Inside Algeria’s Early ‘Kingdom of Wine’
Owen White Traces the History of the Algerian Vignoble
When the writer Louis Bertrand looked back on the time he had spent in Algeria in the 1890s, he characterized one place in particular as “the kingdom of wine.” What he had in mind was not some hazy plain of vine yards, but rather Belcourt, a rough-edged district of Algiers close to the port. On the surface this may have seemed an unusual choice, for the neighborhood’s only grapevines grew within the state-run experimental garden, the Jardin d’essai. Instead of vines, however, Bertrand was thinking of the many people of French, Spanish, and Italian descent who made their living in Belcourt’s barrel workshops or wine storehouses, or by equipping the horses or repairing or driving the carts that transported the barrels from vineyards to the docks.
The horses and carts soon gave way to trucks, but wine was still central to the economic life of Belcourt when Albert Camus grew up there in the 1910s and 1920s, as his brother Lucien and his uncle Etienne could both personally testify. The census of 1921 prompted French talk of a “crisis of rural settlement” in Algeria as the population of European colonial centers in the countryside stagnated or lost numbers to the cities, especially in the departments of Constantine and Algiers. Yet even as cities like Algiers increasingly spread outward, many urbanized Euro-Algerians retained a connection to the agricultural hinterlands through the work that they did, and no more so than in servicing colonial viticulture. If Bertrand had made his observations in the 1920s, he would have found that the “kingdom of wine” itself now sprawled to encompass other communities alongside or close to the Bay of Algiers. Here the “industrial” side of the Algerian wine industry was particularly evident, though the work to be found was not only of the blue-collar variety.
Just to the east of Belcourt in the suburb of HusseinDey, for example, a working-class population that was heavily Spanish or Italian in origin found work at barrel companies like Francalfûts or in businesses like Etablissements A. Blachère et ses fils, a foundry and machine manufacturer that specialized in supplying wineries with the pumps and other equipment they needed. Slightly inland at Le Ruisseau there was a bouchonnerie (bottlecork factory) owned by a member of the Borgeaud family, Alfred. (He had acquired a 3,000hectare cork forest at Souk Ahras in the department of Constantine.) A few kilometers further south, workers refined Sicilian sulfur for use in pesticides in a factory belonging to one of Alfred Borgeaud’s brothers, Jules, alongside the railway tracks at Le Gué de Constantine.
Along with these manual trades (including transportation), wine also produced a great deal of white-collar work. In government, the fight against phylloxera as well as various forms of regulation generated vast amounts of paperwork. In the private sector, wine traders and brokers needed clerks to fill orders and maintain their accounts, as did wine companies and many individual producers.
For Euro-Algerians like Michel Roig, this kind of work represented an opportunity for social mobility. Roig was born in 1895 at the eastern end of the Bay of Algiers in Fort de l’Eau, to parents who had emigrated from Ibiza and (like so many others from the Balearic Islands in that community) worked in market gardening. Though his parents were illiterate—neither could sign their name when they married—his mother ensured that Michel began receiving instruction at a young age from a locally based congregation of nuns, who set him up well to succeed when he was old enough to enter the école communale. At the age of sixteen, Roig was hired to work in the offices of the SIAH in nearby Maison Carrée. Within three years, he was in charge of shipping the company’s products (including much communion wine), while at the same time studying for a diploma in business. Returning from three years’ military service in 1920—he was wounded in one shoulder and also gassed—Roig was appointed to be the SIAH’s chief of accounts. He held that job until his death in 1956, while at the same time taking part in a variety of Catholic charitable works and also serving for two decades on Maison Carrée’s municipal council. For a child of poor migrants this was a solid career indeed, but many other Euro-Algerians could have told of similar paths away from fields and into offices.
These examples, drawn from around the Bay of Algiers, of course had analogues in other locations in Algeria: there were barrel workshops in Oran and Bône, a sulfur refinery in Arzew, an important manufacturer of machinery for wine production in Boufarik, cork factories in several towns in the department of Constantine (Bône, Bougie, Djidjelli), and so on—all of them hiring hands for the factory floor as well as administrators like Roig. Together, businesses such as these represented a not insubstantial proportion of Algeria’s industrial sector in the early decades of the century. Other than mineral extraction, indeed, there was little else in the colony that qualified as “industrial” that did not link in some way to agricultural production.
