A Basic History of Morocco (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): A brief overview of the geography, culture, and history of Morocco.
The Berbers: A Free and Noble People (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Who are the Berber, and what makes them a distinct and special people?
The Sahara, Camel, and the Caravan Trade (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Highlighting the role of the caravan trade in Morocco’s ancient economy. That trade was made possible in large part by the camel, which allowed Berber, Arab, and sub-Saharan peoples to traverse the harsh Sahara desert, moving trade goods, and establishing religious and cultural connections where none could otherwise exist.
Fes: Center of Moroccan Empire and Culture (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): The first capital of a united Morocco has been a dynamic player in culture, education, and the economy of North Africa for more than a thousand years.
The Medina: Sustainable Cities of the Ancient World (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Examining the characteristics of a traditional medina, and evaluating those traits as a possible template for a more walkable, communal, sustainable future.
Chefchaouen and the Moroccan Quest for Independence (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Exploring Morocco’s experiences as an imperial power – and as the subject of imperial power from abroad. This history has shaped a distinctive culture at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, European, and African worlds.
Background on Islam, the dominant religion in Morocco:
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): Who was Muhammad, and how did the Arab world of the seventh century shape his teachings?
Five Pillars to Hold Me Up: What Do Muslims Believe? (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities):What are the basic teachings of Islam, and what does it mean to be a Muslim?
This article lists many benefits of living in a medina – list them, adding any additional benefits that strike you. Then, create a list of drawbacks.
Should cities in your country build neighborhoods that look more like this? Would you live in one?
Design your own ideal neighborhood – create a map that considers space to live, work, and play, as well as transportation and utilities like power and water.
A medina quarter (Arabic: المدينة القديمة al-madīnah al-qadīmah “the old city”) is a distinct city section found in a number of North African cities, including in Morocco. A medina is typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets. The word “medina” (Arabic: مدينة madīnah) itself simply means “city” or “town” in modern-day Arabic.
Medina quarters have usually been inhabited for a thousand years or more, and often contain historical fountains, palaces, public squares, mosques, and churches.
Because of their very narrow streets, medinas are generally free from car traffic, and in some cases even motorcycle and bicycle traffic. The streets can be less than a metre wide. This makes them unique among highly populated urban centres. The Medina of Fes, or Fes el Bali, is considered one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world.
Aside from the addition of some electrical wires and modern plumbing, most medinas in Morocco today look a lot like they did in those bygone glory days of the trans-Saharan trade one thousand years ago. The streets are rarely wider that six or seven feet, and are sometimes as narrow as two or three. Mules and men with carts do most of the heavy lifting in the streets, delivering or carrying away what can’t be done by hand – no trucks or cars can penetrate, so most people buy groceries for today, and maybe tomorrow. Furniture and modern appliances are often transported into the medina over a neighbor’s rooftop, and down a home through the central, open air courtyard. Anger your neighbors, and you might have a hard time remodeling your house.
Fresh fish – caught this morning – for sale in the souq, or market. It will likely be carried home by the purchaser, wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper. Sometimes a map pushing a cart full of iced fish will delivery it straight to residents’ doors.
Mosques – identifiable by their lighted minarets – serve each neighborhood within a medina, offering a space to pray, socialize, connect, and to resolve dispute with the community.
The crowded street of the medina in Fez. The ditch is in the center of the street, channeling water away from buildings and allowing pedestrians to stay dry even in the rain, beneath the awnings that are common in front of homes and shops.
In this cafe, refrigeration is provided by cool mountain water fed from a small mountain stream – there is no electricity.
Don’t think of a city like this as “backward” – think of it as a template for a life many in our modern times have forgotten… But which many of us are trying to rediscover. What appear to be drawbacks at first glance, described another way, are what many Americans and Europeans list as desirable qualities in a neighborhood.
It is walkable, by necessity. Most anything you need is available in a five to ten minute walk from your door.
It is communal – there are basically no police present, so most problems are solved in the community. Violence is squashed through neighbors’ intervention and social pressure. Public fountains with fresh, clean water can be found at most major intersections. Same with mosques, which, in addition to the square full of small shops, are at the center of residents’ spiritual and social lives.
Most all food is organic, fresh, and affordable, sold with zero plastic packaging.
The narrow streets, paved with stone, between high mud-walled homes are many degrees cooler than the open air outside the medina, meaning that while most who live within don’t have air conditioning, they don’t really need it either.
Dusk falls on the densely packed medina of Fez. In this rooftop photo, it is easy to see the density, the open courtyards, and the mosques – recognizable from their tall towers – stretching into the distance.
Since there are few to no vehicles in the medina, the streets are designed for human traffic – stairways are common in mountain towns.
At their narrowest, the streets of the medina can be narrower than the hallway in your house. Extended families might build passover hallways to join two households across the street.
In an effort to maximize living space, some families build additions to their homes – which extend over the street. This does provide additional shade to pedestrians below.
The soul is the market section of the medina. Many small shops – usually highly specialized, selling only meat, only women’s clothing, only fruit, sometimes only one kind of fruit – characterize the shopping experience. All of this is within a few minutes walk from home.
Larger deliveries in the medina might be made to by mules. As a result, pedestrian fatalities – a real problem in every American community – are almost unheard of in the medina.
Occasionally, streets of the medina are wide enough to accommodate small motorbikes, such as this one making deliveries in the souk of Essaouira, Morocco.
For hundreds of years before running water was widely available to every home, Moroccan rulers built fountains at close intervals throughout the medina – fed sometimes by springs, sometimes by aqueducts carrying clean water from distant mountains to the corner by your house.
In Muslim countries, the symbol for a pharmacy is often the green crescent moon. This pharmacy serves a small neighborhood in the medina – and offers shade to pedestrians below.
A small public mailbox serves the neighborhood.
In the medina of Chefchaouen, residents have cultivated a vast, interwoven web of grape vines that grow overhead. The grapes can be eaten or turned into wine; their leaves provide fresh air and shade, and can also be eaten.
In the medina, streetlights are usually fixed overhead, right to the side of buildings – there is far less light pollution, because it takes far fewer lamps to light such narrow streets.
Electrical wires, added long after these ancient cities were originally built, are often run directly alongside buildings, or buried beneath the streets alongside waterlines.
Chickens often range freely, living on rooftops or in the courtyards of homes, providing fresh eggs and meat to their owners.
This public street runs completely underneath a multi-story home. Public parking typically means room for a bicycle or a hitch for a mule.
The public street continues into this tunnel.
Living in the medina can mean cramped corners, however. Each of these doors leads to a different home.
Traditional doors in the medinas of Morocco feature a smaller door nestled within a larger one, each with a seperate knocker which resonates with a distinct tone. The smaller door is for close family, as well as for ventilation while cooking – it allows for a modest amount of privacy within. The larger door is opened to welcome company or celebrate special occasion, symbolically opening the home to the wider community.
Air conditioning is rare in traditional medinas. Thick brick or mud walls and windows open at the right time of day help to keep indoor spaces cool.
This wall is made from sun-baked mud and straw, which insulates well against the heat of the day – and is durable in the arid, rainless climate that covers much of Morocco.
In most medinas, there are at least a few public squares filled with restaurants, shops, kids playing soccer, as well as musicians and other entertainers, such as snake charmers. Much of life outside of work and school takes place in open, public spaces like this square in Marrakesh, Morocco is by far one of the largest and busiest.
This cart is loaded with scrap metal for recycling. Any waste collection within the medina is done this way, on a human or mule-drawn carts. In truth, residents of the medina purchase most food without packaging in the local souq, meaning that they produce little inorganic waste. Large trash trucks are not really necessary here, even if they were possible.
Medinas are traditionally walled, guarding against attack from raiders or rival nations.
Industry can take place very close to residential areas. This tannery emits the strong smell of ammonia, which radiates for blocks around – neighbors live with it.
Without glamorizing the social problems like poverty and sanitation issues that persist in some medinas, there is a good reason that this way of life has persisted since prehistoric times, while the patterns of American suburbanization are barely a century and half old – but are killing the people who live there via social isolation, urban sprawl, excess carbon emissions, and water wasted irrigating green lawns.
Which is really the ideal here? Can we learn something from our human past?
It’s not backward if it offers answers to questions of sustainability and community that so many in countries like the United States are trying in vain and at great cost to reinvent.
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.
