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Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah’s Diplomatic Initiatives towards the United States 1777-1786: Direct Reasons

By Elhoussine Lahsini

Morocco World News

Casablanca, March 20, 2012

The history of Moroccan-American relations dates back to the late eighteenth century, when the sultan Sidi Muhammad Ben Abdellah issued a declaration on December 1777, asking the Americans to conclude with his majesty a treaty of peace and friendship. His interest in the United States of America goes beyond signing the treaty in question. He, according to Priscilla Roberts and Sherrill, B. Wells, publicly declared that American and other European vessels, with whom the sultan had no treaties before, are free to navigate in Moroccan waters and enter Moroccan ports and cities where they can take refreshment.

The sultan’s initiative towards the United States was not seriously handled by the Americans because of many reasons relating to distance existing between the two countries, the problem of language, war with the British power and the struggle for independence[1]. George Washington in one of  his letters to the sultan explained the American inaction and appreciated the sultan’s interests in and recognition of America. Moroccan and American sources regard the sultan’s initiative towards the Americans from one general point, which is establishing economic relations with the United States.

They did not delve into specific details behind the sultan’s initiative, which in turn might allow us to understand the socioeconomic and the sociopolitical infrastructure of Morocco under the reign of the Alaouite Dynasty in the eighteenth century. This paper explores some of the main and direct reasons behind the sultan’s diplomatic initiative towards the United States, 1777-1786.

After the outbreak of the American Revolution, according to Irwin,[2] the British power withdrew its protection of the American shipping in the Mediterranean by changing its maritime passes, leaving the vessels of its ‘erstwhile colonies exposed to the maraudings of the Barbary pirates’.

The United States realized this threat and looked forward to establishing new diplomatic relations with several European countries, which in turn would protect its vessels from the threat of piracy and militarily support and recognize its independence. Therefore, it had negotiated and signed many treaties of friendship and commerce with the following powers: France, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Denmark, Saxony, Hamburg, Spain, Portugal, Genoa, Tuscany, Rome, Naples, Venice and Sardinia.

A careful reading of the treaty of friendship and commerce signed by the United States and France in 1778 would give us an insight of the real intentions and ambitions of this newborn country in reference to its diplomatic relations with Morocco. The part of the Franco-American treaty, which concerns the Moroccan-American diplomatic relations is article number eight. This article conveys that the Americans were afraid of the so-called Moroccan piracy in the Mediterranean[3].

In this article, both French and American diplomats agreed that the king of France would “protect, defend and secure, as far as in his Power, the Subjects, People and Inhabitants of the said United States and every of them, and their vessels and Effects of every kind, against all Attacks, Assaults, Violences, Injuries, Depredations or Plunderings by or from the king or Emperor of Morocco, or Fez, and the states of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli…”[4]. Apparently, article number eight of the Franco-American treaty shows that Americans were stark afraid of Moroccan pirates and about their commercial interests in the Mediterranean. In other words, it seems that the myth of piracy in the Mediterranean was a big obstacle for the American commerce.

Probably, France did not want the United States to be autonomous in the Mediterranean and preferred to play the role of the mediator between the Americans and the Moroccans, especially that both the French and the English powers had commercial interests in North Africa. A plain indicator of these interests is the serious problems which France, trying to get control over coastal cities, had with Moroccans in the Mediterranean; according to Alnnaciri, the French power faced severe Moroccan maritime Jihad[5] when they seized and attacked Rabat and Salé in 1764 and Lexus ‘Laaraiche’ in 1765[6]. Two years later, France was obliged to follow a new policy based on diplomatic relations by signing a treaty of peace with Morocco in 1767[7].

Actually, America would not ask for the French mediation with the Emperor of Morocco, if the French and the English powers did not create and propagate the myth of piracy in the Mediterranean. This is simply one political strategy that France and Britain adopted to keep their control over commerce with North Africa through the Mediterranean.

Sidi Mohamed III, according to Priscilla Roberts, received the news of the Franco-American treaty through his ambassador Tahar Fennish who was on a mission in Paris[8]. Then after the Sukey event[9], he realized that the Americans lost the protection of the British power in the Mediterranean and alternatively sought the mediation and protection of France from Moroccan naval authorities, whom they referred to as corsairs.

It is possible that the sultan did not like the mediation of France and preferred to deal with the Americans directly[10]. Therefore, signing a treaty of peace and friendship with the United States might assure Americans of peace and protection in the Mediterranean. But this reason remains a little bit ambiguous, since there is no reference to it in official documents.

