Moroccan History

Morocco in the 19th Century

In the winter of 1829-30 Edward Drummond-Hay, the new British Consul in Tangier, Morocco, traveled a wide circuit from Tangier to Marrakesh, up through the High Atlas mountains, and down through the plains to return home along the shore. His observations were carefully recorded, and offered a record of modern Morocco unlike any other ever published outside of that land. Some of his more significant observations are presented here.

The geography of Morocco is notable for its variation. The country includes swaths of fertile plains, seas of arid desert, temperate forest and mountain regions complete with snow-capped peaks. Crops of all kinds are cultivated; hunting is done for both sport and sustenance - the High Atlas mountains are known for an abundance of wild and elusive game. The climate is erratic, water is scarce in many regions, and severe drought has left a wake of barren fields and starvation routinely in this land.

The people of Morocco live either in cities (mostly coastal) overseen by the Sultan's government, or in tribes, which form the basis of Moroccan life in those areas beyond the geographical reach of the Sultan. These tribes are in no way "uncivilized" or barbaric, they are simply the traditional style of organization of those who live together in the rural areas of the country.

The politics of Morocco are highly complex. Peace relies on a delicate balance of agreement between the rulers of the cities, typically vizirs ("ministers") or qaids ("governors"), and the rulers of the tribes, usually shaykhs (a term of respect for local rulers or scholars) or marabouts (shamanic spiritual leaders). The ability of the Sultan to resolve the conflicts and struggles inherent in this system determine the stability of his or her own rule, and ultimately the fate of Morocco itself. The Sultan, a hereditary position, is the head of the country's government, and appoints all rulers in the royal cities. Tribal leaders are chosen according to the methods of each individual tribe.

In 1830, the Sultan acted as both the political and spiritual leader of Morocco. (By 1900, this would change dramatically.) Although the Sultan is a hereditary position, any sharif (member of the royal bloodline) has equal claim to the throne. The right to rule is based on an oath of allegiance, called a bay'a, given to the sultan by individual communities (usually tribes or cities) at the beginning of his or her reign. This oath is also understood to be a promise of military support. At the time of succession, if not all communities give the bay'a to the same sharif (which has been the case without exception in modern record), the sharif attempting to gain the sultanate must muster what support he or she has, and quell revolts in any dissenting communities. In the end, it is the sharif who can, by blunt force or the threat of it, gain unified bay'as from all communities who will take the throne. Open violence tends to accompany any succession.

The Sultan's government, or Makhzan (which literally translated means "treasury"), is comprised of khalifas (deputies), who oversee large areas of the country, and vizirs, who serve administrative functions such as a foreign or war minister. The Sultan's armies are drawn mainly from the tribes which supported his or her succession. The armies are generally more dedicated to the concerns of their own tribes than the Sultan's political policies.

The 'ulama, or scholars (singular: 'alim), are a particularly important element of Moroccan society. These are men and women dedicated to studying the laws of Morocco, and whose job it is to interpret those laws for the Sultan. Often, it is the 'ulama who determine the legitimacy of any action the Sultan wishes to take, and can have great influence over how the Sultan governs.

In 1830, the Moroccan government was nearing bankruptcy. A particularly violent succession to the throne had forced the Sultan to drain the coffers while quelling insurrections. The Sultan decided to open trade with Europe, hoping to gain money through trade taxes. However, it was exactly this decision that would cripple Morocco's economy and all but hand over the country to European control less than 100 years later.

Brief History of Modern Morocco

As soon as the doors were opened to European trading, Morocco headed down a path of increasing European influence and control. Morocco forms the southern shore of the Straits of Gibraltar, a highly significant channel controlling Mediterranean and African sea trade routes. Although the Sultan was an advocate of European trade, many 'ulama and much of the populace were against it, fearing the Europeans would dominate their economy. Regardless, trade agreements were signed with the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Germans.

As more Europeans traveled to Morocco for trade, private trade agreements unsanctioned or even unknown by the Sultan were made with local merchants and vizirs. Smuggling and banditry increased, and the Moroccan corsairs (termed pirates by Europeans) of the Barbary coast began attacking Spanish trading vessels once again (something that had not happened for about 100 years). Some communities revolted against foreign trade - most notably the Berber (native Moroccan) tribes of the Atlas mountains - while others actively engaged in it. The Sultan brutally quelled many of these revolts, but more unrest was to come.

