Spain’s African Crusade(s)

Attack on La Goletta, with Tunis in the background.

Imperial troops in the conquest of Tunis, 1535

The dangers of rebellion among the sullen inhabitants of Granada, aided and abetted by their North African kinsmen, inevitably gave fresh impetus to a long-cherished project for the continuation of the Castilian crusade across the straits into Africa. This would be a natural sequel to the conquest of Granada, and one for which the times seemed especially propitious. The North African state system was in an advanced state of dissolution by the later fifteenth century. There were divisions between Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis, between the mountain-dwellers and the plain-dwellers, and between the traditional inhabitants and the recent émigrés from Andalusia. It was true that North Africa was difficult campaigning country, but the inhabitants were unacquainted with the new military techniques of the Castilians, and their internal feuds offered as tempting possibilities for the Spaniards as the faction struggles in the Nasrid kingdom of Granada.

Alexander VI gave his papal blessing to an African crusade in 1494, and, more important, authorized the continuation of the tax known as the cruzada to pay for it. But the crusade across the straits was postponed for a fateful decade. Spanish troops were heavily engaged in Italy during much of this time, and Ferdinand was in no mind to turn his attention elsewhere. Apart from the capture of the port of Melilla by the Duke of Medina-Sidonia in 1497, the new front with Islam was neglected, and it was only with the first revolt of the Alpujarras in 1499 that the Castilians really awoke to the dangers from North Africa. The revolt led to a great resurgence of popular religious enthusiasm and to new demands for a crusade against Islam, ardently supported by Cisneros and the Queen. When Isabella died in 1504, however, nothing had yet been done, and it remained for Cisneros to champion her dying request that her husband should devote himself ‘unremittingly to the conquest of Africa and to the war for the Faith against the Moors’.

Cisneros’s militant fervour was once again to carry all before it. An expedition was fitted out at Málaga, and set sail for North Africa in the autumn of 1505. It succeeded in taking Mers-el-Kebir, an essential base for an attack on Oran, but Cisneros’s attention was at this moment diverted to affairs nearer home, and it was not until 1509 that a new and stronger army was dispatched to Africa and that Oran was captured. But the beginning of the occupation of the North African coast in 1509–10 only served to sharpen the differences between Ferdinand and Cisneros, and to reveal the existence of two irreconcilable African policies. Cisneros, imbued with the spirit of the crusader, seems to have envisaged penetrating to the edges of the Sahara and establishing in North Africa a Spanish-Mauretanian empire. Ferdinand, on the other hand, considered North Africa a much less important theatre of operations than the traditional Aragonese preserve of Italy, and favoured a policy of limited occupation of the African coastline, sufficient to guarantee Spain against a Moorish attack.

Cisneros broke with his sovereign in 1509 and retired to the university of Alcalá. For the rest of the reign it was Ferdinand’s African policy that prevailed: the Spaniards were content to seize and garrison a number of key points, while leaving the hinterland to the Moors. Spain was to pay a heavy price for this policy of limited occupation in later years. The relative inactivity of the Spaniards and their uncertain command of no more than a thin coastal strip allowed the Barbary corsairs to establish bases along the coast. In 1529 the Barbarossas, two pirate brothers who had originally come from the Levant, recaptured the Peñón d‘Argel, the key to Algiers. From this moment the foundations were laid for an Algerian state under Turkish protection, which provided the ideal base for corsair attacks against Spain’s vital Mediterranean routes.

The threat became extremely grave in 1534 when Barbarossa seized Tunis from Spain’s Moorish vassals, and so secured for himself the control of the narrow seas between Sicily and Africa. It was obviously now a matter of extreme urgency for Spain to smoke out the hornets’ nest before irreparable harm was done. In the following year Charles V undertook a great expedition against Tunis and succeeded in recapturing it, but he was unable to follow up his success with an immediate assault on Algiers, and the opportunity for destroying the Barbary pirates was missed. When the Emperor finally led an expedition against Algiers in 1541 it ended in disaster. From now on Charles was fully occupied in Europe, and the Spaniards could do no more than hold their own in Africa. Their policy of limited occupation meant that they failed to secure real influence over the Maghreb, and their two protectorates of Tunisia and Tlemcen came under increasing Moorish pressure. By the time of Philip II’s accession, Spanish North Africa was in a highly precarious state, from which the new King’s efforts were unable to rescue it. Control of the Tunisian coast would have been an invaluable asset to Spain in its great naval war of 1559 to 1577 against the Turk, but although Don John of Austria was able to recover Tunis in 1573, both Tunis and its fortress of La Goletta were lost to the Moors in the following year. The fall of La Goletta was fatal to Spain’s African hopes. Spanish control was gradually reduced to the garrison posts of Melilla, Oran, and Mers-el-Kebir, to which were later added the African remnants of the Portuguese Empire. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Cisneros’s heroic vision of a Spanish North Africa had run to waste in the sands.

The most obvious reason for Spain’s failure to establish itself effectively in North Africa lay in the extent of its commitments elsewhere. Ferdinand, Charles V, and Philip II were all too preoccupied with other pressing problems to devote more than fitful attention to the African front. The cost of failure was very high in terms of the growth of piracy in the western Mediterranean, but it is arguable that the nature of the land and the insufficiency of Spanish troops in any event made effective occupation impossible. It is conceivable, however, that the formidable natural difficulties would not have been insuperable if the Castilians had adopted a different approach to the war in North Africa. In practice they tended to treat the war as a simple continuation of the campaign against Granada. This meant that, as in the Reconquista, they thought principally in terms of marauding expeditions, of the capture of booty and the establishment of presidios or frontier garrisons. There was no plan for total conquest, no project for colonization. The word conquista to the Castilian implied essentially the establishing of the Spanish ‘presence’ – the securing of strongpoints, the staking out of claims, the acquisition of dominion over a defeated population. This style of warfare, tried and proven in medieval Spain, was naturally adopted in North Africa, in spite of local conditions which threatened to limit its effectiveness from the start. Since the country was hard and the booty disappointing, Africa, unlike Andalusia, offered few attractions to the individual warrior, more concerned to obtain material rewards for his hardships than the spiritual recompense promised by Cisneros. Consequently, enthusiasm for service in Africa quickly flagged, with entirely predictable military consequences. North Africa remained throughout the sixteenth century the Cinderella of Spain’s overseas possessions – a land unsuited to the particular characteristics of the conquistador. The inadequacies of the crusading style of warfare of medieval Castile were here exposed; but failure in North Africa was almost immediately eclipsed by the startling success of the traditional style of warfare in an incomparably more spectacular enterprise – the conquest of an empire in America.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.