Naval Warfare and Mannequins

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I spent an engrossing evening recently listening to a talk, which the British Council had organized, by Professor Nabil Matar on England and Morocco in  the War of the Spanish Succession. This may seem quite a narrow focus, but as Professor Matar pointed out, these years, taken with the preceding Nine Years’ War (which the Americans more elegantly call King William’s and Queen Anne’s Wars), saw Britain transformed. It started the war as a fairly run-of-the-mill, though fast-growing, commercial power with a small fleet, and ended it as a superpower with a huge navy that had driven the French out of the Channel and established complete naval dominance of the Mediterranean, where part of its fleet over-wintered for the first time in the 1690s.

What Professor Matar wanted to get across to his audience was the important role that Morocco played in making this possible. To operate in the Mediterranean, the navy needed supplies – chiefly cattle and corn – and these came from Morocco; and the army in the Iberian peninsula needed horses. The Sultan, Moulay Ismail, controlled large food resources and incomparable horses – the Moroccan Barb first appears in English bloodlines at about this time – and so had great leverage. He also controlled one side of the Straits, England’s prime strategic objective, which their surrender to him of Tangier in 1684 had left open. Once Britain captured Gibraltar (1704) and Minorca (1708) it had big naval stations to supply; and the Rock and Port Mahon were much further from home, and harder to victual and reinforce, than the French Mediterranean naval base at Toulon.

The French of course had the same needs, and competition for Moroccan resources is a theme throughout the war years, a competition that the Sultan handled adroitly. Moulay Ismail played off Britain against France in search of advantage. Famously, he sought a French royal marriage, asking Louis XIV for the hand of his illegitimate daughter, the Princesse de Conti. Equally famously, Louis refused, supposedly sending a pair of long-case clocks in lieu of the princess. Solicitous as Louis may have been for his daughter’s welfare, this was a strategic error which left the field open for Ismail’s Scotch renegade wife, Balqis, who apparently favoured the British, no doubt well-furnished with diplomatic gifts. It is of course wrong, really, to over-personalise Moulay Ismail’s Grand Politics in this way; but he was at any rate engaged in winning back the Atlantic ports (Mahdiya, Larache, Tangier) from the Christian powers, and the Franco-British rivalry gave him many chances to game them. He very much wanted the British support that would win him Ceuta too, but despite a 26-year siege and endless diplomacy, never quite got it.

This whole process gave the Sultan very considerable leverage over the Great Powers, and Morocco a certain real strategic importance. Keeping the Straits open and out of French or Spanish hands became a central plank of British foreign policy – which made Britain a long-term supporter of Moroccan integrity and independence. One historian suggested during the discussion after the lecture that the English capture of Gibraltar in 1704 had postponed for a century the colonisation of Morocco, by establishing a clear English interest in keeping France and Spain from threatening its control of the Straits. “1704,” he said, “is crucial to the history of Morocco’s 19th century.”

Discussion after the lecture ranged across much of Professor Matar’s work in early modern Maghrebi-European relations. He touched on the links between Protestantism and Islam (and especially those between John Harrison and the millenarian Ahmad al-Mahilli). And tantalizingly he also mentioned in passing the great question of the strangely unfulfilled promise of a fertilization of Moroccan thought by the influx of Moriscos in the early 17th century. Why did these often highly educated European Muslims not bring with them the seeds of an intellectual renaissance?  As he put it, “In this period, the Europeans discover that knowledge is power: the Arabs do not.” This  is an important and fascinating question, and one which we may persuade Prof Matar to return on a future visit.

Moulay Ismail’s reign sees both an effective exercise of strategic power, with long-term consequences that the Sultan can have foreseen only very dimly, if at all; and the fast-growing divergence of the intellectual and technical cultures of the Mediterranean’s two shores. European accounts make clear that he was a sanguinary and not very pleasant man, but his long and successful reign was crucial, in many ways, for setting Morocco’s course in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He had, as Professor Matar put it, played a part in the “Birth of a Great Power,” with which Morocco would remain closely engaged until the early twentieth century.

