BY MEHDI ELHARTI & LAMA ELSHARIF
As the United Kingdom entered a new chapter of its economic history when it left the European Union, it embarked on a mission to negotiate trade deals with over ninety countries. In December 2019, Morocco became one of the first to reach an association agreement with the UK, and as this agreement came into force in January 2021, the two kingdoms marked the tercentenary of the first treaty ever ratified between them. Contemporary historians agree that the treaty of 1721 set the foundation of Anglo-Moroccan relations for over a hundred years, a period during which Britain became Morocco’s first trade partner and closest European ally.
Accounts of the earliest diplomatic exchanges between Morocco and the British Isles date back to the 13th century when a weakened King John (r.1199-1216) sought the support of the Almohad Caliph Mohamed al-Nasir (r.1199-1213), who reigned from his capital, Marrakech, over an empire stretching from Seville to Tripoli. Although this first documented contact failed to materialise into its intended purpose, these relations continued, albeit intermittently, given that each kingdom was embroiled in different struggles and had distinctly different priorities and interests.
The second half of the 16th century brought a new beginning to Anglo-Moroccan relations, as both countries were up against the same adversary, Habsburg Spain. Fascinated with the Muslim culture, Queen Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) fostered and strengthened England’s alliance with Morocco. On several occasions, she requested diplomatic and commercial help from Moroccan rulers Abdulmalek (r.1576-1578) and his successor, Ahmad al-Mansur (r.1578-1603). The first documented English vessel to trade with Morocco was the Lion of London in 1551. The ship’s captain, Thomas Wyndham, made such a profitable commerce in Agadir that he came back one year later with two more vessels. He docked in Safi and Agadir, and traded “good quantitie of linnen, and woollen cloth, coral, amber, jet, and divers other things well accepted by the Moores” in exchange for “sugar, dates, almonds, and malassos or sugar syrrope.” Further, in an exchange for military supplies, the English purchased Morocco’s saltpetre for manufacturing gunpowder, while Moroccans received guns, cannonballs and timber for shipbuilding.
Anglo-Moroccan commercial and diplomatic exchanges increased remarkably during the following decades, particularly after the decisive Moroccan victory in 1578 at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir against the Portuguese. The Virgin Queen had welcomed and entertained many Moroccan ambassadors and merchants. In 1580, Ahmad Belkassem sailed to England with an English agent, Henry Roberts, and in 1600, Moroccan commissioner Abdel-Wahid ben Masood stayed in England for six months. Queen Elizabeth and Ahmad al-Mansur made sure their envoys worked diligently to increase trade, which culminated in 1585 with the creation of the “Barbary Company” with a patent to monopolise maritime trade with Morocco for twelve years.
The sudden deaths of al-Mansur and Elizabeth in 1603 put this brief alliance into a halt, especially that the first half of the 17th century was a period of instability in both countries. Internal strife and the rise of independent Zawiyas (religious brotherhoods) accompanied the decline of the Moroccan Sa’adi dynasty, while in England, King Charles’ struggle with Parliament hurled the country into a civil war and the brief abolition of the monarchy. Not long after, Anglo-Moroccan relations experienced a new setback in 1661 when the Portuguese offered Tangier as a dowry to King Charles II (r. 1660-1685) for his marriage to the Portuguese Infanta (princess), Catarina de Braganza. Despite the absence of a central authority, Moroccan resistance never gave respite to the English garrison, inflicting considerable losses on them as in the Battle of Tangier in 1664.
In the midst of the unprecedented anarchy, a new dynasty emerged in Morocco and would play, to this day, a cementing role for the Moroccan nation. The Alawis took it upon themselves to unify the country and re-establish a strong central authority. Most importantly, they embarked on a mission to liberate the coastal towns from foreign invaders. In 1669, King Charles II sent his envoy, Henry Howard, to negotiate a truce with the Alawi sultan, al-Rashid (r.1666-1672). The English emissary brought luxurious gifts of spears, brass cannons, an ornate chariot, English fabric of excellent quality, and Moroccan captives, who were held in England; but these were not enough to convince al-Rashid to cease hostilities with the English garrison in Tangier.
