey from the British and the French, the law was changed to allow anyone to own land.

Until the French showed up there were no official deeds, especially in the south of the country where the Berber population did not register land ownership in order to escape heavy taxes. In 1901,  certain tribes were given some rights of use with government permission.

Boublil argues that the pre-colonial land ownership allowed the Beys, the local Ottoman governors,  to exploit the population without giving anything in return: “The corrupt  land and economic system was designed to  guard the fortunes of the elites under the umbrella of Islam.”


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