Battle of Alcacer Quibir (1578 AD) (Battle of the Three Kings). Portugal’s attempt at colonialism in Morocco backfires and a new Moroccan dynasty secures its independence from foreign intervention.
-Morocco’s history is largely driven by its strategic location. The Northwest corner of Africa at the tip of the Sahara Desert region, just south of the Iberian Peninsula in Southern Europe and hugging the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea at the Atlantic Ocean. Its position was crucial to geostrategic considerations with access to so many sea & overland trade routes.
-Its native peoples were Berber or Amazigh who encountered the Greeks & Romans of antiquity, they were a varied people across North Africa united by some common language and customs. After the rise & spread of Islam by Arabs from the Middle East, North Africa including Morocco became a target of conquest and religious conversion. The Berbers in time took on the Islamic religion while somewhat retaining their own customs. Gradually, they took on a cultural Arabization that takes place today with most of Morocco’s population being ethnic Berbers with Arab acculturalization becoming Arab-Berbers. There were however some Arab colonists who migrated from the Arabian Peninsula, Syria and other parts of the Middle East who settled & setup their lives in Morocco mixing with the local Berbers. Arabs & Berbers went on to invade the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD under the Visigoth Kingdom which they largely over threw aside from the north of modern day Spain. In time Muslim dynasties ruled in Iberia and the Arabs and Berbers set up a colonial presence there while some Visigoths and Iberian Romans converted to Islam making up the majority of Iberia’s population well into the Middle Ages and the combination of Arabs, Berbers & European converts to Islam became known as Moors which covered no single ethnic group but rather the cultural ties that bonded these various peoples, though was previously used to describe just Berbers.
-In time, civil war amongst the Muslim dynasties that came & went along with the Reconquista, a centuries long Christian Crusade to rid the Iberian Peninsula of a Muslim presence weakened the Moorish hold over southern Europe. Arab & Berber dynasties from Morocco would often intervene in Iberia to reverse the tide of misfortune befallen its Muslims but inevitably they too would be brushed aside or retreat to Morocco which had become so intertwined with Iberia at that point. By the end of the 15th century, the Emirate of Granada, the last Muslim power in Iberia had fallen. The Kingdoms of Portugal & Spain had arisen from earlier Iberian Christian kingdoms and become more powerful than their Muslim rivals.
-Complicating matters was the rise of the Turkish Islamic dynasty in the east, the Ottoman Empire. By the 15th & 16th centuries, The Ottomans found themselves masters of the eastern Mediterranean and in competition with the Spanish Hapsburgs for control of the Mediterranean Sea. By then Spain had established dynastic control over parts of Italy & small colonial possessions on the coasts of North Africa spreading from Morocco to Libya. This was contested by the local Arab-Berber presence and the Ottomans. Likewise the Ottomans were overtaking North Africa from both their European rivals & the Arab-Berber dynasties of North Africa. Though direct Ottoman power would be varied depending on location and sometimes they relied on governors of theirs to rule in their stead, which in turn became increasingly semi-autonomous. these dynasties engaged in piracy of European trade and in particular in the enslavement of European Christians giving rise to the Barbary Pirates of Barbary Corsairs, so named for the Barbary (Berber) Coast of North Africa from which they operated, ranging in port cities from Morocco to Libya.
-The Ottomans and Spanish eyed Morocco as an area of political control. The Ottomans hoping to make it a protectorate like the rest of North Africa and the Spanish a home to various ports to counteract the Ottoman attacks against their shipping lanes. Meanwhile, Spain had for the last century engaged in exploration and conquest of the so called New World, the Americas. Spain’s other Iberian counterpart, the Kingdom of Portugal, likewise has engaged in colonization and conquest with the Americas, namely Brazil. Both Spain & Portugal saw it in their interest to secure the shipping to their ports from the threat of Ottoman and other Muslim piracy which confiscated their gold and other raw materials from the Americas. To this end they were determined to and did indeed conquer Moroccan port cities. Likewise the previous overland Trans-Saharan trade routes of gold, ivory and enslaved Sub-Saharan Africans which had previously enriched the Arabs & Berbers were of less importance due to both European investment in the Americas and control of Moroccan ports. This had lead to impoverishment of the Moroccan economy & flight of its many intellectuals draining its infrastructure and governance as well.
