We have read and heard countless times that the first country in the world to recognise the United States of America was Morocco. This statement has even been used as an argument to support certain political decisions of great political and legal significance.
What is this claim based on? To what extent is this statement true? What exactly happened?
First, a bit of history
Moroccan propaganda dates this event back to 20 December 1777. But on that date, the only thing that Morocco did was authorise ships sailing under the American flag to freely enter Moroccan ports.
Faced with a suffocating economic and political situation in which he could hardly maintain a superficial, limited stability among the Moroccan tribes that engaged in long fratricidal struggles, the Barbary Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdullah (1757-1790) was no longer able to entrust his army with the authority to collect taxes because the Moroccan tribes were less and less compliant with his authority.
Faced with such a pressing internal situation, the Sultan believed he saw a new way of obtaining income in maritime trade. In fact, it was he who built the port of Mogador (now Essaouira), in 1765, hiring French architects for the project, to facilitate trade as a regular and independent source of income for an army that increasingly lost authority in large parts of the sultanate.
In the eagerness to attract trade, on 20 December 1777, the Sultan decreed that American ships could freely enter Moroccan ports: this is the entirety of the recognition that Moroccan Goebbelsian propaganda repeated thousands of times until it became a formal act of recognition by Morocco of the United States of America.
On 4 July 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted, and the United States became a sovereign state.
From December 1776, Benjamin Franklin represented the U.S. in France informally. The American colonies had sent him to France to obtain economic and political support for the maintenance of the War of Independence against the United Kingdom. Likewise, other emissaries had been sent to other European powers. But on 6 February 1778, France and the fledgling United States of America signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce. And that signature makes France the first country to formally recognise the USA.
On 29 September 1779, the United States officially appointed the diplomat John Jay as its plenipotentiary minister in Spain.
Elsewhere, on 16 November 1776, the Netherlands was the first sovereign nation to greet a U.S. ship as if it came from a friendly and independent country. Curiously, this fact does not have, in the eyes of the Moroccan Goebbelsian propaganda, the importance that is given to the declaration of the Sultan, thirteen months later. Indeed, in 1782, the Netherlands formally and solemnly recognised the United States of America as a sovereign state; and John Adams, who would later become the second President of the United States, was formally appointed, that same year, as the plenipotentiary minister of United States in Holland.
On 19 December 1780, the jurist Francis Dana was officially appointed as the U.S. minister to the Russian Empire. Although he was never received by Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, he remained in Saint Petersburg until 1783.
In the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United Kingdom formally recognised the independence of the United States. And later, on 24 February 1785, John Adams himself was officially appointed as the U.S. plenipotentiary minister to the United Kingdom.
For its part, bilateral diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Portugal date back to the early years of the United States. After the War of Independence, Portugal was the first neutral country to recognise the United States. On 21 February 1791, President George Washington opened formal diplomatic relations and appointed Colonel David Humphreys as the resident minister of the United States. Later envoys received the title of plenipotentiary minister.
Later, the English merchant James Simpson, who was then the Russian consul in Gibraltar, was appointed American consul in Gibraltar in 1794. Subsequently, in 1796 he became the U.S. consul in Morocco, a position he held until his death in 1820. However, full diplomatic relations only began on 29 September 1906, when Samuel Rene Gummeré presented his credentials as US ambassador to the Sultan.
Former President Obama with Mohamed Abdelaziz, the President of the Saharawi Republic. at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Dec. 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Back to the Sultan's declaration of December 1777
(The following text is an extract taken from the website of the U.S. embassy in Morocco, available at https://ma.usembassy.gov/our-relationship/policy-history/io/)
The Sultan issued a declaration on 20 December 1777, announcing that all vessels sailing under the American flag could freely enter Moroccan ports. The Sultan stated that orders had been given to his corsairs to let the ship “des Americains” and those of other European states with which Morocco had no treaties – Russia Malta, Sardinia, Prussia, Naples, Hungary, Leghorn, Genoa and Germany – pass freely into Moroccan ports. There they could “take refreshments” and provisions and enjoy the same privileges as other nations that had treaties with Morocco.
On 20 February 1778, the sultan of Morocco reissued his 20 December 1777, declaration. American officials, however, only belatedly learned of the Sultan’s full intentions. Nearly identical to the first, the 20 February declaration was again sent to all consuls and merchants in the ports of Tangier, Sale, and Mogador informing them the Sultan had opened his ports to Americans and nine other European states.