Who are the Berber? Briefly describe their culture.
What do Berbers call themselves, and what does it mean in English?
Write your name in the Berber alphabet.
An anthropologist is someone who examines culture, artifacts, religion, language, lifestyles, and traditions to describe and understand a group of people, either from the present or the past. How would an anthropologist describe your community’s culture and history?
The main ethnic group inhabiting the Maghreb – which literally means “the west” in Arabic, and includes Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – are known as the Berber people. They and their ancestors have inhabited North Africa for more than 10,000 years, and possess a rich history and culture shaped by the varied geography of the area, as well as by their interactions with other groups, including the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish, and the French.
The Berbers call themselves Imazighen, which means free or noble people in their own language. It is a fitting descriptor.
Historically, the Berbers have been successful in trade, navigating the harsh conditions of the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains, linking Sub Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean world when other groups struggled to do so. In ancient times, this wealth – as well as Berber prowess on horseback meant that groups such as the Carthaginians were paying them tribute in North Africa.
Unlike the conquests of previous religions and cultures, the coming of Islam, which was spread by Arabs, was to have extensive and long-lasting effects on the Maghreb. The new faith, in its various forms, would penetrate nearly all segments of Berber society, bringing with it armies, learned men, and fervent mystics, and in large part replacing tribal practices and loyalties with new social norms and political traditions influenced by the Arab world.
Traditionally, Berber men take care of livestock such as sheep, goats, cows, horses, and camels. Families migrate by following the natural cycle of grazing, and seeking water and shelter with the changing seasons. They are thus assured with an abundance of wool, cotton, and plants used for dyeing. For their part, women look after the family and produce handicrafts like clothing, rugs, or blankets – first for their personal use, and secondly for sale in local souqs, or markets. While many Berber still live according to these patterns, many more no longer follow these traditional patterns – they now have jobs, homes, and lifestyles similar to any of those found in your country.
The Berber are experts of irrigation, drawing water from mountain rivers and feeding it via gravity into green oases of productivity.
Traditionally, Berber men have raised livestock like these sheep, which provide wool, meat, and leather.
The goats are nearly as resourceful as the Berber themselves.
Staple crops of the modern Berber are wheat, corn, dates, and tomato.
The Berber inhabit a wide range of climate zones, including this harsh foothills of the Atlas Mountains, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Rainfall and grass are sparse here, and the hearty goats herded by the Berber graze in the Argon trees that thrive in this arid landscape.
Berber women have traditionally created inticateky woven patterns on looms such as this one.
Berber women hand stitch the lushly detailed patterns seen on these kaftans. The work is exacting – and can earn a good income for the skilled artisan.
The Berber also cultivate alfalfa as a feed for livestock. This alfalfa is cut, bundled, and carried home from a family garden plot, usually by women.
Other Berber men work in tanneries, turning animal hides into leather in these vats of ammonia. The ammonia is sourced from the waste of animals.
Increasingly, the Berber are sedentary, but traditionally, many have been nomadic, following the green grass with their herds on a seasonal basis. This is mobile home of one family who still follows such a nomadic existence.
Like kids almost anywhere, modern Berber children love to play soccer – anywhere, any time.
Some Berber men create impressive tiled mosaics. These are the plain backsides of vibrantly-colored tiles, which will be held together with concrete. When flipped over, they will create a stunning geometric pattern – avoiding the depiction of the human form, as prescribed by Islam.
The traditional social structure of the Berbers is tribal. A leader is appointed to command the tribe through a generally democratic process. In the Middle Ages, many women had the power to govern. The majority of Berber tribes currently have men as heads of the tribe.
Imazighen (Berber) cuisine draws influence and flavors from distinct regions across North Africa and the Mediterranean world.
Principal Berber foods include:
Couscous, a staple dish made from a grain called semolina
Tajine, a stew made in various forms
Pastilla, a meat pie traditionally made with squab (fledgling pigeon) often today using chicken
Morocco is a former French colony, and French-style cafe culture has also influenced the country. Men in particular can be found at most hours of the day drinking espresso or tea, and possibly eating a pastry in one of the country’s thousands of cafes.
A tajine (Standard Moroccan Berber: ⵜⴰⵊⵉⵏ) is a Maghrebi dish which is named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. The earliest writings about the concept of cooking in a tajine appear in the famous One Thousand and One Nights, though the dish would have been already famous amongst the nomadic Bedouin people of the Arabian Peninsula, who added dried fruits like dates, apricots and plums to meat like mutton, chicken, or camel, giving tajine its unique taste. Tagine is now often eaten with french fries, either on the top or on the side.
Couscous (Berber : ⵙⴽⵙⵓ seksu, Arabic: كُسْكُس kuskus) is originally a Maghrebi dish of small (about 3 millimetres (0.12 in) diameter) steamed balls of crushed durum wheat semolina that is traditionally served with a stew spooned on top. It is a staple of the Moroccan diet, meaning that is eaten routinely and in such quantities that it constitutes a dominant portion of a standard diet for a given people, supplying a large fraction of energy needs and generally forming a significant proportion of the intake of other nutrients as well. In Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Libya, couscous is generally served with vegetables (carrots, potatoes, and turnips) cooked in a spicy or mild broth or stew, and some meat (generally, chicken, lamb or mutton).
Pastilla (Moroccan Arabic: بسطيلة, romanized: bəsṭila) is a traditional Moroccan dish of Andalusian origin consumed in countries of the Maghreb. It is a pie which combines sweet and salty flavours; a combination of crisp layers of the crêpe-like werqa dough (a thinner cousin of phyllo dough), savory meat slow-cooked in broth and spices and then shredded, and a crunchy layer of toasted and ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. Pastilla is said to be “uniquely Moroccan, intricate and grand, fabulously rich and fantastical.”
In Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other parts of the Middle East, prickly pears of the yellow and orange varieties are grown by the side of farms, beside railway tracks and other otherwise noncultivable land. It is sold in summer by street vendors, and is considered a refreshing fruit for that season.
Writing in 1377, the scholar Ibn Khaldun offered a general description of the Berber that applies nearly as well in the twenty-first century:
“As for [their] moral virtues, one can cite: respect for one’s neighbours; the protection of guests; the observance of obligations and commitments; faithful adherence to promises and treaties; resolve in misfortune; indulgence towards the failings of others; renouncement of vengeance; kindness to the unfortunate; respect for the elderly; veneration for men of science; hatred of oppression; resolve before states; determination to win in matters of power; devotion to God in matters of religion.”
Indeed, nearly eight hundred years later the anthropologist Ahmed Skounti echoed these sentiments:
“The Imazighen (singular Amazigh) also known as the Berbers are among the original peoples of North Africa. Their myths, legends and history span 9,000 years, back to the Proto-Mediterraneans. They have achieved unity by keeping up their unique language and culture which are, like their land, both African and Mediterranean.
The Berbers of Morocco share this duality, reflecting the diversity of their nature and stormy history. Through contact with other peoples of the Mediterranean, they created kingdoms but also vast territories organised into powerful, democratic, war-mongering, tribal communities. Both aspects of this social political organisation have left a mark on recent historical events and the two millenia of the country’s history. As opposed to the pagan Mediterranean kingdoms of Antiquity, Berber empires developed inland and were Muslim. Judaism continued to be practiced, and the Sunni Islam majority gradually took
on a Berber hue with its brotherhoods, zaouias, marabouts. and rituals.
The roots of the Berber culture go deep down into Morocco’s proto-history. They are illustrated by a strong link with their land, a sense of community, hospitality sharing food and a specific relationship with spirituality. Its openness to many influences whether Mediterranean, African, Oriental, European or international have defined its current characteristics.
The Berber language, an Afro-Asian idiom, is the melting pot of the history and culture of the country. It has outlived most languages of Antiquity such as Ancient Greek, Phoenician, Latin and Egyptian. It used to be written but is now mainly oral. Though there are fewer now that can speak it, the language is nevertheless still used by a substantial number of Moroccans.”
The hamsa (Berber: ⵜⴰⴼⵓⵙⵜ tafust) is a palm-shaped amulet popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa and commonly used in jewelry and wall hangings. Depicting the open right hand, an image recognized and used as a sign of protection in many times throughout history, the hamsa is believed by some, predominantly Muslims and Jews, to provide defense against the evil eye. It has been theorized that its origins lie in Ancient Egypt or Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) and may have been associated with the Goddess Tanit. The Hamsa is also known as the Hand of Fatima after the daughter of the prophet Muhammad.
