The Kings of Algiers

Associate Professor Julie Kalman

About the project

My recently completed book project, The Kings of Algiers, tells the story of two Jewish trading families based in the port of Algiers: the Bacris and Busnachs.

For four decades, during the Napoleonic Wars and beyond, they were perhaps the most infamous Jews in the Mediterranean. Members of these two families became so well-known that Jacob Bacri was invited to dinner with Napoleon. Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson puzzled over how to deal with the two families. And American Secretaries of Foreign Affairs Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe considered strategies that would allow them to circumvent the Bacris’ and Busnachs’ influence.

The Bacris and Busnachs were middlemen. They traded in all the raw riches Algiers had to offer. They reached a level of influence in the regency that made them advisors in diplomacy and international relations to the ruling elite. Yet their story is absent from the histories of Britain, France, and America in the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic Wars, and from the histories of the corsairing, slavery, and trade that took place there. The history of Jewish trade in the Mediterranean has been kept siloed and separate from the histories that surround it. How would these histories change if we let them interact, just as their protagonists interacted?

The Kings of Algiers brings the story of the Bacris and Busnachs together with the broader histories surrounding it. It tells the history of four tumultuous decades in the Mediterranean, of an age of burgeoning nationalism and competitive imperialism, from the perspective of those who experienced it on the ground, in a strategic port. It shows how figures and events on the periphery shaped perceptions and decisions in the distant metropoles of France, Britain, and America. It expands and enriches British imperial history, bringing England back into the Mediterranean, in a time when their presence there has been lost to the historiography. It tells the story of France and Algiers from a perspective where the invasion marks an ending, rather than a beginning, giving depth and nuance to the story that follows. And it gives shape to an early, self-conscious America, seeking to be recognized as a national player on the big stage of international diplomacy and trade.

The Jewish history of this period overwhelmingly focuses on Europe, and processes of emancipation. The Kings of Algiers demonstrates that there is another Jewish history to be told, far away from the questions and discussions swirling around Jews in the metropole. Through the Bacris and Busnachs, The Kings of Algiers draws these threads together.

This project was funded through the Australian Research Council’s Future Fellowship scheme.