The Algerian War of the Wizards: Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin vs. the Marabouts

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“The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing” - Ben Okri

Nothing up my sleeve...no, really, nothing.

Nothing up my sleeve…no, really, nothing.

When somebody mentions wizards these days, we tend to think of kindly, grey-bearded wise men like Tolkein’s Gandalf or precocious heroes like Harry Potter.  The truth is that wizards are a pesky lot, always involved with all sorts of subversion and revolutionary activities, which makes a certain amount of sense given that their modus operandi generally involves turning the natural order of things all topsy-turvy, at least from the perspective of us non-magical types.  To our dubious credit as a species (albeit, not universally, since the occasional witch hunt still occurs), most of humanity decided that all that burning of witches and warlocks in Europe and the Americas was unfashionable by the 18th Century A.D.  While persecution of sorcery was on the way out, Europe was still pretty keen on colonialism, brazenly snapping up foreign lands in the name of king and country, often with the ostensible goal of “civilizing” the resentful residents.  Since they’d given up their inquisitorial ways, when they stumbled upon pockets of wizards in their overseas possessions, they found themselves in a bit of a bind, because when you’re  faced with a wizard, and you consider it bad manners to just up and burn him at the stake, you need to look for alternatives.  Frankly, with the overall lack of occult powers in the general population, if you want to fight a wizard, you pretty much have to get yourself one of your own, preferably with more magical mojo.  And this is exactly what Napoleon III’s Second French Empire did in Algeria in 1865, when faced with a native wizard infestation that happened to be inciting the ungrateful locals to cast off the yoke of colonial oppression.  The French Army called upon the services of Europe’s greatest magician, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, to deal with the problem.

Some of you savvy readers are already noting the similarity between “Houdin” and “Houdini” and this is because Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was so magically awesome that when a young and talented Hungarian illusionist named Erik Weisz (1874-1926) was fishing about for a stage name, he opted to pay homage to his illustrious predecessor, and fixed upon the pseudonym of “Harry Houdini”.  Jean Eugène Robert (1805-1871) was born the humble son of the finest watchmaker in Blois, France, and had no greater aspirations than to honorably follow in his father’s footsteps and specialize in horology (while his father encouraged him to become a lawyer).  He scrimped and he saved in the 1820’s as an apprentice watchmaker to his cousin, and set off to obtain Ferdinand Berthoud’s Traité de l’horlogerie, the seminal work at the time on watchmaking.  There was a mix-up at the bookstore, and when poor Jean Eugène unwrapped his purchase, his life would change forever.  Rather than the two volume Traité de l’horlogerie, he had mistakenly received a set of books on professional magic called Scientific Amusements, a tome that provided general descriptions of how to perform some of the greatest conjuring feats known to man.  Mechanically gifted and naturally curious, Jean Eugène embarked on the study of magic, practicing incessantly, taking lessons from local amateurs, and taking an apprenticeship to the magician Edmund De Grisi.  He married the lovely young daughter of another watchmaker named Cecile Houdin, and hyphenated his last name (a bit of an oddity for the time), and thenceforth was known as Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.  He moved to Paris to work for his father-in-law, doing a little prestidigitation on the side at parties, but began hobnobbing with fellow magicians, perfecting his stagecraft and mechanical tricks, and finally opening his own theater, the Soirées Fantastiques.  Every magician that has since worn a top hat and tails is copying Robert-Houdin, and he is responsible for the development of many classic illusions in the stables of modern conjurers.  Robert-Houdin never claimed to actually have occult powers, rather maintained that he was simply a clever performer.  Classic misdirection.  All the best wizards do this.  It deftly sidesteps the possibility of being run out of town by a torch-wielding mob.  Suspicious, if you ask me.  Very suspicious.

Even more suspicious is that the French Army turned to Robert-Houdin when faced with a wizard-incited insurrection in French Algeria.  After the rest of Europe put the kaibosh on Napoleon Bonaparte for the second time, the Bourbon Restoration ensued, establishing a constitutional monarchy in France under Louis XVIII, followed by his more conservative and rather unpopular brother Charles X in 1824.  Charles needed a distraction that would raise a little bit of patriotic fervor.  Algeria had been a base for Mediterranean piracy since Ottoman admirals Oruç and Hayreddin Barbarossa seized Algiers in 1516, and it was fairly routine for Western powers to put a hurt on the Berber pirates terrorizing their shipping.  The French punitively attacked Coastal Algeria a few times between 1682-1688.  The United States, a relatively new naval power at the time, put boots on the ground twice between 1801-1815, and an Anglo-Dutch expedition bombarded Algiers in 1816.  Although ostensibly part of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans pretty much let Algeria do its own thing.  In perhaps one of the lamest excuses for an invasion, the French invaded Algeria in force in 1830 on the pretext that the French Consul Pierre Deval had been stuck with a “fly whisk” by the Dey of Algiers.  Overreacting, as the French often do, they blockaded Algiers and subsequently sent in 34,000 soldiers.  By 1834, France annexed the most habitable parts of Algeria (the non-desert portion), and declared it a French colony.  Just after the invasion, Charles X was deposed, and replaced by King Louis-Philippe, who decided to hang onto Algeria to piss off the British (who were making nice with the Ottomans at the time).  The usual ham-fisted colonial oppression ensued, much to the dismay of the local Algerians, who suffered miserably during this period, scholars estimating that half the population died from war, famine, and disease.  And just to add insult to injury the universe lumped on a grasshopper infestation, a nasty winter, and a cholera epidemic.  All death and no play makes for an unhappy subject population.

