Crisis and Community: the People of Tangier and the French Bombardment of 1844 Susan Gilson Miller


Crisis and Community: the People of Tangier and the French Bombardment of 1844 Susan Gilson Miller

Courtesy  and  consent of the author Susan Gilson Miller

History is full of cataclysmic events that mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. Every society has its own particular calendar of catastrophes, engraved in memory and marked by ritual. So it is with Morocco, where the date 1844 looms large. That summer, a French naval and land force attacked the domains of Sultan Mulay Abd ar-Rahman and brought an abrupt end to Morocco's self-imposed isolation from European affairs. The coastal towns of Tangier and Mogador were bombarded, and the Moroccan army was defeated at the River Isly. The events of 1844 were the explosion that propelled Morocco into a new era. Indeed, the major theme in Moroccan history for the next half-century was its growing entanglement in the web of European rivalries, culminating in its partition by France and Spain in 1912.

 From Europe's standpoint, the Moroccan crisis of 1844 was merely one swift and nearly bloodless clash in a century laden with conflict. But from the Moroccan perspective, it was a disastrous moment of deep national trauma. Local sources make clear the extent of the debacle from the Moroccan point of view, and sharply illuminate the perturbed emotions of those who were on the receiving end of the French attack. The ramifications of the event soon reached to every level of Moroccan society, influencing court policy and coloring the popular imagination. Our specific interest is in how the bombardment of 1844 affected relations between Muslims and Jews in Tangier, where the latter group formed a large and significant minority. The bombardment exacerbated already existing tensions between the two groups and foreshadowed deeper troubles that lay ahead. For one brief moment, the event bound the two together in common awe of the threat from the West. But it was a unanimity that would not last. It can be reasonably argued that the unravelling of the bilateral relationship that occurred later in the nineteenth century had its roots in the divergence in perspectives and purposes between Muslims and Jews exposed by the crisis of 1844.

 The interest of the French in Morocco was ignited by the conquest of neighboring Algeria in 1830. Fourteen years later victory remained elusive because of the tenacious resistence of the Amir Abd al-Qadir, who used eastern Morocco as a base for cross-border raids. The French then vented their frustration on Morocco. In mid-July, a heavily armed fleet under the Prince de Joinville, Louis Philippe's third son, appeared in the Moroccan port of Tangier. The resident French consul, his staff, and their families were taken away, soon to be followed by the consuls and nationals of other Christian nations. The departure of the Europeans caused a panic among the local population. Some tried to escape by sea, while others fled to the countryside. Even the troops garrisoned in the town ran away. One Moroccan noted with chagrin that 'the place emptied out completely, even before a shot was fired, even before one Frenchman landed'.

 Days passed as the young and indecisive Prince awaited instructions; finally, in the early morning hours of 6 August he opened fire. Three hundred and eighty pieces of artillery aboard fifteen vessels suddenly released a storm of shot 'so tremendous, so uninterrupted, so destructive' that after three hours, the 'walls of the town looked like lace'. When the smoke cleared, the Prince pronounced the attack a success, claiming he had fulfilled his orders to 'destroy the exterior fortifications, but spare the town'. The consul's quarter had been 'respected',. . . only 'five or six balls have fallen there'; moreover, French casualties were light – only nine dead and sixteen wounded. 'The victory is dignified … it has brought honor to the [Prince], the navy, and the French character,' declared Dr Warnier, chronicler of the campaign.

 For those on shore, it was a day of destruction and humiliation. The Sultan's son was put in charge of repairs, and he wrote to his father in a tone of disbelief: On the roof of the Great Mosque alone, I counted thirty-six balls … outside the city there are even more … [we] collected those that landed on the town and they number three thousand … people say that altogether, more than six thousand fell. For the people of Tangier, the terrible anger of falling iron became emblematic of the event; a cannon atop the Borj Bou Amair was said to have sunk a French ship, and later generations came to venerate it for its magical powers.

The mountain of cannonballs left behind were also a shocking reminder to Moroccans of the dramatic change taking place in their relations with the West. A modernizing Europe could now muster levels of force they could no longer match. The roar of the cannons carried a deeper message. The disparity between Morocco and France was not so much one of a lack of technical ability, but rather a deficiency in organization and discipline. The French gunners fired as one, their guns never ceasing. Shortly thereafter, the Sultan sent his first mission to France in many years, for the purpose of observing the French at close hand and fathoming the source of their power. In 1844, the door to the West swung wide, and the people of Morocco suddenly felt unsettled in their own house.