Information about the Sultan’s desire for friendly relations with the United States first reached Benjamin Franklin, one of the American commissioners in Paris, sometime in late April or early May 1778 from Etienne d’Audibert Caille, a French merchant of Sale. Appointed by the Sultan to serve as Consul for all the nations unrepresented in Morocco, Caille wrote on behalf of the Sultan to Franklin from Cadiz on 14 April 1778, offering to negotiate a treaty between Morocco and the United States on the same terms the Sultan had negotiated with other powers. When he did not receive a reply, Caille wrote Franklin a second letter sometime later that year or in early 1779.
When Franklin wrote to the committee on Foreign Affairs in May 1779, he reported he had received two letters from a Frenchman who “offered to act as our Minister with the Emperor”.
Franklin, who did not mention the dates of Caille’s letters or when he had received them, added that he had ignored these letters because the French advised him that Caille was reputed to be untrustworthy. Franklin stated that the French King was willing to use his good offices with the Sultan whenever Congress desired a treaty and concluded, “whenever a treaty with the Emperor is intended, I suppose some of our naval stores will be an acceptable present and the expectation of continued supplies of such stores a powerful motive for entering into and continuing a friendship.”
Since the Sultan received no acknowledgement of his good will gestures by the fall of 1 779, he made another attempt to contact the new American government. Under instructions from the Moroccan ruler, Caille wrote a letter to Congress in September 1779 in care of Franklin in Paris to announce his appointment as Consul and the Sultan’s desire to be at peace with the United States.
The Sultan, he reiterated, wished to conclude a treaty “similar to those Which the principal maritime powers have with him.” Americans were invited to “come and traffic freely in these ports in like manner as they formerly did under the English flag.” Caille also wrote to John Jay, the American representative at Madrid, on 21 April 1780, asking for help in conveying the Sultan’s message to Congress and enclosing a copy of Caille’s commission from the Sultan to act as Consul for all nations that had none in Morocco, as well as a copy of the 20 February 1778 declaration. Jay received that letter with enclosures in May 1780, but because it was not deemed to be of great importance, he did not forward it and its enclosures to Congress until 30 November 1780.
The U.S. Government sent its first official communication to the Sultan of Morocco in December 1780. It read:
We the Congress of the 13 United States of North America, have been informed of your Majesty’s favourable regard to the interests of the people we represent, which has been communicated by Monsieur Etienne d’Audibert Caille of Sale, Consul of Foreign nations unrepresented in your Majesty’s states. We assure you of our earnest desire to cultivate a sincere and firm peace and friendship with your Majesty and to make it lasting to all posterity. Should any of the subjects of our states come within the ports of your Majesty’s territories, we flatter ourselves they will receive the benefit of your protection and benevolence. You may assure yourself of every protection and assistance to your subjects from the people of these states whenever and wherever they may have it in their power. We pray your Majesty may enjoy long life and uninterrupted prosperity.
Barclay left Paris on January 15, 1786, and after several stops, including 2.5 months in Madrid, arrived in Marrakech on June 19. While the French offered some moral support to the United States in their negotiations with Morocco, it was the Spanish government that furnished substantial backing in the form of letters from the Spanish King and Prime Minister to the Sultan of Morocco.
After a cordial welcome, Barclay conducted the treaty negotiations in two audiences with Sidi Muhammad and Tahir Fannish, a leading Moroccan diplomat from a Morisco family in Sale who headed the negotiations. The earlier proposals drawn up by the American commissioners in Paris became the basis for the treaty. While the Emperor opposed several articles, the final form contained in substance all that the Americans requested.
[Here is a small detail that reveals the historical links between the Moroccan Makhzen and corruption: the beleaguered Barclay, acting in his capacity negotiator, was pressured to award gifts and tributes to the Sultan to conclude the treaty. This gave rise to his famous words reproduced here, HMS] “I had to offer to His Majesty the friendship of the United States and to receive his in return, to form a treaty with him on liberal and equal terms. But if any engagements for future presents or tributes were necessary, I must return without any treaty.”
The Moroccan leader accepted Barclay’s declaration that the United States would offer friendship but no tribute for the treaty, and the question of presents or tribute was not raised again. Barclay accepted no favour except the ruler’s promise to send letters to Constantinople, Tunisia, Tripoli, and Algiers recommending they conclude treaties with the United States.
