The Moorish Wanderer

Glimpses of Morocco’s History Vol. 4

Posted in Moroccan History & Sociology, Morocco, Read & Heard, The Wanderer by Zouhair ABH on April 11, 2011

My first request, and on the 1727-1757 period! (Thank you Maroqui; The post might be a bit off-topic, though…)

As it happens, one of the latest issues of ‘Wijhat Nadar‘ (45-44, Summer 2010) dealt with the very interesting issue of killing in Morocco. Killing is a very approximate translation of the following: “التقتيل في المغرب عبر التاريخ” so perhaps it would be closer to the truth to denote it as a policy of killing, mainly because of its systematic, and more importantly, official features.

The violent nature of the Imperial regime cannot be stressed enough, as it represents an inextricable part of pre-1912 Moroccan political sociology: indeed, the modern state tries, whenever possible, to assert itself as the monopoly of symbolic and real violence. The Makhzen however, for all its modernist features (as A. Laroui defined them) did not hesitate in using extreme violence to assert its power.

Smail Ibn Ali Cherif (1672 - 1727)

The mid 18th century in Morocco was relatively stable compared to earlier rambles, not because there were fewer riots and insurrections, but because these -usually numerous in bad times as well as in good times- have been almost systematically put down by the imperial Harkas; In the Eastern desert Oasis region alone, cradle of the Alaouite dynasty, number of rebellions against Sultan Moulay Ismaïl counted, on a period from 1676 to 1692 average one every two years, and subsequent riots led to a waltz of local governors (or Caïds) two of which were related to the Imperial dynasty; Beforehand, we need the historical background prior to 1727: Moulay Smaïl took over from his brother, Moulay Mohammed after a successful uprising against him in 1665 (and eventually kills him).

Not only does his rebellion succeed, but he manages to bring back the pieces together: From his native Tafilelt, he manages to conquer Marrakesh, the High Atlas and the Touat region. He then moved westward and annexed the fertile Gharb plains, then conquered the northern regions of Rif. Morocco was for the first time since a long time ago, unified under one Sultan and one imperial authority. This unity however, came at a terrible human price: to force the Moroccan nations into submission, Moulay Smaïl had used a great deal of violence, much more than the standard levels to which denizens of the Imperial Maghrib grew accustomed to, which were already too barbaric even by these days’ standards (beheading, burying alive, whatever comes to mind when mediaeval torture and executions are concerned) and managed to exact heavy taxes compared to what previous Sultans extracted from the local tribes.

A colonial officer, A.G.P Martin reports an example of the taxes; in “Quatre Siècles d’Histoire Marocaine“, he reports in 1688 the following taxes on the Oasis regions, 4,583.5 Metkals, mainly paid for by Taçabit, Oudjlane, Oulad Sidi Hammou Belhaj, Mekkid, Titaouine Inzegmir and the Reggane region. Knowing that one Metkal-or was valued at 144 Francs (Martin computes on 1908 parity) revenues were about 660.000 francs, plus a personal ‘present’ to the Sultan from the local governor, Caïd Ahmed Roussi of about 30,000 francs. Such taxes were high enough for the governor to forgo collecting the “عاشور” (Aachoor) and taxes on water rights. The joint effect of high taxation and bloody repression did prompt the locals (in the Oasis regions and elsewhere) into rioting against the local Caïd or even directly against the Imperial emissaries too:

“[…] En 1690, un Caïd du nom d’Abdelaziz qui pressura les Ksour sans mesure et provoqua un mécontentement général; les gens de Timmimoun se révoltèrent et l’assiégèrent dans la Kasba […] [Les Caïds Messaoud et Mohamed Saffar] vinrent ensuite séjourner un mois à Telalet; ils attaquèrent aussi le Ksar de Ghyat qui avait suivi Timmimoun dans sa révolte. […] Les gens de Timmimoun s’étant enfermés dans leur Ksar, le Caïd […] Saffar vint les assiéger et les força à capituler; il détruisit les Ksour de l’Est (sic) et rasa leurs palmeraies” (Martin, Ed. 1923 p.68)

Indeed, as it was pointed out, a Jewish Demmi could walk across from Oujda to Oued-Noun virtually unharmed, and symbols of Imperial authority were uphold, but to an excessive price, and the constant pressure on the Moroccan people too high to bear, so, when the despotic Sultan died in 1727, his Sons rose and soon got into a civil war to seize the Imperial throne, unleashing yet another of these periodic civil wars in Morocco, exacerbated further by Smail’s sadistic tastes. To insure stability (and avoid any palace coup) the late Sultan divided up the Kingdom into command regions and appointed his sons. Though it made sense when reigning, it proved to be a deadly policy for the hard-earned unity: each son had a base with its resources, whether natural or military, and that made the ensuing civil war even more vicious.

