Hannah Farda – Rebels with a cause: Berber resistance to French colonization

Posté par Michael Peyron le 25 juin 2010

Hannah Farda

Amazigh Studies

Professor Peyron


Rebels with a Cause: An Examination of the Historical and Cultural Reasons for Berber Resistance to French Colonization 


The Berbers are the original inhabitants of Morocco, with some Rifian tribes having roots that trace back to the end of the 8th century. When Morocco became a protectorate of France and Spain in 1912, it was in areas that were Berber speaking that resistance to colonization was the strongest. Berber resistance to colonization, beginning in 1913 and lasting until 1933, spanned from the Rif Mountains as far South as the Anti-Atlas. With the submission of the Ait Atta, Ait Murghad and Ait Hadiddu tribes in 1933, any significant Berber resistance to colonization ended (Hart, ASR, 21-22).

At first glance, the strong Berber resistance to colonization seems nonsensical. What chance did autonomous, semi-nomadic tribes, armed only with their rifles, have against a modern European enemy, backed by unlimited resources and manpower? However, upon further examination of the subject, a number of reasons become evident, which serve to illustrate why the Berbers felt they had a real, “fighting” chance of preventing colonization. It also becomes clear that it was never a question of whether or not to resist, but that it was a matter of a people defending a homeland that meant everything to them. This paper will discuss the historical and cultural reasons that serve to shed light on why the Berbers put up such a strong fight against colonization, and why the Berbers did in fact have, a “fighting” chance.


Rebelling against an entity that threatened the status quo was not a new phenomenon amongst the Berbers. The relationship between the Berbers and the Makhzen, or central government, had historically been a delicate one, which was easily disturbed. This meant that if the Berbers sensed any attempt by the Makhzen to undermine their autonomy and lifestyle, they would demonstrate their dismay by attacking the current capital city, or through some other form of rebellion, as the following examples demonstrate. The Berbers operated within a tribal system, with each tribe reporting to a chief. The idea of being subjected to an omnipotent Sultan was always regarded with suspicion by the Berbers. Therefore, the Berbers were not scared to challenge decisions made by the Sultanate that displeased them, and were usually successful in doing so.

 In the 1630’s, the Dilaiya zawiya represented a large threat to the Saadian Sultanate, defeating the Sultan when he sent an army to attack Dila after the marabouts challenged his ability to orchestrate and effective government, and for a time were a powerful sultanate themselves (Chiapuris,ASR,126-127). Also, the tribes inhabiting the surrounding mountains of the Alawite capital of Fes during the 17th century inflicted many defeats on the Makhzen army, which were always an embarrassment to the Sultan, and forced Fassi merchants to be on constant alert (Peyron, ASR, 38). In the early 1800’s Moulay Sliam tried to enforce a Wahhabite interpretation of Islam that threatened the Berbers’ “maraboutic” practices. In response, a number of Middle Atlas tribes, rallied by the Ait Sidi Ali zawiya united aginst Moulay Sliman. At the battle of Lenda, the sultan was taken captive, but later released. This united Berber front then forced the Sultan into a position of negotiation by placing
Meknes under siege. (Chiapuris,ASR, 128-130).    

These events illustrate a Berber tradition of rebelling against threats to their autonomy and way of life. The Berbers questioned the authority of their leader, the Sultan, on a regular basis. So naturally they would be in furious opposition to the invasion of their land by a foreign European power, with whom in their eyes, they had no link or commonality on any cultural or religious level.


The Berbers of this period were warriors through and through. Feuding and raiding came first, then tending to herds and crops (Hart, ASR, 35). It has been said that with their knowledge of the terrain, agility, and stamina, “one Berber fighter was equal to at least two Frenchmen” (Michael Peyron). In addition, the Berbers had the advantage of guerilla warfare being their native style of fighting. This guerilla fighting style held a two-fold advantage for the Berbers. Besides being their native fighting style, it was the style of fighting most appropriate for mountainous terrain. This therefore made it an effective way for the Berbers’ small fighting force to take the French by surprise. The French made themselves easy targets to ambush by marching in columns on open roads and announcing their presence.  However, it seems they were aware of the flaws with this tactic, as they had the habit of putting native Moroccan soldiers on the front lines (Maghraoui). 