The Power Players:
Morocco & domestic politics...
-16th century Morocco had seen the foreign encroachment of the Portuguese & Spanish hold strong. Portugal held many of its Atlantic ports while Spain its Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the Ottomans who had overtaken neighboring Algeria were threating invasion to oust the Europeans but likewise overrule the local Arab-Berber population.
-At the start of the century Morocco was nominally ruled by the Berber dynasty known as the Wattasids. They had come to power in 1472 AD overthrowing their fellow Berbers, the Marinids. However, Wattasid rule only held sway in the north of Morocco with their kingdom being centered around the city of Fez. The south of the country was much more divided into various principalities and the populace in general resented the Wattasids for their seeming political and military impotence to eject the Europeans from their port cities. They failed in their promise to recapture these cities time & again.
-In the south of Morocco, a new power was rising that promised to remove the weak Wattasids & eject all foreign influence on Morocco. This new promising power was the Saadi dynasty. The Saadis were of Arab origin with a known ancestor going back to 13th century Arabia from the port city of Yanbu on the Red Sea who migrated to Morocco. The family is generally considered to be of Sharifian origin, which is an Arab honorific word meaning “noble or highborn” and reserved by Arabs for descendants from the Prophet Muhammad. The Saadis claimed descent through Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah and her marriage to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the prophet’s cousin & companion. The descent to the Saadis then continued through Ali & Fatimah’s son Hassan and as descendants of Hassan, the Saadis became known as Hassanids and were given the title of Sharif. Whereas descendants of Muhammad’s other grandson through Ali & Fatimah, Husayn were given the honorific title of Sayyid.
-The descent from Muhammad of the Saadi dynasty is a matter of some political conjecture, with their rivals trying to down play it as mere propaganda. Others will concede they descended from a relative of Muhammad but not his daughter Fatimah herself. It will probably be next to impossible to establish its veracity but it was promoted by the dynasty along with numerous other Islamic dynasties throughout history even into the present.
-The Saadis derive their name from the word for “happiness or salvation” and were settled by the 14th century in Morocco from their Arab ancestors in the southern part of the country. Centered around the city of Tagmadert in the Draa River valley. It was a region that neared the Sahara Desert. It was here that the family intermixed with the Arab-Berber populace and gave rise to the popularity of Sufism in Morocco. Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism akin to the Kabbalah in Judaism or Gnosticism in Christianity.
-The chief (Sharif) of the Saadi family circa 1510 was Abu Abdallah al-Qaim who ventured to Medina in modern day Saudi Arabia as part of his religious pilgrimage and evidently while there had a dream involving two lions leading a large crowd of people to a tower. Taking this mystical vision as a sign he visited with a Sufi mystic who confirmed it as God’s mission for his son’s who would play a crucial role in the family and indeed Moroccan history. Al-Qaim returned to Morocco and aligned with the Sufi orders in the south of Morocco around the Draa Valley and organized them into a military order to declare jihad on both the Wattasids & the Europeans with a now holy mission to save Morocco.
-The Saadis gradually overtook by force and diplomacy much of southern Morocco’s other principalities. They captured the city of Tidsi in 1510 and al-Qaim’s two sons ventured to Fez to beseech the Wattasid sultan to undertake a nationwide jihad against the Europeans. When this did not materialize the Saadis gradually felt it was their duty to save the nation.
-The Saadis began a campaign against the Portuguese ports in the south of Morocco and had gradual success in retaking these port cities. Making them increasingly popular with the locals at the expense of the Wattasids in Fez. 1524 saw the Saadis capture the city of Marrakesh. Al Qaim’s son Mohammed al-Shaykh became the leader of the dynasty in 1517 and Al-Shaykh’s campaign against the Portuguese now turned to the Wattasids. His brother Ahmad Al-Araj was placed in charge of Marrakesh while Al-Shaykh controlled the city of Taroudannt and in 1527 the Saadis defeated the Wattasids in the Battle of Wadi al-Abid after which they recoginzed a divided dominion in the south for the Saadis and north for the Wattasids.