Europe, led by Britain, saw Morocco as an excellent trading opportunity, one best preserved by gaining influence over the country without directly controlling it. The Sultan was in desperate need of money, and foreign trade seemed the only way to raise it. These two things combined repeatedly to the detriment of Morocco.

First, France took control of neighboring Algeria in the 1830s. France threatened invasion of Morocco, and then did so in 1844, refusing to leave until Morocco agreed to give them favorable trading arrangements that afforded the Sultan very little profit. Britain demanded a similar agreement, threatening to withdraw its support for an independent Moroccan government if the Sultan did not comply.

In 1858, the new leader of Spain desired a war to bolster his unstable government, and invaded Morocco, winning a costly victory against tribal armies. In return for withdrawing, the Spanish were given land, a favorable trade agreement, and an indemnity of 100 million Spanish pesetas. Foreign trade now gave Morocco almost no profit, and the war debt was overwhelming. The Makhzan was bankrupt.

Each successive blow to the Moroccan government and economy brought revolts across the country and demands for reform, but the government did not have the money to handle either effectively. Cheap European imports flooded the economy, putting Moroccan citizens out of work. Disorder and corruption plagued the Royal cities. The Moroccan currency floundered, and French and Spanish money became the main currency of Morocco.

As the Morocco government seemed to dissolve into chaos, European influence strengthened. Europeans came for trade, land and tourism. These visitors demanded modern conveniences, and European spas, hotels, hospitals, and hunting clubs opened in response. Thomas Cook Cruises brought American and European visitors to see the exotic Orient. Public services such as street paving and cleaning were taken over by European organizations.

This was the state of Morocco in 1900, when a new Sultan, Moulay Abdelaziz took the throne. An ardent supporter of European-style reform, Abdelaziz formed the first cabinet government in Morocco , created a paid civil service, and formally prohibited discrimination on any basis (a move that European-inspired equal rights movements had been demanding for over 50 years). He separated the Sultanate from its traditional position of spiritual leadership, making the position purely administrative and handing over religious control to non-governmental religious leaders. He liberalized trade with Europe even more, and imported all manner of European frivolities, from bicycles to barrel-organs, in an effort to appear more modern. For his reforms to succeed, though, he needed to quell the revolts that still raged across the country. Desperate for money, he turned to Europe for loans.

France was only too happy to comply. In early 1904, London and Paris had entered into the Entente Cordiale, an alliance eliminating all traditional points of contention, and recognizing Egypt as Britain's sphere of influence and Morocco as France's. Later that year France offered Morocco an enormous loan, with the blessing of the British and side-agreements with the Spanish regarding future land claims. However, it was contingent upon Morocco accepting a French program of reforms that would give them greater political control over the country. The Sultan refused, and in a significant miscalculation, appealed to the international community to settle the matter. Germany vociferously sided with Morocco against France, and war seemed to threaten. The Conference of Algeciras was convened, and the result was the Act of Algeciras, which divided control of the Moroccan economy, military and administration between mainly France and Spain, with other European countries represented as well. Presented with a fait accompli, and unable to stabilize his country, the Sultan was forced to accept the deal.

This result was met with outrage in Morocco. Attacks on Europeans increased, and culminated with the highly publicized murder of one French Dr. Mauchamp. France retaliated by shelling Casablanca. Both France and Spain sent troops to their respective areas of interest, in order to protect their in residence. Rebellions prompted by the Algeciras agreements erupted, and grew into a protracted revolution. After a year of bloodshed, the Sultan was ousted and replaced by Moulay Abdelhafid in 1908. In need of support and money the new Sultan had no choice but to recognize all previous treaties and agreements, including the treaty causing the revolution which brought him to power. France continued to gain political power in exchange for loans, while France and Spain occupied increasing territory in an effort to quell local unrest. Then, unexpectedly, Abdelhafid made an unusual move: he proposed a constitution for Morocco, published in early 1911, which would established personal liberty, security of property, and free education for citizens. This took Europe as well as much of Morocco by surprise. Although it is well-known that the Sultan has neither the resources nor the political clout to enforce such reforms, many of tribes and city governments have begun taking sides either for or against the idea of a Moroccan Constitution. It remains to be seen how the community in Puerto de Maio, made up of every variation of foreign and native influence, will respond.

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