Thomas Dallam 2 – Transcript

This is the transcript of episode 2 of my series on, and leading up to, Thomas Dallam, the Elizabethan organ builder who sailed to Constantinople with a gift for the Sultan. You can listen to the episode here or through the usual podcast services.

Welcome back to our thus-far effectively Dallamless series on the life and times of Thomas Dallam, one of the most successful organ-men of the 17th century, and also, for a few months in Constantinople, the fulcrum on which Anglo-Ottoman relations pivoted. But we should recap.

As we saw last episode, Elizabethan England was some distance removed from global empire status. In fact, its merchants were casting about for overseas markets, constrained as they were by the successes of the hostile Spanish and Portuguese dominating the ways west and south respectively, to the Americas and Africa, by turmoil in the Spanish Habsburg ruled Low Countries, and by the Ottoman Empire’s stranglehold on overland trade with the east. This was not quite the England of sugar and slaves and the sun never setting. That was on the way though, and both sugar and slaves were becoming important.

With Jenkinson’s trip to Safavid Persia and his luke-warm meeting with Shah Tahmasp I, we saw one attempt to address this problem, but even with the Russian Tsar’s friendly cooperation, that route was long, dangerous, and unreliable. Other answers were going to be needed, and perhaps they might be found in Morocco. That’s what we’re looking at today, the development of an Anglo-Moroccan alliance as part of the ongoing adventure that was Elizabethan trade, the adventure that would soon take Thomas Dallam to see the Ottoman sultan. Let’s turn to Morocco now, and get a sense of what we’re talking about, of what we mean when we say “Morocco” in the 16th century.

To begin with, we mean a Morocco with substantial powers on all sides. To the east was the enormous, and intermittently unfriendly, Ottoman Empire. To the south, the Songhai Empire and all its gold, based around modern Mali. From the North, Portugal still held claims on Morocco’s coast, as did the Spanish.

With its European neighbours, it’s safe to say that Morocco’s relationships were tense. The reconquista and the expulsion of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula concluded only in the late 15th century, not so very long ago for the time we’re looking at, so on both sides of the the Strait of Gibraltar, the possibility of a returning Muslim army would have been a very real one. Conversely, an invasion in the opposite direction was also under consideration, would happen in fact, but we’ll get to that later.

We also mean a Morocco unified in the 1550s by the enforced will of the Saadians, an Arab tribe from the South that had overthrown the last Berber dynasty, the Wattasids, and driven the Portuguese from a number of significant coastal positions. The Wattasi dynasty had really only exerted control over the northern surroundings of its capital in Fez, beyond which regional fiefdoms had dominated the countryside. It was a countryside battered in the early 1500s by alternating droughts and floods and one into which fewer trans-Saharan caravans were bringing their trade. Not helping matters, much of that trade was making its way to the Portuguese trading forts on the coast, positions that also badly hindered access to its ocean ports. Such was the state of affairs, very broadly speaking, when the Saadians, who had first come to prominence in failed jihad against the Portuguese, defeated the last Wattasid Sultan in 1554 and set up shop in Marrakesh under their Sultan, Mohammed ash-Sheikh.

This chapter of Moroccan history that I’ve just summed up in a sentence is, in fact, a really interesting one, but I can feel Thomas Dallam slipping further from my grasp, so we’re not going to linger. Let’s just say that Saadian dominance was not achieved in an overnight coup that saw new hands settle into comfortably situated preexisting levers of power. Support for the Wattasid cause lingered on, especially around Fez, and, that aside, Morocco was hardly a homogenous nation looking for a single leader to follow. To make matters worse, their Ottoman neighbours sought, as one would, to sustain the instability, but actually this was something of a two-way street: even before he’d won his own country Mohammed ash-Sheikh had been making incursions against Ottoman vassals and when he was eventually asked to acknowledge Ottoman supremacy, he would refer to the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman as the “Sultan of Fishing Boats” in his refusal. Meanwhile, the Portuguese persisted in making raids inland, and in clinging to their claims both to Moroccan land and to trade along its coast. It would be some years before Saadian rule really took hold of the whole region.

But in the midst of all of this, English merchants had been doing some business, finding there a market for their cloth and ready supplies of the sugar that is said to have destroyed Elizabeth’s teeth. It’s hard to say how long exactly they had been doing this, but one important date is 1551, the year of Thomas Wyndham’s first voyage. Unfortunately, little can be said of this trip save that it seems to have been a success, for he was soon back again, the following year. This second journey apparently resulted in the trade of a “good quantity of linen and woolen cloth, coral, amber, jet, and diverse other things well accepted by the Moors,” and in the loading of the ships with “sugar, dates, almonds, and molasses.” However, a Spanish ambassador reported differently on the matter, claiming that munitions of war had been loaded on while the ships were in Dover, munitions which he might well have imagined that the Morrocans would find a use for against the Spanish. Similar claims would be made in 1561 by a Portuguese ambassador, and these would not be the last such accusations directed at English ships bound for Morocco.

