Battle of Ksar el-Kebir

At Ksar el-Kebir, Moroccan forces won an important victory over an invading Portuguese army, decisively ending a century and a half of conflict between the two countries.

Summary of Event

The Battle of Ksar el-Kebir represented the culmination of a century and a half of sporadic conflict between Portugal and Morocco Morocco;conflicts with Portugal[Portugal] . The battle is also known, variously, as the Battle of Wādī al-Makhāzin (in Morocco), the Battle of Alcazar (a European corruption of el-Kebir), and the Battle of the Three Kings. Ksar el-Kebir, Battle of (1578)
ՙAbd al-Malik
Muḥammad al-Mutawakkil
Aḥmad al-Manṣnr
Sebastian (king of Portugal)
Muḥammad al-Mutawakkil
ՙAbd al-Malik (Saՙdī ruler)
Aḥmad al-Manṣūr

The ongoing conflict between Morocco and the Portugal was originally initiated by Portuguese attacks along the Moroccan coast. Portugal’s motives were economic, strategic, and religious. After 1520, the war turned in Morocco’s favor because of the rise of a new dynasty, the Saՙdīs Saՙdī Dynasty[Sadi Dynasty] , and their adoption of gunpowder-based weapons. By the time Sebastian assumed the throne in Portugal, his country was left with only a few coastal fortresses.

Sebastian was full of romantic notions, chief of which was to lead a crusade across North Africa to wipe out Islam Islam;Morocco and recapture the Holy Land. In 1576, a dynastic struggle within the Saՙdīan family provided him with the opportunity for which he had been waiting. The sultan, Muḥammad al-Mutawakkil, was overthrown by his uncle, ՙAbd al-Malik, and al-Mutawakkil appealed to Sebastian for help regaining his throne. Seizing on the legitimate excuse to go to war, Sebastian quickly assembled an army.

Sebastian’s invasion force was composed of around twenty thousand troops, including two thousand to three thousand German mercenaries, about the same number of Spanish troops on loan from Sebastian’s uncle, Philip II of Spain, six hundred Italian mercenaries paid for by the pope, several units of Portuguese nobles and gentlemen-volunteers who hoped to be rewarded by the king, and a large mass of hastily levied and poorly trained troops drawn from the lower segments of Portuguese society. The army was heavily weighted in favor of infantry, with al-Mutawakkil providing perhaps a thousand cavalry from among his followers. In the train of Sebastian’s army was a huge number of noncombatants, including priests, servants, camp followers, and many families of the soldiers.

Opposing these twenty thousand Europeans, according to modern estimates, was a Moroccan army of around seventy thousand. The majority of al-Malik’s force consisted of tribal cavalry armed with lances and swords, although the most effective units were composed of Andalusian, renegade, and Turkish infantry and cavalry musketeers equipped with matchlock harquebuses.

The Portuguese expedition landed at Arzila in early July, 1578, but it remained there for nineteen days, giving al-Malik time to assemble his forces. Sebastian, in fact, does not appear to have accepted good advice or to have made good decisions throughout the expedition. After almost three weeks, he finally set off with the objective of taking the port of Larache, 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the south. He was intercepted on the way by the Moroccan army at a point near the meeting of the Wādī al-Makhāzin and Lixus Rivers.

Both rivers were tidal and could be crossed only at low tide; Sebastian’s force became trapped in a cul-de-sac between them. The Moroccans deployed in a crescent shape, with cavalry on either side and infantry in the center. The Portuguese units were in small rectangles around a large hollow square. The Moroccan force mounted the attack and surrounded the Portuguese early in the battle. Mounted Moroccan harquebusiers rode up to the enemy, discharged their weapons point blank, then rode off to reload. On the Portuguese side, the front ranks of gentlemen-volunteers in the center, supported by Germans on the right and Spanish and Italians on the left, proved their mettle. At one point they attacked and severely mauled the Andalusian musketeers who held the Moroccan center.