The Berber are known for their skills in working with silver. Its color is associated with purity and piety. The vibrant colors that highlight the silver are called enamel, which is a technique that probably arrived in Morocco in the 1400s, as many Muslims and Jews were expelled from Christian Spain.
Inseparable from poetry and associated with the dance, Amazigh music take many forms, but two popular folk forms include Ahwach and Rouaiss. – AHWACH: is a collective dance according to musical rhythms and with a accompaniment of songs. The group composed of flatists (aouad), percussion flat drums (bendir), percussion sionists of metal instruments (naqos) and dancers. ROUAISS a musical group that sings Amazigh poetry (amerg). The instruments used are the three-stringed lute (guembri), the monochord violin (rebab), the flat drum (bendir) and an instrument percussion metal (naqoss).
If men cover their heads, it is often with a wrapping as seen in this photo, which shields their heads and faces from the heat of the sun and the any sand on the wind.
Two men in traditional Berber clothing. The long tunic worn by both men and women is called a kaftan.
The djellaba is a long, loose-fitting outer robe with full sleeves that is worn in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Djellabas are made of wool in different shapes and colors, but lightweight cotton djellabas have now become popular. Among the Berbers, or Imazighen, such as the Imilchil in the Atlas Mountains, the color of a djellaba traditionally indicates the marital status (single or married) of the bearer: a dark brown djellaba indicating bachelorhood. Almost all djellabas of both styles (male or female) include a baggy hood called a qob (Arabic: قب) that comes to a point at the back. The hood is important for both sexes, as it protects the wearer from the sun, and in earlier times, it was used as a defence against sand being blown into the wearer’s face by strong desert winds. In colder climes, as in the mountains of Morocco and Algeria, it also serves the same function as a winter hat, preventing heat loss through the head and protecting the face from snow and rain. It is common for the roomy hood to be used as a pocket during times of warm weather; it can fit loaves of bread or bags of groceries.
Many women cover their heads in accordance with Muslim tradition, but many more do not.
No matter how traditional the dress, Berbers are not stuck in the past – this man carries a messenger bag containing his cell phone and other modern necessities.
The unique Berber alphabet is called tifinagh. Like the Berbers themselves, the writing has been attributed in turn to having Egyptian, Greek, Phoeno-Punic or South-Arabic origins, though none of these theories is definitive. Other research points toward the indigenous origins of Berber writing, linking it closely to cave art. The undecoded signs and symbols that accompany the depiction of humans, animals, weapons and ritual or combat scenes create a sort of visual vocabulary which may have later developed into the writing system.
Historically, Berber writing had limited uses, primarily in memorials and commemorative stone carvings. It was largely replaced by Arabic around the fifth or sixth centuries, and later by French in the twentieth century. Berber was originally written vertically from top to bottom, but today is oriented from right to left, like Arabic. The alphabet is composed of a distinctive geometric written form, in which 33 characters are created from three basic shapes: the circle, the line, and the dot.
This ancient alphabet serves as the basis for the formation of the modern tifinagh alphabet adopted since 2003 by Morocco in order to write the Berber language.
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.
(Information on the Berber alphabet was adapted from the work of Aline Star, anthropologist at the Institut National des Sciences de L’Archéologie et du Patrimoine. Rabat)
The Sahara once had a very different environment. In Libya and Algeria, from at least 7000 BC, there was pastoralism, herding of sheep and goats, large settlements and pottery. Cattle were introduced to the Central Sahara (Ahaggar) from 4000 to 3500 BC. Remarkable rock paintings (dated 3500 to 2500 BC), in places which are currently very dry, portray vegetation and animal presence rather different from modern expectations.
For several hundred thousand years, the Sahara has alternated between desert and savanna grassland in a 41,000 year cycle caused by the precession of the Earth’s axis as it rotates around the Sun, which changes the location of the North African Monsoon. The area is next expected to become green in about 15,000 years (17,000 AD). There is a suggestion that the last time that the Sahara was converted from savanna to desert it was partially due to overgrazing by the cattle of the local population.
As a desert, Sahara is now a hostile expanse that separates the Mediterranean economy from the economy of the Niger basin. Crossing such a zone (especially without mechanized transport like a train or truck) is worthwhile only when exceptional circumstances cause the expected gain to outweigh the cost and danger. The Sahara has always been home to groups of people practicing trade on a regular, if only local basis.
Although they rarely travel faster than the walking speed of a man, camels’ ability to withstand harsh conditions made them ideal for communication and trade in the desert areas of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula for centuries, though they could only travel on routes with sufficient sources of food and water. The animals transformed the economy and culture of the Sahara.
Camels have a series of physiological adaptations that allow them to withstand long periods of time without any external source of water. Unlike other mammals, their red blood cells are oval rather than circular in shape. This facilitates the flow of red blood cells during dehydration and makes them better at withstanding high osmotic variation without rupturing when drinking large amounts of water: a 1,300 lb camel can drink 53 gallons of water in three minutes.
When the camel exhales, water vapor becomes trapped in their nostrils and is reabsorbed into the body as a means to conserve water. Camels eating green herbage can ingest sufficient moisture in milder conditions to maintain their bodies’ hydrated state without the need for drinking.
Camels do not directly store water in their humps as was once commonly believed. The humps are actually reservoirs of fatty tissue: concentrating body fat in their humps minimizes the insulating effect fat would have if distributed over the rest of their bodies, helping camels survive in hot climates. When this tissue is metabolized, it yields more than one gram of water for every gram of fat processed.
Camels are able to withstand changes in body temperature and water consumption that would kill most other animals. Their body temperature ranges from 93 °F at dawn and steadily increases to 104 °F by sunset, before they cool off at night again. Maintaining the brain temperature within certain limits is critical for animals; to assist this, camels have a rete mirabile, a complex of arteries and veins lying very close to each other which utilizes countercurrent blood flow to cool blood flowing to the brain. Camels rarely sweat, even when ambient temperatures reach 120 °F.
Camels lying in sternal recumbency, a position that aids heat loss. Dromedaries have a pad of thick tissue over the sternum called the pedestal. When the animal lies down in a sternal recumbent position, the pedestal raises the body from the hot surface and allows cooling air to pass under the body.
Camels’ mouths have a thick leathery lining, allowing them to chew thorny desert plants. Camels eating green herbage can ingest sufficient moisture in milder conditions to maintain their bodies’ hydrated state without the need for drinking.
Camel’s feet are leathery and broad, distributing their weight over the sand more evenly – they can walk easily over sand that into which a horse’s hooves would sink.
Humans may have first domesticated dromedaries in Somalia and southern Arabia around 3,000 BC.
Camels’ mouths have a thick leathery lining, allowing them to chew thorny desert plants. Long eyelashes and ear hairs, together with nostrils that can close, form a barrier against sand. If sand gets lodged in their eyes, they can dislodge it using their transparent third eyelid. The camels’ gait and widened feet help them move without sinking into the sand. The kidneys and intestines of a camel are very efficient at reabsorbing water. Camel urine comes out as a thick syrup, and camel feces is so dry that they do not require any additional processing when desert peoples use them to fuel fires.
The Ultimate Desert Technology
People have been using camels for over 4,000 years mostly as pack animals and for transportation. Camels came to north Africa from Arabia, by way of Egypt and the Sudan, coming into widespread use by 300 CE, replacing horses and donkeys as the preferred means of transportation across the Sahara. A caravan of camels took 70 to 90 days to cross the Sahara, so the camel’s ability to travel long distances without water made trans-Saharan trade possible. In short, adoption of domesticated camels represented the ultimate in desert technology.
A funduq was a rest stop for merchants traveling along the Saharan trade routes. Most typically a funduq was a building with a square or rectangular walled exterior, with a single portal wide enough to permit large or heavily laden beasts such as camels to enter. The courtyard was almost always open to the sky, and the inside walls of the enclosure were outfitted with a number of identical animal stalls, bays, niches or chambers to accommodate merchants and their servants, animals, and merchandise. Funduqs provided water for human and animal consumption, washing and ritual purification – that is, washing before prayer or eating. Sometimes they had elaborate baths. They also kept fodder for animals and had shops for travelers where they could acquire new supplies. In addition, some shops bought goods from the travelling merchants.
