Civilization and power: Developing the colonial paradigm

Colonial thinking: Tocqueville and the “Eastern question”

In the crisis of the Ottoman Empire the Western powers found fertile ground for their expansionist designs, and it was under the ideological banner of humanitarian intervention that, in that crisis, the same powers proceeded to carry out their hegemonic policies. This ideological formula in which the West’s power politics were enveloped was complex, for its underlying logic (that of “humanitarian intervention”) interlocked with the forms of legitimation of colonial domination, this within a paradigm in which “humanitarian” policies coexisted with an imperious will to “civilize” peoples labelled as barbaric.

In this scenario the Western states also advanced their hegemonic strategies through the cynical game of pitting their powers against one another. A paradigmatic expression of this power play can be observed in the politics of nineteenth-century France, as well as in its colonial policy.

In the late 1830s, the so-called Eastern question also attracted the interest of Alexis de Tocqueville, who took up this question from the perspective of international relations and with a view to providing support for France’s power politics. On July 2, 1839, when he first addressed the Chambre des Deputes on


The coupling between the logic of humanitarian intervention and colonial domination had been clearly envisioned since the early modern age in the thought ofVitoria, who listed the protection of innocent lives as the fifth title legitimizing intervention, and for whom such protection therefore acted as a ground on which to justify Spanish colonial domination. As he put it: “The next title could be either on account of the personal tyranny of the barbarians’ masters towards their subjects, or because of their tyrannical and oppressive laws against the innocent, such as human sacrifice practised on innocent men or the killing of condemned criminals for cannibalism” (Vitoria [1539] 1991, question 3 [“The Just Titles by Which the Barbarians of the New World Passed under the Rule of the Spaniards”], article 5 [“Fifth Just Title, in Defence of the Innocent against Tyranny”], § 15, p. 287-88). Vitoria goes on to comment: “The barbarians are all our neighbours, and therefore anyone, and especially princes, may defend them from such tyranny and oppression” (ibid., 288). And then: “If they refuse to do so, war may be declared upon them, and the laws of war enforced upon them; and if there is no other means of putting an end to these sacrilegious rites, their masters may be changed and new princes set up” (ibid.).

the Eastern question, his speech was mainly taken up with the clash between the sultan Mahmud II and his vassal, the pasha of Egypt Muhammad ‘All.

In 1833, Muhammad 'All’s troops were marching across Anatolia towards Constantinople under the command of his first-born son, Ibrâhîm. But the march across the desert was arrested by the intervention by the Russian troops and fleet, which were arrayed in defence of the Bosphorus. Ibrâhîm was thus forced to retreat, while the sultan ended up accepting a Russian protectorate under the Treaty of Hünkâr Iskelesi, signed in the outskirts of Constantinople on July 8, 1833. In 1839, at the urging of the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Lord Ponsonby, the sultan Mahmûd II resumed hostilities and, in the face of this deployment of forces, the French government decided it could not just idly watch.

It was in this international scenario that Tocqueville weighed in, aggressively defending the interests of France: “We do not ask to govern the affairs of the East on our own, and yet we have the same rights as Russia, for we have an interest equal to hers, however much it may be of a different nature. But we do ask and demand that the affairs of the East not be governed without us” (Tocqueville [1839] 1985b, 264; my translation). Tocqueville is thus asserting the French nation’s power interests. There appears to be no need to rest this assertion on any ground of legitimacy: power simply justifies itself! Indeed, while he does mention the “natural law of nations” (droit naturel des nations) and “international European law,” he does not explain how this law might support the proposition he is asserting: the connection is tenuous, if not irrelevant, and he simply asserts that this law is consistent with the role he is claiming for France.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the Mediterranean became a theatre of constant clashes among European powers never at rest. It was in these clashes that their colonial ventures played out.

On July 15,1840, unbeknownst to France, Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia signed a treaty with the Ottoman Empire (the Convention of London of 1840) whose essence lay in an ultimatum demanding that the pasha of Egypt withdraw from Adana, Crete, and Syria: only under these conditions would the pasha be able to maintain his sovereignty over Egypt and his control over the Eyalet of Acre. The pasha rejected the ultimatum, and as a result, on September 11 of the same year, a British fleet bombarded Beirut, while Acre was occupied.