-However, Al-Araj & Al-Shaykh soon turned on each other and the brothers engaged in a civil war with Al-Araj seeking Wattasid assistance. Additionally he fought the Portuguese and successfully took the port city of Agadir in 1541 which led to other port cities to be evacuated by the Portuguese. His brother was defeated and fled to eastern Morocco to live out his days in exile. Meanwhile, the Wattasid capital of Fez was captured in 1549 using a reformed army that was based on the Ottoman model, including modern artillery.
-The capture of Fez gave the Saadis a chance to now attack Portuguese ports in the north with more success. However, some cities like Tangier remained in Portuguese hands.
-The Saadis also expanded into Western Algeria and captured a portion of that territory.
-Meanwhile Saadian expansion, concerned the Ottomans who hoped for it to become a protectorate. The ousted Wattasids cut a deal with the Turks to invade Morocco, oust the Saadis and become Turkish vassals in their own right.
-Al-Shaykh and the Saadis were driven out of Fez in 1554 by a combined Wattasid-Ottoman-Algerian army. The recapture was short lived as in the September of 1554, the Saadian army once more met the Wattasids & Turks in the Battle of Tadla and defeated them, the Wattasid ruler, Ali Abu Hassun was killed by the Saadian troops in battle and ended the threat of their dynasty.
-Al-Shaykh having united the country against the Europeans with success, having defeated his brother, the Wattasids & Ottomans had unified his rule over Morocco as undisputed Sultan. The Saadi dynasty was now firmly established, but much work remained and in the process of the Saadian conquest they had made many enemies.
-1557 saw plans for Morocco to ally with the Spanish against the Turks who still sought a foothold in Morocco. As this came to fruition, the Ottoman governor of Algeria ordered Sultan Al-Shaykh’s assassination. A number of Ottoman assassins claiming to be deserters infiltrated the Saadian armed guard of the Sultan, earning his trust before killing him.
- Al-Shaykh had multiple sons but three sons: Al-Ghalib, Al-Malik & Al-Mansur who would all play important roles in the coming years.
-Al-Ghalib being the oldest became the new sultan of Morocco. He had to defend against an Ottoman Algerian invasion in 1558 which was successfully halted at the Battle of Wadi al-Laban. The battle was inconclusive itself but word had reached the Turco-Algerian forces of a Spanish counterinvasion of Algeria and they were forced to turn back, sparing Morocco a potential take over.
-As so often happens in history, the concern over dynastic struggle takes place. Worried about civil war with his younger brothers Al-Malik & Al-Mansur, the two younger siblings went into exile with the Ottoman Empire, visiting its capital of Constantinople and living in Turkey with lavish existence.
-The two exiled Saadi princes served in the Ottoman army, battling in the famous 1571 naval confrontation off the Greek coast known as the Battle of Lepanto against Spain and a Holy League. It was a Christian victory that cost the Turks their best naval commanders and while their navy did replenish its numbers it never again had the level of experienced commanders and subsequently its training and experience stagnated, beginning a slow withdrawal from direct Ottoman involvement in the Mediterranean. Likewise, Lepanto contributed to the rise in its North African governors taking de-facto power for themselves. Giving rise to the age of the Barbary Corsairs who operated out of the North African city-states of Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli and later various Moroccan ports with these pirates peaking their powers in the 17th century and lasting until well into the 19th century.
-Al-Ghalib fought the Spanish and Turks and for 17 years kept Morocco in virtual peace. He improved the economy and built new mosques and other architecture, raising the stature of Marrakesh, which became the primary center of Saadian power.
-Al-Ghalib died of asthma in 1574 and was succeeded by his son, Abdallah Mohammed. Abdallah Mohammed like his father suspected struggle with brothers, one of whom was killed on his orders while the other was imprisoned. The reign of Abdallah however was challenged by his uncles Al-Malik & Al-Mansur. Now in Ottoman Algeria, they invaded Morocco with Ottoman backing in 1576
-Fez was captured by the Ottoman backed Saadian prince Al-Malik. Whose now ousted nephew Abdallah Mohammed fled first to Spain and ironically then to Portugal, former enemy of his grandfather & great-grandfather.