As soon as the news of his death reached Touat, denizens rioted against the Makhzen (a Siba dissidence, in short) and dispersed the remaining local authority by killing Caïd Hamdoun (though version differ on his fate). The ensuing anarchy was not due to the fact that Moulay Smaïl did not nominate his Heir, but because, as A. Laroui rightfully pointed out, the late Sultan’s wishes are not scrupulously executed when they do not suit the Court’s own preferences. For all absolutist a monarch, the Moroccan Sultan didn’t have that much power: in the imperial court, his will was subordinated to the Court’s; And when it is time for power transmission, the consensus fades away with the Sultan’s death, and any relative with (real or faked)  Chorfa ascent can claim the throne and muster local support. The novelty Moulay Smaïl introduced was his attempt to modernise the Makhzen by introducing the idea of a regular army, his very own Black Guard, the Bokhari guards.

Morocco and its borders, by Jackson. 18th Century.

When the conquest of Morocco was (almost) completed, they turned into a Praetorian Guard, and inevitably meddle with Court politics. In this case, and even though the theoretical successor, Moulay Ahmed, was confirmed, another of Smaïl’s numerous offspring, Moulay Abdelmalek, Souss governor, was proclaimed a Sultan too. The ambitious pretender started to march off on Fès in 1728, and as early as 1729, other pretenders rose to claim the throne as well. For Abdelmalek to insure good support from the South (the one region that contributes ‘generous’ and stable receipts to the Makhzenian vaults) Abdelmalek first diverts forces to secure Caravan convoys (that has been under attack from the Tuareg) and, thanks to their support, Timmimoun oasis region was exempted from taxes and the local Caïds bribed to join the pretenders’ causes. The nominal Sultan, Moulay Abdellah, resided in a nominal Capital, controlling a nominal empire with no real armed forces to submit the rebellious tribes or suppress his Brothers’ uprising, though he would have done so (and tried in a couple of times)

The expedition’s aim -and that was not the first, or the only one- was simple enough: most of the constant receipts Makhzen authorities normally cash in do not come from local output, i.e. agriculture, but from desert caravans, and these resources were going to be much needed for the pretender to pay and arm conscripts (and bribe some local officials) for any serious pretender to seize the throne outright. Abdelmalek eventually disappeared, as he had quickly lost Bokharis‘ support. Though over the period one of Smaïl’s sons, Moulay Abdellah managed to maintain some sort of Makhzen order, his death in 1757 did close another stable reign: He had to wage a constant war against many of his brothers, and during the whole period, Morocco was closed to foreign influence, what came to be called “سياسة الإحتراز”, a state of vegetative diplomacy and virtually total autarky.

A peculiar observation though, it has been noted that when the Imperial authority is shaken, that of Zawyas‘ increases in wealth, power and influence: Zawya Darqawiya thrived during Abdellah’s reign: The Zawya provided shelter, food, education, knowledge and even for many, a fatherly figure in the person of the Master, all of which is non-existent in these troubled times.

[Credits to Dianabuja’s]


6 Responses

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  1. mouka said, on April 11, 2011 at 12:06

    I have read an extremely informative account of how Moulay Ismail was a brutal ruler. He was said to have once chopped the head of a slave holding his umbrella just to check the sharpness and quality of the sword. The sword in question was found on a Portuguese ship that was captured by the Sala pirates.
    The account by the way of how Meknes was built by European slaves was by one slave who was captured at the age of 14. He spent thirty some years in Morocco, and he gives a very interesting account of the state of Morocco under the rule of sultan Moulay Ismail.
    Check it out, it makes for an interesting read.
    Here is a link:,+of+Penryn,+Mariner&source=bl&ots=7n1vM9mhM4&sig=lzQb0_7Zmjk-HSqi4Z2ihNTm6ZI&hl=en&ei=pe6iTcfCOKOx0QHnifmXBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

  2. mouka said, on April 11, 2011 at 12:08

    One more thing, a very interesting book that I got from my public library gives a more interesting and modern version of how Moulay Ismail ruled Morocco.
    The name of the book is “White Gold”.

  3. mouka said, on April 11, 2011 at 12:10

    This is the full title of white gold book:
    White Gold The Extraordinary adventures of Thomas Pellow and the one Million white slaves.
    I am not 100% sure about the titles, but you can google it.

  4. mouka said, on April 11, 2011 at 15:18

    I have read it in English. That’s how I learned how Meknes was built, on the backs of numerous European slaves. Moulay Ismail had a steady supply of cheap European labor provided by the Sallateen (From the town Sale, right next to Rabat) pirates.
    The accounts that the makhzenien education gave us of Moulay Ismail is very different from what happened in reality. The regime is cherry picking what facts about Moulay Ismail in particular, and Moroccan history in general, they feed us in public schools.
    I have read numerous history books, notably from Laroui and other historians like him. It changed completely my perspective on Moroccan history, I now am fully aware of the ideological tools the regime has at its disposal to shape up our thinking, and how the regime can distort historical facts to fit its own narrative.
    I also have read numerous books about the structure of the Moroccan society, some of them were instrumental in my political awakening.
    The problem is that these books are either not available to the average Moroccan reader or are overpriced, the result being that very few Moroccans have read these extremely informative and educational books.
    Keep your posts coming, I have become a big fan of yours.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas. It is greatly appreciated.

  5. Empire the eternal quest | said, on April 21, 2011 at 01:50

    […] Glimpses of Morocco’s History Vol. 4 ( […]

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