Spanish Sahara

Spanish Sahara (Spanish: Sahara Español; Arabic: الصحراء الإسبانية As-Sahrā'a Al-Isbānīyah), officially the Province of the Sahara between 1958 and 1976, was the name used for the modern territory of Western Sahara when it was occupied and ruled by Spain between 1884 and 1976. It had been one of the most recent acquisitions of the Spanish Empire as well as one of its last remaining holdings, which had once extended from the Americas to the Spanish East Indies.

Province of the Sahara

Provincia del Sahara  (Spanish)
إقليم الصحراء الإسبانية ما وراء البحار  (Arabic)
Flag of Spain (1945–1975)
Anthem: National Anthem of Spain (1884-1931, 1942-1976)
Himno de Riego (1931-1942)
Green: Spanish Sahara.
Light grey: Other Spanish possessions.
Dark grey: Spain.
and largest city
El Aaiún
Official languagesSpanish
Hassaniya Arabic
Roman Catholicism
Sunni Islam
 1885-1902 (first)
Emilio Bonelli
 1974–1976 (last)
Federico Gómez de Salazar y Nieto
26 December 1884
14 November 1975
26 February 1976
CurrencySpanish peseta
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Spanish West Africa
Southern Provinces
Tiris al-Gharbiyya
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
Today part of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Liberated territories)

Between 1946 and 1958, the Spanish Sahara was amalgamated with the nearby Spanish-protected Cape Juby and Spanish Ifni to form a new colony, Spanish West Africa. This was reversed during the Ifni War when Ifni and the Sahara became provinces of Spain separately, two days apart, while Cape Juby was ceded to Morocco in the peace deal.

Spain gave up its Saharan possession following Moroccan demands and international pressure, mainly from United Nations resolutions regarding decolonisation. There was internal pressure from the native Sahrawi population, through the Polisario Front, and the claims of Morocco and Mauritania. After gaining independence in 1956, Morocco laid claim to the territory as part of its historic pre-colonial territory. Mauritania claimed the territory for a number of years on a historical basis, but dropped all claims in 1979.

In 1975, Morocco occupied much of the territory, now known as Western Sahara, but the Polisario Front, promoting the sovereignty of an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), fought a guerrilla war for 16 years against Morocco. In 1991, the UN negotiated a ceasefire and has tried to arrange negotiations and a referendum to let the population vote on its future. Morocco controls the entire Atlantic coast and most of the landmass, population and natural resources of Western Sahara.

Spanish occupation

Spanish and French protectorates in Morocco and Spanish Sahara, 1935.

At the Berlin Conference (1884-1885), the European powers were establishing the rules for setting up zones of influence or protection in Africa, and Spain declared 'a protectorate of the African coast' from Cape Blanc to Cape Bojador on 26 December 1884. It officially informed the other powers in writing on 14 January 1885.[1] It began establishing trading posts and a military presence. In July 1885, King Alfonso XII appointed Emilio Bonelli commissioner of the Río de Oro with civil and military authority. On 6 April 1887, the area was incorporated into the Captaincy General of the Canary Islands for military purposes.[1] In the summer of 1886, under the sponsorship of the Spanish Society of Commercial Geography (Sociedad Española de Geografía Comercial), Julio Cervera Baviera, Felipe Rizzo (1823–1908) and Francisco Quiroga (1853–1894) traversed the territory, which was called Río de Oro, and made topographical and astronomical observations. At the time, geographers had not mapped the territory and its features were not widely known. Their trek is considered the first scientific expedition in that part of the Sahara.[2]

On entering the territory in 1884, Spanish forces were immediately challenged by stiff resistance from the indigenous Sahrawi tribes, Saharan Arabs who lived in many oases and coastal villages. The indigenous people worked mainly in fishing and camel herding, and speak the Hassaniya language, a Bedouin Arabic dialect. A rebellion in 1904 was led by the powerful Smara-based marabout, Shaykh Ma al-'Aynayn, was put down by France in 1910, which ruled neighbouring Algeria. This was followed by a wave of uprisings under Ma al-Aynayn's sons, grandsons and other political leaders.

In 1886, Spain signed the Treaty of Idjil, by which the Emirate of Adrar ceded the land of the colony to Spain. This treaty was of no legal value, since the Emir had no claim to the territory, the Spanish 'invented' a claim which the Emir could, with no harm to himself, immediately cede.[1]

There is some dispute and ambiguity about whether the territory was under Moroccan royal sovereignty at the time when the Spanish claimed it in 1884. According to the two sixteenth-century treaties, quoted by the historian Romeu (Vol. 1): the Treaty of Alcáçovas and the Treaty of Cintra, between Spain and Portugal, they recognize that the authority of Morocco extended beyond Cabo Bojador. Then there is the treaty between Morocco and Spain of 1 March 1767.[3] This treaty, according to Article 18 of which Sherifian sovereignty extended beyond the Wad Noun, Le., further south into the neighbouring region of Sakiet El Hamra, this is further establish in the Anglo-Moroccan Agreement of 13 March 1895 that Moroccan territory extends to Cabo Bojador, including Sakiet El Hamra.[4] The International Court of Justice found in their Advisory opinion on Western Sahara of 1975 they were legal ties of allegiance (Bay'ah) between this territory and the Kingdom of Morocco but they didn't extend to sovereignty over the territory.

