Spanish Morocco

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Portions of northwest Africa held by Spain from the 1500s until 1975.

The presence of Spain along the coast of northwest Africa was initially manifested during the 1400s and 1500safter centuries of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula had been overturned by warfare and the Moors retreated to North Africa. The Mediterranean port cities of Melilla and Ceuta came under Spanish rule in 1496 and 1578, respectively, and remain so today, as do three tiny islands off the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. In the late nineteenth century, Spain joined the European scramble for overseas territories. Spain expanded its Ceuta and Melilla enclaves, asserted itself militarily in the Rif mountains, and temporarily occupied Tetuan in 1860; an 1860 treaty committed Morocco to ceding land along its southern coast for the establishment of Spanish fisheries, eventually resulting in Spain staking claim to Ifni. Further south, Spain established coastal trading stations at Villa Cisneros (Dakhla), Cintra, and Cape Blanca. In December 1884, a Spanish protectorate was declared along the Saharan coast, a claim recognized by the Berlin Conference in 1885.

Spanish holdings in both the north and south were expanded by three treaties between Spain and France, the last in 1912. Spain then nominally held full sovereignty over Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Spanish Sahara, now Western Sahara), 102,703 square miles (266,000 sq km) of territory, below the twenty-seventh parallel, wedged in between the Atlantic Ocean and what are today the internationally recognized boundaries of Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. Implementation of Spanish authority came in stages: Control of Tarfaya, north of the twenty-seventh parallel, was taken in 1916; La Guera, in the extreme south of Rio de Oro, in 1920; the 580-square-mile (1,502 sq km) Ifni zone, between Tarfaya and Agadir, in 1934; and Smara, in the Saharan interior, also in 1934. Spanish Sahara and the Ifni and Tarfaya areas were governed between 1934 and 1958 as parts of Spanish West Africa, whose military governor was based in Ifni.

The Spanish protectorate in the north, established in 1912, was one-twentieth the size of the French zone. Tangier was made part of the Spanish zone from 1940 to 1945, but then reverted to its previous international regime. The Spanish zone's population in 1955, including Europeans, was about one million, nearly 10 percent of Morocco's total population. Economic resources were few and the area underwent little development, constituting an economic liability to Spain.

Spain was both a competitor and sometimes junior partner of France, often working in tandem politically and militarilythe latter during the Rif rebellion led by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim alKhattabi from 1921 to 1926; in the southern campaigns in 1934; and again in 19571958 against the irregular Moroccan Army of Liberation, following Morocco's achieving independence in 1956. Nonetheless, Spanish rule was both weaker and often less dominating than that of France. Spain returned Tarfaya and its surroundings to Morocco in 1958 and the Ifni enclave in 1969.

Phosphates were first discovered in Spanish Sahara during the 1940s, and proved to be of high grade and large quantity. Exports began in the early 1970s. By 1975, exports stood at 2.6 million tons (2.36 million metric tons), the sixth largest in the world. In 1974, the Spanish presence numbered just over 26,000; a 1974 census of the native Sahrawi population counted 73,497 persons, most of whom had been sedentarized from their nomadic life.

In 1973, Spain decided to introduce internal self-government, to deflect international pressure for decolonization. But by mid-1974, following the collapse of Portugal's Africa empire, Madrid promised to implement United Nations calls for a referendum in the territory during the first half of 1975. In September 1975, Spain's foreign minister and POLISARIO representatives agreed on a mutual release of prisoners and the principle of an independent Sahrawi state in return for fishing and phosphate concessions to Spain. But following Morocco's Green March in the Western Sahara War, and with Spain's Generalissimo Francisco Franco on his deathbed, Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania signed a tripartite agreement in Madrid on 14 November 1975, administratively dividing the region into Moroccan and Mauritanian zones and setting up a transitional tripartite administration. The final Spanish departure from its Saharan colony came on 26 February 1975.

see also green march; khattabi, muhammad ibn abd al-karim al-; polisario; rif war.


Hodges, Tony. Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War. Westport, CT: L. Hill, 1983.

Mercer, John. Spanish Sahara. London: Allen and Unwin, 1976.

Pennell, C. R. Morocco since 1830: A History. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

bruce maddy-weitzman

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Spanish Morocco

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