History is cyclical. Perhaps because of the enormous number of centuries this world has seen, it is usual for circumstances to repeat themselves ad nauseam. And the situation in Ceuta these days is no exception. Back in the 19th century, on 10 August 1859, to be more precise, the Kabyles located in North Africa stormed the outskirts of the city itself. In this case, however, the aim was to incite the government by destroying and desecrating a Spanish building that was being constructed in what was known as the “Moor’s field”.
The curious thing is that, in this event (used as a propaganda weapon by Leopoldo O’Donnell’s Spain), what most stung Spain was the destruction of the building. This is what Julio Albi de la Cuesta, diplomat, academic of history and author of “Españoles a Marruecos!” (Desperta Ferro Ediciones, 2018) tells to ABC. According to him, at that time it was more than usual to give a good account of enemy symbols such as flags. “Insulting enemy flags has been common practice since Antiquity, and those of Spain, like those of any other country, were so on hundreds of occasions before 1859”, he reveals.
In this sense, Albi recalls the battles that our flourishing empire fought with blood and guns in Africa to underline how common it was to outrage the symbols of opposing nations. “Any of the flags of the many ships we lost fighting the Turks during the 16th and 17th centuries were dragged through the water by the victorious ship, placed on its stern. Naturally, we did the same“, he tells ABC. However, this did not prevent this stab at Spain’s pride from being used by politicians to foment a conflict that had been years in the making.
The “Moor’s field”
To find the origin of this affront, and of the subsequent conflict that took O’Donell himself to the African battlefields, it is necessary to go back in time to the 18th century. It was then that Spain signed an agreement with Morocco whereby (among other things) the Sultan ceded a strip of “grazing land” located on the outskirts of Ceuta to our country. Óscar Garrido Guijarro agrees with Albi in his doctoral thesis (“Aproximación a los antecedentes, las causas y las consecuencias de la Guerra de África, 1859-1860, desde las comunicaciones entre la diplomacia española y el Ministerio de Estado”) that the transfer was ratified in 1799.
Specifically, the cession of this land was set out in article 15 of the “Treaty of peace, friendship, navigation, trade and fishing” dated 1 March of that year. This document referred to another agreement signed in 1782. The text also stated that the strip of land surrendered belonged for all practical purposes to the Sultan and prohibited the Spaniards from constructing any kind of lasting building in the area. At the same time, and in order to avoid possible confrontations, the boundary of this field (called “del moro” by the peninsulars) was marked by “marmolillos” or milestones with the Spanish coat of arms (the so-called “Crown”) on one side and a crescent moon on the other.
The problem for Spain (and more specifically for Ceuta) was that this strip of land bordered the territories of the Anghera Kabyle (also called “Anyera” or “Anggera” by historians). This was one of the most bellicose tribes in the area, which became famous for acting outside the Sultan’s will by attacking our spoldiers. In fact, the aforementioned treaty article referred to the problems generated by these “highlanders” and gave the Spanish rulers permission to use force when the affront was sufficiently prominent.
“While there has been the best harmony between the said square and the frontier Moors, it is well known how restless and troublesome are those of Melilla, El Hoceima and the Rock, who in spite of repeated orders from H.M. from Morocco to keep up a good correspondence with the said towns, have not ceased to trouble them continually; and although this seems to contravene the general peace contracted by sea and land, it should not be understood as such, since it is contrary to the good and friendly intentions of the two High contracting parties, and is the effect of the bad nature of those natives. Therefore, His Moroccan Majesty offers to use whatever means your prudence and authority dictate to force the said frontiersmen to keep the best correspondence, and to avoid the misfortunes that occur, both in the garrisons of the said squares and in the Moorish camps due to the excesses of the latter”
As if that were not enough, the treaty specified that the Spanish positions could make use of “cannon and mortar in cases where they are offended”, since, according to the text, “experience has shown that rifle fire is not enough to teach this kind of people a lesson”.
The forts of discord
In the summer of 1859, Spain, basing itself on these lines of the treaty, began the construction of a number of defensive positions “de obra” (made of stone and clay) in the controversial “Moor’s field”. The reason, politicians at the time argued, was that, due to the brutal advance of artillery, Ceuta could easily be bombarded from a small hill called “El Otero” (located within the strip ceded to Ceuta). “To eliminate this possibility, it was decided in Madrid to erect four forts in the area”, explains Albi in “Españoles a Marruecos!”.
That construction sparked frictions that had been brewing for years. On the one hand, Spain needed to protect Ceuta from possible enemy attacks. On the other, the inhabitants of the town found it more than annoying that the peninsulars took advantage of the small print of the treaty to build durable fortifications in the region, instead of the usual wooden ones they had built up to that point.