The borders of the territory were not clearly defined until treaties between Spain and France in the early 20th century. Spanish Sahara was created from the Spanish territories of Río de Oro and Saguia el-Hamra in 1924. It was not part of the areas known as Spanish Morocco and was administered separately.

Modern history

Sahrawi family in Spanish Sahara between 1970 and 1974

Given such tribal uprisings, Spain found it difficult to control parts of the territory's large hinterland until 1934. After gaining independence in 1956, Morocco laid claim to Spanish Sahara as part of its historic pre-colonial territory. In 1957, the Moroccan Army of Liberation nearly occupied the small territory of Ifni, north of Spanish Sahara, during the Ifni War. The Spanish sent a regiment of paratroopers from the nearby Canary Islands and repelled the attacks. With the assistance of the French, Spain soon re-established control in the area through Operaciones Teide-Ecoubillon (Spanish name) / Opérations Ecouvillon (French name).[5]

It tried to suppress resistance politically. It forced some of the previously nomadic inhabitants of Spanish Sahara to settle in certain areas, and the rate of urbanisation was increased. In 1958, Spain united the territories of Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro to form the overseas province of Spanish Sahara, while ceding the province of the Cape Juby Strip (which included Villa Bens) in the same year to Morocco.

In the 1960s, Morocco continued to claim Spanish Sahara. It gained agreement by the United Nations to add the territory to the list of territories to be decolonised. In 1969, Spain returned Ifni to Morocco, but continued to retain Spanish Sahara.

In 1967, Spanish rule was challenged by the Harakat Tahrir, a protest movement secretly organised by the Royal Moroccan Government. Spain suppressed the 1970 Zemla Intifada.

In 1973, the Polisario Front was formed in a revival of militant Sahrawi nationalism. The Front's guerrilla army grew rapidly, and Spain lost effective control over most of the territory by early 1975. Its effort to found a political rival, the Partido de Unión Nacional Saharaui (PUNS), met with little success. Spain proceeded to co-opt tribal leaders by setting up the Djema'a, a political institution loosely based on traditional Sahrawi tribal leaders. The Djema'a members were hand-picked by the authorities, but given privileges in return for rubber-stamping Madrid's decisions.

In the winter of 1975, just before the death of its long-time dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Spain was confronted with an intensive campaign of territorial demands from Morocco and, to a lesser extent, from Mauritania. These culminated in the Marcha Verde ('Green March'). After negotiating the Madrid Accords with Morocco and Mauritania, Spain withdrew its forces and settlers from the territory.

Morocco and Mauritania took control of the region. Mauritania later surrendered its claim after fighting an unsuccessful war against the Polisario Front. Morocco began fighting the Polisario Front, and after sixteen years, the UN negotiated a cease-fire in 1991. Today, the sovereignty of the territory remains in dispute. And referendum had not been possible to date due to dispute over who can vote [6]

Present status

Postage stamp issued in 1924.

The United Nations considers the former Spanish Sahara a non-self-governing territory, with Spain as the former administrative power and, since the 1970s, Morocco as the current administrative power.

UN peace efforts have been directed at holding a referendum on independence among the Sahrawi population, but this has not yet taken place. The African Union (AU) and more than 80 governments consider the territory to be the sovereign (albeit occupied) state of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with a government-in-exile backed by the Polisario Front.

See also


  1. Robert Rézette, The Western Sahara and the Frontiers of Morocco (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Latines, 1975), p. 60.
  2. "Encuentro con Premiados SGE 2007". Sociedad Geográfica Española. Archived from the original on 29 September 2011.
  3. Fouad Ammoun, Separate Opinion of Vice-President Ammoun, International Court of Justice, 1975, p. 79.
  4. Fouad Ammoun, Separate Opinion of Vice-President Ammoun, International Court of Justice, 1975, p. 81.
  5. «Opération Écouvillon» : Dernière tentative coloniale pour en finir avec l'Armée de libération marocaine ? and « L’Opération « Ecouvillon » (1957-1958) et la mémoire des officiers sahariens : entre contre-discours colonial et sentiment national en Mauritanie », in G. Cattanéo (dir.) Guerre, mémoire et identité, Paris, Nuvis, 2014, p. 83-107.ération_Ecouvillon_1957-1958_et_la_mémoire_des_officiers_sahariens_entre_contre-discours_colonial_et_sentiment_national_en_Mauritanie_in_G._Cattanéo_dir._Guerre_mémoire_et_identité_Paris_Nuvis_2014_p._83-107
  6. Erik Jensen, Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate, p. 17.

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