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Pre 20th Century History of Morocco

Unlike other North African nations, Morocco has been largely occupied by one group of people for as long as recorded history can recall. The Berbers, or Imazighen (free men), settled in the area thousands of years ago and at one time controlled all of the land between Morocco and Egypt. Divided into clans and tribes, they have always jealously guarded their independence. It's this fierce spirit that has helped preserve one of Africa's most fascinating cultures.


The early Berbers were unmoved by the colonising Phoenicians, and even the Romans did little to upset the Berber way of life after the sack of Carthage in 146 BC. All the same, the Romans ushered in a long period of peace during which many cities were founded, and the Berbers of the coastal plains became city dwellers.

Islam burst onto the world stage in the 7th century when armies swept out of Arabia. Quickly conquering Egypt, the Arabs controlled all of North Africa by the start of the 8th century. By the next century much of North Africa had fragmented, with the move towards a united Morocco steadily growing.

A fundamentalist Berber movement emerged from the chaos caused by the Arab invasion, overrunning Morocco and Muslim Andalucia. The Almoravids founded Marrakesh as their capital, but they were soon replaced by the Almohads.

Under these new rulers, a professional civil service was set up and the cities of Fès, Marrakesh, Tlemcen and Rabat reached the peak of their cultural development. But eventually weakened by Christian defeats in Spain, and paying the price for heavily taxing tribes, the Almohad power began to wane. In their place came the Merenids, from the Moroccan hinterland, and the area again blossomed - until the fall of Spain to the Christians, in 1492, unleashed a revolt that dissolved the new dynasty within 100 years.

After a number of short-lived dynasties rose and fell, the Alawite family secured a stranglehold in the 1630s that remains firm to this day. Although it was rarely a smooth ride, this pragmatic dynasty managed to keep Morocco independent for more than three centuries.

Colonial Struggles

Morocco's location and resources led to early competition among European powers in Africa, beginning with successful Portuguese efforts to control the Atlantic coast in the 15th century. France showed a strong interest in Morocco as early as 1830.

In the 19th century the strategic importance and economic potential of Morocco excited the interest of the European powers. France, after beginning war with Algeria, defeated (1844) Sultan Abd ar-Rahman, who had aided the Algerians. Spain invaded in 1860. In 1880 the major European nations and the United States decided at the Madrid Conference to preserve the territorial integrity of Morocco and to maintain equal trade opportunities for all.

Political and commercial rivalries soon disrupted this cordial arrangement and brought on several international crises. France sought to gain Spanish and British support against the opposition of Germany.

Finally, in 1904, France and Spain concluded a secret agreement that divided Morocco into zones of French and Spanish influence, with France controlling almost all of Morocco and Spain controlling the small southwest portion, which became known as Spanish Sahara. They secretly agreed with Great Britain (the Entente Cordiale) not to oppose British aims in Egypt in exchange for a free hand in Morocco.

Morocco grew into an even greater object of European rivalry by the turn of the century, almost leading to a European war in 1905 when Germany attempted to gain a foothold in the mineral-rich country. In 1905, after France had asked the sultan of Morocco for a protectorate, Germany moved quickly: Emperor William II visited Tangier and declared support for Morocco's integrity.

By the terms of the Algeciras Conference (Jan.–Mar., 1906), the sultan of Morocco maintained control of his lands and France's privileges were curtailed. At German insistence the Conference was called to consider the Moroccan question. The principles of the Madrid Conference were readopted and German investments were assured protection, but French and Spanish interests were given marked recognition by the decision to allow France to patrol the border with Algeria and to allow France and Spain to police Morocco.

The conference was an indication of what was to come in World War I, with Germany and Austria-Hungary lining up on one side of the territorial dispute, and France, Britain, and the United States on the other.

Under the claim of effecting pacification, the French steadily annexed territory. In 1908 friction arose at Casablanca, under French occupation, when the German consul gave refuge to deserters from the French Foreign Legion. This dispute was settled by the Hague Tribunal. Shortly afterward in a coup Abd al-Aziz IV was unseated and his brother, Abd al-Hafid, installed on the throne. He had difficulty maintaining order and received help from France and Spain, especially in a revolt that broke out in 1911.

In this situation the appearance of the German warship Panther at Agadir on July 1, 1911, was interpreted by the French as a threat of war and speeded a final adjustment of imperial rivalries. On Nov. 4, 1911, Germany agreed to a French protectorate in Morocco in exchange for the cession of French territory in equatorial Africa.

Finally, at Fès (Mar. 30, 1912), the sultan agreed to a French protectorate, and on Nov. 27 a Franco-Spanish agreement divided Morocco into four administrative zones—French Morocco, nine-tenths of the country, a protectorate with Rabat as capital; a Spanish protectorate, which included Spanish Morocco, with its capital at Tétouan; a Southern Protectorate of Morocco, administered as part of the Spanish Sahara; and the international zone of Tangier. The French protectorate was placed under the rule of General Lyautey, who remained in office until 1925.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008