Age of Invention: Sugar, Saltpetre, and All Things Sweeter

Welcome to my newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here:

As I noted last week, the sixteenth-century Saadi Empire in Morocco was a flourishing centre of trade and industry — an apparent efflorescence of economic growth that has largely escaped the notice of economic historians. So this week I’ve been researching its rise and fall, in the process noticing a surprising connection to England. It seems to have had a major part to play in Morocco’s rise to prominence, as well as vice versa.

In 1500 you would have thought that Morocco’s golden ages were firmly in the past. The Portuguese in 1415 had conquered Ceuta, on the southern side of the Straits of Gibraltar, with minimal resistance. Over the next century they had then spread their influence across the Moroccan coastline, building forts, establishing small trading colonies, and interfering in local politics. Faced with constant raids, coastal towns like Safi, Massa, and Azammur submitted themselves to Portuguese vassalage in exchange for protection. And when local rulers failed to please them, the Portuguese installed new ones or even took direct control. A disunited Morocco was at the mercy of Portuguese colonial ambition — a source of grain destined for Portugal’s population, and of horses and patterned cloths for it to exchange in sub-Saharan Africa for gold and slaves.

In the 1510s, however, a new dynasty arose in Sus, in the south-west of the country, claiming direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. These sharifs, the Saadi dynasty, began to fill the vacuum left by ineffective leadership from the sultans in Fez and Marrakech. And to address the massive power imbalance between themselves and the Portuguese, they began to cultivate sugar, selling it to other Europeans — Spanish, French, Genoese, Dutch, and English — in exchange for gunpowder weapons.

The English were especially expert smugglers, frequently able to sneak past the Portuguese fleets to where they could trade directly with the Saadis. Merchants from the Hanseatic league even approached the English government about using English mariners to get iron shot to Morocco. Their request was denied — Elizabeth I and her ministers were always careful never to explicitly allow the munitions trade, even in private letters, and often publicly disavowed it — but it was common knowledge among London’s merchants that the government supported the smuggling. This was partly about having a supply of sugar independent of Portuguese and Spanish control, but it was also a matter of national security. Because hidden among the sugar, marmalade, candied fruits, and almonds that the English transported from Morocco, were also copper and saltpetre — crucial materials for England’s own gunpowder weapons (I still haven’t quite worked out why England needed to import copper, given it had its own deposits in Cornwall, but it seems to have been important and a secure supply of saltpetre was definitely essential).

Both sides benefited from the arrangement. By the mid-1540s, the Saadis had bought the firearms and artillery necessary to take Marrakech and Fez, effectively unifying the country, and had earned sufficient wealth to buy the allegiance of the Moroccan population, providing grain during periods of intense famine. With that allegiance, they began isolating the Portuguese forts along the coastline, denying them access to food, workers, and trade. From the perspective of the Portuguese crown, the forts thus lost their economic value, while becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. Rather than providing Portugal with Moroccan grain, the forts increasingly needed grain from Portugal. With the added pressure of Saadi sieges, now aided by massive artillery, Portugal began to lose their footholds, abandoning many of the rest. Thus, in the space of a few decades, the export of sugar (and saltpetre) by the Saadis had put the mighty Portuguese empire on the back foot.

Indeed, the Saadi Empire soon become so integrated into European trade networks that by the 1570s it was employing siege engineers from Italy — the world experts — and was able, when necessary, to cast its own cannon. And having pushed back the Portuguese, in 1578 its full power was revealed: it wiped out a large Portuguese invasion force, which had aimed to install a deposed sultan and retake some of the forts. At the battle of Wadi al-Makazin, Saadi forces killed both the pretender and the king of Portugal himself (though the Saadi sultan also died during the battle, from ill health). Three kings thus died, and the brother of the sultan succeeded, taking the name Ahmad al-Mansur bi Allah — “Victorious by the will of God”.

al-Mansur’s victory, followed by an unusually long reign, allowed the Saadi Empire to flourish and expand still further. He used his new gunpowder advantage to conquer Timbuktu and Gao, south of the Sahara, in a bid to control the gold trade. And while the English launched attacks on Cadiz in the 1590s, Moroccan fleets harried the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands (in addition to all the other weaponry, the English had also been selling the Moroccans ash timber suitable for galley oars). He even, in 1601, suggested to Elizabeth I of England that they join forces to seize Spain’s colonies in the New World — his people would have to settle them, he argued, claiming that they were better able to handle the tropical climate. All he needed were the English ships to get them there.

From England’s perspective, Saadi help played a part in its own rise to prominence. Copper and saltpetre were essential to it having the weapons necessary to fight the Spanish, especially at a time when it was still developing its own metal industries. And Morocco helped support English manufactures. It was one of many destinations for English cloth exports, with its raw sugar enabling London to set up its own sugar refineries. By the 1590s, England was exporting refined sugar to Germany and the Low Counties (a dramatic reversal, considering England had once imported much of its refined sugar from Antwerp). Even in literature, al-Mansur’s power and riches captured the imaginations of the English. He seems to have been the inspiration for many “Moorish” characters in English plays, from The Battle of Alcazar (about his victory at Wadi al-Makazin) to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello.

Yet the age of Anglo-Moroccan cooperation was not to last. Both al-Mansur and Elizabeth I died in 1603, after which the cracks in the alliance — and within the Saadi Empire itself — began to show.

Till next week,


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