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The Conquest of Morocco
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The Conquest of Morocco

by Douglas Porch

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The Conquest of Morocco tells the story of France's last great colonial adventure. At the turn of the twentieth century, Morocco was a nation yet to emerge from the Middle Ages, ruled by local warlords and riven by religious fanaticism. But in the mad scramble for African colonies, Morocco had one great attraction for the Europeans: it was available. In


The Conquest of Morocco tells the story of France's last great colonial adventure. At the turn of the twentieth century, Morocco was a nation yet to emerge from the Middle Ages, ruled by local warlords and riven by religious fanaticism. But in the mad scramble for African colonies, Morocco had one great attraction for the Europeans: it was available. In 1903, France undertook to conquer the exotic and backward country. By the time World War I broke out the conquest was virtually complete.

Based on extensive original research, The Conquest of Morocco is a splendid work of popular history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The conquest of Morocco was a great game--a picaresque war of modern times . . . Porch has brought it all back, including the Camel Corps and the never-never land of Sidi Bararni. Throw in von Sternberg and Dietrich-Charles Boyer, too-and what a movie it might have made.” —The Boston Globe

“A colorful account. . .Douglas Porch tells the story of the conquest of Morocco with wit, wisdom and a proper appreciation of the accidents of history.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[An] exotic and bravura popular history.” —Newsweek

“A lively chronicle . . . A good and valuable book.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Porch applies his considerable wit and notable literary style to an exciting story ringing with ancient and modern war cries.” —The Chicago Sun Times

“An entertaining history.” —The Atlantic Monthly

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Historian Porch tells the story of France's subjugation of Morocco at the turn of the century, which was to be France's last major colonial acquisition. Drawing on memoirs and other writings, Porch tells how internal challenges to the unstable rule of Sultan Abd ed-Aziz opened the door to the French. He also recreates the clash of cultures and evokes a background of life in Tangiers and the medieval interior of the country. Altogether this history is ``appealing and brightly told,'' PW noted. (April)

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
Second Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.82(d)

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The Conquest of Morocco



Colonies can be conquered by accident. This may at first appear unlikely when we contemplate the immense colonial empires that Europe once possessed—such elaborate constructions must surely be the product of a policy, of a design, of economic calculation. But if you believe that, you may well be deceiving yourself. Algeria, to take one example, came to be the property of France by one of those flukes with which history abounds.

In 1828, Hussein, the dey of Algiers, struck the French consul, Pierre Deval, with his fly whisk in a fit of temper. The French government reacted in the classic fashion by sending an army. In fact, King Charles X of France hoped that by making a fuss over this "insult to the national honor" he might distract public attention from a series of planned domestic political measures that were bound to prove unpopular. In this, he was to be disappointed. In three bloody days in late July 1830, his government was overthrown and he was forced to flee for his life into exile, the last Bourbon king ever to rule France. But the French soldiers were already in Algiers. Stranded there without a government to issue orders, they behaved in the way soldiers often do when left to their own devices: they fought. Tribes and cities were gradually brought within the pale of French military administration and within fifteen years France had acquired, for better or worse, a colony.

By the turn of the century, French soldiers had in this same unplanned, ad hoc manner brought vast tracts of land in Africa and Indochina under the tricolor. However, one country had so far escaped their net: Morocco.

Morocco in 1900 was a country because the Sultan said it was. For Europeans who knew anything about the place, this claim appeared preposterous. Morocco was a land of tremendous contrasts—geographic, racial, linguistic—over much of which the Sultan exercised only nominal control. What gave it unity, at least on a map, was that it was virtually the only patch of Africa which had yet to be absorbed into one of those sweeping areas of pink, or yellow, or whatever color a European country used to delineate its empire. Morocco remained a cartographic anomaly, an untidy splash of noncolonial independence.

Morocco is dominated by its mountains. Those of the Rif rise out of the Mediterranean like an impenetrable barrier: "A naked, steep, savage-looking rocky wall." wrote the German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs, who visited Morocco in the 1860s. From the sea, the Rif appeared lifeless, "at the most, some lone cupola serving as the tombstone of a saint, shows that here human beings have lived and died." But its scrub-covered slopes were very much inhabited. Fierce Berber tribesmen kept the Rif both ungovernable and inaccessible. In 1888, Walter Harris, an English traveler who settled in Tangiers, claimed to be the first Christian to visit Chechaouèn, one of the chief towns of the Rif and certainly its most picturesque. Nestled at the foot of a six-hundred-foot rock precipice, the sloping red-tiled roofs of its houses give Chechaouèn an appearance far more Spanish than African, and one altogether unique in Morocco. But Harris enjoyed few of its charms. At the news that a Christian had infiltrated Chechaouèn, the streets filled with men intent on capturing the intruder, who was forced to hide in the house of one of his servants until nightfall, when he made his escape.