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A friend spotted for me recently a small factory on the Kenitra road which appeared, from a moving car, to be manufacturing the mannequins I think of as Adam and Eve. We went off to investigate, and sure enough, we found Nejib the proprietor, finishing a run of Eves. Or rather, as he told us, Monicas, the name by which she is apparently known in the trade. Monica’s teddy-boy consort does not have a name, and is known as er-rajul, the man; and they have a larger family than I had appreciated, with boys of five, eight and twelve (but it seems no daughters). The little lock-up was full of Monicas in every state of finish – pasty-white and newly moulded, painted but limbless, wrapped in cellophane for despatch. But not a rajul in sight, so for him we shall have to return. Nejib certainly isn’t turning out the nation’s whole supply of Monicas, so the Spanish salesman whom he reports as having sold the family the moulds in the late 1980s probably sold them to a good many others too. There is more detective work to be done!

A little way up the road, at kilometre 17, is the Belghazi Museum, which in three years I have never visited, though I saw a selection of some of its fines pieces at the Sofitel where they were wonderfully displayed for the guests at last year’s Atlantic Dialogue. The museum itself, on the Kenitra road beyond the mannequin factory, is quite amazing. We paid for the ‘short tour’ and set off round the ground floor of an astonishing and enormous Curiosity Cabinet of old Moroccan artifacts. The Belghazis have been collecting manically for five generations, with voracious appetites for their country’s material past. Metalwork, astronomical instruments, saddles, leather-stamps, kettles, carriages, teaspoons, hobby-horses, armour, manuscripts, costumes, damascened statuary, a whale’s vertebra the size of a Cinquecento, swords, carpets, minbars, painted wooden panelling and furniture, ceramics, engraved brass, glassware … it seems endless, and quite dazzling. As so often I was surprised and delighted to meet Adam – er-rajul – dressed in a magnificent hooded djellaba. I felt by now as though I knew his family, and gave him a wink.

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We came out slightly dizzy and greeted an elderly gentleman in the hall. I introduced myself as the British Cultural Attaché and BC Director. “I know,” said Mr Belghazi (though I have no idea how he knew), “come upstairs and I’ll show you something special.” Which is exactly what he did. Upstairs is his ‘closed collection,’ and it makes the rich displays downstairs look almost meagre. Here he has room after room of treasures, to put Aladdin to shame. The walls are densely hung with magnificent old university diplomas from the Qairouyyin, huge, intricate bedspreads of calligraphy, maps, quranic verses and gilt decorative borders, with the details of the graduate … concealed somewhere. But this is only the beginning. There are shelves of manuscripts, rooms of metalware, galleries of fine ceramics and woodwork, a room devoted entirely to Jewish artifacts. The best of the astrolabes and other astronomical instruments are here, along with enough model sailing ships to drive the French fleet off the Round Pond for the Duke of Marlborough, cabinet after cabinet of rare textiles, hundreds of copper and brass kettles (“we have two teams of polishers at work all the time”). We moved seamlessly from gallery to home. “This is my study,” in a room with a fine painted and carved ceiling, lined with books and photographs, vitrines and cupboards and a desk piled high with good things.

He told us that it is the largest private museum in Africa, and I can well believe it. Each generation of Belghazis has chosen – like an Ottoman sultan – a craft of his own which he becomes skilled at, as well as building the family’s holdings in. The present Mr Belghazi is a wood-specialist, and his carvings are everywhere; his father was a textile man, responsible for the groaning cabinets of fine stuffs from all over the Islamic world, and so on, back to Mr B the astrolabe collector. I cannot describe the amazing richness of all, the strong sense that the material culture of Morocco is even more complex and more astonishing than I had realised.

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4 thoughts on “Naval Warfare and Mannequins

  1. This informative post reminds me of a historical manuscript I read . The manuscript is a letter sent by Moulay Ismail to a French king . It is a rich document linguistically and historically . I would be glad to share it with you .

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