Gibraltar, Ceuta and King Boabdil V

Before the summer the British Council presented a lecture by Prof Nabil Matar, on Morocco in the War of the Spanish Succession. Nabil was (see Naval Warfare and Mannequins) particularly interesting on the way in which Moulay Ismail used his leverage to play off one side against the other – and on the role which the British occupation of Gibraltar and Port Mahon had in stabilizing Moroccan politics – perhaps even, as Khalid Bensrhir suggested, in changing the course of Morocco’s 19th century by giving Britain the strongest possible interest in protecting its integrity and independence.

At one point Moulay Ismail proposed that in return for joining the Moroccan siege of Ceuta, and taking the city, England be allowed to keep it. England, perhaps still smarting from the surrender of Tangier in 1684, didn’t bite; but captured the Rock from the Spanish in 1704 which seemed to fulfil the same function. Lord Nelson used frequently to say that British naval success in the south of Europe depended strongly on friendly relations with Morocco, and on controlling one side of the strait – as indeed it did.

But what if it had been different? In an article entitled Comment Ceuta a failli remplacer Gibraltar comme forteresse anglaise, Professor Mohammed Germouni explores a little-remembered episode in the mid-19th century when Britain came close to swapping Gibraltar for Ceuta. It seems that Sir John Drummond Hay, Britain’s Consul and chief agent in Morocco, and the makhzen were both keen to promote this plan, and the Spanish were initially enthusiastic. For the British it promised a much more defensible enclave on the straits, which the Spanish couldn’t cut off from the land side, as well as a more powerful position in Morocco both commercially and politically. For Morocco it offered a chance to get the overbearing and demanding Spaniards off their backs and what was perceived as a much friendlier Britain in to replace them, as a “guarantor of security against foreign invasion … particularly the Spanish.”

For Spain it wold have meant meant the restoration of Gibraltar, then as now, a subject of much irritation, without losing a strategic hold on one side of the straits. The swap was proposed in a letter from Admiral Grey in the Times in 1868, and did the circuit of diplomacy and chatter, but in the end Spanish colonialist interests contested it and won the argument: with recent losses of territory in Cuba, the Caribbean and the Philippines the Spanish empire was reconfiguring itself, drawing in upon territories nearer Europe – and the maintaining of a springboard into Morocco seemed more important than regaining Gibraltar, so there was no deal.

Professor Germouni notes how the 1966 Franco blockade of Gibraltar restored a traditional dynamic, with Moroccan supplies and labour taking the place of Spanish while the causeway was shut for two decades; but on the whole, despite describing Gibraltar as ‘a replica of the presidios occupied by Spain on Moroccan soil,’ he refrains from too many parallels with today – as should I.

Counterfactuals are often amusing, if somewhat suspect to historians. One of my favourites is Philip Guedalla’s tongue-in-cheek account of the Kingdom of Granada after its victory over the Catholic Kings at Lanjaron in 1491 (“it is idle to speculate upon the irreparable loss to Europe, had a less cautious strategy exposed Granada to spoliation by a crude and uncultivated conqueror in 1492. But happily that danger was averted …”).[1] A clutch of splendid pastiches of political and military histories and a Baedeker guide to Granada describe a thoroughly Victorian Muslim capital city, (“residence of the King (Boabdil V), headquarters of the army, and seat of a university, a Grand Mufti, a Catholic Archbishop in partibus infidelium and an Anglican Bishop, in the winter months.)” Travellers are warned to proceed “with great caution” in the Generalife Gardens, “as the royal menagerie is situated here,” and not to miss the great Mosque of the Spur, venerated throughout Islam, and so called “from the spurs discarded by King Ferdinand in his precipitate flight from the battlefield of Lanjaron.”

The Cambridge Moslem History (Volume VI) tells of developments that would surprise Professors Matar and Germouni: “Closely allied with the ruling house of Fez, [the Granadines] played a leading part in the confused events that followed the death of Muley Ismail, Emperor of Morocco; and their constant watchfulness was rewarded by the prompt annexation of Ceuta and Tetuan. These new possessions, coupled with their ancient ports of Malaga and Almeria, placed them astride the Straits of Gibraltar; and the international importance of the Kingdom of Granada was doubled at a stroke. Their friendship became an object of competition between the maritime powers.”

Like Moulay Ismail, Boabdil IV played off London and Paris (with Boabdil IV making the marriage to the Princesse de Conti that Louis denied the historical Ismail). During his reign Granada “became the centre of an enlightenment and culture to which Europe owes so large a debt.” Granada stood by Britain in the American War of Independence, declared war on Napoleon after a deadly insult, and sent an army to join Wellesley campaigning in the peninsula.  Its most illustrious nineteenth century Grand Vizier was one Benjamin Disraeli.

Finally (for here perhaps Guedalla runs gloriously out of steam as he approaches his present day) Granada declared war on Germany in 1915 after the invasion of Belgium the previous year. The Times describes the arrival of the first Granadine troops on their way to the Western Front, at Victoria Station where King George V “was waiting in the impressive costume of a Wali of Granada to greet in the name of his far-flung empire not the least far-flung of his allies; and as the royal train drew in precisely at eleven o’clock, the trim figure of Boabdil V (long familiar to race-goers in simpler, though not less elegant, attire) was seen in the full Colonel’s uniform of his own regiment, the 7th Dragoon Guards …”

Simpler times.


[1] If the Moors in Spain had won … in If It Had Happened Otherwise, ed J C Squires, London 1932


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