The Berbers also had the confidence of previous success against the European force of Spain in the Melilla war of 1893.  Beginning in October, the war at first went in Spain’s favor, as the Rifian fighters were out-gunned. However when a Mosque was targeted, fighters came from all over the region, with infantry numbers reaching 20,000. Finally, after a year of Rifian fighters holding on, and Spain pulling out all the stops, bringing in a huge number of reinforcement and naval forces, and performing cruel night search parties that were brutal to any rebels found,  peace was negotiated with the Sultan in 1894 (Rodriquez-Gonzalez). The second conflict between the Spanish and the Rifians, that inspired Berber confidence in their ability to challenge colonization, began in 1908 when the Rifians attacked a Spanish mine. The outcome was similar, with the Spanish suffering 2000 casualties, and being forced to call in 42,000 troops in November of 1909 to quell the small Rifian forces, which were finally subdued in the next six months (Thomas).

Despite not being ultimate victories for the Berbers, these two conflicts in Melilla served to inspire confidence in the Berbers. The Berbers learned from the Battles of Melilla that they could pose a real threat to European powers, and inflict heavy losses on their larger, better armed fighting forces. Later, when the time came to resist French colonization, the Berbers had these two events as reminders that they could put up a successful and effective defense against French occupation.

The skillful Berber rebel leaders demonstrate the Berbers’ keen aptitude for warfare.  The Berber Resistance included a number of key leaders, who led their tribesman with tenacity and passion. The archetype Berber leader was Abd Al-Krim El-Khattabi, who led the Rif Rebellion during the 1920’s (Hart,ASR, 21). He knew how to keep his troops’ morale up. For example he allowed them to farm and harvest their crops and he never sent too many men to the front lines at one time. This helped maintain a sense of normalcy in the village, and therefore kept the men’s morale high. Abd El Krim was a master of respecting and working within the tribal system, which allowed him to successfully recruit other tribes to fight with him against colonization. His Rebellion encompassed two separate wars, in which Abd El Krim and his troops put up such a fight that France had to call in 300,000 well trained soldiers to finally regain Spanish Morocco in 1926. Despite ultimately being defeated, Abd El Krim’s valiant resistance served as an inspiration to later rebels (Brace).

In the Middle Atlas, there was Moha Ou Hammou Zayani, most famous for his the confederation of tribes he created called the Zaian. In November of 1914, Moha Ou Hammou defeated the French outside the city of Khenifra at the Battle of El Herri, where the invaders suffered a high number of casualties. However, the French retaliated the next day, and the rebels retreated to the hills. However, it was under Moha ou Hammou’s strong leadership, or more accurately the fear that he instilled in his men, that these Rebels held out until 1920 (O’Connor, ASR, 149-152).

The strength and commitment of the rebels and their leaders is well illustrated by some of the direst events of Berber resistance to colonization. Two of these events were the Battle of Tazizawt and the Battle of Mount Baddou. The Battle of Tazizawt took place in the Middle Atlas in 1932. One important character in this battle was Taoukhettalt, a rare female Berber leader, who sacrificed everything in the name of fighting against the French and defending the Berber homeland. The conditions during this battle were intolerable, yet the Berber combatants held out for a month. Taoukhettalt sent her 7 sons to Sidi Lmekki’s mountain stronghold so they would continue fighting, and gave all her camels to the cause to provide food. Women risked artillery fire to fetch water at night, so that the rebel forces could hold out in the mountains longer. This example also illustrates the strength and fortitude that Berber women posses (The Battle of Tazizawt, Peyron).

In another of the final battles of Berber resistance, the diehards at the Battle of Mount Baddou held out for a fortnight in the face of certain defeat before surrendering. Resolve was strong leading up to this last conflict, because of the excessive bloodshed and lack of resolution at Ayt Ya’qoub in 1929 (Peyron, ASR, 154). The leader of the rebels was Ou-Skounti. He inspired fear in deserters, which is a contributing factor to the long duration of this final stand. He was committed to defending

Mount Baddou against the “infidels.” The Ayt Morghad had been autonomous since the time of the Romans, why should they give that up without a fight? Besides, aerial bombing had done little damage. However, because of being surrounded, with access to water entirely blocked off, they were forced to surrender in the face of starvation and dehydration (ASR, Price, 154-160).

The examples of these rebel leaders and these two final battles give insight into what motivated the Berbers the most: the defense of their sacred land and the preservation of their autonomy. They knew no other lifestyle, and they certainly did not know how to give up without a fight. In addition, the Berbers were led by exceptional individuals, who were able to unite typically unorganized Berber tribes into menacing fighting forces, and sometimes used fear to maintain discipline and loyalty.