To the south, the stark, rocky spines of the Rif drop to the Taza corridor, the main passage between east and west Morocco, before the land again rises in successive ridges to the Middle Atlas. The large cedar forests and well-watered western slopes of this range make it one of the most pleasant regions of Morocco. It is here that the French conquerors would establish their best-known hill stations at Ifrane and Azrou, so that in summer wives and children could escape the baking heat of the plains below. These agreeable, tree-clad mountains rise to meet the High Atlas to the south. It is the snow-capped peaks of this range that curve majestically around the southern capital of Marrakech before they fall to the Atlantic above Agadir. The upper slopes of the High Atlas, which rise to over thirteen thousand feet, are virtually devoid of vegetation. Lower down, villages of square mud houses cling to the sides of precipitous valleys carved out by the melting snows.

Morocco's mountains divide the country both geographically and climatically. To the west, they cradle a well-watered land of plain and plateau, "as fertile as a garden," which stretches over three hundred miles from Marrakech in the south to the southern slopes of the Rif in the north. In the spring, this land is covered by a green felt of young wheat which ripens into a yellow carpet as summer progresses. Today, the light brown of the summer landscape is often broken by the blue-green groves of olive and the deeper green of citrus trees. Before the arrival of the French, however, the anarchythat ruled Morocco meant that this land was hardly cultivated, but given over almost exclusively to small herds of goats and sheep driven by nomadic tribesmen. This political instability placed severe limitations on the Moroccan economy, and on the Moroccan diet. Wheat ground into small grains of semolina which are then steamed formed the staple of the Moroccan di—couscous. Couscous is served with mutton boiled together with any garden vegetables in season into a spicy stew. Chicken and eggs were also available in the small towns that served as markets, as was tea, which, in the nineteenth century, became the main beverage in Morocco, brewed with mint and highly sweetened. However, Morocco did have a well-established culinary tradition, which meant that the meals of the rich could be elaborate affairs indeed.

The lands to the east and south of the Atlas are far more wild and primitive than those to the west. The east has none of the large cities such as Fez, Meknes, Rabat or Tangiers, which provide both large markets and centers of government and Arab culture. Nor can eastern Morocco support them, for the mountains block the rain-laden westerly winds from the Atlantic and keep the annual rainfall in the east and south to under eight inches a year. This is the beginning of the steppe, the series of mountains and plateaux which run, arid and almost unbroken, across the Maghreb to Tunisia, bounded on the north by the Mediterranean and on the south by the sand wastes of the Sahara. Human habitation is concentrated along deep river valleys such as the Dra, the Guir and the Ziz in large, fortresslike buildings called ksar. Although dry for much of the year, these rivers nevertheless provide enough moisture for the date palms which thread the valleys and oases for the nomads who wander with their sheep, goats and camels over the near-barren land.

The mountains also divide the country culturally, into Arab and Berber. The term "Berber" commonly refers to the original, light-skinned inhabitants of the Maghreb who retreated into the mountains in the face of the two Arab invasions of the seventh and eleventh centuries. But the difference between Arab and Berber is far more linguistic or cultural than racial. The Berber population in the western lowlands was absorbed by the invaders, while the mountain folk resisted both Arabic and Islam, retaining in varying degrees their animist religious practices and their language, Shilha. The Arabs of the plain both despised and feared the warlike hill tribes: "Honey is not grease, durra is not food, Shilha is not a language," runs an Arab saying.

Finally, until the French conquest was completed in 1934, the Atlas complicated the whole question of who ruled Morocco. The government of Morocco is called the makhzan; the word literally means "storehouse" or "treasury," and is the origin of the English word "magazine." Before Lyautey settled the colonial administration in Rabat, Morocco had no capital as Europeans understood the term. The Sultan, surrounded by his viziers, or ministers, his harem, his soldiers and a small army of camp followers, scribes and merchants sometimes numbering thirty thousand souls, meandered between Fez, Meknes, Rabat and Marrakech, depending on the political situation in the country. As King of Morocco, the Sultan was able to impose his rule on those portions of his empire which his army could control—essentially the fertile crescent to the west of the Atlas. Elsewhere, his temporal authority was for all practical purposes ignored.

But the Sultan was a spiritual leader as well. A descendant of the Prophet and Commander of the Faithful, he was the object of great veneration even in those areas that refused to pay his taxes or accept his garrisons: they mentioned him rather than the Ottoman sultan in their Friday prayers, sent him embassies and presents. He was their caliph and the custodian of the Dar el Islam, the House of Islam, of which they were residents. They simply declined to pay the rent. The Moroccans had a name for the land whose inhabitants lived in this curious relationship with their lord: bled el-siba, or "land of dissidence."

The fact that the Sultan could not control the trans-Atlas regions should have made it easy for a country like France, which maintained a powerful army in neighboring Algeria, to move in. The difficulty lay in the fact that, around 1900, the governments of Europe found it expedient to recognize the makhzan as the legitimate government of Morocco — all of it. It was therefore imprudent for France to begin military operations until she could gain the consent of her European neighbors. This they would not readily give. As a result, the future of Morocco provided one of the main sources of tension in European politics in the decade before the Great War.