“By mid-August both countries were, even if they did not wish it, on a collision course. The Anghera people were reluctant to lose for good the lands they rightly considered their own; it was not easy for [Sultan] Abderraman to control them, but neither could he cede with impunity a part of his ancestors’ heritage”, Albi writes in his book.
However, the scholar also argues that it was vitally important for Spain to prevent Ceuta from being shelled to the hilt by enemy artillery. “There were conflicting interests that were difficult to reconcile”, he adds.
The truth is that the construction of the first of these forts was considered a source of conflict by the Spaniards from the outset. This is evidenced by a report in which the commander-general of Ceuta, Ramón Gómez Pulido, informed the Minister of War that he had created a special guard force to protect the workers in charge of erecting the building. Workers who, as was customary at the time, had just been released from prison.
In any case, Spain was not prepared to suffer the wrath of the Kabyles, so Gómez set about building his beloved first fort in August in the “Moor’s field”.
In fact, the exact location of the fort was recorded in the aforementioned letter to the Minister of War: “The site chosen and most suitable for the purpose has been one hundred and twenty paces from the watchpost; for the cavalry two hundred and forty from the gates of the square, and more than eight hundred from the dividing line of the two camps. Its situation is on the seashore, dominated by “the Otero”, which belongs to us, and therefore by all the Moroccan territory”.
The start of the works was the last straw for the Kabyle people who, fed up with the Sultan overlooking all the affronts of the Spanish, decided to take the law into their own hands.
Thus, on the fateful night of 10-11 August, a group of Moroccans arrived at the site where the works were being carried out and smashed the building and one of the “marmolillos” marking the boundaries of the territory. As if that were not enough, and as Antonio David Palma Crespo explains in his thesis (“La Guerra de África, 1859-1860, en imágenes”) they defiled the coat of arms by defecating on it.
The event was narrated by Gómez in a report dated 11 August 1859. Curiously, the document makes no reference to the desecration of the Spanish coat of arms:
On the morning of the 11th it was reported that the previous night the Moors had destroyed the work carried out, rendering some materials useless, and that they had torn down the door of the guardhouse called the Centrillo, taking it to the Otero, and had also destroyed the cavalry sentry post situated on the height, having also thrown the sentry post of the infantry watch into the Rivero stream, and finally, that they had torn down some marmolillos of those that mark the division of the boundary.
Once the parliamentary flag was raised, the sergeant major of the square went out to ask for satisfaction and explanations from the warden of the Serrallo and the corporal of the line, according to established practice, who replied that they had no knowledge of what had happened, although they believed, with some certainty, that it would have been the Moors of the territory of Anggera. An inadmissible reply as far as the corporal of the line is concerned, since he is in charge of the Moorish guard at the Jabir house, the boundary of his camp. At the excitement of the major of the square, the Moors who accompanied the warden raised the sentry box, although it was destroyed, the boards of the sentry box and the door of the guardhouse, putting everything in its place.
The Muslim version of the event has been brought down to us by the chronicler Khalid En-Nasiri, who did refer to the excrement in his account of the events:
The reason that originated the breach of the existing peace with the Spaniards was that being the inveterate custom and in force between the Christian settlers of Ceuta and the Muslims of the Kabyle of Anggera, to fix each of the two parties on their side a site that they destined for “guardians” of the limits that separated them, the Christians used for such service small wooden barracks, the Muslims occupying huts built with reeds, rushes and other materials of the like.
And it came to pass, there at the end of the reign of Sultan Muley Abderraman (may God have covered them with his mercy), that the Christians of Ceuta built on the boundaries a building of stone and mortar, on which they hoisted the flag of their Tirana, an emblem which they call “Crown”, which, observed by the Anggerinos, they decided to approach the Christians and said to them: “It is indispensable that you demolish this building, the construction of which is not in accordance with the established custom, you must, therefore, restore yourselves to the state you were in before, that is to say, by taking again wooden barracks”. The Christians refused to do so, and then the Anggerins, assaulting the aforementioned building, demolished it in its entirety, and taking possession of the “Crown” they profaned it with excrement, killing several of the Christians and putting the inhabitants of the city of Ceuta in a difficult situation, for in their incursions they reached the walls.
After that affront, a tortuous path began that ended with the declaration of war on Morocco. On the one hand, Spaniards such as Ramón Gómez Pulido, military governor of Ceuta, launched a campaign (later followed by many other politicians) demanding explanations and exemplary punishment from the Kabyle people to the Sultan. On the other hand, the natives were not deterred and took advantage of Abderramán‘s precarious state of health (he died on 24 August) to hinder the Spaniards’ work at their pleasure in the days that followed.
Finally, the situation became so tense that O’Donell (a figure who had been advocating hostilities in Africa for months for various political reasons) called the Spaniards to arms.