-1576 saw Al-Malik take power but with the understanding that he was a de-facto vassal of the Ottomans. However, his nephew sought to regain the throne and was willing to work with Portugal to regain it...
Portugal & King Sebastian...
-Sebastian of Portugal was born in 1554 and a member of the Aviz dynasty which had ruled Portugal since 1385 and was responsible for Portugal’s global empire, sometimes in competition with neighboring Spain. They had established control of Brazil in the Americas and had colonies as far flung as Macau in China, parts of India where they fought against the Ottomans in the Indian Ocean and even in Africa with control of Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere. Though the Portuguese and Spanish had rival colonial ambitions they had a common enemy against the Ottomans and Portugal in particular conflicted with the Turks in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.
-Sebastian’s mother was of the Hapsburg dynasty that had ruled Austria and Spain which with Spain’s global empire had become the most powerful dynasty in Europe if not the world. His grandfather was Charles V and uncle was Philip II of Spain.
-His father died when he was an infant and his mother later remarried in Spain. while his grandmother Catherine of Austria helped raise him. He grew to be tall and physically fit. He was also given a stern religious upbringing under Jesuits tasked with his education.
-He technically took the throne at age three with the death of his paternal grandfather and a regency was put in place for him. As he grew older he became more stubborn in his personality but was always devoutly religious. Sebastian also had several marriage proposals made but none had come to fruition.
-Under his personal rule he improved relations with Spain, France, England & the Holy Roman Empire wanting to secure the peace and trade of all for his global empire. He also rewarded natives in Brazil who aided the Portuguese against the French by giving them their own grants of land and freed them from slavery by decree. He also restructured the laws of administration and the judiciary in Portugal. Hoping to expand education for his people, he also created royal scholarships for students of medicine at university.
-Finally, he sough to patronize the arts with poems & operas being written during this time and dedicated to him. He also reformed the military which proved successful in fending off attacks in India against the Portuguese colony of Goa.
-However, one everlasting goal of his since 1568 at the age of 14 was to conquer Morocco by Crusade against the Saadi dynasty which had expelled the Portuguese from control over numerous ports. These ports were important as way stations for Portuguese ships traveling in India where its colonies were important in the spices, gems & other precious commodities trade. A combination of religious fervor and economic concerns over nearby Morocco guided Sebastian.
-The opportunity for his Crusade arose in 1576 with the ouster of former Saadian Sultan Abdallah Mohammed who had been overthrown by his uncle, the Ottoman backed Al-Malik.
-Abdallah Mohammed had fled first to Spain and then Portugal asking for aid in the restoration of his throne. After which he promised his support against the Turks, Portugal & Spain’s principal rival. Sebastian was intrigued by the offer and visited with his uncle, Philip II of Spain to discuss joint plans for a combined Portuguese-Spanish invasion of Morocco to restore Abdallah Mohammed as their friendly ally who would allow future use of Moroccan ports for trade and as launching points against Ottoman Algeria. Philip refused to participate whole heartedly since he sought a treaty with the Ottomans to give some much needed breathing space for other concerns, namely England. He did offer a smattering of Spanish volunteers though.
-Despite Spain’s lack of full commitment, Sebastian decided to go it alone. Absolutely convinced of the technological superiority and training of his army against the Moroccan army. Technically this was true with advances in gunpowder driven small arms, artillery and armor being superior along with overall discipline. Whereas Morocco relied on light cavalry, had less artillery and mostly ill trained and ill equipped irregular troops.
The invasion and Battle of Alcaber Quibir.
-Sebastian began preparations for summer campaign in 1578. He departed Lisbon with an army of 17,000 men made up of Portuguese regulars at foreign mercenaries from Germany, Spain, Italy & the Netherlands. He also asked the Portuguese nobility to accompany him. Convinced the campaign would be quick, he wanted to demonstrate his power before them while also establishing colonial holdings in a Portuguese controlled Morocco. Some nobles brought over their whole retinues & families as well as a fully stocked kitchens, portable chapels and even a whole church choir, giving the crusade an almost picnic or hunting expedition feel for some.