The most imposing Alawi sultan was Ismail who ruled with an iron fist from his capital Meknes. In 1680, he mobilised his troops to Tangier for a long siege that forced the English to negotiate. He sent his ambassador Mohamed ben-Haddou to London to meet King Charles II and convince him to evacuate the city. During his six-month stay, ben-Haddou made numerous public appearances to Oxford, Cambridge and the Royal Society among other places; when he returned to Morocco in 1682, the sultan refused to ratify the treaty proposed to him and continued his military pressure on Tangier, until the English evacuated in February 1684. Fearing to alienate the English after their departure, Sultan Ismail sent a letter to Charles II dated 23 March 1684:
Today the only feelings we have towards the English are ones of goodwill, because they like us more than all other European countries. They have come to our blessed lands and have been pleased to become acquainted with us and have become our friends […] Now that you have left Muslim lands and handed them back to them […] and you are sensible to do this, we thank you and are pleased to inform you that we grant you all that you request concerning the security of your vessels and your commerce […] Now that you have wisely withdrawn from our country, you may expect only good from us […]
The English departure from the Strait will prove temporary, and twenty years later they captured the rock of Gibraltar. Although formalized by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the “perpetual” British presence in Gibraltar would only be possible with the logistical support provided by Morocco. Queen Anne (r.1702-1714) dispatched her emissary, Captain George Paddon, to negotiate the terms of peace with the Moroccan sultan. Accompanied by six vessels, Paddon sailed aboard HMS Ruby and “entered Tetuan Bay on the Barbary Coast with guns blazing” to intimidate the Moroccans and force them to make concessions. As soon as he arrived in Meknes, the British envoy had an audience with the sultan who granted him, in return for the promise of a ransom, the freedom of 67 English captives and two Spaniards who were under British protection in Gibraltar. Upon his return to Tetuan, George Paddon and the sultan’s representative agreed to nine articles of peace signed on 27 July 1714. However, George Paddon’s arrogance and contempt of Moroccans hampered his peace project, and probably cost him his post in the Royal Navy.
The 1714 accords were a failure by all metrics: Queen Anne had not ratified the treaty as she died four days after its signature; the sultan did not receive the promised ransom, and Moroccan corsairs, the Sallee Rovers, continued attacking British merchant vessels. Sultan Ismail even sent a letter, dated 28 May 1717, to Vice-Admiral Charles Cornwall in Gibraltar complaining about the behaviour of the English negotiators and the fact that he had not received all what Paddon had promised him. The Vice-Admiral, nonetheless, could not have done much against his former captain since he became Combat-Admiral of the Russian Fleet. Cornwall then appointed another emissary, Captain Coningsby Norbury, but his inexperience displeased the sultan, who quickly dismissed him empty-handed.
The failures of the 1714 and 1717 embassies and the death of Vice-Admiral Cornwall in 1718 prompted King George I to send another mission to Morocco in 1720. This time, he granted his newly-appointed ambassador, Charles Stewart, the title of Minister Plenipotentiary with all the prerogatives to conclude a treaty in his name. Stewart and his secretary, John Windus, boarded HMS Dover from England on 24 September 1720. As soon as they arrived in Gibraltar on 20 October, Stewart sent a letter to the Pasha of Tetuan, Ahmad ben-Ali ben-Abdullah, informing him that he was ready to meet and conclude a treaty. He wrote:
I take the Liberty to acquaint your Excellency of my arrival in these parts, with full powers to treat of a peace with your Excellency, or any person or persons His Imperial Majesty shall appoint. […] though I don’t know whether by destiny or mismanagement the so long desired peace has been retarded.
