Africa – The Ultimate Frontier I

Battle of Alcazarquivir (Alcácer Quibir)

Europeans living in the Early Modern era were ignorant of Africa because they not only considered it peripheral to their interests, but because they were acquainted only with the continent’s outer margins. Europeans who had made it to China, to India, to the Ottoman Empire, were amazed by the rich and colourful cultures there, by the power of the rulers, and the self-confidence of their people; and they had eagerly brought back art and foods from their visits. Their response to Africa was very different; they found the native costumes, dwellings, and weaponry of the coastal peoples exotic but unimpressive. Had the Europeans not feared the tropical diseases, the unfamiliar jungles and dangerous animals, and the heat, they might have learned more, and been more impressed, but the African coastline lacked convenient harbours and the interior could not be penetrated by simply sailing up the great rivers; hence, they knew little even about the great Songhai Empire in the Niger Valley. Timbuktu became a synonym for an incredibly exotic place that no one could reach. Many attribute this lack of interest to racism, but ethnocentrism might be a better word. Certainly that word would be less confrontational and less judgmental.

Europeans did eventually confront Africa, but in ways very different from their earlier encounters with the New World or the Ancient East.

North Africa

Africa was a huge continent with much variety. There were rainforests, deserts, mountains, lakes, lots of insects, and people of every height and colour imaginable. And the native peoples had not always remained in the homelands of their ancestors, but migrated, sometimes slowly, occasionally very quickly, either to escape troubles or to find better lands. Scholars tell us that colonial boundaries were irrational, but that it would have been impossible to draw better ones, because nomads and farmers were not strictly separated; and some tribes had welcomed refugees to settle on their poorest land. Understanding this is particularly important in following the story of Muslims penetrating into Black Africa from the desert, and Christians pressuring the same peoples from the coasts.

The peoples of the Mediterranean and northwestern coastlands were not black, but a combination of native peoples (Berbers being the generic term to describe their languages and cultures) and Arabs. Europeans lumped all these people together as Moors, a term not used often today because of its lack of precision and because its Greek root means ‘dark’. The darkness came partly from the intense sun, partly from the importation of black slaves, and partly from the looks that the Moors cast at Europeans.

Buying (or taking) black slaves over the past millennium had darkened the complexion of parts of the population, but the Ottomans who ruled the northern coastland were also importing white slaves—like the Circassians taken by Turks, or the Poles and Russians rounded up by Tatars, or Irish and Icelanders captured by Barbary pirates. The slaves came from diverse lands, some from the Caucasus Mountains, some from European borderlands or a few from distant islands, but others were prisoners-of-war or captured sailors; an ever large number came from raids on the Spanish and Italian coasts, so many that in the 1600s white slaves employed in raising sugar, rice and other crops in North Africa may have outnumbered the black slaves in North America. Sometimes the Ottomans made these prisoners into elite warriors, favouring them over natives because it was possible to punish or even execute them without offending relatives. Also, time out of mind Christian warriors had hired themselves out as mercenaries, often as personal bodyguards to Muslim rulers of the coastal states. Having no interest in the complicated politics, they could be trusted to concentrate on safeguarding their employer.

The thinly populated Barbary Coast (modern Algeria and Libya) was dotted with ports that flourished from trade and piracy, activities that were occasionally difficult to tell apart; and from time immemorial their captains had yielded to the temptation to capture ships belonging to European competitors. Crusaders had attempted to eliminate Islamic corsairs as a threat to Christian shipping and Italian and Spanish coastal towns; of course, they attacked Muslim ships and raided coastal towns, too. Each side claimed to be acting in self-defence or in retaliation, or to be performing great feats of arms as champions of their respective religions.

Around 1500 two great warriors from one Muslim family changed the conflict from small scale warfare to a struggle involving all the major powers of the Mediterranean. Aruj (c1474-1518) was the elder brother, the emir of a small principality in Algeria. His father had been a Janissary (hence, most likely, of Balkan ancestry) stationed on the Greek island of Lesbos and his mother had been the widow of a Greek priest. When he was a young man he had been captured by the Knights of Malta and made into a galley slave—one of the worst fates possible since it meant a short lifetime of hard labour chained to a rowing bench, often exposed to the hot sun. After being ransomed, he took his revenge by attacking Christian vessels. His fleet was no larger than twelve galleys, but his captains struck hard at Spanish commerce and upset Spanish military operations against the French—once he captured a ship with hundreds of troops on board, presumably making all of them into slaves. Having a flaming red beard, he was called Barbarossa, a name that his brother Khizr inherited after Aruj’s death in spite of not sharing that characteristic. Little more is known of the first Barbarossa other than his dying in battle while opposing a Spanish/Berber army led by Charles V (1500-58), the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor who was conquering many of the cities along the Algerian coast.

