English interests in Morocco were extremely early especially for its geographical position. According to British sources, the first contact between Morocco and England date back to the thirteenth century when King John (1167-1216) sent a secret mission to the Almohad Sultan Muhammad an-Nasir (1199-1213) to obtain Moroccan support to counter French threats against England. The mission, however, was a failure.
With the beginning of the sixteenth century, commercial exchanges became the most effective means of strengthening links between Morocco and England. English merchants obtained Moroccan products (sugar, ostrich feathers and saltpetre). In exchange, they supplied Morocco with fabrics and firearms. The Sa’adi Sultan ‘Abd al-Malik (1575-1578) issued decrees in favour of English merchants to facilitate their commercial activities.
With the defeat of Portugal at the Battle of the Three Kings in 1578, the way was clear for Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and the Sa’adi Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur (1578-1603) to strengthen the economic and political links between their two countries. Political relations were strengthened as a result of reciprocal diplomatic missions and commercial relations were strengthened through the creation of the “Barbary Company” in 1585 by which Britain obtained a monopoly on trade with Morocco for twelve years. Following the deaths of Al-Mansur and Elizabeth I in 1603, many missions were exchanged during the seventeenth century to hold talks on the release of English captives incarcerated in Morocco.
King Charles II (1660-1685) decided to develop commercial exchanges with Mediterranean countries and the importance of Tangier, became evident to England. In accordance with the marriage settlement of Catharine of Braganza of Portugal and King Charles II, the port of Tangier was given to the English and they entered it on January 1662.
Once the Alawi Sultan Mawlay Isma’il had extended his control over the whole of Morocco, he sent his envoy Muhammad ben Haddu al-‘Attar to England who returned with a draft Peace and Trade Treaty on March 1682. The Sultan, however, refused to ratify the treaty because of the English presence in Tangier and of the captive problem. In 1684 England decided to abandon Tangier, but the problem of the captives remained.
Under the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), Britain added on August 1704 the Rock of Gibraltar to its possessions. This was a sign of a new direction in British policy based on close relations with Morocco - a policy which was to last two hundred years until 1904. In later years Morocco would become important as an outpost on the King’s highway to India. R. Thomassy a French writer said:
“The maintenance of the fleet and garrison required the maintenance of friendly relations with Tangier and Tetuan, the only places were the English hospitals could obtain sustenance for the sick, who without this assistance would have died of hunger. Thus an alliance with the coast of Morocco became indispensable to feed Gibraltar.... On the other hand, the Moors had need of England, who in exchange for provisions furnished them munitions of war...”.
On 7 July 1714 Mawlay Isma’il concluded a Peace and Trade Treaty in Tetuan. British envoy, Charles Stewart, was sent to Fez on 23 January 1721 to convince Mawlay Isma’il to renew the Treaty. King George II (1727-1760), who was a contemporary of both Sultan Mawlay ‘Abdallah (1728-1757) and his successor, Sultan Sidi Muhammad (1757-1790), left to, Robert Walpole, the mission of laying the foundations of the British Empire. Relations between the two countries were tense with occasional confrontation. However, Sultan Sidi Muhammad changed his attitude towards the British and extended the treaty of peace for an additional year until February 1759 and agreed to provision Gibraltar. A British mission then came to Marrakech led by Mark Milbanke who won the admiration of the Sultan because of his conduct. They signed an Agreement in July 1760. The Milbanke mission prepared the way for the exchange of a number of embassies under George III (1760-1820).
During the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1814), relations between Morocco and Europe were characterized by a clear shift towards Britain. On 8 April 1791, an agreement was signed between Mawlay al-Yazid and Britain the articles of which reflect the degree of mutual respect between the two parties.
With the beginning of the nineteenth century, relations between Morocco and Britain remained stable. Under an Agreement concluded in 1801 between George III and Mawlay Sulayman (1792-1822) Morocco agreed to supply Gibraltar with cattle. On 29 July 1812, Mawlay Sulayman allowed the British army, at that time fighting Spain and Portugal, to obtain grain.
Military cooperation was one of the signs of the extent of British influence in Morocco from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Most of the arms used in Morocco were British-made and British officers supervised the training of Moroccan artillerymen in Gibraltar. In fact, the period prior to the nineteenth century gives clear evidence of how continuous and deep Anglo-Moroccan relations were. In the years following the accession of Mawlay ‘Abd ar-Rahman, they were at times marked by rapprochement and at others by discord between the two countries.
From the beginning of the 1820s, the Mediterranean region began to have growing importance in British foreign policy. British political leaders adhered to a decisive policy that aimed to prevent any foreign state from extending its influence in the regions surrounding the Straits of Gibraltar. As a result, it became necessary to preserve the ‘status-quo’ in Morocco, guarding against anything that could threaten Britain’s immediate interests.
