Morocco: the 'other' Algarve

Lynne Booker

 The territory comprising present day Portugal was subject to 2000 years of colonisation by Phoenicians, Romans and Moors, and the Portuguese then embarked on their own career of imperial expansion and colonisation.  After years of bickering with neighbouring Castile, the Portuguese nation was united under the illegitimate D João I of the House of Avis, who gained internal support and international respect, and who laid the foundations of the worldwide Portuguese empire. 

In the beginning ... 

In previous ages Iberia and North Africa had been dominated by successive Phoenician, Roman, Germanic and Moorish cultures.  It was now the turn of a Christian king to carry the reconquista into North Africa.  Morocco could provide food for the growing population in Portugal and a military challenge for his sons (in an era of knightly chivalry).  A Christian reconquest would gain favour for the Portuguese with the new Pope and the king was seeking a means for his warrior knights to indulge their spirit of adventure.  With the conclusion of a peace treaty with Castile in 1411, D João looked elsewhere for opportunities and in 1413 gave an open invitation to knights of Europe to participate in a  great chivalric enterprise under his leadership.

 ... D João makes a grand entry on to the world stage 

In a blaze of publicity, the greatest fleet and the largest army ever assembled by a Portuguese king sailed out of the Tagus on 26 July 1415.  Remarkably, apart from a handful of commanders, no one had any idea about the expedition´s destination; D João certainly knew how to keep a secret.   Given the peace with Castile, many European countries were concerned by this military  concentration - who would be the target of Portuguese aggression?  Muslim Granada?  Sicily? No one suspected that a Moroccan fortress 160 miles south east of the Portuguese mainland and with no apparent strategic or commercial value would be the destination of such a huge force. No one either suspected that such a force - and an inexperienced force at that - could be deployed simply to showcase a new dynasty on the European stage. 

´....a most remarkable victory in the annals of medieval warfare´ (Russell)

The Portuguese conquered Ceuta on 21 August 1415 and Prince Henry (the Navigator) earned a reputation for not only bravery but also rashness.  This victory had massive implications for Portugal and her rulers. For a century afterwards, Portuguese foreign policy was irretrievably wrapped in her aim to dominate Morocco.  Prince Henry was a main exponent of this ultimately futile aim which cost the nation dearly in manpower and treasure - particularly in the attempt to capture Tangier.

´... they had God on their side and most of their Moorish opponents were worth little.´ 

So said D Duarte on the eve of the second major crusade against Morocco.  With a planned force of 14 000 men, 4 000 horses and 5 000 mules, the Infantes Henry and Fernando set off on 23 August 1437 with the aim of capturing the busy port of Tangier and the ports of Arzila and Alcácer Ceguer. Unlike the secret aim of D João´s voyage to Ceuta, the purpose of Prince Henry´s fleet was an open secret.  A shortage of transport had led to thousands of soldiers being left in Lisbon and the Portuguese had to contend with a larger, well-prepared Moroccon army keen to avenge the defeat at Ceuta.  After weeks of incompetent siege, it was clear that the Portuguese army would have to come to terms: the Moroccans demanded the surrender Ceuta in return for allowing the Portuguese forces to re-embark in safety.  Henry reluctantly agreed to this stipulation and left his brother D Fernando as hostage against the surrender of Ceuta to the Moroccans.  Their brother, the king D Duarte, was  heartbroken at this turn of events; he had been committed by Henry either to surrender his patrimony or to condemn his own brother to death.  This dilemma hastened his own early death and the constitutional crisis surrounding the succession deflected attention from the disaster at Tangier.  As the crisis remained unresolved,  the martyrdom of D Fernando (afterwards the Infante Santo) became inevitable.  There is evidence that D Fernando was a reluctant martyr, and that his view of Henry´s conduct became increasingly embittered.  Henry ensured that his nephew D Afonso V, the boy king, had been indoctrinated with the belief that it was Portugal´s historic mission to reconquer Visigothic Tingitana [Morocco] for Christianity.

D Afonso V ´The African`

The fall of Constantinope to the Turks in 1453 caused shock waves around the western world and having been dissuaded from making a personal intervention in Constantinople with a Portuguese fleet, D Afonso instead undertook an expedition which captured the relatively unimportant Alcácer Ceguer on the north coast of Morocco in 1458. The king took the advice of his uncle Henry, and chose not to attack Tangier.  It was not until 1471 that D Afonso conquered Arzila, following which the Moroccans abandoned Tangier to the Portuguese. D Afonso then claimed the titles King of Portugal "and of the Algarves on this side of the sea and on the other side in Africa ".  Portuguese kings continued to use this style until the advent of the Republic in 1910. 

Portuguese control of all of the Moroccan coastline ...

