If you scroll up, or direct your attention to the top of this page, you will see an eye staring back at you. This is the eye of surveillance and scanning, the eye of being alert, the eye of gazing off into the distance, unsure of what is out there. It is the eye of security, first looking out for potential dangers and then envisioning a peacefulness and safety that is yet to come. This is what Jeremy Bentham had in mind when he wrote his oft-cited statement: ‘security turns its eye exclusively to the future’.

Erik de Lange

Erik de Lange is an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University and a founding member of the Security History Network.

Yet security is also rooted in past experiences, in the traditions of the everyday, in old traumas, in history. If security also entails looking back, then the Security History Network adopts the metaphorical eye of Bentham to turn it to the past. Because security has a history, made up of glances, of eyes meeting, and of people dropped from view that warrant our attention, as their outlooks and viewpoints shaped not just our world, but also the way we still see security.    

In March 1830, in a palace room in Genoa, their eyes glided across a map. On paper the sea looked calm and orderly, distances could be measured in straight lines, coastlines appeared clear and unsurprising. Giorgio des Geneys, the Admiral of the Sardinian navy, and the French consul in Genoa were looking for a place to stage an invasion. They were planning France’s impending assault on Algiers. According to reasoning of the French government, this invasion would end piracy and slavery on the Mediterranean Sea, making the waters ‘secure’ from threat. Overseeing their map, the admiral and the consul quickly agreed that there was no place better suited than the Golfo di Palmas. It could house hundreds of warships in its wide, sheltered bay, and, if the winds were favourable, the army could reach Algiers in less than twenty hours.

Six months later another man was glancing out over the Mediterranean, not on paper, but in its liquid reality. Behind him was the hustle and bustle of an army camp in agitated preparation. He was Ibrahim Agha, the commander of the Algerian defenders. As the son-in-law of the Algerian ruler Dey Hussein, Ibrahim was tasked to lead the forces that would take on the French. Tribesmen, inland contingents and the elite forces of the capital made up a composite army of some 50,000 men. In their company, Ibrahim awaited his adversaries at Statouéli, just to the west of Algiers. He scanned the water of the sea, foreboding the arrival of the hostile fleet, but also assured by a sense of divine protection – and by many invasion attempts that had failed miserably in the preceding centuries.

Three pairs of eyes glanced out over the sea, southward and northward, one side planning to fight danger, the other sensing it. When the invasion began, Ibrahim’s forces could not hold out. The French defeated them, took over the city and commenced what would become over a century of imperial rule. The government in Paris claimed it had ‘reestablished the security of the Mediterranean’, while a poet in Algiers lamented ‘henceforth no more rest’. These are just two perspectives, but they already hint at the many faces that security can have. With the Security History Network, we aim to present these faces to you, to reconstruct their glances, to cast an eye on the past (whether it is 1830 or more recently) in order to sharpen our perspective today.

COVER IMAGE: ‘Algiers. General Engagement Viewed from an eminence South of the City.’ [Bombardment of Algiers, 1816]

Opinion pieces have been published by the Security History Network for the purpose of encouraging informed discussions and debates on topics surrounding security history. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily represent the views of the SHN, its partners, convenors or members. 

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