1851 – Emigration from the Valais to Algeria
In order to repopulate the villages and cultivate the land from which native populations had been expulsed, the French prefects were given the task of spreading propaganda in Northern Europe so as to recruit candidates for emigration. In this way, recruiters came to operate in the Valais, while some Valais citizens took the initiative of contacting the French authorities to find out about the conditions for a departure to Algeria.
The first Valaisans to settle in Algeria attracted other candidates by writing to their relations back at home. Several dozen families from the Lower Valais thus settled in Algeria between 1851 and 1855, in particular at the village of Ahmar El Aïn in the north, joining the emigrants who had settled there in the 1840s. These departures were treated at first as an "emigration of riddance", both by the Valaisan press, which judged them severely, and by the French authorities, who protested to the government of the Valais. In the years that followed the first departures, the Valais government began taking measures to establish stricter conditions for emigration; in particular by imposing the condition of possessing sufficient funds to cover the costs of emigration. The result was that most of the emigrants to Algeria were forced to sell all their property in order to finance their trip and establishment.
In certain parts of the Valais, this emigration to Algeria involved considerable numbers of people. From the village of Saxon alone, 186 people left in the year 1851, a proportion of nearly one inhabitant in five. In that same year, over a thousand people from the Valais tried their luck, coming almost exclusively from districts in the Lower Valais. In comparison, only 16 people left the Upper Valais for Algeria.
However, the bad news sent home from the emigrants already at the end of 1851 resulted in a strong drop in departures. In the two years that followed their establishment in Algeria, there were 170 deaths among the Valaisans, mostly due to malaria. There were many returns to the Valais, and they were not offset by the departures in the subsequent three years: there were already 200 returns in 1851, then 153 until 1857. Their re-establishment in the Valais took place under very difficult conditions.
In 1854, there was a new project to recruit in the Valais and other Catholic cantons in order to populate the municipality of Medjez-amar, which had an orphanage run by monks from the Abbey of Saint-Maurice. The French government hoped to counterbalance the presence of Swiss Protestants in Algeria, but this project was never realized.
Eric MAYE, "L’émigration valaisanne en Algérie au XIXe siècle", dans Annales valaisannes, 1997, pp. 131-232.
Patrick WILLISCH, "Das Wallis in Bewegung. Ein Forschungsbericht zur Migrationsgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert", in Blätter aus der Walliser Geschichte, 48 (2016), pp. 85-172.
François-Marie BUSSARD, "La coopération de l'Abbaye de St-Maurice à l'oeuvre missionnaire", in Echos de Saint-Maurice, 34 (1935), pp. 25-134.