-The fleet stopped at Cadiz for the promised Spanish volunteers, they did not materialize and so on they sailed for Morocco. Arriving in June south of Tangier they joined Abdallah Mohammed with 6,000 loyal Moorish troops.
-Upon reaching the shores and in front of his still disembarking nobility Sebastian and a small contingent chased away an enemy contingent. This demonstrated to many assembled that Sebastian was a brave commander fully confident in his mission. To some of his commanders though there was concern it might mean he was also too headstrong to listen to reason.
-They suggested to the king that he first capture ports along the coast and avoid venturing into the interior of Morocco at this juncture. The ports would be important for reopening Portuguese trade and weakening the Moroccan economy. From there they could also resupply by sea for future operations, typically sound military advice.
-Sebastian did not heed the caution, he sought a decisive victory to end the campaign quick. He ordered a march into the Moroccan interior. Despite knowing he would face a numerically superior opponent. Confident Portuguese technology, training & God’s will were on their side.
-Al-Malik as Sultan of Morocco, took advantage of the Turkish backing, training his troops in advanced Ottoman techniques and acquiring some Turkish arquebusiers (early muskets) and artillery. Nevertheless, the majority of his forces were Berber and Arab irregulars from the Moroccan countryside or Moors expelled from Iberia, though some Ottoman Turks and Algerians had joined in the army. While his army was of poorer quality training & technology, it was made up for in raw numbers of men and morale for defense of their homeland.
-Al-Malik also suffered one more setback going into the battle, his own health was suffering by some undisclosed illness, possibly the plague. Only his brother (Al-Mansur) and physician knew of this illness as Al-Malik did not want to discourage his troops morale, to it was kept secret. He rode out from Marrakesh with at fast speed the drive of which gave Al-Malik barely any rest and only worsened his condition. Al-Mansur rode out from Fez and the two planned to meet and intercept the invaders & their nephew’s army.
-The two opposing armies would meet at the town of Ksar-el-Kebir rendered in Portuguese as Alcacer Quibir. Sebastian had 23,000 troops at his disposal against the Moroccan 50,000 strong under Al-Malik. Fearing being outflanked by a larger foe, he ordered his forces in a fortified square. Placing his artillery & arquebusiers in the front with cavalry & pikemen in the rear on the sides.
-Al-Malik was so ill he had to be strapped to his horse. He would choose to give a rousing speech to his troops before the battle’s start. His army formed in a crescent shape
-The battle began with volleys of artillery & arquebusiers from both sides while the Crusaders elite cavalry charged the Moroccan center. The Portuguese made headway until Al-Malik and his personal bodyguard and other cavalry rode out to blunt the charge and hold the center. Likewise he signaled Al-Mansur to command the tribal horsemen from the Berber tribes of the northern mountains of Morocco he had been hidden in reserve with the goal of enveloping the main Portuguese square which was now without the use of its best cavalry. Al-Malik has setup a surprise trap. now the task of enveloping the whole Portuguese army was to begin.
-Al Malik and his bodyguard joined his brother while the Moroccan center reorganized having surrounded the Portuguese cavalry. Seeing what was happening, Sebastian rode out personally leading his reserve heavy knights & nobles along with the horsemen of his ally, the deposed Abdallah Mohammed. The goal was to take down Al-Malik personally and break the Moroccan army’s morale.
-The retinues of all three kings met in the middle, with Al-Malik losing many men around him but the sultan and his bodyguard fought on while his brother Al-Mansur continued with the encirclement of the main square.
-Al-Mansur’s cavalry encircled the square and using dragoon tactics charged the square only to turn around just before being impaled by the Portuguese pikemen. Once the Moroccan horse pirouetted around the rider fired their musket at point blank range inflicting casualties on the European infantry. This tactic continued for hours in order to wear down the Crusaders.
