Prussian Trauma in the Moroccan Rif

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ew people know it, but the Prussians tried to take possession of the Moroccan Rif in 1856. This operation, provocative but unknown, followed a major scandal that emerged during the middle of the 19th century between this region and the Prussian Reich, which subsequently influenced Prusso-Charifian relations.

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The Rif during the 19th century

During this period, northern Morocco was administered by the descendants of Jaysh al-Rifi, an influential army during the 17th and 18th centuries, created by Sultan Moulay Ismail from tribes in the Eastern Rif. This army corps will maintain its autonomy and will be the de facto rule over the Pashaliks in the north until 1912, the year upon which the French and Spanish protectorates came into effect.

The Rif as a territory has been, historically, quite impenetrable due to its mountain range, its steep coasts and the overprotection of locals. As a result, the few ships that came close to the coast of this country were plundered. Thus, the northern tribes were at that time recognized as being the last Barbary pirates still active in the western Mediterranean. This is evidenced by the Cape Three Forks, 25 kilometers off of the city Nador, which was a shipwreck cemetery feared by sailors.

The captivity of the sailor, Paul Peinen: French soldier captured by pirates in the Rif.
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The arrival of the Prussians

In 1852, two Prussian fleets, schooners from Stettin led by Prince Adalbert docked near the Cape of the Three Forks, the wind being insufficient to continue their journey.  All of a sudden, and without the Prussians' expectation, the fleets were plundered and three sailors on board were killed by a group of Riffian pirates. This event, which was overly mediatized due to the affront to Prince Adalbert, did not remain without consequences.

Four years later, in August 1856, an exercise in the Mediterranean was organized by the admiral of the fleet and cousin of King Frederic William: Prince Adalbert, who was accompanied by Prince William of Hesse. Aboard the Danzig Frigate, they travelled along the shores of the Rif. As the event of 1852 was not compensated for by the Makhzen (political authority of Morocco), the prince had only one desire: to take revenge for this affront.

He ventured into the Cape of the Three Forks with nearly 60 men and proceeded to provocatively plant a Prussian flag on a hill. The Riffians, alerted by this intrusion, decided to meet to fight the Prussians.

To the surprise of their opponents, these aboriginal soldiers were so numerous that the Prussians had no choice but to retreat, astonished at their failure. The losses were non-negligible, with 7 dead and 18 injured, including Prince Adalbert himself, injured in the thigh during the fight. After this total failure, the Prussian Navy erected an eagle-shaped monument for the dead in that battle in Gibraltar in 1863.

Prince Adalbert of Prussia.
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Involvement of powers

Prussia, with its honor now tainted, asked the Sultan of Morocco once again for compensation regarding the incidents in the Rif. He declined the offer, arguing that he had no authority over the tribes of the Rif. An appeal to the powers was therefore necessary, with Berlin asking for the intervention of Paris, London and Madrid.

It'll therefore be on the 29th of August 1856 that Napoleon III, supported by England and Spain, promised to do what was necessary to prevent similar events, since it was not the first time that European fleets were plundered near the Moroccan Rif region. In the end, no action was taken and the promised measures were abandoned.

Printed handkerchief illustrating the battles between Prussians and Riffians.
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Despite a humiliating defeat that was overhyped in German-speaking newspapers, Prince Adalbert's prestige grew. Several newspapers praised his heroic act and the people praised the prince for trying to avenge his nation. Following these significant events, few European ships approached the shores of the Rif. These events would however encourage, 40 years later, Kaiser William II to take an interest in Morocco and to try to compete with Franco-Spanish ambitions on these lands.

However, these incidents have only been recounted from a European perspective as even today, the real motivating reasons behind these fearsome pirates of the Rif remain somewhat of a mystery. Hypotheses explain that because of their isolation from the rest of the world, the inhabitants of northern Morocco feared seeing other peoples dominate their own, thus preferring to keep their shores inaccessible.

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