The Ceuta border: a constant source of misunderstanding and conflict

Antonio M. Carrasco

Ceuta was a place of permanent conflict and insecurity. The city’s defensive needs forced the Spaniards to seize and fortify the high ground near the wall.

Ceuta was conquered by John I of Portugal in 1415; it was the African continuation of the Reconquista of the peninsula. In 1580, after the death of King Sebastian without successors, the Crown of Portugal passed to Felipe II, unifying all the peninsular kingdoms. It included the Portuguese possessions of Ceuta, Arcila, Tangier and Mazagan (El Jadida). This union lasted until 1640, but after the separation, Ceuta preferred to remain Spanish and did not recognise the proclamation of the Duke of Braganza as King of Portugal. Despite the sieges of 1694 and 1727, the attempted conquests of 1732, 1757 and the attack and siege of 1790, Ceuta remained Spanish.

Ceuta in the 16th century.

Ceuta in the 16th century.

Ceuta was a walled fortress. Inside the walls was Spanish territory, but the exact boundaries of the use of the outer camp were not known. The concept of sovereignty was not well determined, it depended on the king, the historical moment and war as a way of conquering territory. Spain’s position in the outer camp depended on the reaction of the Yebali Kabyles. It was a place of permanent conflict and insecurity. As Juan Bautista Vilar pointed out, the defensive needs of the city forced the Spaniards to take and fortify the heights near the wall. Possession of the nearby heights not only defended the walls, but also kept an eye on the enemy.

The demarcation of the boundaries

To put an end to the situation, and to give the Spaniards more land outside the walls, Jorge Juan negotiated with El Gazel to delimit the boundaries of Ceuta and mark them with stone boundary markers, as stated in article 19 of the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Commerce of 1767. A commission was formed and the Convention of 1782 was signed, which extended the boundaries of Ceuta. From the first position on Mount Hacho and the second, which extended along the isthmus of Almina, both of which were walled, Ceuta was transferred to this third position with dominion over the outer heights. This was ratified in the Treaty of 1799.

By the mid-19th century, the Spanish position was weak. Almost all of the American Empire had been lost and there was relentless fighting on the mainland, first against Napoleon and then in the Carlist War. Ceuta had little garrison to defend itself and conflicts with the sultans continued uninterrupted. In 1837 the Moroccans usurped territories ceded in 1782, according to the Spanish, although Morocco claimed they only ceded the use of pastures. Translations of agreements with the Maghreb country have been a constant source of misunderstanding. The Kabyle demanded that Spain withdraw to the boundaries prior to the Treaty of 1782. In the absence of a clear response, Spanish diplomats threatened the Sultan with war.

To solve the problem, and with British mediation, the Tangiers Agreement of 25 August 1844 was signed between the British Consul in Tangiers, Drummond Hay, and the Baya Busilham Ben Ali. To give effect to the previous agreement, the Larache Agreement of 6 May 1845 was concluded. The new border would run along the course of the Fez and Canaveral streams in its “talweg”.

On paper, the issue was settled and the border marked. But, as Jerónimo Becker writes in his History of Morocco (1915): “Unfortunately, neither the Larache Agreement of 1845 resolved all the pending disputes between Spain and Morocco, nor did it prevent the outrages and offences of which the Spanish were victims from resuming a few months later”. Atrocities that sometimes involved murder, sometimes the seizure of ships and often robbery. The incidents continued unabated until August 1859, when the Kabyle of Anghera attacked the guard force that the Spaniards had set up in their territory to defend the construction of three forts planned on the border.

The sultan agreed in principle, obliged by the foreign consuls, to punish the culprits and compensate them for the damage. But Mulay Abderrahman died on the 29th of the same month. His successor was not in favour of honouring what had been agreed, nor was he prepared to meet the Spanish claims. Faced with this attitude, and all attempts by European diplomacy to reach an agreement having failed, Spain declared war on Morocco on 22 October. Curiously, the war was greeted with enormous popular enthusiasm in both countries.

The Peace of Wad-Ras by Joaquín Domínguez Bécquer (1870)

The Peace of Wad-Ras by Joaquín Domínguez Bécquer (1870).

This war ended with a resounding Spanish victory. It was not a military walkover, but it was won by a wide margin. French and British intervention prevented the Spanish from reaching Tangiers and they were only able to hold Tetouan for a year. The war ended with the Treaty of Wad-Ras on 23 April 1860. This treaty, with reference to Ceuta, included a second territorial extension to the Serrallo line, the northern slopes of Sierra Bullones and Benzú Bay. It also established a neutral area, now occupied by Morocco.

This border has remained unchanged to the present day, although it has sometimes been questioned by Morocco, which considers it to be a forced mutilation of its territory and a colonial conquest. The Moroccan thesis is set out at length in the book Le contentieux territorial entre le Maroc et l’Espagne (1974) by Professor Rachid Lazrak.

Sources

This post was translated from:

Carrasco, A.M. (2022) ‘La frontera de Ceuta: una fuente constante de malentendidos y conflictos’, El Debate, Madrid, 28 May. Available at: https://www.eldebate.com/historia/20220528/delimitacion-frontera-ceuta.html (Accessed: 11 June 2022).

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