Article 3 of the treaty reads as follows: “In consequence of the principle of preservation and mutual defence, which forms the basis of the present alliance treaty, and by reason of the most earnest desire to ensure the permanence, maintenance, and complete independence of the Sublime Porte, His Majesty the Emperor of all Russias undertakes to supply as many troops and armed forces as the two High Contracting Parties will deem necessary in the event that circumstances should arise compelling the Sublime Porte to once more request Russia’s naval and military aid, even if, God willing, no such thing is likely to happen. And it is accordingly agreed that, in such an unlikely circumstance, what land and sea forces the Sublime Porte may request will be made available to it” (Barie et al. 2004, 113; my translation). Cf. Mantran 1989,447-48, and Ancel 1931, 111-12.

This turn of events was received with great alarm in French public opinion, and King Louis Philippe I took a nonaggressive attitude, rejecting the interventionist urgings of his prime minister, Adolphe Thiers, and instead heeding the more appeasing restraint advocated by François Guizot. Against this back-drop Tocqueville delivered his second address on the Eastern question, this time clearly signalling a greater awareness of the stakes. Indeed, the Eastern question was here presented by Tocqueville as the scenario in which Europe was gearing up to conquer and dominate Asia, and in which the prevailing European power would take home the biggest prize: “Do you know what is happening in the East?” he asked the Chambre des Députés on November 30, 1840.

It is an entire world that is being transformed. From the riverbanks of the Indus to the shores of the Black Sea an immense space stretches out in which all societies are in motion, all religions are wilting away, all nationalities are disappearing, all lights are going out—the ancient Asiatic world is vanishing, and in its place there can be seen the gradual rise of the European world. Present-day Europe is not assailing Asia from a single point, as it did at the time of the Crusades: it is attacking from the North, the South, the East, the West, from all sides; it is branding, enveloping, taming Asia. (Tocqueville [1840] 1985c, 290; my translation)

This is the manifesto that heralds colonial conquest. Indeed, the greatness of the European nations will be measured precisely on the basis of their ability to establish a foothold in this new immense space: “Do you therefore believe,” Tocqueville continues, “that a nation that wants to preserve its greatness can look on at such a spectacle without joining in?” The “greatness” of nations makes it necessary to be in the vanguard in this carving up of an entire land mass, even if the competition has by now turned deadly. It is inconceivable that two other European peoples—the British and the Russians—should be allowed to take possession of “this immense inheritance.” “And rather than stand for it,” Tocqueville concludes, “I will tell my country with energy, with conviction: better that we go to war” (ibid.).

Thus, on the one hand, Tocqueville recognizes the full import of the July 15 Convention of London, as a result of which Beirut has been shelled and the Eyalet of Acre occupied, but at the same time, because this is a treaty under which France is left out of the action, he comes to the conclusion that the country should forcefully assert its place in the international scenario that is taking shape. Specifically, France should side with the pasha of Egypt, Muhammad All, against the designs of the sultan of Constantinople, who on September 14,1840, decreed that he should be deposed.

In reality, Tocqueville cynically reasons, there is nothing that France stands to gain from an interest in the fate of Muhammad AIT. Instead, the country should train its eye on the growth of British power in the Mediterranean: this is a threat to be subdued, being “an additional weapon aimed at France.” Thus the European powers’ strategies and their colonial ventures are inextricably bound up in a bitter clash in which the fate of non-Europcan peoples is merely instrumental to the aims of conquest and the growth of power.

In some of the notes in which Tocqueville sets down his ideas in preparation for his second speech addressing the Chambre des Députés on the Eastern question, he outlines the shape of European colonial expansion, proposing to define the objectives that France ought to pursue in the context of the European engagement with the Eastern world. It was inconceivable for France to sit idly by, for the East was undergoing a deep transformation: “Disarray across the whole of Asia, from the Indus River to the Black Sea. Depopulation. Anarchy. Religious and political ties coming apart. A movement of the European race toward Asia. It is the movement of the century” (Tocqueville 1985a, 279; my translation).[1] A nation that were to watch from the sidelines, while the others moved to aggrandize themselves, would end up being dependent on them. France therefore had to join the colonial venture and build its own system of alliances in view of this objective. “The Eastern question,” Tocqueville concluded, “is the question of the century: it dwarfs all other questions, which must all be made subordinate to it” (ibid., 280). The question of colonialization had by then taken centre stage, and Tocqueville took it up with the aim of preserving the “greatness” of France.

  • [1] The editor of Tocqueville’s Discours Politiques, André Jardin, notes that it is not easy to date these remarks. But the way in which Tocqueville characterizes France’s position within the international landscape suggests that he was writing before the crisis that in July 1840 would lead to the Convention of London. 2 On Tocqueville and Algeria see the excellent Letterio 2011 and Re 2012. See also Boulbina 2003.
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