It’s worth noting at this point, that quite aside from the matter of what goods they carried, the business of trade by sea was very much a military venture by necessity. Wyndham was more of a naval commander and privateer than a merchant, and this was no accident. There was the threat of piracy of course, and the privateering carried out by ships with either the tacit approval or more explicit letter of marque from their regents. There was also matter of the Portuguese.

Portuguese merchants had let it be known in England that if they took the English ships in those waters, those around Morocco, they would “use [them] as their mortal enemies.” And this was the Portuguese Empire near the peak of its powers. The fairly recent fall of the Emirate of Granada and joining of Aragon and Castile might have signalled the eclipsing of Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula, or at least its beginning, but this was still a Portugal with roughly 4 million square kilometers of global territory, spread across Brazil, Western India, the African coast, Indonesia, and China. Thus, their opposition was significant. Again and again through this story we see the Portuguese insisting that England cease any and all trade with Morocco. When Edward sat on the throne, they’d had little luck, with Mary and her Spanish husband a more sympathetic ear, and with Elizabeth, they had no success at all in stemming the flow of Anglo-Moroccan dealings. A physical encounter wouldn’t happen on Wyndham’s journey, though there was a near miss with some Portuguese ships near the Canary Islands; but there would be violence.

One of the English ships, the Lion, had sprung a leak and been forced to pull in at Lanzarote, in the Canaries, and around 15 of its men to go ashore with 70 chests of sugar, presumably to avoid it being spoiled by the salt water they were taking on.

And then there was an unfortunate misunderstanding, the sort of thing that could happen so easily. One of the English ships was, in fact, a caravela, a Portuguese boat acquired for the expedition through quite legitimate means, but the people on the island didn’t know that. And innocent exchange of boat for money was not the assumption they leaped to. “Wrongful prize,” was what they thought, taken at sea in combat. So, naturally, they attacked the landed English, taking them prisoner and spoiling their sugar in the process.            

A counter-attack from the English ships followed, resulting in deaths on both sides and the capture of the island’s governor, and then a counter-counter-attack and still more death, all before a parley could allow for the misunderstanding to be cleared up and for prisoners to be exchanged. The damages would be paid for, in one way or another, but of course that was little consolation to those who were killed, and the episode illustrates just how dangerous this kind of business enterprise could be.

If the nature of earlier English trade with Morocco is a bit uncertain, we do know that by 1558 the English have a factor, a kind of intermediary representative, a trading agent by the name of Philip Westcott. What this indicates is that despite the factors that might lead you to expect otherwise – an Islamic country, still violently unstable, and a hostile Portugal attempting to guard its shores – English trade in Morocco was starting to fall into familiar patterns, to take on the forms it did elsewhere, in Antwerp or the other European trading centers. It was, despite all that was going on, normalizing. As always seems to work itself out, people were finding ways to go about the business of business, just as they would have done anywhere else, and what that business largely amounted to here was the trade of cloth for sugar.

But Elizabethan England was involved in more than buying sugar on foreign shores and annoying the Portuguese. Elizabeth was getting into the French wars of religion; on the side of the Protestant Huguenots, she was sending troops to occupy Le Havre. In the Low Countries, she was gradually moving to aid the Calvinist-Nationalists in revolt against Spanish Habsburg rule, by helpful if inadequate funding, by seizing goods bound to aid the Spanish cause there, and eventually, ineffectually, by sending soldiers under the command of the Earl of Leicester. Her privateers, men such as Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, were raiding Spanish vessels, ports, and colonies. Elizabeth was actually quite cautious when it came to foreign military adventure, but around her, advisors such Francis Walsingham urged military action overseas. Walsingham viewed conflict with Spain as unavoidable and counseled aggression; why wait for Spain to settle itself of all other distractions before inevitably moving against England?   

And perhaps all these anti-Catholic interventions abroad were what tipped Pope Pius V into issuing the papal bull Reigning on High. It was February 25th, 1570, and Elizabeth was, at last, to be excommunicated. The edict declared, in part, that Elizabeth:

“has followed and embraced the errors of the heretics. She has removed the royal Council, composed of the nobility of England, and has filled it with obscure men, being heretics; oppressed the followers of the Catholic faith; instituted false preachers and ministers of impiety; abolished the sacrifice of the mass, prayers, fasts, choice of meats, celibacy, and Catholic ceremonies; and has ordered that books of manifestly heretical content be propounded to the whole realm and that impious rites and institutions after the rule of Calvin, entertained and observed by herself, be also observed by her subjects.”