Once informed, sultan Ismail addressed a letter to Stewart, inviting him to Meknes and assuring him that “there will only be what he desires.” He also reminded him of the historical relations between the two countries, “[…] you Englishmen are known for [your] engagement, truce and goodwill towards the kings of Marrakech.”
In response to Ismail’s letter, The British ambassador and his delegation crossed the Strait and arrived at the bay of Tetuan on 20 December 1720. Negotiations with the Pasha and the sultan’s interpreter Moshe ben-Attar were successful, and on 17 January 1721 Charles Stewart penned his signature on the fifteen-article treaty. The original text of the treaty was in Spanish, a language that ben-Attar, a member of Morocco’s Judeo-Andalusian community, mastered quite well.
Box 1: A Treaty Ahead of its Time
I. In order to establish Peace between the Powers, both by land and sea, and all their respective Dominions, it is agreed on, that the English may now, and always hereafter, be well used and respected by our Subjects, agreeable to the orders and commands of the Emperor.
III. That all the English Ships and the Emperor’s Ships may pass and repass the Seas without hindrance, interruption, or molestation, from each other; nor shall any money, merchandise, or any demand be made or taken by the Ships of either Power from each other;
VIII. That no English merchant, Captains of Ships, or other person or persons whatsoever, that are English subjects, shall be forced to sell any of their goods for less than the real value…
XII. If any of the Emperor’s subjects shall purchase any commodity in the English Dominions, they shall not be imposed upon in price, but pay the same as is sold to the English.
Upon his return to Gibraltar, Charles Stewart sent the signed treaty to London for ratification by King George I. Once done, he travelled back to Morocco to meet the sultan in his grandiose palace in Meknes. The ambassador’s diplomatic acumen enabled him to win the satisfaction of sultan Ismail, who in turn ratified the treaty and freed 300 English captives. The sultan even entrusted Stewart with a letter to King George I to express his satisfaction with the negotiations. In his letter, Ismail praised the king on his choice of Stewart, whom he considered intelligent and “the best person” he had received from England. To further affirm his commitment to the articles of peace, Sultan Ismail sent his admiral Abdelkader Perez to London where he stayed for few months before securing a “private audience of leave of his Majesty” George I on 29 August 1724.
By securing free and protected navigation in addition to safeguarding the rights and property of one another’s subjects, the treaty of 1721 became instrumental in procuring a lifeline to Gibraltar and boosting trade between Morocco and the British Isles. It was renewed and extended on several occasions as in 1729 when additional articles were included to allow Moroccans, Muslims and Jews, to settle and conduct business in Gibraltar. From that day forward, the majority of Gibraltar’s Jews were of Moroccan origins and they formed a dynamic community that helped bolster trade with Morocco.
Three centuries have passed since the ratification of the treaty of 1721 and relations between the two countries had not always been smooth sailing. Kings and sultans changed, and so did the different challenges that surfaced with these changes. Nevertheless, diplomatic and commercial ties continued without rupture as neither country took a radically reverse position towards the other. This goes to show the concerted efforts both kingdoms put into maintaining this relationship.
Box 2: UK-Morocco trade relations today
In 2019, UK-Morocco trade amounted to £2 billion, which represents only 3% of Morocco’s total merchandise trade. The UK is the fifth foreign direct investor in Morocco, and its foreign direct investment stock (FDI) is a fraction that of France or Spain. As Brexit became reality on 1st January 2021, the UK presents new opportunities for Moroccan exporters especially those of agricultural products which were previously disadvantaged by Spanish competition. In contrast, the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT) believes that Morocco can become a considerable market for exports and a safe destination for British capital. DIT recently included Morocco among seven priority countries in Africa and allocated more than £4 billion in loan guarantees to British exporters wishing to access the Moroccan market. All of this will inevitably lead to bolstering commercial, educational and cultural exchanges, as well as strengthening a friendship that has been among the longest in world diplomatic history.