English Tangier – ‘Our little Town, and narrow lines’


Sitting in a hospital bed I have been consoled by an excellent new book, English Colonial Texts on Tangier, 1661-1684, by Karim Bejjit of Université Hassan II, Casablanca. If that sounds dry, blame only the title, because the book itself isn’t dry at all. Prof. Bejjit (and I admit an interest in both senses of the word, Karim being a friend; and I, fascinated by his subject) has collected a series of a dozen and a half contemporary pamphlets about Tangier under the English occupation, edited them into a chronological narrative and provided a very useful, long introduction. I have read the book at a sitting (a luxury perhaps best available to readers who are confined to a bed covered with tubes and sticky electrodes) and enjoyed every page. Both Professor Bejjit and his pamphleteers write, in their different ways, English prose more elegant and muscular than many of those who have come between.

In 1662 Charles II received the city of Tangier, along with the seven islands of Bombay, as part of the dowry of his Portuguese Queen, Catherine of Braganza. If we reflect on the extraordinary imprint that Bombay left on English culture, commerce, empire and history, it seems necessary to ask why Tangier did not have the same sort of impact. Bombay remained British, site of the symbolic Gateway to India, until 1947; and, now renamed Mumbai, is one of the great cities of the modern world, as well as India’s financial capital. Tangier remained in English hands only until 1683-84 when the garrison slighted the walls, blew up the harbour mole, and sailed away, leaving a much reduced Tanja to Moulay Ismail’s army, and a long sleep. Budgett Meakin, the editor of the Times of Morocco, wrote of the post-English period, “Since then its history has nothing worth recording, even as a pirate harbour, the only events of importance being the removal to it of the foreign consuls in 1770, and its bombardment in 1844 by the French.” One might add that it has been a place of exile and pleasure for Moroccans and Europeans, an arm’s-length holding-pen for the European diplomatic corps, an international jurisdiction, a rather tawdry haven for those in search of pleasures frowned upon in Europe, a bête noire for King Hassan II and only today – 331 years after the English left – perhaps the focus of a real economic take-off. The obvious question is, why?

The answer lies in a complicated intersection of English politics and a new, effective Moroccan dynasty which asserted itself in the later seventeenth century. While Charles leased Bombay to the East India Company for £10 year, he kept Tangier as a crown possession, and tried to develop it as a colony. Bombay, for all its ups and downs, was a strategic entrepôt which attracted trade and investment, and turned John Company a massive profit. Tangier, close though it was to Charles’s heart, was a drain on royal finances at a time when there were many other financial drains much closer to Whitehall. But more importantly, it fell victim to the deeply antagonistic politics of the 1670s and early 1680s, the struggle around the Exclusion Crisis and the Popish Plot, which made raising money from parliament very difficult indeed. The king certainly had the vision. As another author (Mrs Routh, in 1911) put it, Charles

saw in imagination a busy and prosperous city, the capital of a Moroccan Empire, possessing a harbour which, in the hands of English engineers, would make Tangier one of the best trading stations in the Mediterranean, and would help England to maintain that command of the sea which is they keystone of her power; a city attracting to its neighbourhood numbers of English settlers and merchants, who would create a growing trade in the interior of Morocco, and who would ultimately make the King’s African dominions a self-supporting colony and source of strength and wealth to the mother-country.


But he did not, in the end have the means, and the sums were huge: by 1683 Pepys estimated that Tangier had cost the crown £1.6 million. The structure was wrong – the constant lobbying of the Tangier merchants prevented the establishment of a Morocco Company which might have had the kind of incentives for investment that the EIC had in Bombay; and so the economic basis of English Tangier was never solidly built. What Prof Bejjit shows admirably is how the pressures of English politics made it quite impossible to raise the necessary funding through parliamentary grant. Just as the Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail began to put serious military pressure on the Tangier colony in the late 1670s and early 1680s, it became definitively clear that the money needed to defend the colony was not going to be available. The vision was lacking in Parliament, and the granting of supply came to seem simply another prop to a catholicising authoritarianism. In the end the King decided to do without parliament altogether, surviving on grants from his brother-in-law Louis XIV, which did not stretch to underwriting colonial adventure. It was this all-consuming conflict with parliament, and its financial implications, that squeezed English Tangier off the bottom of the royal priority list. There is a splendid note in Grey’s Debates from October 1680 (quoted in Annabel Patterson’s Long Parliament of Charles II) which illustrates this beautifully:

On the day the Exclusion Bill had been left with the Lords, his Majesty had by Message demanded a Supply for Tangier, without which, it was urged, that Place could not much longer be preserved. There was some truth in this, and some fallacy, as there is generally in all demands of the like nature. Tangier was indeed in some distress, but the king was in more, and whatever was given in relief of the first, would also have contributed to relief of the last …

Parliament was not just posturing, though there was a fair bit of that too: Tangier must really have seemed quite dangerous. The Tangier Regiment, the second of foot (later known after the Tangier Governor Sir Percy Kirke as ‘Kirke’s Lambs’), was only the second permanent regiment established and funded after the Restoration, and memories of Cromwell’s New Model Army, along with the King’s catholic sympathies, and his brother the Duke of York’s catholicism, made a standing army – which is what the Tangier garrison was – a very hot potato. On top of this, many of the troops were catholic Irish (there is a telling moment in May 1680, when soldiers called from fort to fort in the outworks to co-ordinate their withdrawal to the city, and in order that the Moors in the siege trenches not understand, they “spake to us in Irish”). At least two governors of Tangier were catholic: Lord Belasyse (one of the five lords impeached during the ‘Popish Plot’) and John Fitzgerald (who had commanded a regiment of Irish exiles in the Spanish service), while another, Lord Peterborough, was dismissed the Council during the ‘Plot,’ and converted to Rome in 1687. The explosive nature of the cocktail is clear. Tangier had a symbolic value in the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle over religion, absolutism and a standing army which hobbled it from the start.