-Meanwhile, Sebastian and his retinue fell back trying to rally the square. Soon the whole square was attacked on all sides. At some point while bravely fighting he lead another charge and was cut down, his body never recovered. He was only 24 years old and without wife or heir.
-Eventually the flanks of the Portuguese square were worn down and soon the Moroccans pushed onto the center which overwhelmed it.
-The battle ended after four hours of heavy fighting resulting in a decisive Moroccan victory. Sebastian had been killed in the fighting along with much of the nobility with 8,000 Crusader & Moorish troops in the Portuguese army dying. Another 15,000 troops including their camp followers were taken prisoner and enslaved. Roughly only 100 are believed to have escaped to the coast or Portuguese controlled ports. Abdallah Mohammed had escaped the battle on horseback but drowned crossing a river in hasty escape. However, for Al-Malik and the Moroccan army, it was costly too. Al-Malik, sick with a fever and plague died of natural cause due to over exertion due to riding on horseback and personally fighting, the exact point he died is uncertain but kept secret from his army so as not to break their morale until after the battle had been decided. The Moroccan army also suffered around 7,000 dead according to Portuguese sources as the bravery and determination of the Portuguese were acknowledged despite their defeat. With the deaths of Sebastian & the rival Saadian sultans Abdallah Mohammed & Al-Malik, the day be became known as the Battle of the Three Kings.
-Though it could be called the battle of four kings as Al-Malik’s younger brother and second in command, Al-Mansur would become his heir and successor as Sultan of Morocco. Al-Mansur also became the pinnacle of the Saadian dynasty reigning from 1578 until 1603 during which time he was the absolute ruler of a Morocco that was unified and expansive. He extended control to parts of Algeria and southward into Mauretania & Mali where he conquered the Songhai Empire and revived the important gold, ivory & African slave trade overland routes of the Trans-Sahara, vastly improving Morocco’s economy. He also went on to eject the Ottoman influence and army from his court. Asserting an independent Morocco free of European and Turkish influence. While there remained some European controlled ports, Al-Mansur was mostly successful in stabilizing his country. He also built up Marrakesh & Fez including vast palaces and the Saadian Tombs, considered the peak of Saadian architecture.
-After Al-Mansur’s death in 1603 Morocco fell into civil war and relative chaos once more. As had typified the Saadian dynasty from the start, the sons fought over control of the country. This time, the Moroccans had joint sultans who ruled divided portions of the country, creating a power vacuum that allowed for the rise of Barbary Corsairs and their pirates republics which would claim de-facto independence from the sultans, most notably the Republic of Sale headed by the Dutch privateer turned Barbary pirate, Jan Janszoon Van Haarlem also known by his Muslim name as Murad Reis the Younger.
-Eventually the Saadi dynasty was overthrown in the mid 17th century by the Alaouite dynasty which was another Arab Sharifian dynasty and which rules Morocco to this day. Though the Saadis are still regarded by the Moroccans for their architecture and role in securing an independent and stable Morocco, free from foreign influence.
-As for Portugal, it lost its king without an heir and much of its nobility. It was in this power vacuum that subsequently it was overtaken by the Kingdom of Spain being in a so called Iberian Union for the next 60 years before it became independent once again.
-Meanwhile, the Ottomans increasingly lost their ability to have a direct hold over North Africa altogether and despite nominal over lordship of Egypt to Algeria, Morocco remained relatively untouched by Turkish influence, given it a special place in the Muslim world. Additionally, the Turks with a stagnating navy turned their attention to expansion in the Middle East and Europe with the 17th century being the start of a long stagnation for them as well, their best days long behind them.
-The Battle of Alcacer Quibir fought on August 4th, 1578 was the culmination of domestic and foreign power struggles for Morocco, the product of colonial and imperial desires amid a succession crisis and civil war. Ironically, it triggered a succession crisis in the invading country and resolved one in the very country that triggered the foreign intervention. It was also a case in point of the arrogant illusion of the inevitability of European and Ottoman colonialism in North Africa and of course became a great symbolic victory in the psyche of an independent Morocco...