In 1829, Britain replaced James Douglas, who had been Consul-General in Tangier since 1818, with Edward Auriol Drummond Hay who, with many members of his family, was to play a decisive role to strengthen its political and economic influence. Developments in North Africa caused by French expansionism, resulting in the invasion of Algeria in 1830, gave a new impetus to the strengthening of Anglo-Moroccan political relations and led to a closer rapprochement.
Events were soon to move rapidly, leading in 1844 to the Battle of Isly. Upon his father’s death in 1845, John Drummond Hay was given the post. Thus the way was left open for him to continue to represent Britain in Tangier for some fifty years until 1886. The Foreign Office sent him the following instructions:
“(…)You will never omit any opportunity of laying the foundation of a good and friendly feeling between the chief and people of Morocco, and Great Britain, where it does not already exist, and of improving it to the utmost so far as may lie in your power where it does, and you will always bear in mind in your intercourse with the Moors, that time may come when British influence in that quarter may be of the highest value and utility to the British crown. (…)”.
During the first years of his mission, John Drummond Hay was directly involved in resolving problems between Morocco and some European countries and particularly his mediation between Morocco and France, Spain and the countries of Scandinavia. This proved how important Britain was for Mawlay ‘Abd ar-Rahman. But in the eyes of John Drummond Hay, the most effective means of strengthening British influence in Morocco at all levels would be a skilfully implemented policy of commercial penetration of the Moroccan market. After a long and difficult negotiations, the Sultan accepted to ratify two agreements on 9th December 1856 and to decide to implement them starting from 10th January 1857. In this way, relations between Morocco and Britain entered a new phase during which legal texts began to regulate relationships for long periods.
The independence and integrity of Morocco were placed in jeopardy when Spain declared war to the Sultan in 1859. The British Government intervened and proposed its mediation to stop the war of Tetuan and to conclude a peace treaty in 1861. After this war, Morocco accepted the British propositions to reform the administration, the army, and to develop peaceful relations with European countries. But with the arrival of many European traders to Morocco, Consular Protection expanded rapidly among Moroccan subjects, Muslims and Jews, which created some tensions in the Moroccan society. The Embassy of Mohammed Zebdi was received in London in 1876, and Great Britain convinced the Sultan Mawlay El-Hassan to organise an international conference in Madrid in 1880 to deal with the issue of irregular protections.
John Drummond Hay mission to the Moroccan Court ended in 1886, and the Foreign Office continue to consult him in Moroccan affairs until his death. His successors Kirby Green, and Charles Euan-Smith tried to develop the British influence in Morocco, but the competition with other European countries like France, Germany and Italy make this goal difficult to reach. The nomination of Arthur Nicolson during the reign of Mawlay Abdelaziz (1893-1907) gave the opportunity to Great Britain to come back with a force in the Moroccan scene. After the embassy of the war minister El Mehdi El Menebhi to London who was accompanied with the famous military instructor of the Moroccan army Harry Maclean, Morocco decided to adopt in 1901 a large reform program under British supervision called “defensive modernisation”.
But this last initiative to strengthen Morocco with a view of saving the country from the anarchy failed because of the internal crisis and the struggle for power between Sultan Mawlay Abdel aziz and his opponent the pretender Bu Hmara who succeeded in his rebellion and created his own government in the city of Taza. The British response to the growing disorders in Morocco culminated in the Anglo-French Convention of April 1904. This was a sign of a deep change in the traditional policy of Great Britain towards Morocco since 1704. Henceforth, Britain decided to recognize that the political vacuum created by the collapse of the Sultan’s authority would in some way have to be filled by French power. The French will have free hands to reform the Moroccan administration, army, etc...
However, from 1904 to 1912, Great Britain took part in all the international conferences concerning Morocco. The Foreign Office maintained its interest to the Moroccan affairs even after the imposition of the French and the Spanish Protectorate over Morocco in 1912. The British diplomacy was so successful in avoiding the occupation of Tangier by a single powerful nation. This strategic city was kept under the control of an international administration until the independence of Morocco in 1956.
His Majesty King Mohammed V nominated the prince Mawlay El Hassan ben Al Mahdi as the first Moroccan ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1956. King Hassan II nominated his sister the princess Lalla Aicha as a representative of his Majesty to the court of Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth II. In May 1965, the treaty signed one century before in 1856 between Morocco and Great Britain was abandoned, and new conventions based on the mutual interests were concluded to promote the commercial and political exchanges between the two countries.
In October 1980, Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth paid a visit to Morocco and His Majesty King Hassan II was in London in July 1987 to confirm the ancestral friendship between the two kingdoms, and to create new opportunities of cooperation for the future.