So the French had neverending headaches with Algeria, compounded by an increasingly organized resistance effort drawing on Muslim religious sentiment, and the appearance of a number of local leaders, Quranic scholars, and holy men keeping alive various pre-Islamic traditions, reputed to possess miraculous powers called Marabouts (loosely the Arabic equivalent of a venerated saint).  In short, French Algeria had a wizard problem.  Ever since the Enlightenment, when you had to be a logical positivist to hang with the cool kids, the best course of action when faced with the presence of magic was deemed to be to deny that magic exists.  Thus, rather than recognize the possibility that occult forces were aligning against them, the French administration decided that the optimum solution would be an anti-magic public relations campaign, puzzlingly spearheaded by none other than a magician, with the confusingly illogical goal (given disbelief in magic and general dismissiveness towards Marabout thaumaturgy) of proving that French magic was more powerful than Algerian magic.  Now, there are some grounds for assuming this given that according to occultist and demonologist Jacques Albin Simon Collin de Plancy (1793-1881), Hell maintains permanent diplomatic relations with France in the form of an Ambassador and one of seven princes of Hell, named Belphgor.  Notwithstanding this relationship, France opted not to call in any favors, and instead brought magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin out of retirement, shipping him off to Algeria with the ostensible purpose of impressing the local chieftains and siphoning off support from the native Marabouts.  While Robert-Houdin’s autobiography, modestly titled Robert Houdin: the Great Wizard, Celebrated French Conjurer, Author, And Ambassador is a clear exercise in “dig me” and 19th Century ethnocentricity, and aren’t all of them really, he captures both his and the French government’s mindset with regards to the Algerian wizards succinctly.

It was settled that I should reach Algiers by the next 27th of September, the day on which the great fetes annually offered by the capital of Algeria to the Arabs would commence.  I must say that I was much influenced in my determination by the knowledge that my mission to Algeria had a quasi -political character. I, a simple conjurer, was proud of being able to render my country a service. It is known that the majority of revolts which have to be suppressed in Algeria are excited by intriguers, who  say they are inspired by the Prophet, and are regarded by the Arabs as envoys of God on earth to deliver then from the oppression of the Roumi (Christians).  These false prophets and holy Marabouts, who are no more sorcerers than I am, and indeed even less so, still contrive to influence the fanaticism of their co-religionists by tricks as primitive as are the spectators before whom they are performed. The government was, therefore, anxious to destroy their pernicious influence, and reckoned on me to do so. They If hoped, with reason, by the aid of my experiments, to prove to the Arabs that the tricks of their Marabouts were mere child’s play, and owing to their simplicity could not be done by an envoy from Heaven, which also led us very naturally to show them that we are their superiors in everything, and, as for sorcerers, there are none like the French (Robert-Houdin, 1859, p372-373).

I don’t know about you, but I read a lot of mixed messages in there.  The Marabouts are not sorcerers.  Nor is Robert-Houdin.   But in any case, French sorcerers are better anyway.  A classic “Yes, repeat, no” bit of propaganda.  While the French have maintained that they are superior to pretty much everyone in the world to this day, they curiously declared themselves superior even in, by their own admission, non-existent magic.  This is a sort of subtle political subterfuge on the order of “Aliens don’t exist, but don’t worry we’ll protect you from them” or “The Illuminati doesn’t exist: This message brought to you by the Illuminati”.  Again, if you were a real wizard, would you find it in your best interest to advertise the fact?  I mean, sure you’ve got to make a living, but isn’t it easier to have strange occult powers and pretend you’re just enormously clever than to admit your immense supernatural abilities?  Robert-Houdin went on to give a series of performances for local Algerian leaders that were thought to be fairly impressive.  William Manning, a long-time British acquaintance of Robert-Houdin sang his praises in recollection of his feats, saying “in 1856 he accepted an engagement from the French Government to put an end to the belief among the Arabs in the miraculous power of their wizards and marabouts, whom he met on their own grounds, fought with their own weapons, and demonstrated under the public eye that he was more than a match for the best of them, though denying that he possessed any supernatural gift whatever” (Manning, 1898, p27).