Relatively paltry though this industrial base was, it created pockets of development that served both to draw Algerian migrants toward the cities and provide new opportunities for the owners of adjacent lands. In 1919, for example, the colonist Charles Pourcher sold his domain at Le Ruisseau to what he called a “rich industrialist” from Nîmes who wanted room to expand operations from the factory he had recently established next door, which included a wine distillery. Though at first reluctant to sell a property that he had occupied for 38 years (and on which his vineyards had produced prizewinning wines), with the money he received Pourcher was able to buy a villa in nearby Kouba with a “superb” view of Algiers and the bay. Around Algiers after the Great War the repurposing of land formerly used for viticulture to residential or industrial uses would become increasingly common, as the city extended further and further into the hinterland.
The fact that Pourcher’s property sold to a southern French buyer signals that outside capital continued to seek profits from Algerian viticulture. The sulfur industry provides an especially good example. Algeria had no sulfur of its own, so the products that workers applied to the vines to counteract oidium, mildew, and various insect pests were largely manufactured using sulfur mined in Sicily or, starting around the turn of the century, drawn from underground deposits in Louisiana. (A smaller supply was mined near Apt in the South of France.) The few refineries in Algeria, however, lacked the capacity to treat enough crude sulfur to meet the insatiable demands of the colony’s vines. Instead, the bulk of the profit went to refiners who were mostly located in French ports, especially Marseille and Sète, and often collaborated to form cartels.
Marcel Roubaud was the director of one of the biggest sulfur consortiums, the Marseille-based Raffineries de soufre réunies (RSR). At the same time he served on the board of the Compagnie des vignobles de la Méditerranée (CVM), owner of a large vineyard at Monville on the plain of Bône. This connection was clearly beneficial to the company, which in 1910 thanked Roubaud for his help with the supply of sulfur products. Soon Roubaud became president of the CVM alongside a powerful roster of fellow board members, all based in the metropole, including, in 1920, France’s minister of finance, Frédéric FrançoisMarsal. While remaining an important force in the economic life of Marseille—Marcel’s son Jean took over as director of the RSR, which in the 1930s achieved a virtual monopoly of the sulfur business—the Roubaud family maintained its connection to Algerian wine until independence through the CVM and by acquiring the Hussein Dey barrel company Francalfûts (run by Marcel’s grandson Guy Roubaud). The vine and its needs made this family very wealthy, but the profits from its investment in Algerian viticulture largely flowed north across the Mediterranean.
The Algerian wine industry attracted two particularly important types of investor. The Roubauds were representative of the external investors, who owned properties or wine-related companies in Algeria and served on company boards but continued to be based in France; they were never “colonists.” In a trend dating back to the 19th century, the department of Constantine seems especially to have attracted external in vestment toward large-scale viticulture, perhaps a result of the relative paucity of European settlement there. (Vineyards in the more densely settled department of Oran were much more likely to be owned by Euro Algerians.) But there were notable external investors in other areas too, like the Grasse perfume magnate Georges Chiris with his large vineyards at Boufarik in the Mitidja.
More significant, though, were what we might call (thinking spatially) lateral investors: Euro-Algerians who became rich thanks to viticulture or other local economic ventures, but whose capital mostly stayed in North Africa. Often the revenue generated by wine in the Mitidja and parts of the Sahel of Algiers was reinvested “laterally” in viticulture in the departments of Oran and Constantine. In the West, the Société des domaines du Kéroulis, with its thousand-plus hectares of vines near Aïn Témouchent, was developed in the 1920s into a highly profitable fiefdom of the Germain family, assisted by allies like Gaston Averseng. In the East, the Mitidja producer Julien Bertrand founded the Société du domaine du Chapeau de Gendarme in 1910 to revive a large vine yard on the plain of Bône whose past owners had had to cede the property to the Bank of Algeria. Soon the company was thriving, and by the 1920s its board was dominated by notable figures from around Algiers like the wine producer and mayor of Boufarik, Amédée Froger, and the owner of the Domaine de la Trappe at Staouëli, Lucien Borgeaud, who succeeded Bertrand as company president. Members of the Borgeaud family like Lucien and his son Henri, in fact, represented virtually the paragon of the lateral investor, for, as an official at the Bank of Algeria noted, their extensive share portfolios were made up almost entirely of North African investments—albeit often in Borgeaud-controlled companies.
