Leila Maziane has recently published her PhD thesis about the Corsairs of Salé. This excellent book fills the gap that existed in the “Atlantic World” between Spain and West Africa, it includes Morocco in global history and at the same time coverns fascinatings aspects of a local story. leila Maziane obtained her PhD from Caen University (France) and is now teaching at Hassan II University in Mohammedia (Morocco). She accepted in March 2009 to meet up in the beautiful al-Saud library in Casablanca:
In your book you tell the history of the corsairs of Salé, but doesn’t this colourful episode hide the rest of the Moroccan maritime history?
In the Moroccan maritime history, there is of course Salé but there is also the silent history of fishing and trade that has always been around. Of course, considering there is so to speak no document left, it is very difficult to write about it, but it did exist.
For the Middle Ages there are much more Arab sources, and maritime history is there indeed. I think in particular about the Almohad dynasty. It was an empire on two continents, it had to control the sea; there were constant contacts between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. On the matter I recommend you the books of Christophe Picard who shows that unlike what some might have said the Maghrebis could be excellent sailors.
Precisely doesn’t the very Almohad maritime might show how weak the Moroccan navy had become during the early modern era?
That is true, there was a significant decline. At the end of the Almoravid dynasty the need to maintain a link between the two continents disappeared. It is no coincidence to see that the Moroccan maritime might decreased as the Reconquista progressed. It is made clear with what happened to the Marinid dynasty whose fleet was crushed at the battle of Tarifa (1340) by the Castellans.
What is interesting is that the Reconquista will last until the 17th century and end on the other side of the Strait. The Portuguese Reconquista crossed to North Africa in 1415 when they seized Ceuta and from 1494 onward the Spaniards strived to conquer the whole of the northern shores of the Maghreb.
So it took some time for the Moroccan to regain the initiative. They ousted the Portuguese during the 16th century; the last attempt of a Portuguese king to conquer Africa took place in 1578: it was a total disaster. The Spaniards on the other hand were somewhat more successful.
Then what changed the tide?
The Barbary Regencies, under Ottoman control, turned towards the sea in the 16th century. In Morocco at that time solely Tétouan was part of that network of corsair ports. It was a place where the Algerian commonly came. The local Moriscos were also active in the “corso” [the Italian word used to describe all the privateering and piracy from both sides in the Mediterranean].
On the Atlantic shores it went a bit differently. The Moroccan only really got involved in seafaring on a large scale at the beginning of the 17th century. The locals had always been sailors and fishermen, but I find it interesting that it is foreigners who truly launch Morocco as a maritime power. It’s the Moriscos who took the Moroccan navy away from its comfort zone both for the corso and for trade.
The Moroccan Jews were also pivotal in that evolution. Many had just been expelled from Spain and they were parts of networks running from Livorno to Amsterdam. Through them early modern Morocco was always in touch with Europe. It helped that the Jews also commonly spoke Castellan, the lingua franca for trade at the time.
Regarding the pirates, they quickly spread all over the Northern Atlantic. In Normandy there even was a prayer: “God protect us from the Salétins [i.e. the people of Salé]”. They even commonly visited the Irish and British coasts. It is not by chance that we find so many stories written in English about captivity in Salé.
That’s right. Salé has a sort of special destiny. Unlike most Moroccan ports it is turned towards the Atlantic, the others had a more Mediterranean focus. This geographical factor greatly helped the city of Salé and a dozen of lesser Moroccan ports to participate in the construction of an Atlantic World through fishing, trade and of course piracy.
To what extend does the success of Salé reflects the crisis Europe was facing in the 17th century?
As usual one man’s scourge is another man’s opportunity. But it is also true from a domestic Moroccan point of view. The death of the sultan Ahmad I al Mansur in 1603 opened a period of civil strife. The country fell apart and tens of little republics arose, including one in Salé.
When the Moriscos were finally expelled from Spain (1609-1614), Salé received 13,000 of them from Estremadura and Andalusia. There were already 3,000 Hornacheros who had arrived in the the final of 16th century from Estremadura in the city at that time. On top of that Salé received the English pirates from neighbouring La Mamora, whose stronghold had just been taken by the Spaniards.
Morocco received also hundreds of renegades who were running away from the numerous conflicts Europe experienced in the 17th century. Salé was the natural gathering point for these men in search of fortune. They just had to convert to Islam.