Land was hugely important to the Berbers for a variety of reason. The first reason is because of lineage ties to the land. Traditional Moroccan society is tribal, kinship-based and patri-lineal. As a result of the strong emphasis placed on lineage, and the careful efforts to keep ancestral lines clear, most Berbers could trace their lineage back at least four generations (Bourdieu et al.,ASR, 25). Land was also the tool that enabled their survival, as it provided grazing lands for their livestock, and produced the crops that the Berbers cultivated. Many Berbers were, and still are, semi, or fully nomadic. These tribes follow the same migratory patterns every year, and have been doing so for centuries. The division of this communal land was linked to the organization of tribes and clans as well. Land is also important because it is attached to traditions and culture. For these reasons, to the Berbers, the loss of land equaled the loss of autonomy, identity, and traditions.

This land was quite literally sacred to the Berbers, as many marabouts’ tombs could be found across the countryside and throughout Berber lands. In addition, there are a number of myths about sacred livestock belonging to the prophet traveling through Berber territories. In fact, Ou-Skounti, the famous resistance leader at the Battle of Ayt Baddou was know to proclaim regularly that “Allah would never allow infidels to set foot upon the holy Baddou mountain, sanctified as it had been by the passage of the Prophet’s mule” (Price, ASR, 155). This illustrates the belief that the land itself was sacred, and therefore protected by Allah. In addition, it shows a connection between Berber resistance and the belief that the war they were waging was sacred and supported by Allah. The notion of a Holy War was seen when the marabout Sidi Ali Amhaouch announced a Holy War from the Dades Valley as far as the desert beyond the anti-Atlas Mountains. This was in response to news of the outbreak of the Great War in Europe. This was seen as an opportunity to capitalize on a weakened French force, who would be busy managing the war in Europe (O’Connor,ASR, 149).

The high importance of land to Berbers, and the reality that they were in fact defending their homeland gave the Berbers yet another advantage over the French. The larger part of fighting forces used by the French in Morocco during this period was composed of soldiers from the French Foreign Legion. The French Foreign Legion was made up of soldiers who were serving to have prison sentences forgiven, or who were just trying to start over. Other soldiers came from Senegal, Sudan, and even Morocco. None of these soldiers were very much invested in the fighting; they were simply obliged to fight. On the other hand, the Berbers were fighting to defend everything that was important to them; their land, identity, and autonomy.  In the words of Taougrat oult ‘Aissa: “Better for me to wear an ill-fitting cloak among Muslims than to become a mule-driver among Christians” (Reyniers, 46)! Meaning, they had nothing to lose by fighting, because if they didn’t fight, they risked losing all things sacred, among which was their Muslim identity.


When colonizing forces came to Morocco, the Berbers never had a choice. If they didn’t resist colonization, they had no idea what the outcome would be. Would they have to give up their land and their rifles? What would these European infidels do with their women and children, and would they still be allowed to practice their religion? To the Berbers, the coming of the French to Morocco was seen as doomsday. Berber poetry of the time expressed the fear of evil times and tidings to come (Peyron, Amazigh Poetry, 111). Inspired by their passion for their homeland, and the idea that it was a Holy War that Allah was in favor of, they had no choice but to resist.

 The fear of the unknown was a large motivating factor in resisting occupation. For the Berber man, his rifle was his manhood, and a symbol of status and prestige (Price,ASR, 159).  When forced to give up their rifles in surrender, one Berber stated,

             … Our guns’ve been confiscated, O Berbers, for all of you,

                  The sound of steel is silent, and honour is gone,

                 You now react to an alien form of logic… (Peyron, Amazigh Poetry, 115).

This short poem shows that for the Berber man, to give up his gun, was to also give away his honor and self-worth. Therefore if colonial forces were allowed to come in, he risked having to give up that prized possession.

 The Europeans represented everything that was foreign. The French were not Muslim and they were city dwellers. Traditionally, mountainous people look down on city-dwellers, and think of them as choosing to live in polluted areas with bad water sources. The Berbers were also suspicious of Europeans because they had an entirely different legal system. Different Berber tribes had very detailed customary law (izerf) that was heavily based in Berber cultural practices. This legal code covered every situation from hosting a guest to punishing a murderer (Hart, ASR, 178-185).