The Sahara is dry and harsh – but resourceful humans learned long ago how to make the most of it to raise food and facilitate long distance trade. The location of oases has been of critical importance for trade and transportation routes in desert areas; caravans must travel via oases so that supplies of water and food can be replenished. Thus, political or military control of an oasis has in many cases meant control of trade on a particular route. People who live in an oasis must manage land and water use carefully; fields must be irrigated to grow plants like apricots, dates, figs, and olives. The most important plant in an oasis is the date palm, which forms the upper layer. These palm trees provide shade for smaller trees like peach trees, which form the middle layer. By growing plants in different layers, the farmers make best use of the soil and water. Many vegetables are also grown and some cereals, such as barley, millet, and wheat, are grown where there is more moisture.
Camels would be fattened for a number of months on the plains of either the Maghreb or the Sahel before being assembled into a caravan. According to Ibn Battuta, the famous Muslim explorer who accompanied one of the caravans, the average size per caravan was 1,000 camels; some caravans were as large as 12,000. Various Trans-Saharan trade routes connected sub- Saharan West Africa to the Mediterranean coast. Among the commodities carried southward were silk, cotton, horses, and salt. Among those carried northward were gold, ivory, pepper, and slaves.
Caravans would be guided by highly paid Berbers who knew the desert and could ensure safe passage from their fellow desert nomads. The survival of a caravan was precarious and would rely on careful coordination and knowledge of the land. Runners would be sent ahead to oases so that water could be shipped out to the caravan when it was still several days away, as the caravans could not easily carry enough with them to make the full journey.
Mediterranean economies were short of gold, but could supply salt, whereas West African countries had plenty of gold but needed salt. The trans-Saharan slave trade was also important because large numbers of Africans were sent north, generally to serve as domestic servants or slave concubines. The West African states imported highly trained slave soldiers. It has been estimated that from the 10th to the 19th century some 6,000 to 7,000 slaves were transported north each year. Perhaps as many as nine million slaves were exported along the trans-Saharan caravan route.
The Arrival of Islam
Merchants transported more than valuable commodities along the trans-Saharan routes. Just as Buddhism reached the Chinese Empire via Indian merchants traveling the Silk Road, Islam reached West Africa through Arab merchants on Saharan caravan routes. Arab merchants brought the Koran and the written language of Arabic to traditionally oral cultures in West Africa. The extensive trade networks throughout North and West Africa created a medium through which Islam spread peacefully, initially through the merchant class. By sharing a common religion and a common language (Arabic), traders showed greater willingness to trust, and therefore invest, in one another.
The British Museum describes the process of conversion in West Africa:
It was Arab traders who first brought the new religion to the kingdom of Mali. Many of them were educated and religious men who through speech and the books of learned writers managed to spread the word. Malians who became traders, and who moved further from their roots, began abandoning their old religion and adopting Islam which proved a passport for entry into northern markets. Traders were followed by Arab immigrants who came as judges, imams and teachers and who settled in the country. They were treated with respect and one Mansa (king) even married his daughters to two of them. Mosques were built, and Islamic influences were felt in architecture, poetry, cooking and even dress. Men were sent to study in Moroccan madrasas (religious schools). Timbuktu became a major centre of Islamic culture and learning. Even so, in the villages much of the old religion remained, and Ibn Battuta was shocked to discover, even at court, old ceremonial dances being performed during an Islamic religious festival.
The Great Mali Empire
During the 13th and 14th centuries, the great Mali Empire owed its prosperity to its position at the center of a network of caravan trade routes which criss-crossed West Africa, linking sub-Saharan Africa, the Islamic world, and the Mediterranean. The empire was founded in 13th Century by Sundiata Keita, whose exploits remain celebrated in Mali today.
From the British Museum:
Sunjata (r. 1235–1255) was the first king to unify the Mandinka kingdoms and is as much a figure of legend as of fact. Epic songs of the griots tell of the ‘magician’ Sunjata who, when the Mandinka could no longer bear the burden of paying taxes to their Sosso leader Sumanguru, led them into battle. Sunjata killed Sumanguru at the Battle of Krina in 1235, and seized the major territories through which gold was traded. Sunjata declared himself Mansa (King of Kings) of the twelve kingdoms of the Mandinka. The 12 kings swore to obey Sunjata in return for being named governors of their territories. To help him rule, Sunjata set up a Gbara, or Great Assembly, of clan elders who would discuss and make decisions. Over the next two centuries the kingdom would expand through war, until it covered 1.3 million km2 . Sunjata’s successor Ali is credited with conquering the great trading centres of Timbuktu and Djenné.
An Oral History
A griot in modern Mali.
There are a few written accounts of this period, because West African society relied on a tradition of oral history passed down by griots (professional storytellers). Our picture of the Mali Empire comes mainly from the modern continuation of this oral tradition, archaeological research, the extant remains of cities, and the accounts of a few visiting writers.
In addition to royal griots who served the court, most villages also had their own griot, who told tales of births, deaths, marriages, battles, hunts, affairs, and hundreds of other things.
Francis Bebey writes about the griot in his book African Music, A People’s Art (Lawrence Hill Books):
“The West African griot is a troubadour, the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel… The griot knows everything that is going on… He is a living archive of the people’s traditions… The virtuoso talents of the griots command universal admiration. This virtuosity is the culmination of long years of study and hard work under the tuition of a teacher who is often a father or uncle.
With an economy built on the basis of the trans-Saharan trade, the Mali Empire was the largest and longest lasting kingdom in the history of West Africa. It profoundly influenced the culture of the region through the spread of its language, laws and customs along the Niger River, which ran through the heart of the empire. The empire contained three immense gold mines – Bambuk, Boure and Galam within its borders, by some estimates accounting for nearly half the gold supply in Africa, Asia, and Europe from the 12th century on. The empire taxed every ounce of gold, copper, and salt that crossed its borders.
Gold nuggets were the exclusive property of the mansa (king), and were illegal to trade within his borders. All gold was immediately handed over to the imperial treasury in return for an equal value of gold dust. Gold dust had been weighed and bagged for use at least since the reign of the Ghana Empire. Mali borrowed the practice to stem inflation of the substance, since it was so prominent in the region. The most common measure for gold within the realm was the ambiguous mithqal (4.5 grams of gold). This term was used interchangeably with dinar, though it is unclear if coined currency was used in the empire. Gold dust was used all over the empire, but was not valued equally in all regions.
Similar to Christianity of the time, Islamic Sharia law allowed slavery, but prohibited slavery involving other preexisting Muslims; as a result, the main target for slavery were the people who lived in the frontier areas of Islam in Africa, in the Sahara and Sahel. Bernard Lewis writes that “polytheists and idolaters were seen primarily as sources of slaves, to be imported into the Islamic world and molded in Islamic ways, and, since they possessed no religion of their own worth the mention, as natural recruits for Islam.”
Large numbers of Africans were sent north, generally to serve as domestic servants or slave concubines. The West African states imported highly trained slave soldiers. It has been estimated that from the 10th to the 19th century some 6,000 to 7,000 slaves were transported north each year.
The next great unit of exchange in the Mali Empire was salt. Salt was as valuable, if not more valuable than gold in Sub-Saharan Africa. Salt is produced in the Sahara (and has been for over 2½ thousand years-mentioned by Herodotus) at several places. Since ancient times, salt has been used to flavor and preserve food. Salt was either extracted from evaporating pools or mined from underground, left behind from dried up ancient seabeds. It was cut into pieces and spent on goods with close to equal buying power throughout the empire. While it was as good as gold in the north, it was even better in the south. Salt was relatively rare in the south. The northern region on the other hand had no shortage of salt. Every year merchants entered Mali via Oualata with camel loads of salt to sell in Niani. According to Ibn Battuta who visited Mali in the mid-14th century, one camel load of salt sold at the northern trading post of Walata for 8–10 mithkals of gold, but in Mali proper it was worth 20–30 ducats and sometimes even 40. One particular source of salt in the Mali empire were salt-mining sites located in Taghaza. Ibn Battuta wrote that in Taghaza there were no trees and there is only sand and the salt mines. Nobody lived in the area except the Musafa slaves who working to dug the salts and lived on imported dates, camel meat, and millet imported from the Sudan. The buildings were even constructed from slabs of salt and roofed with camel skins. The salt was dug from the ground and cut into thick slabs, two of which were loaded onto each camel where they will be taken south across the desert and sold.