One main direct reason behind the sultan’s interest in the Americans can be traced back to early 1766, when the Sultan released a ‘fatwa’[11] concerning the exportation of wheat to Europeans through the port of Fdala, which the sultan built for that particular purpose. The sultan allowed his people to sell their crops, especially wheat, to Europeans, who in turn, bought and shipped large amounts of wheat and food supplies abroad. In this context, Masson states that the exportation of wheat increased between 1770 and 1774 towards Portugal, Spain and France. In 1774, 100.000 quintal (qintar) of wheat was exported to Spain and almost the same quantity was exported to France[12].

Indeed, the exportation of wheat to Europe affected the whole country especially after successive years of drought. The rain did not fall for over seven years from 1776 to 1782, and the swarms of locust came from the south and completely destroyed crops. The country knew a serious food crisis due to the plague of locusts and drought. The prices of wheat increased rapidly, and poor people were unable to buy enough amounts. According to the French consul Louis de Chenier in one of his letters, the reserves of wheat decreased in stores and its price increased three times in 1775.[13] In this respect, Louis de Chenier (1787) in his book ‘The Present State of the Empire of Morocco’, quoted in Allan R. Meyers, states:

“During the reign of Sidi Mahomet, the locusts, which so often afflict the southern climates, have various times ravaged the empire of Morocco; but never so generally or so fatally as after the year 1778. In the summer of the same year, such clouds of locusts came from the south that they darkened the air, and devoured a part of the harvest. Their offspring, which they left on the ground, committed still much greater mischief. Locusts appeared and bred anew in the spring, the country was wholly covered, and they crawled one over the other in search of their subsistence.

… in 1779 .. . The quantity of young locusts here [Sale] assembled was so prodigious that … the whole country was eaten up, the very bark of the fig, pomegranate, and orange tree, bitter, hard, and corrosive as it was, could not escape the veracity of these insects.

The lands … produced no harvest, and the Moors [i.e., Moroccans], being obliged to live on their stores… began to feel a dearth. Their cattle … died with hunger. Nor could any be preserved but those which were in the … mountains, or in marshy grounds, where the re-growth of pasturage is more rapid.

“In 1780, the distress was still farther increased. The dry winter had checked the products of the earth, and given birth to a new generation of locusts… the poor felt all the horrors of famine. They were seen wandering over the country to devour roots…

“Vast numbers perished of indigestible food and want. I have beheld country people in the roads, and in the streets, who had died of hunger, and who were thrown across asses to be taken and buried. Fathers sold their children. The husband, with the consent of his wife, would take her into another province, there to bestow her in marriage as if she were his sister, and afterward come and reclaim her, when his wants were no longer so great. I have seen women and children run after camels, and rake in dung to seek for some undigested grain of barley, which, if they found, they devoured with avidity.”[14]

Louis de Chenier describes the chaotic situation of Morocco in details. He describes the effects of a series of famines, which brought about infectious diseases, plagues of locusts and successive years of drought. The locusts ravaged the empire of Morocco, especially after the year 1778. To put in Louis de Chenier’s words ‘Clouds of locusts’ came from the south and devoured a part of the harvest.

In 1779, the quantity of young locusts eaten up the whole country, and nothing that is green on earth could escape the voracity of these insects. The consequences of swarms of locusts and successive years of drought were so fatal. The lands produced no harvest, and the people began to feel a dearth. Their cattle died with hunger. People perished of indigestible food and want. Fathers sold their children, and husbands bestowed their wives in marriage.

The sultan’s exportation of wheat and food supplies to Europeans worsened the situation of the country and made the crisis more serious. George Host related the export of wheat to the sultan’s ‘need for firearms, suggesting that when S. Muhammad had sufficient weaponry, he no longer allowed the sale of grain.’[15]

In fact, the sultan stopped exporting wheat and food supplies to Europe because he realized the serious food crisis that the whole country was enduring. He released a ‘fatwa’ through which he forbade exporting wheat to Europeans. Then, he issued a declaration on December 20, 1777, announcing that all European and American vessels could freely import wheat to Morocco. The sultan declared that all vessels importing food supplies from Europe and especially America would not pay taxes or tributes in his ports. In this context, Allan R. Meyers argues:

Under normal circumstances, Morocco was a net exporter of food products, particularly grain. However, in times of stress, the Makhzan restricted sales of food to foreign merchants and made special arrangements to import food from abroad. Food imports were especially important during the reign of S. Muhammad ibn Abd Allah, who improved most of the port facilities in northern Morocco and who also established a major new international port of Mogador…Chenier’s letters show that S. Muhammad made especially vigorous efforts to import food from Spain and Portugal during the severe famines of 1778-1780, including a decision to exempt food and grain cargoes from import duties and anchorage fees.[16]