And skipping ahead:

“Therefore, resting upon the authority of Him whose pleasure it was to place us (though unequal to such a burden) upon this supreme justice-seat, we do out of the fullness of our apostolic power declare the foresaid Elizabeth to be a heretic and favourer of heretics, and her adherents in the matters aforesaid to have incurred the sentence of excommunication and to be cut off from the unity of the body of Christ.

And moreover (we declare) her to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown and of all lordship, dignity and privilege whatsoever.”

So it was that Elizabeth was excommunicated, but the real question seems to be: what took Pius V so long? Possibly it was that Elizabeth had in fact maintained a fairly moderate and accommodating attitude towards the Catholics in her realm, up to this point at least; perhaps it was the strengthening anti-Catholicism represented by the Bishop of Winchester’s words in 1566, that “the Pope is a more perilous enemy unto Christ, than the Turk; and Popery more idolatrous, than Turkery.” Perhaps it was that other events were in motion that he hoped would address the whole awkward issue, something like the Rising of the North which sought to put the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots on the throne; or maybe it was more the case that King Phillip of Spain had argued against the drastic step of excommunication.

Remember that Phillip had actually been King of England during the 4 years of his marriage to Mary (not of the Scotts). He’d lived there and knew the country well, and for one reason or another he seems to have been keen to go back, enough so to propose marriage to Elizabeth at least. Or perhaps he simply didn’t want her causing him further difficulties with the Dutch Calvinists. Either way, he’d soon be looking for more direct responses to the problem of a Protestant England. He would of course be sending his armada in the enormous naval operation of 1588, and that’s a good story in itself, but it’s not one we’re going to get into right now. Let’s get back to England’s increasingly isolated position, and how it took them toward Moroccan trade.

When, in 1570, The Holy League, formed by the Papal States along with Venice, Spain, Genoa, and the Knights of Malta, defeated the Ottomans in a massive naval battle of around 500 vessels at Lepanto, the English celebrated the victory along with the rest of Christian Europe. One chronicler wrote of London at the time, that “there were bonfires made through the city, with banqueting and great rejoicing, as good cause there was, for a victory of so great importance unto the whole state of the Christian commonwealth.” The Ottomans, he termed “that common enemy of us all, who regardeth neither Protestant nor Catholic.” But this Christian sense of fellow feeling did not last long, and there were soon concerns that this Holy League, formed to oppose Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean might turn England’s way next. Indeed, one English spy reported of Spain, now with considerably less cause for immediate worry as to the Ottomans, that its “next enterprise [would] be to subdue the English Turks.” England needed friends.

Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s hawkish advisor and then ambassador in France, had high hopes for an alliance with the French. An agreement with the Ottomans had kept them out of the Holy League, and Charles IX had made promises of coming to the aid of the Huguenots in the Low Countries. There were even early discussions of marriage uniting Elizabeth to Charles’ smallpox-scarred brother Francis. But a Game of Thrones worthy late episode plot twist was going to make all of that, however unlikely it had already been, impossible.

With ominous music building in the background, Catherine de Medici, mother to Charles and Francis, considered her son’s position. If Charles went, as promised, to war in the Low Countries, it amounted to a declaration of war with Phillip’s Spain. Had their families been joined in marriage, she might have hoped for Elizabeth’s help, but that didn’t look like it was happening and they would be left to face the Spanish alone. So she arranged for a killing, a surgical move to sever the problem, and the problem, she identified, was Admiral Coligny, leader of the French Huguenots. It was Coligny, she had reasoned, who had convinced Charles of the need to send forces abroad to solidify the situation at home and who continued to press for it, almost threatening Charles to “weigh whether it was better to have foreign war with advantage, or inward war to the ruin of himself and his estate.” Coligny had to go.

It happened in Paris on August 22nd 1572: as Coligny returned home at night he was shot in the street. But he survived, and now Catherine had a larger problem: what would happen if the Huguenots learned that she had been behind the assassination attempt? If she were going to avoid that kind of trouble, things needed to be scaled up, immediately. This time, she went to Charles.

She told him of this diabolical Huguenot plot against him which she’d uncovered, and that she’d hoped to prevent it by killing Coligny; she also told him that now Coligny had survived, the only thing to do was to kill the French Huguenot leadership in its entirety. To this, the king readily agreed; maybe he wasn’t too keen on going to the Low Countries either.

