Magazine article History Today

The Panther at Agadir: The Agadir Crisis of 1911 Was One of a Number of Incidents That Raised International Tensions in the Years before 1914. Nigel Falls Describes the European Powers' Interests in Morocco and Their Response to the Crisis

Magazine article History Today

The Panther at Agadir: The Agadir Crisis of 1911 Was One of a Number of Incidents That Raised International Tensions in the Years before 1914. Nigel Falls Describes the European Powers' Interests in Morocco and Their Response to the Crisis

Article excerpt

THE ARRIVAL OF THE German gunboat Panther at the Moroccan port of Agadir on July 1st, 1911, provoked a crisis in diplomatic relations between France, Britain and Germany, symptomatic of the steady deterioration in trust between the European great powers in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. It also led to the signature of the Convention of Fez in March 1912 by which France assumed a formal protectorate over the Sultanate of Morocco and thus acquired the third and final piece of her North African empire. The short-term implications were therefore of interest to all the governments of the great powers, who were quick to grasp the opportunity to use this relatively minor incident to establish claims of priority of interest, influence and compensation.

In the context of late nineteenth-century Africa, Morocco was an anomaly: Muslim, ruled by a succession of independent dynasties after the end of Ummayyed rule in 850 and always outside the Ottoman empire, it also had few obvious natural resources which would have attracted earlier and more active European interest. Spain had two enclaves on the northern coast, Melilla, acquired in 1496, and Ceuta, inherited by Philip II in 1580 with the crown of Portugal but had been unable to consolidate them into a single unit. She also had a foothold in territory in the south of Morocco, but the legitimacy and extent of her title was vague and certainly not acknowledged by the Sultan. England had acquired Tangier from Portugal as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza from her marriage to Charles II in 1662, but, deemed too expensive to administer, it was given back to Morocco in 1684. Nevertheless, the British retained a dominant role in Morocco's external trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and still had a share of about 48 per cent by value in 1900. A commercial treaty with the Sultan in 1856 that aimed to reduce tariff levels applied in theory to all European traders, but the long-established relations between Britain and Morocco naturally gave the British advantages that were more than purely economic; the British consul at Tangier was the first European to be accredited to that office. There is nothing to suggest that Britain sought to exploit this position, however, other than to urge gradual administrative reform. The maintenance of the 'open door' for traders of all countries and the preservation of the political status quo, affirmed internationally by the Madrid Conference of 1880 were sufficient to ensure that her interests were met.

The French interest in Morocco was more ambiguous. On the one hand, the Third Republic after 1871 had no explicit colonial policy: the memory of Napoleon III's failed expedition to Mexico (1862-67) was too recent, and the government's principal foreign policy objective was the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine, annexed by Germany after the war of 1870-71. Occasional attempts by ministers to adopt a more ambitious colonial policy were unpopular, and failure would almost certainly lead to the fall of the government, as happened to the ministry of Jules Ferry after the French defeat in Tonkin at the hands of the Chinese in 1885.

On the other hand, Morocco shared a border with Algeria, conquered by France in 1830. French naval forces had bombarded the ports of Tangier and Essaouira in 1844 to discourage the Sultan from supporting Algerian resistance to French rule. The final French victory at the Battle of Isly in 1847 had established a formal Morocco-Algeria border but just south of the coast the line remained ill-defined, an open invitation to local French administrators to make unofficial 'adjustments' to take the border up to the River Moulouya some way to the west. Furthermore, after the British effectively assumed control of Egypt in 1879, both the French government and its people became intensely suspicious of British foreign policies, determined that French interests should not be overridden again. …

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