This doubt and mistrust of Europeans was evident when the Berbers eventually surrendered. At the moment of surrender Berbers were reluctant to part with their weapons, and asked when they would be able to have their rifles back. This short poem demonstrates feelings of doubt towards surrender:-

“Should I change my mind, would go and steal a Chassepot rifle,

Then hold out at the pass till the bitter end” (Roux & Peyron, 63).

Just after surrendering, this Berber had doubts and was ready to once again take up arms against the French. French officers observed the Berber rebels behaving anxiously and sullenly, as they were unsure what was going to happen to them next (Price,ASR, 159). Accounts after the surrender of the Battle of Baddou mention that the Berbers expressed no regret for their actions. In addition, they were reluctant to give information about their wounded and dead. When asked why they had rebelled against the Europeans, they simply said that they were defending their land.


From the outset, Berber resistance to colonization seems rather foolhardy; however, upon further examination of the circumstances, it becomes evident that it was the only option. Historically, the Berbers were characterized by revolt and resistance to the Moroccan sultanate. Therefore, when the new threat was a foreign European power that represented tyranny and an uncertain future, naturally they were not going to take occupation lying down.  Even Tourguillal hill in the Tadla region exclaimed:-

“A wild boar have I espoused, O Hammou ou Aamr ! / Go lurk in the hills’ remotest cranny, Endure freezing cold rather than suffer Christians’ tyranny!”

(Roux and Peyron, 49).

This expressed a widespread attitude amongst the Berbers that resistance, and the consequent hardships that accompanied it, was better than being under control of the French at all costs.

In addition, the Berbers felt they had a real chance of stopping colonization, and rightfully so. In the two Rif wars of 1893 and 1909, the Berbers proved difficult opponents to a much larger, better equipped Spanish fighting force. The Berbers fought with such tenacity that the Sultan was called in to end the First Rif War by means of a truce, and in the Second Rif War, the French became involved to eventually quell the Berbers. The Berbers did not choose to resist French colonization on a whim; they were defending life as they knew it. They were fighting in defense of the land of their forefathers, a sacred land, as it was the final resting place of Marabouts, and had provided passage for sacred animals belonging to the Prophet. They were fighting in defense of their identity, which was based on their faith, Islam, and their independence. This independence was founded on their semi-nomadic lifestyle, and an autonomy that most Berbers had maintained since at least the 8th century, and in the case of the Ayt Morghad, since the time of the Romans. The Berber men were fighting to defend their status and self-worth, which was based on their possession of a rifle, which they were sure to lose if they came under French occupation.   Motivated and organized by strong, fearless leaders, the Berbers were fighting, as they had for centuries, to maintain their status quo and life as they knew it. Not resisting colonization for these Berbers represented a sure end to their lifestyle, and so it was never a question.

  Works Cited 

Brace, Richard M. Rev. of “Rebels in the Rif: Abd el Krim and the Rif Rebellion”. The American Historical Review June 1969: 1678-679. JSTOR. 21 Apr. 2010. Keyword: Rebels in the Rif.

Maghraoui, Driss. « Moroccan colonial soldiers: between selective memory and collective memory – Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in North Africa. » Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ) (1998). 

Peyron, Michael. “Amazigh Poetry of the Resistance Period”. London: The Journal of North African Studies, 2000. 

Peyron, Michael, ed. Amazigh Studies Reader. Rabat: Imprimerie El Maarif Al Jadida, 2006. 

Reyniers, Cf. F. Taougrat, ou les Berbères racontés par eux-mêmes. Paris: P. Geuthner, 1930. 

Rodriguez Gonzalez, Austin R. « The Melilla War of 1893. » Revista Espanola de Historia 49 (1989): 235-66. Historical Abstracts. EBSCO host. 20 Apr. 2010. Keyword: Melilla War of 1893. 

Roux, Arsène, and Michael Peyron. Poésies berbères de l’époque héroïque, Maroc central. Edisud, 2002. 

Thomas, Steven. « Timeline for the Second Rif War. » Steven’s Balagan. 21 Apr. 2010 http://www.balagan.org.uk/war/rif-wars/timeline_second.htm.

I am grateful to Miss Hannah Farda, one of 15 US students attending my lectures on « Amazigh History and Culture » in Rabat in the spring of 2010, for permission to publish her paper.  M. Peyron       

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