As luck would have it, the bulk of that leadership was in Paris already, there to attend the wedding of Catherine’s daughter, Marguerite, to Henry of Navarre, a Protestant. And beginning the night of the 23rd, the eve of St Bartholomew’s day, and carrying on into the early morning of the day itself, the murders were carried out as planned within the barred gates of the city. As planned, except that they didn’t stop with the targeted leaders; this isn’t known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre for a few elites and their retinues. It’s for those who would die when the good citizens of the city realized what was going on and open season seemed declared on Paris’s protestants. Streets were blockaded and the slaughter carried out, with bodies dumped in the Seine. It’s unknown how many died, 1000’s, maybe 10s of thousands, but the killings went on for 3 days in Paris and spread out past the surrounding areas and into other cities, with the arrival of the news tipping religious tension into murderous violence.     

Another unknown that I should mention is the extent of Catherine’s involvement in all of this. It seems that she did meet with the king to decide on the fate of the Huguenot elite, but her responsibility for the actual decision or for the attempted assassination of Coligny is much less certain. That had been the traditional narrative, the way these events have generally been understood, but we have to consider that the scheming mother, or better yet, step-mother is a near constant historical trope and it shouldn’t be accepted unquestioningly. There is also no shortage of other suspects in close proximity to Charles, men with power and motivation, who historians have advanced as actually being more likely culprits than Catherine.

For our purposes, we needn’t know who exactly was responsible, nor what became of the man who shot Coligny from an upstairs window. It’s more important for us, that Walsingham made a narrow escape from Paris himself and was deeply affected by what he’d witnessed. It was hardly surprising to him that Catholic anti-protestant hatred had broken out into widespread bloodshed; it was what he’d expected all along; but he saw in these events the impossibility of the friendship with France which he’d campaigned for and also, more than a violent outbreak, the premeditated plotting of events by powerful figures acting out the consequences of the Counter Reformation. It was not an uncommon view, and those who’d already seen a large-scale anti-protestant conspiracy at work found in the French massacres their confirmation, if ever they needed any.

But let’s get back to Morocco where, in the 1570s, trade took a new and interesting turn. Sugar had, as we know, long been the overwhelming mainstay of English imports, in chests, loafs, barrels of unrefined, and tons of molasses. It had been supplemented by almonds, goatskins, aniseed, capers, candied citrus peel, raisins, and ostrich feathers, but in 1572 a new product was explored: potassium-nitrate, otherwise known as saltpeter, and a necessary ingredient in the making of gunpowder.

Saltpeter could be had from India or Persia, but not cheaply, and English experiments with their own production had been crude, inefficient, and involved urine and manure; and this is something you can do at home if you’re interested – there are youtube videos for this sort of thing. But to get back to the saltpeter, there was reason to be interested in a cheaper, closer, better source, especially one of what was determined to be a high quality product. However, Sultan Abdallah Mohammed, Muhammed ash-Sheikh’s grandson, was not interested in parting with it for more cloth. He wanted iron shot and cannonballs for his guns.

The English merchants took the proposal, and samples, home with them in 1575. They remained intrigued by the possibility, but unless the Spanish had been right all along about the shipment of arms to Morocco, it represented a new step, the selling of weapons of war to an Islamic power, and one which may well then use the weapons against Christians. Were the English still interested?

Indeed they were, and by “they” I don’t just mean the merchants in question. The matter had come before the Earl of Leicester and the Lord Burghley who had together approved a shipment of munitions. But they were going to need to make the arrangements with a new sultan. This was because, in the meantime, Abdallah Muhammed had fallen victim to the Ottoman backed army of his uncle al-Malik, and, though he’d kept his life, he’d lost his Sultinate and been forced to flee to Portuguese controlled Ceutta. Al-Malik had been living among the Ottomans for quite some time, 17 years – the entirety of his brother’s reign. That hostile brother, Abdallah Muhammed’s father, and his reign having expired, Al-Malik won Ottoman support and returned to seize the Moroccan throne. It was he who the English were going to need to deal with if they wanted any of that saltpeter, and, fortunately for them, he seems to have been very amenable to the idea. In fact, this was where the Anglo-Moroccan friendship really kicked up a notch.

Arranging matters from the English side was Edmund Hogan of the Mercers’ Company, a highly respected London merchant whose representative had initiated the inquiries into Moroccan saltpeter back in 1572. Hogan wrote to Elizabeth’s counselors (including both Walsingham and Burghley) that Al-Malik was willing to provide them with saltpeter in trade for munitions, but also that Al-Malik’s Morocco could open a new a world of possibilities for English cloth. Safely sent on from Morocco under favourable terms it could be moved across North Africa and through the Ottoman Empire. This, after all, was what they had sought years before in Safavid Persia by way of Russia and the grueling sea passage to the north. Now, to achieve the same and more, they would only need to ship the goods down to Morocco, and, as he noted, since the beginning of their trade there “… no ship hath miscarried that way.” Hogan’s arguments were convincing, and soon he was not only bound for Morocco; he was doing so not just as a private merchant but also as the representative of the Queen. It was a dual role that would become quite common and, as we’ll see later in dealings with the Ottomans, could lead to complications.