One of the pamphlets in this book, anonymously written, laments the decline of Anglican practice in the town, and the rise of Catholicism. “Too many have cast off all respects due to the God that hath made them, and mind nothing but Debauchery and Lewdness: other have hearkened to the sollicitations of some Popish Priests, and make profession of that Religion, that they might, by means of their Absolutions, enjoy their Vices and filthiness without remorse of Conscience.” The religious antagonisms of London ran through the Tangier garrison.

Maintaining Tangier in a military sense was an uphill struggle. In Lord Peterborough’s garrison “the Souldiers were eaten up of wants, cowed with their frequent misfortunes, possessed with an opinion the Moor was invincible,” and Lord Teviot, his successor had to undertake “the restoration of a body to strength, and to secure it from relapsing, after some emacerating disease has reduced it to sort of breathing skeleton …” Conditions continued hard, the garrison often at odds with the town, while “the Souldiers diet being salt Meat, disposes them in two or three years to inveterate ill habits of Body, Obstructions, Scurvies, Fluxes, etc.” Pay was frequently two years in arrears, rotations of duty virtually unknown, recruitment difficult. It a wonder the garrison put up the brave resistance they did to Moulay Ismail’s assaults in 1680.


What comes across very strongly from the pamphlets is that Tangier never ceased to be an alien implant in a strange land. Long gone the days of the previous century when English foremen worked on the sugar plantations of the Souss: these tangerine Englishmen were for the most part ignorant strangers. “As men fallen in love with their prison, nothing by them seemed as feared as enlargement,” wrote one chronicler of the early days of the occupation. And as another anonymous writer lamented sadly in 1679, “it is our unhappiness that we know not what is done amongst the Moors; we live in Tangier within the Walls and Lines, and unless we send a Flag of Truce for some pittiful business, we scarce see the face of a Moor in a years time, but at a distance … we have never sent any to understand their Country, to search into their strength and dependancies, to examine their Interest …” They had little idea what was going on in Morocco at a momentous time of shifting power, with the fast-consolidating sultanate of Moulay Ismail at Meknes replacing the fragmented statelets that had already given them enough trouble in the 1660s. Rare were those like Colonel Percy Kirke – he of the Lambs – who went on mission to Meknes and Fes in early 1681, made a good impression on the Sultan, and kept his eyes open while observing military exercises. Kirke noted that Ismail’s military strength, particularly in gunnery and siege-works, was provided not by Frenchman as was generally supposed, but by renegades; he understood the superiority of Moroccan horses and cavalry, but also the possibilities offered by their indiscipline. He did not, though, underestimate them: “Our Ranged Armies, keeping their Squadrons firm, and relieving their Charge with loose Parties, after their own manner, must take their ground from them, and so consequently be Masters of the Field; but however they are a very Vigorous and Valiant Enemy, their Discipline proportionable to the confused and difficult passages of this Country, observing their Ambuscades with the greatest cunning and patience Imaginable …” This was in marked contrast with Lord Henry Howard who, in 1669, in a fit of abject cowardice refused to leave Tangier at all, to proceed on his mission to Fes, because he feared for his life.

By the time Kirke led his mission to Meknes and Fes, the game was already over. A brisk campaign between March and May 1680, commanded by Qa’id Omar ben Haddu Hamami, rolled up the forts that the English had worked so hard to establish in forward positions to command the environs of the town. Renegades ran artillery and mines (“One of our Men belonging to Henrietta Fort is turn’d Moor, and made Master Gunner,” comments a diarist), and very effective deep trenching works were dug between the forts. A truce was made in mid-May, but it was clear that the remaining forts were indefensible and that, as the same diarist put it, “The Moors grow a formidable Enemy, being improved in all the Arts of War, as Mining, Sapeing, Scaling, and Battering.” Without a serious financial and military commitment, English Tangier was effectively lost: there was no such commitment, and the King, recognizing realities, ordering withdrawal and demolition. The main slighting and demolition was done in November 1683, and the last English ship sailed away the following spring. A rather half-hearted adventure was over.

It could have been different, though it is Morocco’s good fortune that it was not. Henry Sheres, the Surveyor-General of the Tangier Mole, was in no doubt of the city’s strategic potential, overlooking “the greatest Thorough-fare of Commerce in the World; having in one view almost the whole Sea comprehended between the Four Capes of Travalgar, Gibraltar, Spartel and Ceuta … so that no vessel can pass in or out of the Mediterranean, unobserv’d from thence.”  This strategic stranglehold on the Mediterranean would be increasingly essential to England’s naval power and commerce; but in the end, Gibraltar proved an easier stronghold from which England could dominate the Strait. It was captured in 1704, and ceded by treaty in 1713 – remaining British at least half a century longer than Bombay, a continuing post-colonial presence on that “greatest Thorough-fare,” and a potent factor in the history of Morocco.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.