These wealthy Euro-Algerians naturally expected to achieve a commensurate level of political influence. As the detailed research of Jacques Bouveresse has shown, the elective body the Délégations financières al gériennes was so dominated by agricultural interests as to represent a sort of “agrarian assembly,” with wine producers like Bertrand and Froger especially prominent voices. Such voices were amplified by a sympathetic press. Two of the figures whose financial backing was instrumental in the founding of the important daily newspaper L’Echo d’Alger in 1912, for example, were one of the Germain brothers, Michel, and Jean Manent, from a wine-producing family of Minorcan origin in the southern Mitidja. (Both were married to daughters of the vinelord Michel Louis Pelegri.) From 1927 the Echo was owned by Jacques Duroux, reputedly the richest man in Algeria between the wars. With the profits from his large flour-milling company in Maison Carrée, his hometown, Duroux had developed two vineyards of several hundred hectares in the eastern Mitidja. As vice president of the Union des viticulteurs during the Great War, Duroux was frustrated in that group’s effort to buy ships on behalf of the colony’s wealthiest producers, but in 1923 he was able to cofound a new shipping company, the Cargos algériens, much of whose business came from transporting wine. Between 1921 and 1938 Duroux represented the department of Algiers in the French Senate, where he had ample opportunity to serve on commissions with the power to shape policies of relevance to the Algerian economy.
The structure of power in Algeria was too diffuse for these wealthy Euro-Algerians to constitute a political oligarchy. But the governor general between 1925 and 1927, the socialist Maurice Viollette, had no doubt that Algeria’s agricultural elite—with wine producers foremost among them—qualified as an “economic oligarchy.” As we have seen, the government general understood that there was a danger in concentration of property, hence its active support of the cooperative movement. At the same time, however, it was beholden to the needs and demands of the big producers. As governor general, Viollette himself had assisted a scheme to channel water to the Domaine du Kéroulis from a source twenty kilometers distant. In 1929 the Société anonyme des domaines du Kéroulis was the twentieth most profitable company in the entire French Empire, on a list made up largely of banks, trading companies, and mining concerns. In its annual report that year, the company announced that the most recent vendange had yielded 109,975 hectoliters of wine, of which by March 1929 it had already sold over 95 percent. An article in the journal L’Afrique du Nord illustrée celebrated the modernity of the company’s central domain with its 1,200 hectares of vines, its new winery with the capacity to hold 105,000 hectoliters, and its “imposing battery” of tractors.The trappings of viticultural wealth were now often to be seen in luxurious urban residences, not only in the cities but also in smaller communities in wine producing regions.
The journal asserted that if such grandes exploitations were an exception in metropolitan agriculture, in Algeria they were the necessary motor of colonial development and were also good (in ways unelaborated) for the well being of the “indigènes.” But as the photographs depicting one or two people amid vast plains, factory like interiors, and rows of machines might have suggested to some readers, this agrocapitalism represented a very different type of colonization from the model based on small freeholders that the Third Republic had idealized more or less since the 1870s.
The 1910s and 1920s represented an inflection point in the history of Algerian wine in another way, too, as members of the generation that had propelled the first big expansion of the vignoble both experienced a period of triumph and began to die out. The manner of their passing was sometimes telling in itself. Michel Louis Pelegri, whose impoverished family had migrated from Majorca in 1846 when he was a boy, died in 1917 after his chauffeur-driven limousine caught fire near his downtown apartment in Algiers. Julien Bertrand, a Burgundian who had arrived with the army in 1870 and stayed to become one of Algeria’s most influential figures in viticulture, agriculture, and financial affairs, died in 1925 after a fall at his villa overlooking the Bay of Algiers.
The trappings of viticultural wealth were now often to be seen in luxurious urban residences, not only in the cities but also in smaller communities in wine producing regions: to the west of Oran, for example, the town of Rio Salado had a neighborhood known as the quartier des millionnaires from as early as the 1910s. Some put their money toward expensive new pursuits; around 1930 aviation became a passion for many members of the Germain family. As a younger generation took over, the typical vinelord now spent much of his time in urban comfort, supervising by telephone and visiting properties by car as necessary. Yet the likes of Henri Borgeaud and Robert Germain (who took control of the Société des do maines du Kéroulis when his father Pierre died in 1933) were still as committed as their fathers to their vineyards and the businesses they fed.
The approach of the centenary of French Algeria in 1930 occasioned celebration and some reflection among Euro-Algerians. A large monument dedicated to the “French genius for colonization” went up in Boufarik, the town in the Mitidja that had served as a nodal point for the expansion of viticulture. Meanwhile, one of colonial Algeria’s leading scholars of the time, Augustin Bernard, offered the judgment that the development of the vignoble had been “the most important economic fact in the modern history of Algeria.” The decade that was just about to begin would test the solidity of that statement.
Excerpt from The Blood of the Colony: Wine and the Rise and Fall of French Algeria by Owen White, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.