No government can rule a nation if there is no economic activity to feed the people. Moroccan cities such as Fez and Marrakech appear to be landlocked on any map – they are nowhere near the ocean. But in a very real sense, they are ports on the edge of a great sea – the Sahara. Along with their neighbors to the south in Mali, the Berbers of Morocco became sailors on that sea, moving goods in great caravans on the backs of camels. Control of the last leg of the Saharan trade routes fueled the rise of Moroccan dynasties such as the Almoravids and Almohads. The people of Morocco have long benefitted from their unique geographic perch – building an enterprising and resourceful civilization based on trade that straddles the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan worlds.
This restaurant in modern day Fez was once a fantastic private residence – built and maintained by wealth hard-earned in the trans-Saharan trade.
One set among the dozens of front doors to the royal palace in Fez, each featuring intricate decorative work produced at great expense – again, paid for through taxes on the trans-Saharan trade.
This is the Al-Attarine madrasa – the ancient equivalent of a high school in the Muslim world. Built in Fez between 1323 and 1325, its stunning woodwork and stucco detailing were funded via tax revenue from the trans-Saharan trade.
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.
Benigno Simeon “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was born into a wealthy Filipino family on November 27, 1932. His grandfather, Aquino, was a general in the revolutionary army of Emilio Aguinaldo, the officially recognized first President of the Philippines.
Ninoy’s prestigious family and the prosperity that facilitated his education and early political success did not make him elitist, however. He would become an inspiration symbol of courage and nonviolence in the face of overwhelming repression, and his example would help set the Philippines free from decades of dictatorial rule under the thumb of Ferdinand Marcos.
Aquino gained an early success in Philippine politics, as he was born into one of the Philippines’ political and landholding clans. In addition to his grandfather’s revolutionary service under President Aguinaldo, his father held office under Presidents Quezon and Jose P. Laurel. As a consequence, Aquino was elected mayor of his hometown of Concepcion, Tarlac at the remarkably young age of 23 years old. Five years later, he was elected the nation’s youngest vice-governor at 27 (a record surpassed in 2013). Two years after that, in 1961, he became governor of Tarlac province and then secretary-general of the Liberal Party in 1966.
In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos, a prominent right-wing politician won the Philippine presidency. Early in his term, Marcos initiated ambitious public works projects and intensified tax collection which brought the country economic prosperity throughout the 1970s. His administration built more roads (including a substantial portion of the Pan-Philippine Highway) than all his predecessors combined, and more schools than any previous administration. Marcos was re-elected president in 1969, becoming the first president of the Philippines to achieve a second term. Opponents of Marcos, however, blocked legislation necessary to further implement his expansive agenda. As a result, optimism faded early in his second term, economic growth slowed, and Marcos became increasingly heavy handed with his political opponents. Crime and civil disobedience increased. The Communist Party of the Philippines formed the New People’s Army in response to his shaky hold over the nation and the Moro National Liberation Front continued to fight for an independent Muslim nation in Mindanao.
In 1968, during his first year as senator, Aquino alleged that Marcos was on the road to establishing “a garrison state” by “ballooning the armed forces budget,” saddling the defense establishment with “overstaying generals” and “militarizing our civilian government offices.”
Aquino became known as a constant critic of the Marcos regime. His flamboyant rhetoric had made him a darling of the media. His most polemical speech, “A Pantheon for Imelda” was delivered on February 10, 1969. He assailed the Cultural Center, a signature project of First Lady Imelda Marcos, as extravagant, and dubbed it “a monument to shame” and labelled its designer “a megalomaniac, with a penchant to captivate.” President Marcos was outraged and publically labelled Aquino “a congenital liar.”
At 9:15 PM on August 21, 1971, at a rally to kick-off the opposition Liberal Party’s campaign in the upcoming Philippine elections, candidates formed a line on a makeshift platform and were raising their hands as the crowd applauded. The band played and a fireworks display drew all eyes, when suddenly there were two loud explosions – obviously were not part of the show. In an instant the stage became a scene of wild carnage. The police later discovered two fragmentation grenades that had been thrown at the stage by “unknown persons.” Nine people died, and 120 others were wounded, many critically.
As Aquino was the only Liberal Party senatorial candidate not present at the incident, Marcos and newspapers friendly to his rule insinuated that he had had something to do with the attack. Aquino denied these allegations, and most historians continue to suspect Marcos as he is known to have used false flag attacks – that is, a covert operations designed to deceive the public; the deception creates the appearance of a particular party, group, or nation being responsible for some activity, disguising the actual source of responsibility.
Amidst the rising wave of lawlessness and the conveniently timed threat of a Communist insurgency, Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972. This meant that ordinary law, including basic civil rights like the right to a fair trial or the need to pass new laws through a legislature were no longer guaranteed, and the president, through the military, could rule without any checks and balances from other branches of government. The declaration of martial law was initially well-received, given the social turmoil the Philippines was experiencing. Crime rates plunged dramatically after a curfew was implemented. Marcos, ruling by decree, curtailed press freedom and other civil liberties, abolished Congress, closed down major media establishments, ordered the arrest of opposition leaders and militant activists, including his staunchest critics: among them, Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr.
Aquino was one of the first to be arrested. Before he was even put on trial – not in an ordinary, impartial civilian court, but in a military court friendly to Marcos – he was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of murder, illegal possession of firearms and subversion. This imprisonment would last for years before Aquino’s day in court.
On April 4, 1975, Aquino announced that he was going on a hunger strike, a fast to the death to protest the injustices of his military trial. Ten days through his hunger strike, he instructed his lawyers to withdraw all motions he had submitted to the Supreme Court. As weeks went by, he subsisted solely on salt tablets, sodium bicarbonate, amino acids, and two glasses of water a day. Even as he grew weaker, suffering from chills and cramps, soldiers forcibly dragged him to the military tribunal’s session. His family and hundreds of friends and supporters heard Mass nightly at the Santuario de San Jose in Greenhills, San Juan, praying for his survival. Near the end, Aquino’s weight had dropped from 54 to 36 kilos (120 pounds to 80). Aquino nonetheless was able to walk throughout his ordeal. On May 13, 1975, on the 40th day, his family and several priests and friends, begged him to end his fast, pointing out that even Christ fasted only for 40 days. He acquiesced, confident that he had made a symbolic gesture.
But he remained in prison, and the trial continued, drawn out for several years. On November 25, 1977, the Military Commission charged Aquino guilty of all charges and sentenced them to death by firing squad.
During this period, Marcos continued his political repression of the Philippines. His regime was characterized as kleptocracy – a government with corrupt leaders (kleptocrats) that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth and political powers. Typically, this system involves embezzlement of funds at the expense of the wider population. Official estimates say that the dictator ultimately stole between $5 to 10 billion from the people of the Philippines during his twenty year rule.
In mid-March 1980, after years in a solitary cell in Fort Bonifacio, Aquino suffered a heart attack. He was transported to the Philippine Heart Center, where he suffered a second heart attack. EKG and other tests showed that he had a blocked artery. Aquino refused to submit himself to Philippine doctors, fearing possible Marcos “duplicity;” he preferred to one of two options – go to the United States for the procedure or return to his cell and die.
After a secret hospital visit by Imelda Marcos, his request was granted. Aquino was allowed to go to the United States for surgery – accompanied by his family – on the condition that if he leaves, he will return; and while in America, he would not speak out against the Marcos regime. Aquino received treatment in Dallas, Texas. Following the surgery, he made a quick recovery, after which, he decided to renounce the agreement saying, “a pact with the devil is no pact at all.”
Aquino, his wife Corazón “Cory” Aquino, and their children started a new life in Massachusetts. He produced two books detailing his experience and the Filipino plight under the tyranny of Marcos, and gave a series of lectures while on fellowship grants from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His travels across the U.S. became opportunities for him to deliver speeches critical of the Marcos government. Throughout these years abroad, Aquino was aware that his life in the U.S. was temporary. He never stopped affirming his eventual planned return to the Philippines – even as he enjoyed American hospitality and a peaceful life with his family on American soil.
In the first quarter of 1983, Aquino received news about the deteriorating political situation in his country and the rumored declining health of President Marcos (due to lupus). Aquino believed that it was expedient for him to speak to Marcos and present to him his rationale for the country’s return to democracy – before extremist generals took over in the wake of Marcos’s impending death and made such a change impossible. Moreover, Aquino worried that the Filipinos might have resigned themselves to Marcos’s strongman rule and that without his leadership the centrist opposition would die a natural death.
