Spanish-Algerine War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Responding to a Moorish siege of Spanish Moroccan possessions by Sultan Mohammed III, King Charles III ordered an invasion of Algiers. Led by Alexander O’Reilly, who commanded a combined military and naval expedition of nearly fifty ships and more than twenty thousand troops, the Spaniards were decisively defeated. The campaign proved a humiliating blow to the Spanish military revival, and it further empowered the Moroccan sultanate.

Summary of Event

With the final expulsion of the Moors Moors from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century, the Spanish advanced into North Africa itself. They occupied and maintained key enclaves along the coast of this region, the western half of which was known in the Arab world as the Maghreb Maghreb (land where the sun sets). The coastal area was a notorious region of pirate and slaver activity: Maritime outlaws preyed especially on neighboring ships from Spain, leading the area to be called the Barbary Coast. The coast marked the farthest western extent of the Ottoman Empire, and Islamic potentates in the Maghreb were under relative and varying degrees of Turkish suzerainty. As a result, once the Spanish began to encroach upon it, the entire Mediterranean region witnessed continual Christian and Islamic confrontations. [kw]Spanish-Algerine War (1775) [kw]War, Spanish-Algerine (1775) [kw]Algerine War, Spanish- (1775) Spanish-Algerine War (1775)[Spanish Algerine War] Algerine-Spanish War (1775)[Algerine Spanish War] [g]Africa;1775: Spanish-Algerine War[2130] [g]Algeria;1775: Spanish-Algerine War[2130] [g]Spain;1775: Spanish-Algerine War[2130] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1775: Spanish-Algerine War[2130] Charles III (1716-1788) O’Reilly, Alejandro Figueroa, Manuel Ventura Mu{hsubdot}ammad III Floridablanca, count de

Two of the most noted Spanish enclaves in Morocco were Ceuta and Mellila, fortified Christian ports on the Mediterranean. Despite chronic conflict between Morocco and Spain Moroccan-Spanish conflicts[Moroccan Spanish conflicts] Spanish-Moroccan conflicts[Spanish Moroccan conflicts] over these territories, a treaty securing improved trade relations between the two had been signed in 1767. The treaty was a result of the astuteness of the count of Aranda, chief minister of Charles III, one of the most effective progressive monarchs of the Bourbon Dynasty. Muḥammad III, sultan of Morocco and equally astute, was eager to sign the treaty and improve the financial conditions of his realm. He could thereby advance his plans to control neighboring Algeria, which was nominally under the control of a dey and subordinate beys, representatives in absentia of the distant Ottoman sultan in Istanbul.

Despite his wish for peace and stability with Spain, internal pressures on Muḥammad forced him to lay siege to Melilla from late 1774 to early 1775. Mountain tribesmen demanded that the Christian infidels be driven from the Maghreb. Moreover, Spanish pirate ships preyed on Islamic traders, disrupting the safe commerce that the treaty was supposed to guarantee. Melilla, nonetheless, withstood the Moroccan advance, receiving powerful reinforcement from the Spanish navy. The sultan did not prevail despite his efforts to strengthen his position by friendly overtures to his Algerian neighbors.

Aranda was no longer in power by 1775, Charles having replaced him with Manuel Ventura Figueroa, a veteran diplomat. Determined to demonstrate to the sultan that Spain would not waver in its resolve to hold onto its Moroccan enclaves, Charles’s government decided to send a military and naval expedition to occupy Algiers, a key and supposedly vulnerable Barbary port. A force of more than four dozen ships of war and more than twenty thousand men was organized by late spring. It set course from Cartegena for the Bay of Algiers, reaching its objective by the beginning of July. The expedition was commanded by Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irish officer who at a young age had entered Spanish military service. As head of the royal household guard in 1765, he had protected Charles III from a deadly assault. Gaining the king’s gratitude and favor, O’Reilly received numerous appointments, including the later military governorship of Louisiana from 1769 to 1770, when the territory was transferred from French to Spanish control.

O’Reilly’s forces for the Algerine expedition included considerable Irish contingents. Many of these were Jacobites, individuals committed to restoring a Catholic Stuart monarch to the British throne. The Stuart pretender, Charles Edward (also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie), had unsuccessfully invaded Britain during 1745-1746. O’Reilly maintained that with England’s colonies in North America in revolt, British defenses would be so depleted that with Spanish aid he could successfully occupy Ireland and free it from British control. Charles III’s government, however, preferred a less aggressive relation with Britain, mindful of the ancient English alliance with Portugal, a neighbor with which it did not wish debilitating entanglements.