At the opening of the reign of D Manuel I in 1495, the Portuguese were consolidating three enterprises:  the conquest of Morocco, the occupation of the Atlantic islands and the search along the west African coast for the route to India.  D Manuel´s cognomen in Portuguese history is O Venturoso which means The Lucky One.  He was amazingly fortunate to inherit the throne since he was only a nephew of the prevous king, and also the youngest of nine children. He was doubly lucky to inherit the benefit of the new spice trade to India which made him the richest king in Christendom.  In Morocco, he was not so lucky.  True, the Portuguese conquered and fortified Santa Cruz do Cabo de Gué (1505), Mogador (1505), Safim (1508), Aguz (1508), Azamor (1513) and Mazagão (1514). D Manuel´s forces suffered a major catastrophe at Mamora in 1515, after which Portuguese fortunes in North Africa declined.  The conquest of Morocco, which had seemed within reach, became impossible and the unprofitable exercise of the Holy War was eclipsed by the trading opportunities offered by their newest "discoveries". 

...for a short time

It was D João III who had to face these difficulties.  The spice trade was no longer as profitable as during Manuel´s reign and the cost of exploration was increasing, and in money and men the Moroccan fortresses were very expensive.  In 1542, D João decided to abandon the Moroccan fortresses of Safim and Azamor; Alcácer Ceguer was abandoned in 1549 and the Portuguese left Arzila in 1550.  All that remained after 150 years of effort were Ceuta, Tangier and Mazagão.

The Battle of the Three Kings

Mazagão became the target of successive Muslim attacks, and the  24 year old D Sebastião disastrously attempted in 1578 to reimpose Portuguese authority in North Africa.   The Portuguese recaptured Arzila and proceeded overland to Alcácer Quibir.  D Sebastião greatly underestimated the enemy´s  strength and when the armies met, his troops had no supplies, were badly affected by the heat, had no plan of campaign and were out of touch with their fleet.  Three kings, D Sebastião, the Sharif and the former Sharif were all killed in the battle, as were 8 000 Portuguese.  Nearly 15 000 were captured and became subject to ransom; and barely 100 succeeded in escaping to Tangier or Arzila.  This disaster impoverished the kingdom, and brought about the downfall of the dynasty.  In the minds of many Portuguese, the myth arose that D Sebastião was not dead and that one day he would return  to lead his people to greatness - and Sebastianismo continues in the hearts of many Portuguese.  The importance of the outcome of the disaster of 1578 cannot be overestimated.  Portugal became a Spanish possession, and the country was ransacked for money to ransom the captives in Morocco.  The decline in Portuguese influence in world affairs dates from 1578.

Giving it all away 

The Iberian crowns were united in 1580 and when Portugal regained her independence in 1640, the city of Ceuta chose to remain Spanish.  And when Portugal succeeded in negotiating a treaty of marriage and alliance with Charles II of England, among the dowry gifts was the port of Tangier.  The English (including Samuel Pepys) tried for 20 years to make a profit of Tangier but failed, and abandoned it in 1684, without first offering to restore it to Portugal, much to the chagrin of the Portuguese.  And so it was that from 1662 to 1769 the only remaining Portuguese possession in Morocco was Mazagão.  In 1769 the city suffered yet another onslaught by the Muslims and the chief minister in Portugal, the Marquês de Pombal, declared that Mazagão was to be abandoned.  The Christian population was withdrawn to Portugal and later that year shipped to the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil, where they founded the city that was known as Vila Nova de Mazagão.


The Portuguese had been the first European nation to conduct a war of conquest outside Europe, and had held fortified cities in Morocco from 1415 to 1769, a total of 354 years. Much longer than Gibraltar has been British.  The wars of Portugal in Morocco were long and costly and ultimately quite futile; but in the spirit of D Sebastião and the memory of the "other Algarve" is still with us.  Not only do we retain the memory of the Portuguese military efforts in North Africa, but there also remain Portuguese buildings in Morocco which are definitely worth a visit.  In particular, the cistern at Mazagão (now known as El Jadida) is quite magnificent.

Portuguese Kings during the Occupation of Morocco

D João I 1385 – 1433 O de Boa Memória
D Duarte 1433 – 1438 O Eloquente
D Afonso V 1438 – 1481 O Africano
D João II 1481 – 1495 O Príncipe Perfeito
D Manuel I 1495 – 1521 O Venturoso
D João III 1521 – 1557 O Piedoso
D Sebastião 1557 – 1578 O Desejado
D Henrique 1578 – 1580 O Casto
D Felipe I 1580 – 1598 O Prudente            (Felipe II of Spain)
D Felipe II 1598 – 1621 O Pio                     (Felipe III of Spain)
D Felipe  III 1621 – 1640 O Grande               (Felipe IV of Spain)
D João IV 1640 – 1654 O Restaurador
D Afonso VI 1654 – 1683 O Vitorioso
D Pedro II 1683 – 1706 O Pacífico
D João V 1706 – 1750 O Magnânimo
D José 1750 – 1777 O Reformador