Elizabeth apparently instructed Hogan that he should avoid any mention of “artillery and munition,” and that he should seek to deflect any inquiries the Sultan might make in that direction, but these written instructions may not have reflected the reality of the situation. Shipment of weapons had, after all, already been approved by her closest advisors – indeed, they’d dispatched samples of shot to Abdallah Muhammed, and what reason might Al-Malik have for accepting anything less than what had previously been on offer for the saltpeter. It seems quite possible that these written instructions were intended more to convey innocence to the eyes of any unintended readers, any Spanish spies for example, than they were to direct Hogan’s actions in Morocco.

Hogan’s trip was, by his own account at least, a highly successful one. He wrote of departing from London on the 22nd of April, 1577, and arriving in the port of Afazi on the 21st of May, with no mention of difficulties on the way. He wrote of being welcomed by al-Malik, saying that “for my safe conduct he had sent four captains and 100 soldiers, together with a horse and furniture on which the sultan was in use to ride.” Hogan in turn went ashore with 10 companions, 3 of whom were trumpeters, and the 4 English ships in the harbour fired all their guns in respect and greeting. These pleasantries aside, Hogan was installed in a comfortable tent, its ground spread with Turkish carpets, and the nearby castle gave off its own salvo of welcoming cannonfire.

Upon receiving permission, he began his journey inland, making note of little on the way save for the miles travelled and the pitching of tents. Nearing what he calls simply “the city of Morocco,” he camped and awaited word from the sultan, which wasn’t long in coming. It came in the form of 50 men with mules heavily loaded with banqueting provisions and the sultan’s message in which he heartily welcomed this Queen’s representative and made known his intention of having all the Christians in the city as well as his own nobles welcome Hogan. Amusingly, as Hogan makes his entrance at 7 the next morning, this results in the Spanish and Portuguese merchants waiting there to greet him, a fact that he seems to take some pleasure in, saying: “I was met by all the Spanish and Portuguese Christians, which I knew was more owing to the Sultan’s command than of their own good will, for some of them, though they spoke of me fair, hung down their heads like dogs, especially the Portuguese, and I behaved to them accordingly.”

Having taken the opportunity to treat the Portuguese like dogs, Hogan went in to meet the Sultan. That first meeting was for the delivery of Elizabeth’s letters, and for Hogan to deliver his message, though he says not what it was. Perhaps the most interesting point to come out of his account here, is that the spoken language was Spanish.

Later that night, Hogan returned to the court. There he learned from the Sultan that the Spanish had requested that they might send an ambassador and had spoken against Hogan’s mission, urging al-Malik to give neither creedence nor entertainment to one sent by the English queen. However, Hogan wrote that al-Malik reassured him, saying “I know well what the king of Spain is, and what the queen of England and her realm; for I neither like him nor his religion, being so governed by the inquisition that he can do nothing of himself; wherefore, when his ambassador comes upon the licence I have given, he will see how little account I make of him and Spain, and how greatly I shall honour you for the sake of the queen of England. He shall not come into my presence, as you have done and shall daily; for I mean to accept of you as a companion and one of my household, whereas he shall wait twenty days after he has delivered his message.”

This reference to religion, favourable to the English and not towards the Spanish, is not an isolated occurrence in Hogan’s version of events. Elsewhere, he tells us that al-Malik bore more affection for England than any other nation because its religion was one which forbid the worship of images. For his part, Hogan finds al-Malik to be very well read in scripture, both old and new testament, and says of him, rather dubiously, that the Moors referred to him as “the Christian King.” Maybe both sides here were making a special effort to see someone palatable across the table, an almost-Protestant Muslim, a nearly-Muslim Protestant. Or maybe we shouldn’t take Hogan’s rose coloured assessment of the religious similarities too seriously, or rather, not read too much into them beyond Hogan’s own way of thinking.

The rest of Hogan’s visit seems to have gone equally well, if he is to be believed at least. He stayed on at the court until the 12th of July, visiting often with the Sultan. He brought al-Malik gifts: a case of combs, a great brass lute with the promise of accompanying musicians to arrive promptly on the next boat. He received a gift: a short dagger decorated with 200 precious stones, which sounds like a lot to fit on a dagger. They dined together, toured al-Malik’s horses and household, watched what he, presumably incorrectly, identified as a “morris dance,” went “duck hunting with water spaniels, and bull baiting with English dogs,” and they talked trade. Hogan secured promises that English merchants would be able to freely trade in al-Malik’s dominions, with freely provided water and provisions, and should have safe conduct to pass along with their goods into the Algiers and Ottoman territory, the leaders of which al-Malik pledged to write to on their behalf. Further, should English ships bring in prizes, enemy ships taken at sea, to Morocco’s ports, they might sell them or sail on with them as they pleased, while any English taken as captives into Morocco were guaranteed not to be sold as captives.