Morat Raïs for instance was a mere Dutch sailor taken by the Algerians in 1618. He converts soon after and became a pirate himself, or as they said at the time became “Turk by trade” and went to Salé. There he soon became a respected captain. He became specialized in the launch of daring raids all over the Northern Atlantic. He is most famous for raiding Reykjavik in 1627. As soon as he came back he became the first governor of Salé and the admiral of the fleet.
What impact did Salé have on the rest of the Moroccan economy?
The port enjoyed an extended hinterland; it was what we usually call the kingdom of Fez. It provided the primary materials necessary for shipbuilding as well as food. The forest in particular proved crucial for the city’s development. Indeed, although the Salétins were famous for reusing captured European ships, they usually built their own vessels.
Besides, the region provided the crews for some sixty corsair ships. In the lists of captured corsairs we spot names typical of the mountains indicating that people came from as far as the Rif to become corsairs. In effect, the hinterland of Salé kept growing until it reached Algeria and even Tunisia.
Salé could not have existed with out the support of a whole port system. The ports of La Mamora (taken from the Spaniards in 1681) and Larache (taken in 1689) in particular provided men and their shipyards. But the Salétins used the ports all over the Moroccan coast to prepare their raids. Tellingly the European navies commonly attacked lesser ports such as Anfa, Fedala or Mogador where they found Salétin ships.
Over time the Salétins’ network expanded. They for instance had permanent bases in many places along the European costs such as for instance the Bayona Islands near Vigo in Spain. In the beginning of the 17th century, the pirates even used Dutch ports to buy material and food as well as to hire sailors.
On the Mediterranean Sea the Salétins had a lot of contacts. Tétouan was a trustful ally. The Algerian commonly came to Salé when they had to sell the plunder of a ship belonging to a European country they were officially at peace with. Of course the Salétins did the same in Algiers. This network was very useful too when – as it often happened – a European navy was imposing a blockade on Salé. This alliance with other North African piracy hubs lasted until the end of the corso around 1800. The various corsair ports could not have survived on their own; they needed each other to survive.
There also was a market for the captives integrating the whole Maghreb. Tétouan was the centre of this trade unlike any other. Captives were sent there from Salé and Algiers and even as far as Tunis to be ransomed and sent back to Europe.
How dependent on the corso was the city?
Almost nothing was produced in Salé itself. Normal trade existed, but the bulk of commerce was in stolen goods. Those were sometimes used in Salé itself, but more often re-exported through the networks of the Jewish traders. That was the way to integrate the city into the international trade routes. Besides, the captives were most useful in that they taught the Moroccan the latest European techniques.
Did Salé grow much during the period?
Around 1600, there were about 3,000 inhabitants in New Salé [nowadays Rabat]; by the end of the century, according to the French consul of the time, there were over 20,000 people in the city (around 1% of the Moroccan population). It was a highly cosmopolitan place with the Moriscos still speaking Castellan, the diplomats, the merchants, the black slaves of the sultan and of course the captives. In the heyday of privateering, we estimate there may have been as many as 6,000 captives entre 1626 et 1638.
You also have to remember that during the 17th century Morocco was going through a terrible crisis (political, social and even famines and epidemics). People came from all over the country to find a job as corsair. Since it was against the Christians there was no ideological issue.
Initially it worked very well. Privateering was highly profitable. One could make a decent living out of it; the spoils were democratically distributed. Every one invested in the corso, some owned extremely small shares of a warship. It was a safe bet, investors used to receive a significant share of the spoils.
Finally in 1666, the sultan Moulay al-Rashid (1666-1672) conquered Salé. At that point everything changed. As it was a dynamic activity, the sultan decided to control it directly. With that objective in mind, he nominated four governors to rule this pirate nest: one in charge of the harbour, one of New Salé, one of the Kasbah and one in charge of the fleet.
Until then the corso had been an entirely private enterprise. As soon as it stopped being a private venture, it stopped being beneficial and people lost interest. The sultan started using his own ships, but setting up the state fleet was under the responsibility of a governor who embezzled a large share of the funds and the ships gradually lost the quality that had made them the most feared vessels on the Atlantic.
Besides, the documents insist on the fact that the sultan prevented the remaining privately-owned ships from making a profit. In particular, the captains were forced to sell all their captives to the sultan for a fixed price, which was at three times lower than their market value. On the other hand, the crews were not rewarded by a share of the spoils any more, but received a fixed salary from the state. In effect they had become civil servants. Consequently, the sailors lost their motivation.