The battle is reported to have lasted from three to six hours. Several tactical and strategic factors proved decisive in the Moroccan victory. The frontline attack by the Portuguese was so successful, it opened a fatal gap on the left between the Spanish and Italian formations and the less capable Portuguese units behind them, who were charged with protecting the side of the square. Moroccan cavalry poured into this breech. On a more general level, the disproportion between infantry and cavalry gave the Moroccans a decided advantage in mobility and limited the offensive capability of the Portuguese.

The third and perhaps decisive consideration was that of size. Unless al-Malik’s army fell apart—and this was a real possibility given that more than half of it was made up of tribesmen who could easily lose heart and desert if the battle began going badly—the Moroccans would eventually grind down the Portuguese. Once the Moroccan cavalry broke into the Portuguese square, it could attack from front and rear. The Spanish and Italian units never made it back to the larger square and were obliterated. The Germans and a unit of Portuguese cavalry held out until the Moroccans released a new wave of reserve horsemen who overran the field.

The battle was fought at high tide, making retreat impossible. Muḥammad al-Mutawakkil, along with a number of soldiers, attempted to swim to safety but drowned. Many others, including Sebastian, died on the battlefield. Some modern estimates put the number of dead on each side at about seven thousand to eight thousand, but others insist that the kill ratio was closer to two-to-one in favor of the Moroccans. The number of prisoners taken has been estimated to be at least fourteen thousand and perhaps many more, considering the many noncombatants in the Portuguese train. Nobles and higher-ranking Portuguese were ransomed by their families, while the rest were enslaved. On the Moroccan side, ՙAbd al-Malik died during the battle as well, apparently from natural causes. His death was kept secret from all but a few, however, for fear that such news might lead to large-scale desertions. Following the battle, al-Malik was replaced as sultan by his brother Aḥmad, who took the title al-Manṣūr, “the Victorious,” in celebration.


The defeat at Ksar el-Kebir was a great blow to Portuguese prestige, both in Europe and in the Indian Ocean area where the Portuguese maintained an empire. As Sebastian was childless (he had not bothered even to marry), the crown passed temporarily to one uncle, a churchman, then to another, Philip II of Spain. As a result, Portugal disappeared as an independent state from 1580 to 1640. Portugal;conflicts with Morocco[Morocco]

For Morocco, the battle brought wealth in the form of battlefield plunder and ransom money along with considerable prestige. The reign of Aḥmad al-Manṣūr is considered a glorious period in Moroccan history, during which the state reached its pinnacle of power. On the international scene, the Battle of Ksar el-Kebir helped draw to a close the larger conflict between Christian and Muslim forces that had raged across the Mediterranean for most of the sixteenth century.

Further Reading

  • Bovill, E. W. The Battle of Alcazar: An Account of the Defeat of Don Sebastian of Portugal at el-Ksar el-Kebir. London: Batchworth Press, 1952. Still the most complete account in English, even if minor facts have since been revised and some matters of interpretation reconsidered.
  • Cook, Weston F. The Hundred Years War for Morocco: Gunpowder and the Military Revolution in the Early Modern Muslim World. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994. A thorough study of the rise of Morocco under the Saՙdīan dynasty, culminating in a chapter devoted to the battle of Ksar el-Kebir.
  • El Fasi, M. “Morocco.” In Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, edited by B. A. Ogot. Vol 5 in General History of Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Includes a lengthy section on the battle and its consequences from the Moroccan perspective; has a useful map.
  • Yahya, Dahiru. Morocco in the Sixteenth Century: Problems and Patterns in African Foreign Policy. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1981. Puts the battle in the larger context of Moroccan history and the geopolitical situation of the western Mediterranean during the late sixteenth century.

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

c. 1485: Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa

Jan., 1498: Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast

16th cent.: Proliferation of Firearms

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

1510-1578: Saՙdī Sharifs Come to Power in Morocco

1580-1581: Spain Annexes Portugal

1591: Fall of the Songhai Empire