Children are not born as ideologues: so how and when do they become racists, nationalists, socialists, colonialists or subjects? And children are not necessarily born into ideologies: provincial societies do not become nations overnight; the transition from, say, communist revolution to hegemony is both gradual and uneven; and families may react to encroaching political or religious orthodoxies by eagerly adopting, opposing or just ignoring them. Children are thus often born into ambiguity and flux: the question is whether they eventually accept a social consensus and become citizens, or oppose it and become temporary or permanent rebels. So childhood is perhaps most interesting at those historical junctures where social identities are strongly contested, when children grow up between constellations of competing authorities, identities and opportunities – familial, religious, political, economic, racial, national and sexual.
Albert Camus’s autobiographical novel, The First Man, is a great source on white settler childhood in Algeria. Its complexities have made me rethink a few assumptions on African history – primarily that it’s OK to use “white settler society” as a shorthand for “racist, imperialist, exploitative, expropriating and privileged white settler society”. Camus was born into a poor, working-class family in Algiers in 1913: if his memoir is accurate then there was no settled or monolithic idea of “White French Algeria” for him to simply grow into. So where do hardened and fanatical French imperial citizens come from?
Roots of settler nationalism
One answer might be family and the home. But Camus’s family were not overtly ideological. The first language of his mother and grandmother was Mahon, a Balearic dialect, and so they were isolated by illiteracy and language from French metropolitan news, ideas and national identity – when quizzed by the young Camus, his mother doesn’t even know that France is “their” country. And children lived in close proximity to Arab lives and livelihoods, linked to this ostensibly separate culture by petty exchange and sensory experience: the coffee roasting in the courtyard, or the sweet-vendors outside the cinema.1
Another explanation might be state education. But school attendance and experience were not uniform: in Camus’s école primaire Arab children were educated alongside Europeans; and few working class children graduated to the more segregated lycée. Short periods of education were not decisive in creating an imperial identity: France was a textbook staple but, for Camus, it was still an exotic and distant place, interesting primarily for its snow and, later, for its sense of history – a history that did not yet extend to Algeria.2
Another influence might be the experience of colonial authority, and its hierarchical treatment of Europeans, Muslims and Jews. But what is striking about Camus’s childhood is how little the government affects his life. The authority he encounters is parental not political. And the sole human face of government is the municipal employee: trolley-bus drivers or an Arab dog-catcher. Crime and disorder erupt sporadically: but Camus has only indirect experience of policing, and no apparent concept of the hierarchical laws it enforced, only a nightmarish knowledge that the death penalty is the ultimate sanction. (This might have been slightly different for indigenous Algerian children.)3
Colonial architectures: leisure in the city
If this analysis is correct then the creation of imperial and settler identities is more subtle, and less structured by the state: it is not a conscious project but a gradual accretion grounded in everyday life. One possibility raised by Camus’s The First Man is the role that urban leisure and architecture played in shaping colonial identities during childhood. The photos below are actually from another French colonial city – Casablanca – but you get the general idea. The following discussion is based solely on Camus’s text.
Figures 1-3. Childhood leisure in 1920s/30s Casablanca: rockpools and blackjack on the beach; the cinema; the public swimming baths4:
The structured leisure activities of children – football and French cinema – were distinctly European. Speaking and reading French also opened up the metropolitan world through movies, the radio, newspapers and comics. And the venues for their unstructured play were creations of colonial architecture, often temporarily emptied of an adult presence: the experimental garden; the WWI veterans’ hospital, where they made poisons with discarded medical paraphenalia; apartment cellars; and a beach studded with bathing huts, separated from the city by a strip of industrial land. The city was divided by colour-coded tramlines; and at the nexus of race- and class-segregated neighbourhoods lay the lycée, the barracks and the Place du Gouvernement. Childhood time, too, had a colonial structure: playtime ended as the trolley-cars switched on their lights near dusk; and the year was split by school-terms.5 Leisure venues may have been multi-racial but perhaps children realised that such architectures, so separate in style and ownership, were a product of the colonial presence – and perhaps European children experienced this as something to which they belonged, and from which North Africans were excluded.
1.Albert Camus, The First Man, (London, 2001), pp36-7,73, 103 162-3.
2.Camus, The First Man, pp112-3, 158, 161-2.
3.Camus, The First Man, pp109-10, 217-8
4.Jean-Louis Coen and Monique Eleb, Casablanca: Colonial Myths and Architectural Ventures, (New York, 2002), pp254, 262, 267.
5.Camus, The First Man, pp39-40, 167-73, 188
Albert Camus, The First Man:
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