French railways in Algeria, 1850-1900 : A contribution to the study of colonial history.
In nineteenth century colonial Algeria, railways were a necessary
condition for the expansion of colonisation and for the economic
development of this most important French colony. Railways
were both political and military instruments as well as important
to the development of trade and in the attraction and settlement
When they were constructed in Algeria, railways became passage
ways for streams of settlers and bulky goods which it had hitherto
been impossible to transport by land in quantity. Moreover,
the development of commercial agriculture was made possible only
after the construction of the first lines and the subsequent
reduction of transportation charges. The fertile plains and the
main ports of Algeria became targets for railway planners who
were anxious to increase the volume of exports towards the
Metropole. The impact of railways on agricultural patterns in
terms of means of production and output was also significant.
The development of colonial agriculture was in part a consequence
of the influence of rail transport.
Furthermore, railways had important effects on the availability
of resources and the economic accessibility of various parts of
the colony. The mineral areas of Algeria were opened by the
railways which,due to their capacity to move raw materials
in mass, provided a valuable stimulus to industrial development
in France and in Europe. Railways had, in addition, widened
the colonial market for French manufactured products after the
1880's, thereby monopolising the distribution of the growing
volume of industrial goods from France and other European
Colonial railways were the main target for Metropolitan investments
in the period 1858-1892. In addition to providing investors
with substantial dividends and various advantages, they also
represented important markets for French and European industries.
However, despite their economic and strategic significance,
railways in Algeria were undeniably a heavy financial burden
on the state because of the Garantie d'interet system. This
aroused a lot of concern and a political outcry which led to the
end of the railway development in the nineteenth century.
Above all, the railways proved, in times of armed Algerian
resistance, the best means for the mass movement of troops and
Thus railways constituted the tool by which military occupation
was achieved and settlement policy advanced. In time of
relative peace they proved the most efficient factor behind
the attraction of colons, the economic subjugation of the
Algerians and the global development of the colony.