The French decision to begin the campaign with an attack on Tangier was taken of set purpose. The town, called the 'gateway to North Africa' by Moroccans, was a sensitive node of contact between Morocco and the outside world. Europeans were rarely allowed to travel into the interior, making Tangier the first and often sole glimpse Westerners had of Morocco. Here the foreign consuls resided, along with most of Morocco's tiny European community. Here too lived a sizable Jewish population, the majority originally from the towns of Meknes and Tetuan, drawn to Tangier because of its bustling commerce. In the year 1840, the number of Tangier's Jews about 2,500, out of a total of 10,000. Most Tangier Jews traced their descent back to those exiled from Spain in 1492. Carefully guarding their 'Sephardic' heritage, they even spoke their own language, a Spanish dialect laced with Hebrew and Arabic called haketia. They were (and still are) a self-conscious group, fiercely proud of their ancestry, following their own variations on Jewish rituals, customs, and etiquette. Moreover, their closeness to Europe encouraged families to start branches at various points around the Mediterranean. Travel abroad and the mastery of foreign languages were part of the apprenticeship of young Tangier Jewish men of a certain social class. Spatial arrangements in the town also encouraged a sense of openness. Unlike other large Moroccan towns, Tangier had no mellah, or Jewish quarter, making relations with Muslim neighbors both freer and more frequent. These qualities set the Jews of Tangier apart from Jewish communities elsewhere and gave them a distinct identity all their own.

 European visitors arriving in Tangier in the early 1840s were struck by Jewish ubiquitousness. Travellers told how 'brawny' Jewish porters carried visitors ashore; Jewish consular employees greeted them on the beach and guided them on their visits to the town; they took them to their synagogues, and into their homes where they met their wives and daughters; Jewish merchants sold them trinkets; Jewish tailors cut their clothes; Jewish beggars dogged them in the streets. It seemed, according to one visitor, that the Jew 'does everything, and the whole commerce of the country is carried on through his means.

 Most visible were the Jewish merchants, who formed a tiny yet powerful elite made up of a few families linked by marriage and business interests. This group – perhaps ten per cent of the Jewish community – was emerging as the pre-eminent contact between local society and the European presence. In Tangier in particular, a handful of Jews combined the dual roles of businessman and diplomat, serving European consuls in countless useful ways while conducting their own profitable trade. Europeans in Morocco of the 1840s found themselves in a confined and alien environment. Usually ignorant of Arabic, hemmed in by travel restrictions and poor roads, they counted on the Jewish consular employee to ease the 'miseries' of life in the Orient. The Jew knew how to procure luxuries, could serve as a buffer with the 'barbarous natives', and, unlike the European, was permitted to travel into the interior. Each foreign consulate had its simsars, dragomans, agents – capable Jews in European employ adept at using positions of privilege to further their own interests.

To succeed at this work required sensitivity and tact, and a large dose of humility. A few Tangier Jewish families had already emerged in the 1840s as experts in this domain. Their names – Benchimol, Azancot, Abensur, Pariente – appear and reappear in the European sources, attesting to their indispensibility. Although their numbers were small, their prominence was due to their monopoly of control over the delicate synapses in the Moroccan-European relationship.

One such business-diplomat was David Azancot, 'auxiliary dragom of the French consulate, wealthy nephew of Abraham Benchimol, the principal 'native' employee of France in Morocco. David Azancot served the French as translator, go-between, jack-of-all trades, and valued commercial contact. He was the owner of property and storehouses, supplier to the French fleet, and the purveyor of all types of goods. When the artist Delacroix came to Tangier in 1832, it was David Azancot who accompanied him on his sketching expeditions; David's female relatives posed for Delacroix's provocative portraits of 'Moorish' women; his uncle Abraham's house was the setting for Noce juive, the sensual depiction of a Jewish wedding. When the writer Alexandre Dumas arrived in 1846, David was his guide. David Azancot was representative of a new and emerging variety of Tangier Jew, playing at the margins of Moroccan society, entering and leaving at will, comfortable with Christians and Muslims alike – a man, in Dumas's words, of 'good manners, prudence, and fairness', useful but not bold, trustworthy yet not intrusive.

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