Aquino decided to go back to the Philippines, fully aware of the dangers that awaited him. Warned that he would either be imprisoned or killed, Aquino answered, “if it’s my fate to die by an assassin’s bullet, so be it. But I cannot be petrified by inaction, or fear of assassination, and therefore stay on the side…”
His family, however, learned from a Philippine Consular official that there were orders from Ministry of Foreign Affairs not to issue any passports for them. They therefore formulated a plan for Aquino to fly alone (to attract less attention), with the rest of the family to follow him after two weeks. Despite the government’s ban on issuing him a passport, Aquino acquired one with the help of Rashid Lucman, a former Mindanao legislator. It carried the alias Marcial Bonifacio (Marcial for martial law and Bonifacio for Fort Bonifacio, his erstwhile prison).
The Marcos government warned all international airlines that they would be denied landing rights and forced to return if they tried to fly Aquino to the Philippines. Aquino insisted that it was his natural right as a citizen to come back to his homeland, and that no government could prevent him from doing so.
Marcos wanted Aquino to stay out of politics, however Aquino asserted his willingness to suffer the consequences declaring, “the Filipino is worth dying for.” He wished to express an earnest plea for Marcos to step down, for a peaceful regime change and a return to democratic institutions. Anticipating the worst, he revealed that he would be wearing a bullet-proof vest, but he also said that “it’s only good for the body, but in the head there’s nothing else we can do.” Sensing his own doom, he told the journalists accompanying him on the flight, “You have to be very ready with your hand camera because this action can become very fast. In a matter of a three or four minutes it could be all over, you know, and [laughing] I may not be able to talk to you again after this.”
In his last prepared statement – one he was never able to deliver – he said, “I have returned on my free will to join the ranks of those struggling to restore our rights and freedoms through non-violence. I seek no confrontation.”
Upon the airplane’s arrival in Manila, soldiers boarded the airplane to arrest Aquino. The soldiers escorted him off the airplane and onto the jet bridge; however, instead of following the jet bridge to the terminal, they exited the jet bridge down the service staircase onto the apron, where a military vehicle was waiting to bring him to prison. Sometime between his egress from the aircraft and his boarding of the ground vehicle, several gunshots were heard. When the firing stopped, Aquino was dead.
People Power Revolution
Following her husband’s assassination in 1983, Aquino’s widow Cory became active and visible in various demonstrations and protests held against the Marcos regime. She began to assume the mantle of leadership left by her husband Ninoy and became the symbolic figurehead of the anti-Marcos political opposition. In the last week of November 1985, Marcos surprised the nation by announcing on American television that he would hold a snap presidential election in February 1986, in order to dispel and remove doubts against his regime’s legitimacy and authority.
Initially reluctant, Aquino was eventually prevailed upon to heed the people’s clamor, after one million signatures urging her to run for president were presented to her. Running on the offensive, the ailing Marcos derided Aquino’s womanhood, saying that she was “just a woman” whose place was in the bedroom. In response to her opponent’s sexist remark, and in reference to the fact that the ailing and feeble Marcos was increasingly seen as being largely a front man for his wife, Imelda, Aquino simply remarked that “may the better woman win in this election.” Marcos also attacked Aquino’s inexperience and warned the country that it would be a disaster if a woman like her with no previous political experience was to be elected president, to which Aquino cleverly and sarcastically responded, admitting that she had “no experience in cheating, lying to the public, stealing government money, and killing political opponents.”
The snap election called by Marcos which was held on 7 February 1986 and was marred by massive electoral fraud, violence, intimidation, coercion and disenfranchisement of voters. Election Day proved to be bloody as one of Aquino’s staunchest allies, former Antique province Governor Evelio Javier, was brutally murdered, allegedly by some of Marcos’ supporters in his province. Furthermore, during the counting and tallying of votes conducted by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), 30 poll computer technicians walked out to dispute and contest the alleged election-rigging being done in favor of Marcos.
Incumbent President Marcos as declared the winner on February 15, 1986. In protest, Aquino called for a rally dubbed “Tagumpay ng Bayan” (People’s Victory Rally) the following day, during which she claimed that she was the real winner in the snap election and urged Filipinos to boycott the products and services by companies controlled or owned by Marcos’s cronies. The rally held at the historic Rizal Park in Manila drew a mammoth-sized crowd, sending a strong signal that Filipinos were quite tired of Marcos’ two decades of rule and the lengths to which he would go to perpetuate it.
Further, the dubious election results drew sharp reactions from both local quarters and foreign countries. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a statement strongly criticizing the conduct of the election which was characterized by violence and fraud. International observers, including a U.S. delegation, denounced the official results. The United States Senate likewise condemned the election.
Aquino rejected a power-sharing agreement proposed by the American diplomat Philip Habib, who had been sent as an emissary by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to help defuse the tension.
In what came to be known as the People Power Revolution, peaceful demonstrations took place on a long stretch of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, more commonly known by its acronym EDSA, in Metro Manila from February 22–25, 1986. They involved over two million Filipino civilians, as well as several political and military groups and religious groups. The protests, fueled by the resistance and opposition from years of governance by President Marcos and his cronies, culminated with the absolute ruler and his family fleeing Malacañang Palace to exile in Hawaii. Ninoy Aquino’s widow, Corazon Aquino, was immediately inaugurated as the eleventh president as a result of the revolution on February 25, 1986.
Marcos never ceased to maintain that he was the duly elected and proclaimed president of the Philippines for a fourth term, but unfairly and illegally deprived of his right to serve it.
In his dying days, Marcos offered to return 90% of his ill-gotten wealth to the Filipino people in exchange for being buried back in the Philippines beside his mother. However, Marcos’s offer was rebuffed by the Aquino government. He died and was buried as he lived his final days, in exile in Hawaii.
However, in 2016, after a contentious legal fight, his remains were reinterred in at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the Philippine National Cemetery, despite opposition from various groups.
Why did the Mexican government encourage Americans to move to Texas? What caused these Americans to revolt against Mexico?
What was Manifest Destiny? Did all people at the time agree with this idea?
Why didn’t Texas immediately join the United States?
How did the Mexican-American War begin?
Why did a number of Northerners – such as Henry David Thoreau, John Quincy Adams, and Frederick Douglass – oppose the war?
What did the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo do?
Mexico obtained independence from Spain in 1821, and briefly experimented with monarchy, becoming a republic in 1824. This early period of Mexican history was characterized by considerable instability. In the 1820s and 30s, the northern Mexican region of Texas was very sparsely populated, with fewer than 3,500 non-Native American residents, and only about 200 soldiers, which made it extremely vulnerable to attacks by the Comanche, Apache, and Navajo – who also claimed the land as their own. These indigenous people, especially the Comanche, took advantage of the weakness of the newly independent Mexico to undertake large-scale raids over hundreds of miles against Mexican targets to acquire livestock for their own use and to supply an expanding market in Texas and the US.
In the hopes that an influx of settlers could control the Indian raids, the bankrupt Mexican government liberalized immigration policies for the region. Finally able to settle legally in Texas, Americans from the United States soon vastly outnumbered the Tejanos, or Mexican citizens of Texas. Most of the immigrants came from the southern United States. Many were slave owners, and most brought with them significant prejudices against other races, attitudes often applied to the Tejanos.
Mexican authorities became increasingly concerned about the stability of the region – now because of the Americans in their midst. After Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, the American population in Texas teetered on the brink of revolt. Alarmed, the Mexican government implemented a new round of restrictions, which, among other things, prohibited further immigration to Texas from the United States, increased taxes, and reiterated the ban on slavery. Settlers simply circumvented or ignored the laws. By 1834, an estimated 30,000 Americans lived in Texas, compared to only 7,800 Mexican-born residents. By the end of 1835, almost 5,000 enslaved Africans and African Americans lived in Texas, making up 13 percent of the non-Indian population.
The Republic of Texas declared independence from the Republic of Mexico on March 2, 1836. At the time the vast majority of the population favored the annexation of the Republic by the United States. Fearing a repeat of the Missouri crisis, the leadership of both major U.S. political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, opposed the introduction of Texas, a vast slave-holding region, into the volatile political climate of the pro- and anti-slavery sectional controversies in Congress. Moreover, they wished to avoid a war with Mexico, whose government refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of its rebellious northern province.
