Tangier – The Poisoned Chalice

in Features

On a clear night, we can see the lights twinkling in Tangier in the distance across the Strait. Very few realise the turbulent history of this town, which rivals even our own. 

The Phoenicians were known to have had a trading post here as far back as 500BC. 

The Carthaginians were there for a while but were ousted by the Romans in 81BC and known as Tingis. Various Roman factions passed though its gates during the next five hundred years, ending up in the hands of the Julians of the Byzantine Empire. 

In 682AD the Arabs captured the town which then passed to the (Amazigh) Berbers in 707AD. It was from here that the conquest of Spain was launched in 711AD. In 951 Tangier fell to the control of the Umayyad dynasty under the Khlif of Cordoba.

By around 1030 the Almoravids had the upper hand and Tangier returned to the Moroccans. Portugal was anxious to occupy Tangier but numerous attempts failed until 1471 when they finally overcame the Berbers.

Most of us know about The War of the Spanish Succession, but how many have heard of The War of the Portuguese Succession? The Royalty in Europe has always been a bag of worms. Marriages of convenience were the order of the day. Most of the Rulers were and still are related in one way or another. 

King Sebastian I came to the throne of Portugal at the tender age of three. Various Regents ran the country until 1574 when his great uncle Cardinal Henry of Evora took up the Regency in 1557. In 1568, the King assumed power from the Regency. He soon had the idea of gaining possessions in North Africa. By chance, trouble between factions in Morocco led to Abu Abdhalla Mohammed II seeking asylum in Portugal in 1576. Following a meeting with the deposed Moroccan, he gathered a multi national army of seventeen thousand, many of which were mercenaries, and landed in Morocco where he was joined by six thousand Moors. His forces faced fifty thousand men under Abdul Malik II Saadi at Kasar Al Kibir on August 14th 1578. The Portuguese were soundly beaten, King Sebastian was thought to have died in the battle, however questions have remained as to what happened to him. His body is said to be buried in the Monastery in Belem. Following his death, since Sebastian never married, Cardinal Henry renounced the Cloth and became King and sought to marry in order to continue the Avis destiny. However, The Spanish King Felipe II convinced the Pope to refuse the Cardinal permission to leave the clergy.  Henry died in 1580. without issue. 

Antonio Prior de Crato, the illegitimate grandson son of the Duke of Beja who had spent all his life in Portugal, declared himself King on July 24th with the support of many of the Portuguese people, but was defeated by his rival the Duke of Alba at the battle of Alcantara on August 25th and claimed the throne on behalf of Felipe II of Spain who was the eldest grandchild from the female line of his mother Isabella of Portugal. 

As a result of this victory, the Iberian Union was agreed in 1580 where Spain and Portugal became joined under the Spanish throne. This meant that Tangier became a Spanish colony until Portugal regained its independence in 1656.

How did England got into the act? Portugal was having difficulty in maintaining its newly gained independence and sought help from England and as part of the bargain

Charles II married Catherine de Braganza in 1661 and Tangier, among other territories, passed to England as part of her dowry. England provided troops to the Portuguese. 

The Admiral, Earl of Sandwich was sent out to take possession of Tangier with a small naval occupation force.   

Charles made the Earl of Peterborough Governor and Captain-General on the 6th of September 1661. In January 1662, the 2nd Regiment of Foot or Tangier Regiment arrived, followed shortly after by further troops from Dunkirk and Flanders in the new colony but found that the town was under constant attack from the Berbers. The it was run down and in ruin. 

It soon became apparent that the harbour was unsafe due to the close proximity of the Moors who took every opportunity to attack any shipping in the port. Even the town was not secure. All the Portuguese residents left leaving only the English military families in the town. Further cause for concern was the fact that the harbour could not handle the British warships due to the water depth and there was little protection from the rough sea caused by the Easterly wind.

Work started in November to build a mole which was to be fortified. A survey in 1676 showed that there were 2225 inhabitants all of whom were military and their families. The cost of maintaining the garrison was estimated at £140,000 (7m in today’s money) per annum. 

Sultan Mulay Ismail with his compatriot in Fez continued to harass the garrison which was forced to increase its strength to combat the threat. 

In 1680, the Royal Scots, 2nd Tangier Regiment, King’s Battalion formed from the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards arrived.

Now having the strength in number, the English attacked the Moors who had laid siege and captured a portion of the town

The defences were constantly being improved to combat the increasing attacks by the Moroccans. The cost of maintaining this useless colony was causing concern in Parliament. Expenditure was now reaching a total of £2.000,000 (£100,000,000). 

Religious concerns were also raised as mainly Irish and Catholic troops were stationed in Tangier. Fear of a Catholic uprising in England raised the suspicion that Charles was accumulating a catholic army in Tangier. The fact that his wife was an ardent Catholic did not help. 

Pressure was building up for the King to relinquish Tangier. Finally in 1683 Admiral Lord Dartmouth was given secret instructions to evacuate the colony.

The troops reduced the fortifications to rubble, destroyed the newly constructed mole  which was completed by February 1684. 

The Admiral was able to buy the release of some forty military captives from the Moors before he left. 

In 1844 the French attacked tangier by sea and the Spanish invaded Morocco in 1860. Britain was alarmed at what she saw as a threat to her dominance over the Strait. A Franco – Spanish agreement in 1902 made Tangier a separate international administration. This was followed by an Anglo – French agreement on 1904 which stipulated that the town would have a special status which was confirmed by the Algeciras Conference in 1906. From this the French, Spanish and British became joint Administrators. Some modifications were proposed in 1914 but due to the war they were not ratified until 1923. Five years further on more recommendations were proposed in which five countries formed the administration. 

In 1940, with the fall of France, Spain occupied Tangier but were made to withdraw in 1945 when the international administration was reintroduced. The United States and Italy were allowed to join at this time. This status remained until Morocco gained its independence in 1956.

Article supplied by
History Society Gibraltar.
Email: historysocietygibraltar@hotmail.com


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