Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco: Encroaching European Powers in the 19th Century

Morocco: Encroaching European Powers
The Spanish and French advance into Morocco before the Protectorate 1907-1912. Source: C.R. Pennell


After the French invaded Algiers in 1830, Sultan Abderrahman was torn between helping fellow Muslims and avoiding conflict with the French. He had a ramshackle army of unreliable tribal levies and remnants of Ismail’s abid al-Bukhari, so Abderrahman tried to keep out of conflict with France, although people in Algeria and many Moroccans wanted him to fight.

The resistance in western Algeria was led by the head of the Qadiriyya tariqa, Abd al-Qadir ibn Muhyi al-Din. He set up a small state at Mascara until he fled across the frontier in 1842 and used Moroccan territory as a base. Abderrahman could not stop him. In August 1844 the French retaliated by occupying Oujda and bombarding Tangier.

After the French forces defeated the Moroccan army at Wadi Isly on the Algerian frontier on 14 August, Abderrahman was forced to surrender in exchange forpeace. The resulting Treaty of Tangier was mild, insisting only on a demarcation of the border, but the defeat undermined the sultan’s authority among Moroccans.

Growing Economic Weakness

Sultan Abderrahman set about reforms and creating a European-style army. It proved useless against Abd al-Qadir and against the Spanish when they invaded and occupied Tétouan in 1859-1860. Tribal fighters were more effective but the treaty of Ras al-Oued was very onerous: it enlarged the frontiers of Ceuta and Melilla, ceded Santa Cruz de la Mar Pequeña to Spain, and imposed a huge financial indemnity.

Abderrahman’s successor, Mohammed IV (r.1859-1873), and then Hassan I (r.1873-1894) continued to build up the army, armed mainly with French and British weapons and manned with trained Frenchmen and Britons, like the colourful qa’id (commander) Sir Harry Maclean. To finance the army, Abderrahman enthusiastically pursued foreign trade. More ports were opened to commerce, and exports of grain, wool, skins, wax, and gum soared. European and American consuls lent their support.

The effect was to shift the economy away from Moroccan control.

In December 1856, the British negotiated a trade treaty opening Moroccan markets, and other European governments followed. The British dominated foreign trade until the 1890s, when German and French companies began competing vigorously.

Growing imports of manufactured goods undermined Moroccan artisan manufacture, except for carpets, which sold well in the European middle-class market. Tea and sugar imports came to account for about 25 percent of total imports.

European Economic and Political Penetration of Morocco

Morocco began to change profoundly because of trade. The government elite was drawn from families that profited from it and the population began to move to the Atlantic port towns, away from the old cities of the interior. Casablanca began to grow from a village into Morocco’s greatest port. The treaties with European powers extended the capitulations whose original purpose was to encourage trade for the benefit of both sides.

The relationship became much more one-sided and the Europeans predominated both economically and politically. Now they came to greatly benefit increasing numbers of European traders who gained expatriate status in all commercial and criminal matters.

As happened elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa,the treaties gave jurisdiction over European residents who were exempted from Moroccan taxes and taxation. The privileges also extended to the European traders’ local partners, who became protégés of European diplomatic missions and gained similar exemptions. As European influence in Morocco grew dramatically, the capitulations played an important part in the European subversion of Moroccan sovereignty.

Most of the treaties encompassing the capitulations were abolished after the Franco-Spanish Protectorate was imposed, although the British did not abandon them until 1937.

European Occupation of Moroccan Territory

The ulama protested they lost out financially and said these changes were contrary to their faith. Much of the population agreed: there were rebellions in some cities and localised jihads against the Europeans, particularly around Melilla in 1893 and 1909. The Europeans imposed further financial penalties, increasing the Moroccan government’s debt.

European encroachments continued, even in the far south. British commercial adventurers set up a factory at Tarfaya in 1879. In 1887, the Spanish established a military post at Villa Cisneros (now Dakhla) in the territories that became Río de Oro, and later the colony of Spanish Sahara.

The French army pushed northwards from the Sudan. Hassan I tried to counter all this by sending military expeditions into the desert in the 1880s and 1890s to extract taxes and enforce loyalty among the tribes. Hassan’s local governor was Sheikh Muhammad Mustafa Ma’ al-Aynayn, who came from a prominent religious family in Mauritania. His successor as Sultan, Abd al-Aziz later subsidised Ma’ al-Aynayn’s vast new religious centre at Semara. In the twentieth century the Moroccan government would use this activity as grounds for its claims to the Western Sahara.

Moroccan Bankruptcy and the End of Independence

Hassan I died in 1894 after securing the throne for his son Abdelaziz, who was only 12 or 13 years old. Ba Ahmad, the court chamberlain, acted as regent but the regime could not cope with the opposition of the young sultan’s brothers and growing European interference. By this stage, the growing European influence was shifting the trade balance strongly against Morocco. European consuls began to exercise quasi-political authority. Tangier, the diplomatic capital, became a European enclave for tourists and émigrés.

In 1900, the year Ba Ahmad died and Abdelaziz took over, the French army occupied the desert oasis of Tuat in the far south-east, claiming Moroccan territory for Algeria. Morocco fell into bankruptcy, undermined by European-inspired reforms that were ostensibly intended to prevent just that. Building infrastructure was very expensive, and a reformed tax system produced virtually no revenue.

As Morocco’s finances fell into foreign hands, French troops occupied more of the Sahara. In 1904, Britain, France, and Russia formed the Entente Cordiale. In Africa, the Entente gave Britain preponderance in Egypt, in exchange for French dominance in Morocco. The French government promised to protect Spanish interests in Morocco, but the German government demanded an international conference on the Moroccan question.

In 1906, the foreign ministers of Europe and the United States signed the Final Act of the Algeciras Conference. This promised to preserve Moroccan sovereignty and territorial integrity, but placed the Moroccan administration, customs, state bank, and police force under European control.

The Imposition of the Protectorate

Morocco: Encroaching European Powers
“L’abdication de Moulay-Hafid” (“The abdication of Abd al-Hafid, Sultan of Morocco”), illustration published in Le Petit Journal, Paris, No. 1136, 25 August 1912. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Opposition to Abdelaziz spread across Morocco, especially among the ulama. In June 1907, local men attacked French engineers who were building a railway that cut through a cemetery at Casablanca. A French warship landed troops to occupy the town. Other French troops occupied Oujda in the east.

A widespread Moroccan movement surfaced, seeking to replace Abdelaziz with his brother Abdelhafid, a pious scholar. In January 1908, the ulama of Fez declared allegiance to him on the condition that he reject the Act of Algeciras, recover Casablanca and Oujda, expel European advisers, abolish foreign concessions, and reject un-Koranic taxes.

However, Abdelhafid could not meet any of these demands. French agents were taking over the government’s operation, as French and Spanish troops occupied more and more of the land. Following rebellions in 1911, the French sent an army to Fez.

On 12 May 1912 Abdelhafid agreed to a protectorate. The Treaty of Fez guaranteed the religious authority of the sultan and his secular sovereignty but placed all executive power in the hands of the French. The Protectorate was born.

Further Reading