A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 1, 2011

For the Fourth: The First to Recognize US Independence: The Sultan of Morocco

Blogging may be light today as I work from home on Fridays and my family is already shifting into Fourth of July weekend mode, but in honor of the Fourth I figured it's about time to bring up one important piece of historical trivia: Who was the first country in the world to recognize the independence of the United States?

Most Americans would probably say France, but King Louis and his ministers waited until 1778, after the Battles of Saratoga, to ally with the presumptuous young republic. As early as December 1776 a visiting American brig flying the new American flag received a salute from the local commander of the Dutch Island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean, which gives the Dutch some bragging rights (and gave Barbara Tuchman a title for her book on the birth of the US Navy, The First Salute), but which was not recognition by the Dutch Home Government, which eventually followed France.

A frequent  claimant, accepted by the US State Department and the US Embassy in Morocco, is Morocco. Yes, we may have been recognized as independent by an Arab country before any other.

The Sultan, Sidi Muhammad bin ‘Abdullah, issued a declaration on December 20, 1777, announcing that all vessels sailing under the American flag could freely enter Moroccan ports. That declaration may not have explicitly recognized independence, but multiple declarations were subsequently issued and a French merchant in Salé (next to Rabat) named Caille, who acted as consul for many governments, wrote several letters to the Continental Congress and the US Agent in Paris, one Benjamin Franklin (you may have heard of him). These increasingly recognized the US as a sovereign entity. Finally somebody noticed:
When Franklin wrote to the committee on Foreign Affairs in May 1779, he reported he had received two letters from a Frenchman who "offered to act as our Minister with the Emperor" and informed the American commissioner that "His Imperial Majesty wondered why we had never sent to thank him for being the first power on this side of the Atlantic that had acknowledged our independence and opened his ports to us." Franklin, who did not mention the dates of Caille's letters or when he had received them, added that he had ignored these letters because the French advised him that Caille was reputed to be untrustworthy. Franklin stated that the French King was willing to use his good offices with the Sultan whenever Congress desired a treaty and concluded, "whenever a treaty with the Emperor is intended, I suppose some of our naval stores will be an acceptable present and the expectation of continued supplies of such stores a powerful motive for entering into and continuing a friendship."
Finally, in December 1780, three years after the first gesture, the Congress sent its first official communication to the Sultan:
We the Congress of the 13 United States of North America, have been informed of your Majesty's favorable regard to the interests of the people we represent, which has been communicated by Monsieur Etienne d'Audibert Caille of Sale [Salé], Consul of Foreign nations unrepresented in your Majesty's states. We assure you of our earnest desire to cultivate a sincere and firm peace and friendship with your Majesty and to make it lasting to all posterity. Should any of the subjects of our states come within the ports of your Majesty's territories, we flatter ourselves they will receive the benefit of your protection and benevolence. You may assure yourself of every protection and assistance to your subjects from the people of these states whenever and wherever they may have it in their power. We pray your Majesty may enjoy long life and uninterrupted prosperity.
This all led, after negotiations between Thomas Jefferson in Paris and John Adams in London (you may have heard of them, too) with representatives authorized to speak for Morocco, to the dispatch of the US Consul in Paris, Thomas Barclay, to Morocco, resulting in a Treaty of Friendship and Amity in 1786, known as the Treaty of Marrakesh. It pledged friendship but required no US payment of tribute, as other "Barbary" states often demanded. This was still in the Confederation Period and preceded the US Constitution. The US Embassy in Morocco tells the rest:
Barclay and the Moroccans quickly reached agreement on the Treaty of Friendship and Amity. Also called the Treaty of Marrakech, it was sealed by the Emperor on June 23 and delivered to Barclay to sign on June 28. In addition, a separate ship seals agreement, providing for the identification at sea of American and Moroccan vessels, was signed at Marrakech on July 6,1786. Binding for 50 years, the Treaty was signed by Thomas Jefferson at Paris on January 1, 1787, and John Adams at London on January 25, 1787, and was ratified by Congress on July 18, 1787. The negotiation of this treaty marked the beginning of diplomatic relations between the two countries and it was the first treaty between any Arab, Muslim, or African State and the United States.

Congress found the treaty with Morocco highly satisfactory and passed a note of thanks to Barclay and to Spain for help in the negotiations. Barclay had reported fully on the amicable negotiations and written that the king of Morocco had "acted in a manner most gracious and condescending, and I really believe the Americans possess as much of his respect and regard as does any Christian nation whatsoever." Barclay portrayed the King as "a just man, according to this idea of justice, of great personal courage, liberal to a degree, a lover of his people, stern" and "rigid in distributing justice." The Sultan sent a friendly letter to the President of Congress with the treaty and included another from the Moorish minister, Sidi Fennish, which was highly complimentary of Barclay.

The United States established a consulate in Morocco in 1797. President Washington had requested funds for this post in a message to Congress on March 2, 1795, and James Simpson, the U.S. Consul at Gibraltar who was appointed to this post, took up residence in Tangier 2 years later. Sultan Sidi Muhammad's successor, Sultan Moulay Soliman, had recommended to Simpson the establishment of a consulate because he believed it would provide greater protection for American vessels. In 1821, the Moroccan leader gave the United States one of the most beautiful buildings in Tangier for its consular representative. This building served as the seat of the principal U.S. representative to Morocco until 1956 and is the oldest piece of property owned by the United States abroad.
Of course all of this can't possibly have happened, because all Middle East countries are creations of the colonial era after World War I, right? I'm sure I heard that somewhere. Actually, Sultan Sidi Muhammad was a direct ancestor of King Muhammad VI.

In 1790 the first American vessel called in Oman. US merchants were active in the Eastern Mediterranean even before missionaries were, and by the early 1800s we'd fought wars with the "Barbary States," landed on the "Shores of Tripoli," but also started to explore trade opportunities in Constantinople, Alexandria, Beirut and other places. Americans were welcome then, because unlike the Europeans, they clearly had no imperial ambitions. I'll refrain from obvious comments about how we've changed our approach.

 Here, from Wikipedia, is a letter of George Washington to the Sultan (click to enlarge):

So, In the Name of the Sultan of Morocco and the Continental Congress (to misquote Ethan Allen considerably), I wish you a happy Fourth of July weekend. Even my British readers, if you don't mind; after all you haven't burned Washington for 198 years now.

I will post if, as seems unfortunately probable, Friday produces major developments, but wanted to get my Fourth of July post on record.

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