Hogan got the saltpeter he’d been after too, but what of the other side of the deal? What of the cannonballs, the munitions that Elizabeth may or may not have been unwilling to part with? Historian E.W. Bovill wrote quite matter of factly that “the English supplied the Moors with pikes, lances, coats of mail, helmets, metal for casting cannon, ammunition for small arms and artillery, sulphur, timber for building ships, and a variety of marine gear such as oars, cordage and sails.” Hogan makes no direct mention of any of these matters, but there are a few points worth noting. He writes at one point that he “engaged to satisfy him [Al-Malik] with such commodities as he stood in need of, to furnish the wants of his country in all kinds of merchandise, so that he might not require anything from her majesty contrary to her honour and law, or in breach of league and amity with the Christian princes her neighbours.” Our problem is of course is that we don’t know what that would be. Where is the line here? Is it the case that Al-Malik was eager enough to trade with England that he would forego the munitions promised his predecessor and accept other goods? Or were the wants of his country that were yet not contrary to Elizabeth’s honour and law maybe something like shot but not cannon, ammunition but not arquebuses? Was he simply maintaining his innocence in writing, if not in reality? With Hogan’s vagueness, we do not know, only that he left with 300 gross quintals of saltpeter, a quintal apparently being equal to about 112 pounds. For what it’s worth, it’s usually seen as certain that the trade in weapons did occur.

And maybe the actual reality of trade in weapons was not so important as the appearance of trade, the perception of the thing. At Hogan’s arrival back in London, Francisco Giraldi, the Portuguese ambassador, was not at all uncertain over whether the English had sent arms to Morocco. In his complaint, he wrote, “I wish respectfully to inform you, that this city is full of the reception given by that tyrant the Shereef to her Majesty’s ambassador; how he went to meet him, and honored him … as has been more fully related to me by a Portuguese who came in the ship which brought the news. Also, the thousands of stores and arms which that Hogan has taken in the galleon and in two other smaller vessels, which I am certain was little to the taste of the King, my master.” So at least as far as the Portuguese were concerned, the English were carrying on as they had before, sending weapons to the enemy, but what of that Portuguese king?

You might remember that when al-Malik came to power, he did not succeed in killing Sultan Abdallah Muhammed. Abdallah Muhammed had escaped, and sought refuge with a somewhat surprising benefactor in the Portuguese, yesterday’s adversary now his enemy’s enemy. With the Portuguese he found a willing audience in their King Sebastian, the young, pious, and often described as naive, ruler of Portugal who come to be known as O Desejado, or, The Desired. But this title seems to imply absence, absent good which is longed for. What was going to cause this young king to be absent from his people? In part, the answer was Abdallah Muhammed.

The former Moroccan sultan did not go to the Portuguese looking for a sunny place to retire. The ruler who can accept their ouster with equanimity, and enjoy a quiet life on the other side is a rare animal, and Abdallah Muhammed was not one of those. He wanted his throne back; and he was willing to make big promises to get it. Specifically, he told Sebastian that once he had been placed on that throne, he would make his Morocco a vassal of Portugal’s, and Sebastian seems to have taken this desperate one-time foe at his word. Or perhaps he scarcely listened to the details of the offer and heard only an opportunity and impetus to take up a grand crusade into North Africa, as he’d already long planned to do.

Sebastian made ready. He met with his uncle Philip of Spain and sought his assistance; he sent out colonels within his own realm to raise a great army of conscripts; he dispatched a man to the Low Countries, always a ready source of mercenaries and particularly during lulls in local action.

Unfortunately for Sebastian, Philip was well advised as to how many of his soldiers would be required for such a mission to meet with success, and he was wary of driving al-Malik into an alliance with the Ottomans. Finding troops and arms in the Low countries was also proving difficult. One potential deal fell through when the terms of advanced payment proved unacceptable, impossible really, to Sebastian, and when men were found, it was 3000, not the 4000 he’d wanted, and of lesser quality too.

Really, all phases of the expedition seemed doomed to failure, a largely under-trained and ill-disciplined army accompanied by severely overburdened nobles making a poorly thought out and under-manned invasion, and I think I’ll dig more into that in its own mini-episode, because it is interesting stuff. For now though, what’s important to the story of English trade with Morocco is Sebastian’s inglorious and devastating defeat, and the fact that all 3 rulers, Sebastian, Al-Malik, and Abdallah Muhammed died on the one day of fighting.

