Book review: Spanish Sahara ~ John Mercer

John Mercer, 1976 (o/p)

John Mercer visited this tightly controlled colony as power was slipping from Spain’s hands and the region’s Saharawi people faced recolonisation led primarily by Morocco, that resulted in the protracted Polisario conflict which endures today with the territory divided by the berm. All that was about to kick off as the book ends, and up to that point Mercer gives a very through account of this seeming Saharan No Man’s Land starting with geology, natural history and prehistory. The Berber history of the Almoravids who conquered most of Spain leads to the feeble (or unproductive) Portuguese and Spanish incursions of the late Middle Ages on which Spain based its colonial claim in the late nineteenth century. We also read about the activities of early traders like the Scot, Mackenzie, whose fortress-like trading counter still lies off Cape Juby an adventurer-entrepreneur who tried to buy into the rich trans-Saharan caravan trade before it got to Moroccan markets. Or the depredations suffered by Alexander Scott and James Riley, shipwrecked in the early nineteenth century, but who at least lived to tell the tale (see: Skeletons on the Sahara review).

We also get what must be the best English-language account of the tribes of that region closely related to today’s Moors; the well-known Arabised Reguibat, the Delim and other lesser clans who, when not raiding each other, preyed on shipwrecks, their victims and early explorers. Their complex allegiances, culture, customs and daily life is especially detailed, as in an account of the manoeuvres behind the French colonisation of the region. Resources was what they were after: the world’s largest source of phosphate at Bou Craa, the iron ore at Zouerate and the rich offshore fisheries.

It may be 30 years old, but its hard to think of a more thoroughly researched account (in English) that opens up the Western Sahara and its neighbouring regions – you’ll find it used on the web from around a tenner.