For individual settlers, the decision to move west was typically driven by the desire for economic opportunity. But how did Americans justify their right to take lands from Native Americans, Mexicans, and others who might already live in the west?
In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across the entire continent of North America. A term coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan in 1845 to describe a set of attitudes that had already existed for some time before, there are three basic themes to manifest destiny:
the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the United States;
the destiny under God to do this work.
O’Sullivan wrote: “And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”
O’Sullivan’s original conception of manifest destiny was not a call for territorial expansion by force. He believed that the expansion of the United States would happen without the direction of the U.S. government or the involvement of the military. After Americans immigrated to new regions, they would set up new democratic governments, and then seek admission to the United States, as Texas had done. In 1845, O’Sullivan predicted that California would follow this pattern next, and that Canada would eventually request annexation as well.
Ironically, O’Sullivan’s term became popular only after it was criticized by Whig opponents of the Polk administration. On January 3, 1846, Representative Robert Winthrop ridiculed the concept in Congress, saying “I suppose the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation.” Winthrop was the first in a long line of critics who suggested that advocates of manifest destiny were citing “Divine Providence” for justification of actions that were motivated by chauvinism and self-interest. Despite this criticism, expansionists embraced the phrase, which caught on so quickly that its origin was soon forgotten.
The Mexican-American War
For almost a decade, Texas remained an independent republic, largely because its annexation as a huge new slave state would disrupt the increasingly precarious balance of political power in the United States. In 1845, President James K. Polk, narrowly elected on a platform of westward expansion, brought the Republic of Texas into the Union as the 28th state. Polk’s move was the first gambit in a larger design. Texas claimed that its border with Mexico was the Rio Grande River; Mexico argued that the border stood 150 miles to the north along the Nueces River. Meanwhile, American settlers were flooding into the territories of New Mexico and California, citing manifest destiny as their justification to do so.
U.S. attempts to purchase from Mexico the New Mexico and California territories failed. In 1846, President Polk ordered General Taylor and his forces south to the Rio Grande, entering deep into the territory that Mexico claimed as their own.
Regarding the beginning of the war, Ulysses S. Grant, who had opposed the war but served as an army lieutenant in Taylor’s Army, claims in his Personal Memoirs (1885) that the main goal of the U.S. Army’s advance from Nueces River to Rio Grande was to provoke the outbreak of war without attacking first – to make the whole war seem defensive, rather than as a war of conquest against a weaker nation.
“We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated there were but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it….
Mexico showing no willingness to come to the Nueces to drive the invaders from her soil, it became necessary for the ‘invaders’ to approach to within a convenient distance to be struck. Accordingly, preparations were begun for moving the army to the Rio Grande… It was desirable to occupy a position near the largest centre of population possible to reach, without absolutely invading territory to which we set up no claim whatever.
Eleven American soldiers were killed in this initial conflict, provoked by the Americans. Just as Grant described, Polk claimed the need to avenge the honor of these fallen men and pushed for open warfare against Mexico – a full invasion by the better equipped, better organized U.S. army commenced. His message to Congress on May 11, 1846, claimed that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.”
American troops occupied the lightly populated territory of New Mexico, then supported a revolt of settlers in California. A U.S. force under Zachary Taylor invaded Mexico, winning victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista, but failing to bring the Mexicans to the negotiating table.
Mexico was not inclined nor able to negotiate. In 1846 alone, the presidency changed hands four times, the war ministry six times, and the finance ministry sixteen times. Mexican public opinion and all political factions agreed that selling the territories to the United States would tarnish the national honor. Mexicans who opposed direct conflict with the United States were viewed as traitors.
Opposition to the War
In the United States, increasingly divided by sectional rivalry, the war was a partisan issue. Most Whigs in the North and South opposed it; most Democrats supported it. Southern Democrats supported it in hope of adding slave-owning territory to the South and avoiding being overwhelmed in the Senate by the faster-growing North.
Northern antislavery elements feared the expansion of the Southern Slave Power; Whigs generally wanted to strengthen the economy with industrialization, not expand it with more land. Among the most vocal opposing the war in the House of Representatives was John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts. Adams had first voiced concerns about expanding into Mexican territory in 1836 when he opposed Texas annexation. He continued this argument in 1846 for the same reason. War with Mexico would add new slavery territory to the nation. When the vote to go to war with Mexico came to a vote on May 13, Adams spoke a resounding “No!” in the chamber. Only 13 others followed his lead.
Northern abolitionists attacked the war as an attempt by slave-owners to strengthen the grip of slavery and thus ensure their continued influence in the federal government. Prominent artists and writers opposed the war.
The Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson attacked the popular war. Thoreau, who served jail time for refusing to pay his taxes in opposition, composed an essay on how to resist such a large-scale injustice as the war. That essay is now known as Civil Disobedience. Emerson was succinct, predicting that, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as a man who swallowed the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” Events proved him right, as arguments over the expansion of slavery in the lands seized from Mexico would fuel the drift to civil war just a dozen years later.
Democratic Representative David Wilmot introduced the Wilmot Proviso, which would prohibit slavery in new territory acquired from Mexico. Wilmot’s proposal passed the House but not the Senate, and it spurred further hostility between the factions.
The End of the War
The Battle of Chapultepec was an encounter between the Mexican Army and the United States on the castle of Chapultepec which sits high atop a cliff. At this time, this castle was a renowned military school. After the battle, which ended in the American capture of Mexico City, the legend of “Los Niños Héroes” was born. Although the story is unconfirmed by historians, six military cadets between the ages of 13 and 17 are said to have stayed in the school instead of evacuating, choosing instead to stand their ground for the honor of Mexico. Rather than surrender to the U.S. Army, some of military cadets leaped from the castle walls. One cadet wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and jumped to his death. These Niños Héroes (hero children) became icons in Mexico’s pantheon of heroes.
Outnumbered militarily and with many of its large cities occupied, Mexico could not defend itself; the country was also faced with many internal divisions. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, ended the war. The treaty gave the U.S. undisputed control of Texas, established the U.S.-Mexican border at the Rio Grande, and ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming (together, so-called Mexican Cession). In return, Mexico received $15 million (approximately $424 million today) – less than half the amount the U.S. had attempted to offer Mexico for the land before the opening of hostilities.
The acquisition was a source of controversy, especially among U.S. politicians who had opposed the war from the start. A leading antiwar U.S. newspaper, the Whig National Intelligencer, sardonically concluded that “We take nothing by conquest … Thank God.”
Before ratifying the treaty, the U.S. Senate made two modifications: changing the wording of Article IX (which guaranteed Mexicans living in the purchased territories the right to become U.S. citizens) and striking out Article X (which conceded the legitimacy of land grants made by the Mexican government). As a result, the majority of Mexicans who suddenly found themselves living in the United States would come to be considered foreigners in their own home and would ultimately lose their land to American settlers who flooded the Mexican Cession over the next generation.
The war was a decisive event for the U.S., marking a significant waypoint for the nation as a growing military power, and a milestone in the U.S. narrative of Manifest Destiny. The war did not resolve the issue of slavery in the U.S. but rather in many ways inflamed it, as potential westward expansion of the institution of slavery became an increasingly central and heated theme in national debates preceding the American Civil War. By extending the nation from coast to coast, the Mexican–American War was a next step in the huge migrations to the West of Americans, which culminated in transcontinental railroads and the Indian wars later in the same century.
The military defeat and loss of territory was a disastrous blow to Mexico, causing the country to enter a period of self-examination as its leaders sought to identify and address the reasons that had led to such a debacle. The war remains a painful historical event for the country.
In Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, the Niños Héroes (Monument to the Heroic Cadets) commemorates the heroic sacrifice of the six teenaged military cadets who fought to their deaths rather than surrender to American troops during the Battle of Chapultepec Castle. The monument is an important patriotic site in Mexico. On March 5, 1947, nearly one hundred years after the battle, U.S. President Harry S. Truman placed a wreath at the monument and stood for a moment of silence.
The United States has no national memorial to the war, which remains largely unknown to most Americans.
What was the goal of the Constitutional Convention?
Name and describe one compromise at the convention.
What are checks and balances?
Who were the Federalists and what did they believe?
What is the Bill of Rights, and what is one right it protects?