The battle is known by different names: the Battle of Wad el-Mekhazen, of Ksar el-Kebir, of the Three Kings. By whatever name, its effects were devastating: Sebastian’s army of 16,000 were killed or captured almost without exception, the survivors ransomed or sold into slavery as their status and wealth dictated; and for the numerous non-combatants the same. In Lisbon, a visiting merchant wrote of what he saw when the news arrived of the defeat and of the death of their king: “how great were the lamentations, the despair and grief, not only in this city, but in all the land. The men went about as if dazed . . . It is a woeful matter to lose in one day the king, their husbands, their sons, and all the goods and chattels they had with them. But what is even more terrible is that this kingdom must now fall under Spanish rule, which they can brook least of all.” This last indignity occurred because Sebastian had, rather irresponsibly in one undertaking to lead an invasion, left no heir behind to take up the throne. It was Philip of Spain who would instead step into that role, easily defeating Sebastian’s successor, his great-uncle’s nephew Antonio, who then eventually made his way to England. Many would refuse to recognize the body later recovered as truly being Sebastian’s, and for years to come he would remain the desired one, alive and well in the hopes of a population who looked to his redemptive return.

As for the Moroccan throne, Al-Malik’s brother, Ahmad al-Mansur had been present at the battle and immediately made his claim. He would be the one who England would be dealing with now. In England, Elizabeth now faced the prospect of a united Iberian peninsula, and all it controlled, under the power of an increasingly hostile King Philip, and in a climate where she was often blamed for the defeat of Sebastian, her fellow Christian. Spain’s papal representative gave voice to this feeling when he wrote to Rome that “there is no evil that is not devised by that woman who, it is perfectly plain, succored al-Malik with arms and especially artillery.”     

England seemed alone, but if they’d lost a friend in Morocco, he had least been replaced by a sultan who appeared equally open to the Anglo-Moroccan alliance. Al-Mansur had come to power every bit as threatened by Philip as Elizabeth was, and, the threat of Ottoman invasion being equally real, Al-Mansur was going to be an enthusiastic trader for armaments of all kinds.

English merchants continued, as they had been doing for some time now, to do unregulated business in Morocco, and soon there were letters, now lost but apparently complementary, exchanged between Elizabeth and al-Mansur. I don’t want to give the impression that Elizabeth was the only monarch dealing with Morocco though. Really all the powers of the day had compelling reasons to at least perform the usual courtesies and send ambassadors. Like England, France and the Low Countries likely saw a balance to Philip’s expanded power. Philip feared the possibility of al-Mansur uniting with the Ottomans, while the Ottoman sultan Murad III might have hoped that the threat of a Spanish invasion to avenge the Portuguese losses would drive Morocco into his sheltering, and possessive, arms.

In 1585 the Barbary Company was founded, Barbary being the term often used for the North African coast, and this should have been a sign of further normalization of relations, with rights acknowledged and so forth. However, this particular trading company granted an unusual degree of executive power to its founder, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Indeed, it has sometimes been identified as little more than a plaything for Leicester, even a way into the arms trade or at least to assert control over Moroccan trade more generally.

Whatever his motivation, Leicester’s interventions seem not to have smoothed things over. There were many complaints from long established merchants as to his actions or those of his agents, in particular that his representative had seized their cargo, opened their correspondence and shared it with al-Mansur, and, perhaps worst of all, carelessly dumped merchandise into the market in such a way that prices were dropping and their profits along with them. Leicester’s next move, the appointment of an ambassador to Morocco, went scarcely better. Even the appointee himself, an experienced soldier and privateer named Henry Roberts, seems not to have thought much of it: of his choice he later recalled, “‘I was forced to take this voyage full sore against my will, for the which cause I was forced to yield up my place where I was settled in Ireland.” Apparently the process even cost him 500 pounds.     

If Roberts seems more suited to pillaging Spanish possessions or fighting in Ireland than to negotiating trade, that’s because that was exactly what he’d been up to. But maybe Roberts wasn’t really assigned to negotiate on behalf of the English merchants carrying on their trade in cloth and sugar. He would do some of that, though with no great success, but his real task might have been more to do with trading arms, and with weakening Philip and gaining al-Mansur’s aid in putting Don Antonio back on the Portuguese throne. English merchants complained that their Spanish counterparts were receiving much better treatment in Morocco than they, and they may actually have been getting the bad end of things as a result of animosity stirred up by the arms trade Leicester and his circle were engaged in. All of these trading companies, Muscovy, Turkey, etc, were created with a double purpose -trade and diplomacy- but the Barbary Company appears to have been uniquely unsuccesful at that first goal, operating in Morocco at great expense, driving down the prices of English goods there, and recording a loss on the import of sugar. Even the import of saltpeter was proving less attractive, what with the costs in shipping, processing, and bribery that were associated with it.