The French consul at the time remarked that if one sailor fell ill, his friends onboard used the opportunity to bring him back ashore and none of them ever came back to the ship. For the sultan, the corso was above all a diplomatic weapon in his discussions with the European nations. Under Moulay Ismail, the corso became less important than the submission of the Portuguese and Spanish presidios along the Moroccan coast.
For instance, when La Mamora fell into his hands, the sultan took nearly 2,000 captives in one day. He intended to exchange those men with Moroccan captives in Europe. To free his soldiers, the king of Spain accepted to exchange each of his 100 officers for ten Moroccans. Moulay Ismail even accepted Turkish prisoners [a useful operation for his relationship with the Ottomans].
Diplomats from the rest of Europe complained that the Spanish defeat had created such an inflation that they could not pay the ransoms for their own captives. In 1733, the French consul in Cadiz remarked that the corsairs of Salé had waited for the great sultan to die to start haunting the seas again. The weakening of the central power had self-evidently a positive impact on the attractiveness of the corso for the Moroccans.
So is Salé, in a way, the only city created by Spaniards that finally prospered in Morocco?
Well, the history of Tétouan is fairly similar to Salé’s. But I would say that the Salétins had a special attachment to Spain despite the fact they had been expelled from the country, their country. For a very long time they thought that at one point they could go back home, in Spain. The first inhabitants of Rabat were Spaniards. Spanish names are still very common in the city: Vargas, Pelafres, Carrasco… They went on using the Castellan language for very long. Actually, a large part of the maritime vocabulary in Moroccan comes directly from Spanish.
For centuries, the Moriscos kept the keys of their houses in Spain. They did not mix with the rest of the population. The people from Old Salé did not like their new neighbours. They called them “those Christians from Castile”, which it is ironic since they precisely had been expelled from Castile as “Moors”.
The marabouts of the region commonly called for war against Spain and at the same time denounced their new neighbours as a bunch of infidels because they dressed differently and practiced a heterodox form of Islam. Even a fatwa was pronounced against them.
These people found themselves in between two worlds. They lived on the frontier. Some 17th-century travelers even remarked that the people of Rabat may well have been better Christian than those you could find in Spain itself. It was a community caught in an economic and political system which ultimately was totally alien to them. It was an African Rochelle [at the time La Rochelle was a Protestant corsairs stronghold in France, backed by England but cut from the rest of France].
How do you write the history of a country without local archives?
There are archives for 17th- and 18th-century Morocco, but very few. Even fewer for whatever it relates to the sea. You start finding interesting things only for the second half of the 18th century. For the period of Mohamed III there are notebooks (kananich) with lists of sailors, expenditures, names of ships, of their captains (rais), etc.
But for my period [,the 17th century,] there is almost nothing. You can find a few elements in the Nawazils, the collections of court rulings. The answers are always the same; but what interest us are the questions. It deals with the captives [made by the Moroccans and used as slaves or ransomed], the various issues regarding ransom, or the matter of the Moroccans held as captives by the Europeans.
In Rabat, in the Royal Library there may be a lot of things, but we have to wait for them to be classified correctly. We can hope. So I was compelled to cross the sea and search in the European archives. They are very significant on the matter since the European nations have had long-lasting relationship with Morocco. In Spain for instance the archives at Simancas date back to Charles V.
But by using the archives of the enemies don’t you get a distorted image of the Moroccans always seen as vile and blood-thirsty?
That is precisely what the historian brings in: knowing how to interpret the documents. Besides, some sources are not biased. I care about some factual and objective things. You cannot lie about the names of the Moroccan prisoners or the type of ship they used, why would you? That allows me to the follow the evolution of the techniques, which had always been the strong point of the Salétins. They were ahead of their time. They quickly put to use the innovations in terms of shipbuilding, that allowed them to sail all year long and not solely during the summer.
Did you use archaeological findings?
No, not directly.
How is it to work in Morocco as an historian?
It’s different. When you’ve studied in European universities, coming back may be difficult. Over there you have all the facilities necessary for your research. The structures have been around for decades. In Europe you’re surrounded by books. I still have to cross the sea to finish my articles; you just don’t find the references here.
In your book, you appear very influenced by Braudel and the French Ecole des Annales.
I was lucky enough to study under professors who had been his students (such as Mohamed Houbbaida). For my masters, I have re-read the Mediterranean and confronted it with Arab historians. Braudel did not speak Arabic. That’s actually what put me on the tracks for my future research. In Morocco, we are still very attached to the great masters of the Annales School. Many of their works have been translated.
Thank you a lot for your time Pr Mazaine