Spain in Africa

Spain in Africa
Spain in Africa

Although the coast of Spain is only some 8.7 miles from that of North Africa, and it is possible to go by ferry in less than an hour, Spain has had few colonies on the African continent. Part of this is because until 1492, the Spanish government was more concerned with the Reconquista, the reconquest of Muslim Spain, than with colonial expansion, and as a result Portugal took the lead in voyages around the western coast of Africa.

Indeed, by the time of the capture of Granada in 1492, when the last part of Moorish Spain was taken, and the subsequent departure of Christopher Columbus, the Portuguese had already seized control of the Moroccan port of Ceuta, the Azores, Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands and also the island of São Tomé, and claimed the Canary Islands.

This Portuguese expansion into Africa, and the successful voyage of Christopher Columbus, meant that the Spanish and Portuguese kings came to an agreement over the division of the world. In 1494 Pope Alexander VI issued his Inter Caetera, which drew a line of demarcation from the North Pole to the South Pole set at 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.

Lands to the west were awarded to Spain and those to the east to Portugal. However, King João II of Portugal felt that this did not give his ships enough room around the west coast of Africa, and Portuguese and Spanish ambassadors met at Tordesillas in northern Spain and on June 7, 1494, signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which moved the line to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. This was given papal sanction on January 24, 1506, and not only totally excluded Spain from Africa, but also had the result of giving Brazil to Portugal.

However, the Spanish had held two ports on the north coast of Africa. One, Ceuta, had been captured in 1309 by King James (Jaime) II of Aragon, making it the first European colonial possession in Africa (or for that matter anywhere else in the world).

Its geographical position and disposition made it an important port in antiquity, with both Hercules and Odysseus from Greek mythology said to have visited it. It had been a Roman and then Byzantine city, but in 931 was captured by the Muslim rulers of Spain, and in 1083 by the Almoravid Arab rulers of Morocco.

After the Spanish had taken it in 1309, they were unable to hold it, and the Arabs took it back. In 1415 the Portuguese took the city, and thus at the time of the Treaty of Tordesillas it was Portuguese.

The port of Melilla, on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, had been an important port of the Phoenicians and then the Romans and, after centuries of obscurity, was captured by Abd ar-Rahman III of Córdoba.

In 1496 a Spanish raiding party had landed and stormed the fortress that dominated the town. Led by the duke of Medina Sidonia, they then built their own fortress on a peninsula on the east of the town, which was transferred to the Spanish Crown in 1556. The township (population 70,000, of whom 10,000 are soldiers) has been Spanish ever since.

In 1921 the Riff rebels came close to taking Melilla. Fifteen years later General Francisco Franco launched the Spanish civil war. Morocco has regularly made diplomatic overtures to regain the town, but Spain has maintained its hold, and administratively, Melilla is a part of the Spanish mainland province of Málaga.

In addition, the Spanish also held the Canary Islands, geographically also a part of Africa. The Portuguese had claimed possession as early as 1345 in a letter from King Afonso IV of Portugal to Pope Clement VI.

However, by the Treaty of Alcáçovas, Portugal recognized Spanish sovereignty over the Canaries, which the Spanish completely conquered and occupied by 1496. These islands proved to be important in all four voyages of Christopher Columbus, and many subsequent missions across the Atlantic, including that of Hernán Cortés.

Francis Drake attacked the Canary Islands in 1585; so, too, did Admiral Blake in 1657—his ships were the first to attack the forts in Las Palmas. In 1797 the local forces at Santa Cruz de Tenerife defeated the British admiral Horatio Nelson, the only defeat in his career—and one which cost him his right arm.

The Canary Islands were a single Spanish province until 1927; they are now two provinces of Spain, Las Palmas and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and are a popular holiday destination for Britons and many northern Europeans.

Thus, with the exception of Melilla (and the Canary Islands), from the time of the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain did not involve itself in African affairs. However, in 1579 the situation changed, allowing Spain to establish a foothold in Africa.

On August 4, 1579, a Portuguese expeditionary force led by their king, Sebastião of Aviz, was destroyed at the Battle of the Three Kings at Alcácer-Quivir in northern Morocco. Sebastião had been trying to put his candidate on the throne of Morocco, and the battle saw Sebastian and his Moroccan ally face the Sharif of Morocco (hence three “kings”).

As Sebastião II was only 24 and had no children, his uncle, King Philip II of Spain, succeeded to the Portuguese throne (as Philip [Filipe] I of Portugal). Philip promised to maintain the separate Portuguese governmental institutions and bureaucracy and did so.

However, he did regain Spanish control over Ceuta; Portugal recognized the Canary Islands as Spanish territory. Melilla, Ceuta, and the Canary Islands remain part of Spain to this day, as do the islands of Penon de Vélez de la Gomera and Alhucemas, which were taken by the Spanish during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Ceuta returned to Spanish rule in 1580, and the Spanish government set about fortifying it and establishing a permanent garrison. As a peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean, the port is partly enclosed by a peninsula, with the Fortress of Hacho located on the furthest part of that peninsula, making it very hard to attack by land.

Indeed, to do so an army would have to fight its way through the town, which occupies the thinnest part in the middle of the peninsula. The port has long been associated with the Spanish Foreign Legion, which was established in 1920 to ensure the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco remained in Spanish hands.

As with Melilla, the town’s economy is helped by tax advantages offered by the Spanish government, which also has a large number of soldiers based there; the modern Kingdom of Morocco has made several diplomatic overtures for the return of Ceuta, but to no avail.

Most of Spain’s interests in Africa have centered on Morocco, but apart from Ceuta, Melilla, and two small islands, there was no plan to take over the country until the 1890s. Finally in 1904 France and Spain concluded a secret agreement for partitioning Morocco into two zones, and the British and Italians agreed to this in return for France dropping it claims to Egypt and Libya.

In the Treaty of Fez in 1912, the Spanish were given the mountainous regions around Melilla and Ceuta (which became French Morocco), as well as some territory along the Atlantic coast (loosely known as Spanish West Africa). While the French reached an accommodation with the sultan of Morocco, the Spanish faced many problems, partly caused by the nature of the territory they held.

Spanish Morocco had no major cities except Tetuan, which became the administrative center. Most trade from there went through either Tangier, which was an international city, or through Ceuta or Melilla, both Spanish possessions. It did help Spain maintain her hold on her two ports, but the region was underdeveloped and communications were very bad.

Spanish West Africa was essentially divided into a large administrative unit known as the Spanish Sahara. Sometimes known as Río de Oro, it was almost entirely desert with very little agriculture and was administered, from the Canary Islands. There was also a southern enclave called Cape Juby, where a British engineer had established a commercial factory that he later sold to the sultan of Morocco.

The only other Spanish possession in Africa was what is now Equatorial Guinea. This consisted of an island, Fernando Póo, and the adjoining mainland, known to the Spanish as Río Muni. The island of Fernando Póo had been discovered by a Portuguese sailor Fernão do Poo in 1472 and then acquired by Spain under a treaty in 1778.

From 1827 until 1843 it was leased to the United Kingdom, which used it as a naval base to try to stop the slave trade, whereupon it was returned to Spain. The mainland, Río Muni, was officially known as Spanish Guinea, and this was proclaimed as a Spanish protectorate on January 9, 1885.

On July 30, 1959, Spanish Guinea was divided back into Fernando Póo and Río Muni (which included Elobey and Corisco), and these became two overseas provinces of Spain. On October 12, 1968, the two were again merged to form the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, and five years later Fernando Póo was renamed Macias Nguema Biyoga after the president of the country. It is now known as Bioko.