Khizr (Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, 1478-1546), who at the time he met Suleiman the Great (Sultan 1520-66) commanded no more than 800 Ottoman soldiers, nevertheless received instructions to build a great navy. He completed this so quickly that he was given command. Soon he was famed even among his enemies—the legendary Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560) called him ‘the Great Corsair’. What made Barbarossa so dangerous was that the French king provided him bases in France that he could use to attack Charles V’s lines of communication with Italy. Before Barbarossa retired to the comforts of Istanbul, he had made the Ottoman navy supreme across vast stretches of the Mediterranean Sea.

After the natural death of the aged Suleiman on campaign in 1566, while moving up the Danube toward Vienna, his successors stayed away from battlefields. Instead, they entrusted command to their grand viziers, who were experienced administrators and commanders. The sultans limited their activities to what they did best—harem politics and watching their grand viziers for signs of excessive ambition. Many of the grand viziers were technically slaves, taken in boyhood from their Christian parents and trained in their future duties—the best being selected for the most important duties. This gave the Ottoman sultans more talented commanders than Christian monarchs who gave out military positions only to high-born nobles.

It seemed, according to the dramatic narrative of Roger Crowley, Empires of the Sea, that by 1571 a divided Christendom could not expect to defeat the magnificent forces of the Ottoman grand vizier, Lala Mustafa Pasha (1500-80) who had the great advantage of being able to give orders and expect them to be obeyed. Catholic Europe was led by a hyper-cautious Philip II of Spain (1527-98), who could not forget the naval disaster at Djerba in 1560; Venetians remembered equally vividly the 1537 battle of Preveza, where the Holy League had tried to challenge Barbarossa—they blamed the defeat on Andrea Doria’s refusal to come to their aid. Christian disunity had almost led to the fall of Malta in 1565—a siege of epic proportions—and made it impossible for Venice to hold Nicosia and Famagusta on Cyprus in 1571. The only good result from the eight-month defence of Famagusta, in the Christians’ eyes, was that it cost the Ottomans 80,000 men they would have had only months later at the battle of Lepanto.

That famous victory reestablished European naval prestige briefly. The collision of two gigantic fleets—that of the Holy League (200 galleys and six large hybrid galleys/sailing vessels) being slightly smaller than the Ottoman force, but having more cannon—developed into an infantry battle on water, with the Christians having more men wearing armour and using firearms. One of the Ottoman squadrons was led by an Italian convert to Islam—Uluj Ali (1519-87), born Giovanni Dionigi Galeni in southern Italy. Captured by Barbarossa and, like many of his fellows, offered the choice between ordinary slavery and becoming a rich pirate, he chose to convert. Among the few Muslim commanders to survive the disaster, he was welcomed in Istanbul for returning safely with the giant banner of the Knights of Malta that he had taken from their flagship. Subsequently he became pasha of Algiers, then admiral of the Ottoman fleet.

The Ottoman sultan quickly replaced the lost ships, then ordered them to push cautiously westward along the coast, driving the Spanish from Algeria, deposing their native Muslim allies, and reaching almost to Morocco. This was the end of Christian hopes to conquer these coasts and the beginning of Ottoman rule.


The same weakness that made Algeria vulnerable to attack allowed the Portuguese to capture ports in Morocco—Ceuta in 1415, Tangiers in 1471, and smaller cities in the early 1500s. Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) had seen Morocco as a jumping off point for explorations that would lead to the gold fields of Ghana. However, the heavy ships of the Mediterranean were unsuited to ocean travel, and their large crews consumed too many supplies. This problem was overcome by using a lighter sailing vessel, the caravel, which adopted the lateen sail used by Arab sailors; later this was combined with the well-known square sail to produce fully-rigged vessels that could withstand almost any storm. The next delay was caused by sailors’ fears of unknown shores and winds—sailing south along the African coast was no problem, since Prince Henry’s ships had a tail wind, but coming home against those same winds was testing. Nevertheless, in 1481 the Portuguese were able to build a fortress at Elmina in Ghana that Christopher Columbus visited shortly afterward; this post was profitable for both buyer and seller because it cut out the Muslim middlemen.

Moroccans, meanwhile, were experiencing Ottoman pressure from Algeria. Fortunately for them, they understood European weaponry well, a knowledge they applied effectively against the Turks. It was more difficult to resist the Portuguese aggression that began in 1576, because the Portuguese were not operating at the end of a long supply line. The new sultan, Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik, had just returned from exile to seize the throne, and his counterpart was Sebastian I (Dom Sebastião, 1554-78), an inbred, obstinate, gifted and ambitious young man.

King Sebastian was very aware that his captains were easily establishing trading posts along the African and Brazilian coasts and that his governors had repelled challenges to their domination of the Indian trade; in short, his captains seemed invincible. In contrast, Morocco appeared to be weak. A successful crusade there would bring Morocco over to Christianity (or at least make Portuguese exploitation possible) and open central Africa to European trade.

