On the 176th anniversary of the Battle of Isly, Morocco remembers its defiance of occupying powers in solidarity with Algeria.
Rabat – Morocco commemorates Friday, August 14, the 176th anniversary of the Battle of Isly. On this day in 1844, France attacked Moroccan forces near Oujda, close to the northern border with Algeria, as Morocco’s Sultan refused to abandon his support for Algeria’s resistance against colonial occupation.
Though a crushing defeat of Moroccan forces, the Battle of Isly illustrated Morocco’s commitment to its neighbor, Algeria, and the greater Maghreb.
The battle unfolded near the Isly River, approximately eight kilometers from the city of Oujda. Marshal Thomas Robert Bugeuad led some 11,000 French troops against Morocco, whose 50,000 men rode under Sidi Mohammed, the son of Sultan Moulay Abderrahmane.
Bugeaud instigated the Battle of Isly without a formal declaration of war in a bid to complete France’s conquest of Algeria. He sought to force Morocco to give up its support for Algerian resistance leader Abd el Kader, in favor of the French occupying powers.
Morocco’s support for Algeria and its people during French occupation
Abd el Kader was a close ally of Morocco’s Sultan Abderrahmane. The Sultan was a strong supporter of Algeria and its people during the French occupation, which formally began in 1830.
Sultan Abderrahmane welcomed Algerian refugees fleeing French occupation, urging authorities of Tetouan, northern Morocco, to assist the refugees and provide them with jobs in administration or the military.
Fearing French invaders, the inhabitants of Tlemcen, an Algerian city close to the Moroccan border, requested to live under the Moroccan Sultan’s authority. In response, the Sultan named his nephew, Prince Moulay Ali, as Caliph of Tlemcen and charged him with protecting the Algerian city.
Claiming authority over Algerian territory, colonial France retaliated by executing two Moroccan “spies.”
France, however, aimed to avoid direct conflict with Morocco. In 1832, France sent an ambassador to Sultan Abderrahmane, demanding that he withdraw Morocco’s presence from Tlemcen. The Sultan initially refused to evacuate the city, but Morocco eventually buckled under the weight of French pressure.
Morocco’s support for Algeria continued throughout the years. As Algeria struggled against the invading forces, losing battle after battle and severely outnumbered, resistance leader Abd el Kader sought refuge with Sultan Abderrahmane in 1841. The allies launched raids into Algeria, attempting to reclaim occupied Algerian lands.
The Franco-Moroccan War
The Moroccan-Algerian alliance stoked the ire of colonial France, who began threatening in 1843 to invade Morocco unless it abandoned support for Abd el Kader.
Morocco’s Maghrebi solidarity and firm support for its neighbor had dire consequences, triggering the first Franco-Moroccan War.
France’s military campaign against Morocco began with a naval attack on Tangier on August 6, 1844, followed by the Battle of Isly on August 14.
One day after the Battle of Isly, the French Navy bombarded Mogador, now known as Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast.
One month later, Sultan Abderrahmane was forced to agree to French terms. The Treaty of Tangiers ended the Franco-Moroccan war on September 10, 1844.
Morocco agreed to recognize Algeria as part of the French Empire, reduce the size of its garrison at Oujda, and demarcate the Moroccan-Algerian border. The Sultan also agreed to bar Abd el Kader from seeking refuge in Moroccan territory.
Abd el Kader eventually surrendered to the French in 1847 after being cornered in Morocco.
The lasting impact of European colonialism
The crushing defeat at the Battle of Isly was the beginning of the end of Morocco’s historical alliance with Algeria. Struggling to withstand offenses from the advanced colonial power, both Morocco and Algeria were forced to succumb to foreign occupation.
France waged its conquest of Algeria from 1830 to 1847. After defeating Abd el Kader and shattering the Moroccan-Algerian alliance, France occupied Algeria until 1962.
Meanwhile, Spain established a colonial presence in southern Morocco from 1884 until 1975. Spain occupied northern Morocco from 1912 to 1956 while France asserted its colonial protectorate of the country during the same period.
On the 176th anniversary of the Battle of Isly, Morocco remembers its defiance of the French in solidarity with the sovereignty of the Maghreb—and how colonial powers began to whittle away at Morocco’s historic alliance with Algeria.
Morocco-Algeria relations never fully recovered from the colonial period and remain frigid in 2020. The annual commemoration of the Battle of Isly should serve as a reminder of the steadfast fraternity that once united the two neighbors and inspire hope for a more diplomatic future.