Despite O’Reilly’s reputation and the size of the force under his command, the assault on Algiers was a miserable failure. The Spanish troops landed in two waves, overwhelmed by sweltering summer heat. Poorly trained, except for the Irish veterans, they were duped by a feigned retreat by Moorish forces from Algiers. The latter had been massively augmented by warrior tribesmen from the interior, who had been alerted by intelligence from Moorish merchants in Marseilles who had followed the course of Spanish military preparations during the spring.

Unable to hold a line of resistance, the Spanish forces were routed, returning in chaos to their ships. More than 5 percent of the Spanish soldiers were killed, and more than 10 percent were wounded. O’Reilly wanted to retaliate by bombarding Algiers from the sea, but he learned that he had only enough provisions on board to last for an immediate return to Spain.


Although in general Charles III’s reforms of the Spanish military would enhance his country’s military position, O’Reilly’s poor preparations and leadership made the Algiers defeat a mockery of the Spanish army. While the Moors had detailed intelligence on the Spanish, the Spaniards had no information about their foes. Where Spain had mostly raw recruits, the Algerians had veteran warriors. The Algerians confronted the Spanish with a united force, whereas O’Reilly and the commander of the Spanish ships despised each other. This bitterness resulted in an extraordinary lack of planning, which in turn left O’Reilly with inadequate provisions and armaments. O’Reilly proved incapable of coordinating the varied elements of his forces. Popular discontent over the humiliating defeat at Algiers forced Charles to save his commander’s life by spiriting him away to remote commands.

Further changes occurred when Charles appointed the count de Floridablanca as his foreign minister in 1776. Supervising Spain’s foreign affairs for fifteen years, Floridablanca became one of the most effective and respected of Bourbon public servants. Despite the Algiers invasion, in 1780 Spain and Morocco signed a treaty of friendship. Muḥammad III recognized that his own interests in Algeria would move forward only if he had Spanish support. In 1785, the sultan demonstrated the extent of his influence in Algiers by sponsoring a treaty between Spain and Algeria. The tensions Spain had chronically encountered along the Barbary Coast were reduced. Moreover, a year after his appointment, Floridablanca achieved a treaty of mutual neutrality between Spain and Portugal, a document that would restrain their participation in the American Revolution. France, the principal enemy of Britain in Europe, decisively supported the revolt.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beirich, Heidi Ly. “The Birth of Spanish Militarism: The Bourbon Military Reforms, 1766-1808.” Unpublished master’s thesis. San Diego State University, 1994. Examines the reorganization and revival of Spanish armed forces in the context of general national and colonial administrative reforms under Charles III and Charles IV.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennison, Amira K. “Liminal States: Morocco and the Iberian Frontier Between the Twelfth and Nineteenth Centures.” In North Africa, Islam, and the Mediterranean World: From the Almoravids to the Algerian War. London: Frank Cass, 2001. Reviews the transitional nature of geopolitical relations between Spain and Morocco and their shifting “marcher state” status from the height of Islamic power in Spain to the decline of Ottoman power in the Mediterranean.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, L. Carl. Imperial Legacy: The Ottoman Imprint on the Balkans and the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Places the history of Morocco, Algeria, and the Maghreb during the eighteenth century in relation to the wider historical and regional interests, policies, and limitations of the Ottoman Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hull, Anthony H. Charles III and the Revival of Spain. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980. Exceptional scholarly study that examines details of the origin, course, and failure of the Algerine war within the scope of the wider objectives and accomplishments of reign of Charles III.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mantran, Robert. Great Dates in Islamic History. New York: Facts On File, 1996. Includes chronological summary of Ottoman hegemony in Morocco from the sixteenth to eighteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petrie, Charles. King Charles III of Spain: An Enlightened Despot. New York: John Day, 1971. Work by an English scholar that examines Charles III as an exceptionally effective Spanish Bourbon monarch. The author has also written works on the Stuart Dynasty and the Jacobites.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, Stanley J., and Barbara H. Stein. Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759-1789. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Authoritative reassessment by noted scholars of the late Spanish imperial revival under Charles III. A sequel to the authors’ Silver, Trade, and War: Spain and American in the Making of Early Modern Europe (2000).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolf, John B. The Barbary Coast: Algiers Under the Turks, 1500 to 1830. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Examines the Spanish-Algerine conflict of 1775 in the context of centuries-old confrontations between various entities of the Barbary Coast, Spain, and other European powers.

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