He went to play off his tricks against those of Arab priests, or holy men, and, by “greater marvels than they could show, destroy the prestige which they had acquired. He so completely succeeded that the Arabs lost all faith in the miracles of the Marabouts, and thus was destroyed an influence very dangerous to the French Government.” His first performance was given at the leading theatre of Algiers, before a great assemblage of Arabs, who had been summoned to witness the soiree magique, by the mandate of the Marshall-Governor of Algeria. Houdin’s “Light and Heavy Chest” literally paralyzed the Arabs with astonishment. He altered the mise en scene, and pretended to be able to make the strongest man so weak that he would be unable to lift a small box from the floor (Evans, 1909, p150).

Robert-Houdin pulled out all the stops on his performances, producing cannonballs and flowers from top hats, levitating coins, providing magic inexhaustible bowls of sweetmeats and coffee, making confederates disappear, and defied the best marksman in Algiers to shoot him, materializing the fired bullet in a nearby apple, and in a later attempt, catching the bullet in his teeth.   Robert-Houdin was suitably impressive, and was given a heartfelt letter signed by the Algerian chieftains who witnessed his magic.

Homage offered to Robert-Houdin, by the chiefs of the Arab tribes, after his performances given at Algiers on the 28th and 29th o fOctober, 1856. “Glory to God, who teaches us what we know not, and enables us to express the treasures of the mind by the flowers of eloquence and the signs of writing. Generous-handed destiny has sent down from above, in the midst of lightning and thunder, like a powerful and fertilizing rain, the marvel of the moment and the age, him who cultivates the surprising arts and marvelous sciences—the sid-Robert-Houdin. Our century has seen no one comparable with him. The splendor of his talent surpasses the most brilliant productions of past ages. Our age is the more illustrious because it has possessed him.  He has known how to stir our hearts and astonish our minds, by displaying to us the surprising facts of his marvelous science. Our eyes were never before fascinated by such prodigies. What he accomplishes cannot be described. We owe him our gratitude for all the things by which he has delighted our eyes and our minds; hence, our friendship for him has sunk into our hearts like a perfumed shower, and our bosoms preciously conceal it. We shall in vain attempt to raise our praises to the height of his merit; we must lower our brows before him and pay him homage, so long as the benevolent shower fertilizes the soil, so long as the moon illuminates the night, so long as the clouds come to temper the heat of the sun”. Written by the slave of God, Ali-Ben-El-Hadjimoussa (Robert-Houdin, 1859, p392-393).

The magical influence of the Marabouts was broken, and while it could not rightly be said that things settled down in French Algeria, the wizard-based forms of insurrection were temporarily quelled.  Algeria remained a department of France from 1848, until it gained independence in 1962 after a bloody and protracted revolution against the French that erupted in 1954.  Nobody thought about sending in wizards anymore.

Skepticism is a curious thing.  There is a reason that professional magicians and special effects experts make good skeptics, as they are wise in the ways of creating illusions, making you believe you see what isn’t there.  It’s their bread and butter.  I often find it puzzling that anomalists turn over photographs to experts in the art of illusion and ask them if the picture seems real.  And as a point of professional pride, such experts consider how they themselves would fake a photo, predictably pointing out the flaws in the presumed hoax or that they can find no flaws.  It would be a poor prestidigitator that revealed his trade secrets.  This is akin to asking a clinical psychologist if hearing voices in your head means you’re crazy.  Modern man wants explanations, not magic, but our explanations are often a function of what we “know” to be true.  Wizards don’t exist, but just in case, let’s send in a wizard.  Ambrose Bierce suspected that given the right incentives, we might all consider the possibility that magic could emerge from inside us at any moment when he defined sorcery as “The ancient prototype and forerunner of political influence. It was, however, deemed less respectable and sometimes was punished by torture and death. Augustine Nicholas relates that a poor peasant who had been accused of sorcery was put to the torture to compel a confession. After enduring a few gentle agonies the suffering simpleton admitted his guilt, but naively asked his tormentors if it were not possible to be a sorcerer without knowing it.”

References
Evans, Henry Ridgely, b. 1861. The Old And the New Magic. Chicago: The Open Court Publ. Co., [etc.,etc.], 1909.
Manning, William, d. 1905. Recollections of Robert Houdin, Clockmaker, Electrician, Conjuror. [Chicago: Chas. L. Burlingame], 1898.
Robert-Houdin, Jean-Eugene, 1805-1871. Robert Houdin: the Great Wizard, Celebrated French Conjurer, Author, And Ambassador. Philadelphia: C. Desilver, 1859.

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