Spanish Sahara


In preparation for the peace conference that was expected to follow World War I, in the spring of 1917 the British Foreign Office established a special section responsible for preparing background information for use by British delegates to the conference. Spanish Sahara is Number 124 in a series of more than 160 studies produced by the section, most of which were published after the conclusion of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Spanish Sahara was a Spanish protectorate, located on the Atlantic coast of Africa to the south of the French protectorate of Morocco and north of the French-controlled territory of Mauretania (present-day Mauritania). The book covers physical and political geography, political history, social and political conditions, and economic conditions. The European presence in this region goes back to the 13th and 14th centuries, when navigators from Genoa and Mallorca first ventured along the coast of northwest Africa. It was not until 1885, however, that Spain, which largely had been left out of the European “scramble for Africa,” declared the territory a protectorate and established a trading enterprise at Dakhla on the Rio de Oro. In 1887 Spain placed administration of the protectorate under the governor-general of the nearby Canary Islands, a part of Spain. The study notes the relatively bleak economic prospects for Spanish Sahara, in part because of the lack of fresh water. Its population consisted of Arabized Berbers divided into four groups: (1) the nobility and warrior class; (2) the clerics or literate religious Berbers, known as Morabitos; (3) the “middle” classes, i.e., owners of herds and flocks or traders who paid tribute to the nobility; and (4) slaves. The territory of the former Spanish Sahara is today the subject of a dispute between the Kingdom of Morocco, which claims it as an integral part of Morocco, and the Polisario Front, which seeks to establish an independent Saharan republic.

Last updated: November 14, 2017