The importation of wheat and food from Europe and later on from America does not show the sultan’s interest in the Americans and Europeans themselves, but rather it shows the sultan’s policy to overcome the food crisis. It would be very simplistic to claim that the sultan Muhammad Ben Abdellah allowed the Americans and other Europeans with which he had no treaties before to freely enter his ports. Priscilla Roberts either in her article (1999) or in her book ‘Thomas Barkley’ (2008) and Shrill B. Wells claim that the sultan allowed the Americans and Europeans to freely enter his ports, pretending that the sultan was trying to establish economic relations with the United States. Their argument remains too general and even simplistic, because it completely discounts the domestic situation of the country. B. Wells, for instance, argues that:

The sultan issued a declaration on December 20, 1777, announcing that all vessels sailing under the American flag could freely enter Moroccan ports. The sultan stated that orders had given to his corsairs to let the ship “des Americains” and those of other European states with which Morocco had no treaties-Russia, Malta, Sardinia, Prussia, Naples, Hungary, Leghorn, Genoa, and Germany pass freely into Moroccan ports. There they could “take refreshment” and provisions and enjoy the same privileges as other nations that had treaties with Morocco.[17]

It is clear from this passage that B. Wells’ argument regards the sultan’s initiative towards the Americans form a polemic perspective. It does not explain why the sultan allowed the Americans and Europeans to freely enter Moroccan ports and rather gave it a general reason which is friendship and economy. The question is: was the sultan really looking forward to gain the Americans’ friendship or to put it in Priscilla Roberts’ words “to be l’ami des Américains”[18], and why the sultan allowed the American and the European ships to freely enter Moroccan ports?

The sultan Sidi Muhammad III was neither looking for the friendship of the Americans nor to recognize their independence in 1777.[a] But, he was rather trying to get support from Americans and Europeans to overcome the food crisis of the country, just as the Americans were looking for support from France to get their independence. Probably, by signing the treaty of peace and friendship with the United States, the sultan would import wheat from America. The fact that the sultan was insisting on the Americans to conclude a treaty of friendship shows that he was not at ease. If he was at ease he would not show his interest in a newborn country. In fact, the situation of Morocco was worsening because of drought and the shortage of wheat and food supplies. Hence, the sultan had to take an immediate action.

I partially agree with Priscilla Roberts (1999) and Sherrill B. Wells as they state that Sidi Muhammad’s III interest in the United States stems from his policy of reform and renewal.[19] Actually, to overcome the serious famine and food crisis and other political and socioeconomic problems, the sultan stretched his hand to Americans and Europeans for support. To put it in Wells’ words, the sultan was “faced with serious economic and political difficulties, (and) he was searching for a new method of governing which required changes in his economy”.[20] He tried to stabilize the chaotic situation of the country and overcome the political, economic, social and the financial crisis of the state. He managed to destroy ‘Abid Albukhari’[21] especially that the famine of 1776-1778 coincided with the rebellion of powerful tribes as Allan R. Meyers states:

The famines of 1776-1778 coincided with a period of considerable political turbulence in Morocco: there were tribal revolts throughout the country, mutinies within the army, and a threat of a dynastic challenge by his son, M. al- Yazid. In 1780, the sultan was once again obliged to import food from Portugal and Spain.[22]

Moreover, the sultan renewed the maritime trade through establishing diplomatic relations with Americans and Europeans. For this purpose, he encouraged the presence of American and European vessels in coastal cities. He built new cities with big ports and big ships and frigates to fight corsairs. The sultan rebuilt the port of Anfa in 1760, the port of Mogador in 1765, expelled the Portuguese from the port of Brija. He also regained the control over the port of Agadir[23]. In this respect, Priscilla Roberts states:

Early in his reign Sidi Mohamed realized that using the army to collect state taxes was unpopular with tribes and was endangering the instability of the countryside. Seeking other sources of revenue, he encouraged foreign trade. That was so successful that he made it core of his fiscal and economic policy. To bring the trading activity and revenue much closer to Marrakech than the other Moroccan ports he founded the city of Mogador in 1764-today’s Essaouira- and he told all foreign merchants to establish their firms and homes in this new Atlantic seaport.[24]

Priscilla Roberts in the above passage explains the sultan’s diplomatic initiative towards the United States in reference to his policy of economic reform. His renewal of ports and building new coastal cities shows his keen interest in commercial exchange. This remains one general reason behind the sultan’s initiative. Priscilla Roberts does not go beyond this main reason to investigate the domestic situation of Morocco.

As a matter of fact, the main reason behind the sultan’s initiatives towards the United States is the famine of 1776-1782, resulting from the successive years of draught and the plague of locusts, which ravaged and eaten up the whole country. In 1777, the sultan was looking forward to import wheat from the United States and other European countries with which he had no treaties before. Probably, signing a treaty of peace and friendship with the United States was the only strategy possible to establish diplomatic relations. Such a treaty would play an important role in commercial exchange between Morocco and America especially in times of distress.