Where Roberts would meet with some success was the diplomatic goal of gaining Moroccan support against the Spanish. Al-Mansur, lobbied by both Roberts and Antonio, was starting to come around to the idea of acting against Spain. What he needed now was a sign, some kind of proof that England was the king of power they presented themselves as. Could they stand against the Spanish? Or would he be allying himself with a mouse, against a lion? As Roberts identified, and wrote to Leicester of in July, 1588, what al-Mansur was waiting for was the result of the Spanish invasion. Roberts wrote: “if the king of Spain should prosper against England, then [al-Mansur] would do nothing; and, if the king of Spain have the overthrow, as by God’s help he shall, then will [al-Mansur] perform promises and more.” It all depended on the doings of the Spanish Armada, for that was the invasion under discussion. And I hope I’m not spoiling the ending for you by saying that the invasion would not succeed. Bad luck, worse weather, and the playing out of a kind of nautical clash of styles saw Philip’s magnificent fleet suffer terrible losses, the survivors returning home as best they could.

News of these events reached Morocco, and the court historian there wrote of the “Sultana Isabel” triumphing thanks to God’s divine wind against “the enemy of religion, the infidel, the tyrant of Castile who is today against Islam and who is the pillar of polytheism.” Al-Mansur had his answer at last. Roberts sailed for home, having accomplished little, but he did so in the company of Morocco’s first ambassador to England, Ahmad Bilqasim, and, as they sailed, Don Antonio’s brother was leaving for Morocco.

 What was on the table as Balqasim arrived in London in January of 1589 was quite extraordinary. The ambassador’s written proposal was for a “sound and perfect league” between their two nations, set against the common enemy, the King of Spain. Specifically, it was suggested that if the two forces should send an army by sea into the Straits of Gibraltar, and thus force Philip to draw his men out of Portugal in defense of the threatened Spanish ports, well then it would be all the easier for their mutual acquaintance Antonio to take back his throne. Further, if 100 ships should be provided by Elizabeth for the use of al-Mansur and his army, then he would provide 150,000 ducats.

Of course these suggestions were not made in a vacuum, and Elizabeth had been pondering just this sort of venture, though a ready source of money was a bit unclear. London merchants were being looked to as investors against the promise of spoils, and Francis Drake was in the Low Countries looking, as one does there, to furnish troops and supplies.

What followed is sometimes called the English Armada, or the Drake-Norris Expedition after its two leaders, Francis Drake and John Norris, and it all starts to sound a little like Sebastian’s trip to Morocco. Arms and men from the Low Countries were less than had been hoped for and money and provisions to feed the English army was running short, but Drake and Norris went ahead, lurching into action while it was still possible. They embarked April 18th, 1589, with Don Antonio and Bilqasim aboard, on a multi-step campaign to begin with the siege Lisbon, there to provoke popular uprising and set Antonio on the throne.

But rather than the planned destruction of Philip’s fleet then under repairs at Santander, they were first going to be stopping at Caruna which was not supposed to be on the menu. And they didn’t just pop in for a quick raid; Drake and Norris spent 2 weeks besieging the town there, taking losses all the while and ticking away the time as Lisbon was readied for the attack.

When it finally came, the Portuguese defenders were more than adequately prepared, and the people were disinclined to rebel for Antonio’s cause. The siege of Lisbon was a tremendous failure, as were Drake’s attempts to otherwise redeem the expedition, and, in a repeat of the Spanish Armada, many ships and men were lost to the stormy seas themselves. At some point, Bilqasim must have seen how things were going and slipped off in Portugal, to make his way home. As for the aid from his Sultan, it never materialized. Elizabeth was enraged, and in part blamed al-Mansur’s inaction for the defeat. Al-Mansur, for his part, protested his innocence in the matter, saying he had not been given word that the expedition had set out, but maybe he’d simply read rightly its chances of success.

This was not quite the end of the Anglo-Moroccan alliance, but this is where we’ll leave things for now. There would be more embassies, and more talks of invading Spain, but a chapter was coming to an end. The Barbary Company’s charter would expire in 1597 and not be renewed. It’s founder, the Earl of Leicester, was dead, as was Walsingham, Drake, and, by 1603, Al-Mansur. Dealings with another power were, in any case, starting to look more promising, and more profitable. Elizabethan England was turning towards the Ottomans.

Actually, they’ve been dealing with the Ottomans for quite some time now, have started to develop a relationship concurrently with their Moroccan endeavour, but for the sake of clarity, I’ve decided to treat them separately. So next episode, we’ll turn towards the Ottomans. We’ll look at the work of English ambassadors there and their exposure to Ottoman court intrigue.


Twitter: @circus_human

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