Barclay and the Moroccans quickly reached agreement on the Treaty of Friendship and Amity. Also called the Treaty of Marrakech, it was sealed by the Emperor on June 23 and delivered to Barclay to sign on 28 June. In addition, a separate ship seals agreement, providing for the identification at sea of American and Moroccan vessels, was signed at Marrakech on 6 July 1786. Binding for 50 years, the Treaty was signed by Thomas Jefferson at Paris on January 1, 1787, and John Adams at London on 25 January 1787, and was ratified by Congress on 18 July 1787.
The United States established a consulate in Morocco in 1797. President Washington had requested funds for this post in a message to Congress on 2 March 1795, and James Simpson, the U.S. Consul at Gibraltar who was appointed to this post, took up residence in Tangier 2 years later. Sultan Sidi Muhammad’s successor, Sultan Moulay Soliman, had recommended to Simpson the establishment of a consulate because he believed it would provide greater protection for American vessels. In 1821, the Moroccan leader gave the United States one of the most beautiful buildings in Tangier for its consular representative. This building served as the seat of the principal U.S. representative to Morocco until 1956 and is the oldest piece of property owned by the United States abroad. [End quote]
It is necessary to note here that Mohammed Ben Abdallah is the most well-renowned of the Moroccan Sultans; no other monarch brought about as much progress as him. The Sultan’s cultured disposition came from an education provided by his grandmother, the Mauritian Jnaza ment Chek Bakar Al Maghfari. Originally from the Lebrakna region, Al Maghfari was the daughter of an extremely wise Mauritian sheik and was an expert in poetry, Islamic theology and Arabic literature.
It is not a coincidence that the Moroccan propaganda machine has returned to this period of rule by the talented Sultan as a way to secure the link that ties them to the United States.
However, we must remember that the Sultan’s decision had no political character to it. There was no contact between the Sultan and the American states at war with the British metropolis. The decision was the result of an internal political, social and economic crisis.
In fact, the North Americans had no knowledge of events until many years later.
Without doubt, the inconsistency of the argument employed by Donald Trump in his declaration on 4 September 2020, recognising Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, is directly proportional to the international illegality of the declaration itself.
It still gravitates around the largely unbelievable presumption that the Sultan’s declaration on 20 December 1777, relating to the access of U.S. ships, functions as a formal recognition of the United States. The reality is that it was a UNILATERAL declaration that did NOT possess any legal or political effect.
Three centuries before that, in 1480, the practice of sending ambassadors to other countries had already started. Furthermore, a vast number of uses and practices giving a formal and solemn character to certain acts of international law had also emerged. Therefore, to harbour Moroccan propaganda verifying that the declaration, viewed from the prism of Moroccan law, is equivalent to the formal recognition of a state, is to open the doors of international law to practices more befitting of esotericism.
Determined as they were to establish a date for that recognition, the treaty signed in Marrakech on 6 July 1786, ratified by Congress on 18 July 1787, marked the actual beginning of diplomatic relations between the two countries and can be taken as the act by which the United States and Morocco recognised one another as sovereign states. It is important to note that article 10 of the treaty sets out that the protection that the Sultan can offer to U.S. ships does not extend beyond the coast of Oued Noun (latitude 29° N).
Meanwhile, the formal declarations and their accompanying friendship treaties with countries like France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and even Spain and Portugal, did have real legal and political effects.
Finally, the photo appearing in this text was taken in the exclusive area reserved for heads of state or government who attended the memorial ceremony for a political and human figure of worldwide significance. So, if a unilateral declaration regarding the docking permissions of certain boats, which did not arrive to the Americans, is considered as the formal recognition of a state, what exactly does that handshake between two beaming heads of state mean?
 Art. 10 of the Friendship and Commercial Treaty between the U.S. and Morocco:
“If any Vessel of either of the Parties shall have an engagement with a Vessel belonging to any of the Christian Powers within gunshot of the Forts of the other, the Vessel so engaged shall be defended and protected as much as possible untill she is in safety; And if any American Vessel shall be cast on shore on the Coast of Wadnoon or any coast thereabout, the People belonging to her shall be protected, and assisted untill by the help of God, they shall be sent to their Country”. [Source]