In conclusion, it must be reiterated that the famine of 1776-1782 was a direct reason behind the sultan’s initiative towards the United States of America. The treaty of peace and friendship paved the way for the sultan to import wheat and food supplies from America as well as from Spain and Portugal. Priscilla Roberts and Sherrill B. Wells dealt with the sultan’s initiative polemically.

Why should the sultan bother himself to be “l’ami des Américains” or allow American and European vessels to “take refreshment” in his ports? Was it due to his old age and weak mental ability as Priscilla Roberts puts it “he was increasingly fickle and forgetful, and he was lapsing into senility, his mind worn out by hard services and old age.”[25] This is not, of course, the main reason behind the sultan’s initiative, and it would be misleading to believe that the sultan was unwise.

El Houssine Lahsini is a Moroccan student currently enrolled in a master program majoring in Moroccan-American Studies at Hassan II University, Faculty of Humanities/Ben M’sik. He obtained his BA in English studies at Chouaaib Doukkali University in 2010 and his Licence Professionelle in English Language Teaching in 2011 from the same university. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy.

© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved


[a]  Probably, the Moroccan recognition of the independence of the United States was a coincidence especially that Americans were looking for support from European powers and Morocco was looking for support as well.


[1] Ben, Hashim. Moroccan-American Relations: A Study in the U.S. diplomatic representation in Morocco, from 1786 to 1912. Rabat: Bouregreg House of printing and publishing. (2009), p :35 -36

[2] Irwin, Ray W. The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers, 1776-1816. New York: Russell & Russell, 1970. Print, (20)

[3] Ibid., (21)

[4] Roberts, Priscilla H, and James N. Tull. Moroccan Sultan Sidi Muhammad Ibn Abdallah’s Diplomatic Initiatives Toward the United States, 1777-1786. Philadelphia [Pa., 1999. PrinSt.,(234)

[5] Razzouk, Mohammed. Studies in the history of Morocco. Casablanca, Morocco: East Africa, 1991. P (117)

[6] Tazi, Abdul. Morocco’s diplomatic history from ancient times to today: (Volume II). Mohammedia, Morocco: Library of Faddaalah, 1986., P.196 to 197

[7] Latifa Filali, “French Western relations during the reign of Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah”, University of Moulay Ali Sharif ( third session), (1991), p: 165

[8] Roberts, Priscilla H, and Richard S. Roberts. Thomas Barclay (1728-1793): Consul in France, Diplomat in Barbary. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2008. Print.,(P.199)

[9] Roberts, P. H., & Tull, J. N. (1999:236)

[10] Ibid., (240)

[11]  Mohammed Ahmed Al-Bazzaz, “The food crisis in the era of reign Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah during the years 1776-1782, University of Moulay Ali Sharif (third session), (1991), p: 79

[12] Masson, Paul. Histoire Du Commerce Franc?ais Dans Le Levant Au Xviie Sie?cle. Paris: Hachette & cie, (1896): 640-650.

[13] PGrillon, Un chargé d’affaires au Maroc. La correspondance du Consul Louis Chénier1767-1782Paris, SEVPEN(1970): 364

[14] Meyers, AR. “Famine Relief and Imperial Policy in Early Modern Morocco: the Political Functions of Public Health.”American Journal of Public Health. 71.11 (1981): 1268. Bas du formulaire

[15] Ibid., (1270)

[16] Ibid., (1272)

[17] Wells, Sherrill B., “LONG-TIME FRIENDS: A HISTORY OF EARLY U.S.-MOROCCAN RELATIONS 1777-1787,” Embassy of the United States, Rabat, Morocco, Retrieved http://www.usembassy.ma/usmorrelations/historicalbgrnd.htm

[18] Roberts, P. H., & Tull, J. N. (1999:240)

[18] Alemrana Mohammed Alaoui, the foreign policy of Morocco in the reign of Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah (1757-1790), University of Moulay Ali Sharif (tenth session), (2003), (P.160 to 165)

[20]Wells Sherrill B,

[21] Pennell, C R. Morocco: From Empire to Independence. Oxford: Oneworld Book, (2003): 108.

[22] Meyers, A. R. (1981: 1271).

[23] Ibid., (109)

[24] Roberts, P. H., & Roberts, R. S. (2008:197)

[25] Ibid., (p.193)

Mohammed Ahmed Al-Bazzaz, “The crisis in the era of Algdaúah Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah during the years 1776-1782, University of Moulay Ali Sharif (of the third session), (1991), p: 79

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