Warfare and Firearms in Fifteenth Century Morocco, 1400-1492

Warfare and Firearms in Fifteenth Century Morocco, 1400-1492

By Weston F. Cook Jr.

War and Society, Vol.11 (1993)

Introduction: Warfare in history is back in vogue again with special interest in the period 1350-1750. Much of this renewal arises from debate over the ‘Early Modern Military Revolution’ paradigm formulated by Geoffrey Parker and other self-described ‘New’ Military Historians. While the origins of this revolution are fixedly sixteenth century, tracing its roots has given new respectability to ‘a perennial stalking dinosaur of a theory’ – the Gunpowder Revolution of the Fifteenth Century. Revolutionary or not, firepower warfare definitely played a compelling role in the political, social and commercial changes in the decades from 1430 to 1492. The ‘New Monarchs’ of fifteenth-century Europe and the ‘Gunpowder Empires’ of Afro-Asia and Iberia, whether land-based or seaborne, owed their expansion in no small measure to superior gunpowder firepower. Cannon coercion intensified the struggle for commodities, customers and trade routes begun once ‘Age of Exploration’ adventurism melded into the mercantile ‘Commercial Revolution’, itself both prelude and component to Parker’s gestating military revolution. Violent military intrusion could and often did unleash tumultuous social, religious and cultural ferment and accelerated change, if not outright prolonged upheaval, among victims and perpetrators alike. Several ‘new military historians’ are now shaping these paradigms to serve as templates for the study of political and social change on a global scale. The ambitions of this article are more modest, however. Its focus is just one country, Morocco, and its conclusions are tentative rather than declarative.

Still, it is truly ironic that the independence of modern Morocco stands upon its own distinctive ‘sixteenth century military revolution’ because, in the fifteenth century, Morocco came within a hair’s breadth of joining Byzantium, Burgundy, Granada, Novgorod and other fifteenth century states in the cartological museum of political extinction. In that century Morocco’s primary foreign antagonist, Portugal, developed a potent blend of amphibious assault power, naval suppressive fire techniques, and a deft divide-and-conquer strategy of occupying vulnerable coastal cities – all based on artillery warfare and, increasingly, arquebuse firearm. Lisbon ruled its penetration points through a carrot-and-stick approach mixing commercial enticements for compliant Moroccan notables and merchants with frequent and violent military excursions into the countryside, all anchored on fortified land enclaves supported by a self-sufficient seaborne logistical network. These Portuguese and later Castilian incursions helped to set off revolts that sped up fragmentation of the ancient Banu Marin sultanate (1262-1465) and brought forward a new ruling house, the Banu Wattas (1465-1554).

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