By the time the Northwest Ordinance was enacted, American leaders were in the midst of drafting a new and stronger constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. Already a legend in his own lifetime, George Washington was a vocal critic of the Articles, had written accurately that the states were united only by a “rope of sand.” Disputes between Maryland and Virginia over navigation on the Potomac River led to a conference of representatives of five states at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786. One of the delegates, Alexander Hamilton of New York, convinced his colleagues that commerce was bound up with large political and economic questions. What was required was a fundamental rethinking of the Confederation.
The Annapolis conference issued a call for all the states to appoint representatives to a convention to be held the following spring in Philadelphia. The Continental Congress was at first indignant over this bold step, but it acquiesced after Washington gave the project his backing and was elected a delegate. During the next fall and winter, elections were held in all states but Rhode Island.
A remarkable gathering of notables assembled at what came to be called the Constitutional Convention – a gathering of delegates with the goal of creating a new plan of government for the United States – in May 1787. The state legislatures sent leaders with experience in colonial and state governments, in Congress, on the bench, and in the army. Washington, regarded as the country’s first citizen because of his integrity and his military leadership during the Revolution, was chosen as presiding officer.
From Pennsylvania came Benjamin Franklin, nearing the end of an extraordinary career of public service and scientific achievement. From Virginia came James Madison, a practical young statesman, a thorough student of politics and history, and, according to a colleague, “from a spirit of industry and application … the best-informed man on any point in debate.” He would be recognized as the “Father of the Constitution.”
From New York came Alexander Hamilton, who had proposed the meeting. Absent from the Convention were Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as minister representing the United States in France, and John Adams, serving in the same capacity in Great Britain. Youth predominated among the 55 delegates—the average age was 42.
Congress had authorized the Convention merely to draft amendments to the Articles of Confederation but, as Madison later wrote, the delegates, “with a manly confidence in their country,” simply threw the Articles aside and went ahead with the building of a wholly new form of government.
They recognized that the paramount need was to reconcile two different powers—the power of local control, which was already being exercised by the 13 semi-independent states, and the power of a central government. They adopted the principle that the functions and powers of the national government—being new, general, and inclusive—had to be carefully defined and stated, while all other functions and powers were to be understood as belonging to the states. But realizing that the central government had to have real power, the delegates also generally accepted the fact that the government should be authorized, among other things, to coin money, to regulate commerce, to declare war, and to make peace.
Debate and Compromise
The 18th-century statesmen who met in Philadelphia were adherents of Montesquieu’s concept of the separation of powers in politics. This principle was supported by colonial experience and strengthened by the writings of Montesquieu, with which most of the delegates were familiar. These influences led to the conviction that three equal and coordinate branches of government should be established. Legislative, executive, and judicial powers were to be so harmoniously balanced that no one could ever gain control. The delegates agreed that the legislative branch, like the colonial legislatures and the British Parliament, should be bicameral, consisting of two houses.
On these points there was unanimity within the assembly. But sharp differences also arose. Representatives of the small states—New Jersey, for instance—objected to changes that would reduce their influence in the national government by basing representation upon population rather than upon statehood, as was the case under the Articles of Confederation.
On the other hand, representatives of large states, like Virginia, argued for proportionate representation. This debate threatened to go on endlessly until Roger Sherman came forward with a plan that came to be known as the Great Compromise – for representation in proportion to the population of the states in one house of Congress, the House of Representatives, and equal representation in the other, the Senate.
Almost every succeeding question raised new divisions, to be resolved only by new compromises. Northerners wanted slaves counted when determining each state’s tax share, but not in determining the number of seats a state would have in the House of Representatives. According to the Three-Fifths Compromise reached with little dissent, tax levies and House membership would be apportioned according to the number of free inhabitants plus three-fifths of the slaves.
Laboring through a hot Philadelphia summer, the convention finally achieved a draft incorporating in a brief document the organization of the most complex government yet devised – one which could only carry out enumerated powers, those powers listed in the Constitution. It would have full power to levy taxes, borrow money, establish uniform duties and excise taxes, coin money, regulate interstate commerce, fix weights and measures, grant patents and copyrights, set up post offices, and build post roads. It also was authorized to raise and maintain an army and navy, manage Native-American affairs, conduct foreign policy, and wage war. It could pass laws for naturalizing foreigners and controlling public lands; it could admit new states on a basis of absolute equality with the old. The power to pass all necessary and proper laws for executing these clearly defined powers rendered the federal government able to meet the needs of later generations and of a greatly expanded body politic.
The principle of separation of powers had already been given a fair trial in most state constitutions and had proved sound. Accordingly, the convention set up a governmental system with separate legislative, executive, and judiciary branches, each with powers of checks and balances to limit each other. Thus congressional enactments were not to become law until approved by the president. And the president was to submit the most important of his appointments and all his treaties to the Senate for confirmation. The president, in turn, could be impeached and removed by Congress. The judiciary was to hear all cases arising under federal laws and the Constitution; in effect, the courts were empowered to interpret both the fundamental and the statute law. But members of the judiciary, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, could also be impeached by Congress.
Ratification and the Bill of Rights
On September 17, 1787, after 16 weeks of deliberation, the finished Constitution was signed by 39 of the 42 delegates present. Franklin, pointing to the half‑sun painted in brilliant gold on the back of Washington’s chair, said:
I have often in the course of the session … looked at that [chair] behind the president, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, and not a setting, sun.
The convention was over; the members “adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together, and took a cordial leave of each other.” Yet a crucial part of the struggle for a more perfect union remained to be faced. The consent of popularly elected state conventions was still required before the document could become effective.
The convention had decided that the Constitution would take effect upon ratification by conventions in nine of the 13 states. By June 1788 the required nine states had ratified the Constitution, but the large states of Virginia and New York had not. Most people felt that without their support the Constitution would never be honored. To many, the document seemed full of dangers: Would not the strong central government that it established tyrannize them, oppress them with heavy taxes, and drag them into wars?
Differing views on these questions brought into existence two parties, the Federalists, who favored a strong central government, and the Antifederalists, who preferred a loose association of separate states. Impassioned arguments on both sides were voiced by the press, the legislatures, and the state conventions.
In Virginia, the Antifederalists attacked the proposed new government by challenging the opening phrase of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States.” Without using the individual state names in the Constitution, the delegates argued, the states would not retain their separate rights or powers. Virginia Antifederalists were led by Patrick Henry, who became the chief spokesman for back-country farmers who feared the powers of the new central government. Wavering delegates were persuaded by a proposal that the Virginia convention recommend a bill of rights, and Antifederalists joined with the Federalists to ratify the Constitution on June 25.
In New York, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison pushed for the ratification of the Constitution in a series of essays known as The Federalist Papers. The essays, published in New York newspapers, provided a now-classic argument for a central federal government, with separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches that checked and balanced one another. With The Federalist Papers influencing the New York delegates, the Constitution was ratified on July 26.
Fear of a strong central government was only one concern among those opposed to the Constitution; of equal concern to many was the fear that the Constitution did not protect individual rights and freedoms sufficiently. Virginian George Mason, author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights of 1776, was one of three delegates to the Constitutional Convention who had refused to sign the final document because it did not enumerate individual rights. Together with Patrick Henry, he campaigned vigorously against ratification of the Constitution by Virginia. Indeed, five states, including Massachusetts, ratified the Constitution on the condition that such amendments be added immediately.
When the first Congress convened in New York City in September 1789, the calls for amendments protecting individual rights were virtually unanimous. Congress quickly adopted 12 such amendments; by December 1791, enough states had ratified 10 amendments to make them part of the Constitution. Collectively, they are known as the Bill of Rights. Among their provisions: freedom of speech, press, religion, and the right to assemble peacefully, protest, and demand changes (First Amendment); protection against unreasonable searches, seizures of property, and arrest (Fourth Amendment); due process of law in all criminal cases (Fifth Amendment); right to a fair and speedy trial (Sixth Amendment); protection against cruel and unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment); and provision that the people retain additional rights not listed in the Constitution (Ninth Amendment).
Since the adoption of the Bill of Rights, only 17 more amendments have been added to the Constitution. Although a number of the subsequent amendments revised the federal government’s structure and operations, most followed the precedent established by the Bill of Rights – they expanded rather than limited individual rights and freedoms, in particular to the women and people of color who had originally been excluded when Jefferson wrote the words “All men are created equal…”