Under normal circumstances not even a prince as active and intellectually curious as Sebastian would have dared think so extravagantly, but he had come into possession of a rival to the Sultan, Abu Abdallah. The presence of Abdallah in his army, and a supposedly weak Abd al-Malik on the other side caused the battle of Alcazarquivir (Alcácer Quibir) to be known as the Battle of the Three Kings.

There was an important back story to the campaign. Abdallah al-Ghalib Billah (1517-74) had become Sultan in 1557 after his father was assassinated by Barbarossa’s son on Ottoman orders. Immediately he had consolidated power by eliminating possible rivals—that is, killing his brothers. This practice was well-known in Islamic states because harems produced numbers of ambitious sons whose only hope to rule, or even do anything in life, was to lead a successful rebellion. However, he failed to capture Abd al-Malik, who had fled to Algeria and become a soldier for the Ottoman governor. When al-Ghalib Billah died, leaving power to a son, Abu Abdallah, instead of to a surviving brother—as custom required—Abd al-Malik raised a mercenary army from his Ottoman troops and seized power. When Abu Abdallah asked the Portuguese king for mercenary troops to recover his kingdom, Sebastian agreed to provide them, but only on the condition that he lead the army himself and share in the benefits of victory. Sebastian began to assemble his army in 1578, borrowing men from the king of Spain. Though Philip II subsequently signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans, the young Portuguese monarch pressed on. Sebastian believed that he had the resources to prevail, most importantly because of 2,000 Italians employed by Thomas Stukley (1525-78).

Stukley—a former pirate, mercenary, and possibly an illegitimate son of Henry VIII—was just the man for such a wild-eyed project. His original plan had been to land in Ireland, raise volunteers, then overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Stukley’s career as an adventurer had begun during the reign of Queen Mary, when he had fought in the army she had sent to the Spanish Netherlands to support of her husband, Philip II. After Mary’s death he entered the retinue of Lord Dudley, one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourites, serving occasionally as a pirate. His activities in Scotland and Ireland are worthy of a novelist’s talents, but it was his proposal to Philip II to overthrow Elizabeth and restore Catholicism to England that is best known. He was distracted by the battle at Lepanto, where he fought with distinction, then his plans to invade Ireland and England were delayed by the competing ambitions of more exalted personalities. It was only in 1578 that the Pope gave him 2,000 men for the Irish enterprise. It was not difficult to divert these men to the Moroccan expedition.

Stukley’s men were well-equipped with muskets, and they had far more self-confidence than the situation warranted—they counted on a mass formation of pikemen to fend off the expected cavalry attack, then to push forward and break the enemy’s infantry, which would have been shot to pieces by the musketeers. In addition, Sebastian had the usual assortment of German and Spanish mercenaries, but the bulk of the 23,000 Europeans in the royal army were Portuguese, the best his nation could raise. Awkwardly, the king could not bring many horses on his ships, but he had good European infantry and the horsemen raised by his Muslim ally, Abu Abdallah. Surely this army was sufficient to conquer any kingdom along the Atlantic or Mediterranean coast of Africa. This was especially true if their opponent was, as rumour had it, mortally ill.

Abd al-Malik had about 100,000 men, some of whom were anti-Christian fanatics, descendants of Moors expelled from Spain after 1492. The two armies faced each other across a small river, the Christian-Muslim forces drawn up in a European-style formation, infantry in the centre, relying on their firearms to sweep the enemy away. It is not clear why Sebastian stood on the defensive, but that may have been the best choice considering the terrain and the unexpected numbers of horsemen in the opposing army. Sebastian commanded the Christian cavalry on one wing, with Abu Abdallah commanding the Muslim cavalry on the other. Abd al-Malik ignored the infantry, while using his superior numbers to surround Abu Abdallah, then closed in for hand-to-hand fighting. The Portuguese king led his horsemen forward, but disappeared quickly (his body was never found); Abu Abdallah was killed at some unknown point. Stukley commanded the centre of the line, which was holding out well until his legs were torn off by a cannonball. After that order broke down. His men found themselves fighting for their lives, flight impossible. When both kings and about a third of their men were dead, the rest of the army, perhaps 15,000 men, surrendered. Only perhaps a hundred fugitives made it to the coast alive; the rest of the Europeans became slaves.

Abd al-Malik had died, too, though no one had noticed immediately. The exertion of combat had been too much for him. He was succeeded by his imprisoned brother, Ahmad I al-Mansur (1549-1603).

The leaderless Portuguese kingdom collapsed, Philip II of Spain moving in to make himself king. It would not be the last time that Europeans attempted to establish footholds on the Moroccan coast, but there would be no serious effort to conquer the entire state until the nineteenth century.


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