Why had colonialists in France fixed their sights on Morocco? The answer to this question belongs more properly to the realm of psychology than that of economics. For Europeans, Morocco's economic importance was trifling—a few teapots and bolts of cloth were virtually all that Morocco bought from Europe, although there was a spirited market in contraband rifles. True, some spoke of Morocco's vast potential wealth in minerals, but these were dreamers, men who had not done their sums. Their visions werelittle more than hallucinations. The cost of conquering Morocco and of developing a transportation network beyond the few primitive tracks that existed in the interior would far exceed the profits from the few minerals that could be scratched from the soil.

For Europe, Morocco had only one value—strategic. Ironically, this proved the guarantee of Morocco's independence, with the result that the closest country in Africa to Europe was the last to fall in the mad scramble for African lands which had begun in the 1880s. Not because it was the least coveted: the French wanted to pull off a hat trick of takeovers in the Maghreb; Morocco would nicely complete the set which already included Algeria and Tunisia. In Paris and Algiers, the gnawing fear persisted that Morocco might, with foreign encouragement, become a staging post for an Islamic revolt that could throw France back across the Mediterranean and perhaps out of Africa altogether. Britain, for her part, was loath to see her major colonial rival installed across the strait from strategically vital Gibraltar, the first sentry post on the route to Suez and India. Spain feared foreign domination of the opposite shore. And events would soon bring Germany into contest for influence in Morocco. Mutual jealousies and suspicions thus kept each power at bay, postponed a takeover and preserved Morocco's fragile independence far beyond what should have been its natural life-span. Therefore, while in 1900 Morocco was still nominally independent, it was independent as a mouse surrounded by several hungry cats warily disputing who would carry off the dinner.

The stalemate over Morocco divided colonialists in France into two rival camps. The first group contained the diplomats led by Georges St.-Rene Taillandier, the French minister in Tangiers, and his boss, Foreign Minister Théophile Delcassé. All these men were acutely aware of the resistance to a French takeover of Morocco, both from Moroccans and from representatives of the other European powers. The colonialists in the Quai d'Orsay, the French foreign ministry, believed that a French protectorate must be carefully prepared, that hasty or ill-considered French military operations would provoke a violent reaction in Europe which might even lead to war.

St.-René and Delcassé believed that they had found a plan suited to the delicate international situation: Morocco would be suborned from within. The makhzan could be swallowed whole without the need to resort to force of arms. The Quai d'Orsay's "Program for military, economic and financial reconstruction of Morocco" would be France's Trojan horse left before thegates of an unsuspecting makhzan. Loans would be offered with strings attached—reform of the army and the civil service under French guidance, control of customs and of port police, a debt commission which would oversee Moroccan finances—until France held the Moroccan administration and economy by the throat. The French military mission in Fez would be expanded until its influence at court, and over the army, deprived the Sultan of any real independence. Delcassé's job was to prepare the ground in Europe. St.-René had the less enviable task of preparing it in Morocco.

For the second group of colonialists, made up of Algerian soldiers backed by the deputy for Oran and leader of the powerful colonial party in the Paris Chamber of Deputies, Eugène Etienne, the diplomats' plan was too clever by half. How could France suborn a country where the people were armed and prepared to resist? They saw more clearly than did the diplomats that the transparent conspiracy to reform and modernize a backward and conservative country like Morocco was bound to produce resistance and revolt. For the soldiers, the solution was at once more simple and more urgent: simple because a military invasion from Algeria would be a relatively easy affair to organize; urgent because French garrisons which manned the undefined frontier between Algeria and Morocco were failing in their attempts to contain the raiding parties from eastern Morocco which regularly struck into Algeria. The problem was especially acute in the southern section of the frontier region—the South Oranais. Here the Armée d'Afrique had established a series of posts running from Beni Ounif—which kept watch over the Moroccan oasis of Figuig—south along the Zousfana River through El Morra and Taghit to Beni Abbès, the last post before the real desert began. In these mud forts, built on promontories above the palm-fringed Zousfana, garrisons of foreign legionnaires, Algerian tirailleurs and French bataillons d'Afrique kept watch over a silent, empty landscape. However, they proved unable to prevent elusive Moroccan raiders from entering Algeria to plunder and steal. On the contrary, what made the soldiers especially angry was that they were themselves, more often than not, the victims of these successful hit-and-run raids. The supply columns that linked the isolated garrisons were an especially favored target. Paris, however, under pressure from the diplomats in Tangiers, expressly forbade retaliation, claiming that French incursions into territory claimed by the Sultan would anger the makhzan and set back their attempts to take over the country by peaceful means. So the army looked on helplessly as Moroccans ambushed its soldiers, lifted its livestock and weapons, and scurried back into the inviolate sanctuary of "Morocco."

For these reasons, the conquest of Morocco was to be a desperately complicated affair for France. Moroccan armed resistance was the least of her problems. She must also face the hostility of Europe, and this hostility had the effect of seriously dividing colonialists over questions of tactics. Each of the rival factions had its citadel: for the diplomats, this was Tangiers; for the soldiers, it was the line of posts along the Zousfana in the South Oranais. Their battles would be fought out in Paris as much as in Morocco.

Copyright © 1982 by Douglas Porch Introduction copyright © 2005 by Douglas Porch Map copyright © 1982 by David Lindroth All rights reserved

Meet the Author

Douglas Porch is a military historian and the author of The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (FSG, 2003). He is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

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