Modern Algeciras is the main city on the Bay of Gibraltar and one of the busiest commercial ports in Europe. It’s pretty old, too, since it was founded by early Berber-Arab invaders all the way back in 711–“Algeciras” is a European corruption of the city’s original name, al-Jazirah al-Khudra (“the green island”). And, if we’re being totally comprehensive, those Muslims only rebuilt a city that had previously been a major Roman port before it was destroyed by Germanic invaders.
They say the three rules of real estate are “location, location, location,” and I suppose that’s as true when you’re looking for a city to conquer as it is when you’re looking to buy a house. Algeciras was in an incredibly important location that made it a hub both for commerce and for the transit of human beings (often heavily armed human beings) from North Africa into what in 1344 was al-Andalus (Andalusia, Iberia, Spain, call it whatever you like). So for the various European principalities that were participating in the so-called Reconquista, capturing Algeciras was a major goal. That helps to explain why this 1342-1344 episode was the third of four sieges of the city undertaken in the 13th and 14th centuries, though it was the final Christian siege. The first, in 1278, ended when a relief army from Morocco broke through a Castilian naval blockade and then drove off the Christian besiegers, and the second, in 1309-1310, ended when disease ravaged the Castilian camp and forced then-King Ferdinand IV (d. 1312) to withdraw.
For this third bite at the apple, Castilian King Alfonso XI (d. 1350) obtained considerable assistance from the Republic of Genoa, from Portugal, and from Aragon. In the interim since the previous siege, the Marinid rulers of Morocco had taken Algeciras from the Emirate of Granada and made it the capital of a planned expansion of their territory into Europe. So the Castilians weren’t just fighting an offensive campaign this time, they were acting to some degree in self-defense. Alfonso had already seen the Marinids’ intentions and Algeciras’s importance during his successful defense of Tarifa in 1340. During that operation, Marinid reinforcements from Morocco landed in Algeciras and might have made the difference in the siege if the Marinid ruler, Abu al-Hasan Ali b. Uthman (d. 1350) hadn’t proven to be, in technical military terms, a blockhead.
Alfonso besieged Algeciras in early August, 1342, after his naval allies from Portugal and Genoa had driven off the Marinid ships in the area and established a blockade. The plan was to starve out the Marinids rather than taking the city by force, so trenches were dug to prevent counterattacks from within the city and troops were stationed to block any relief force coming from outside the city (and to prevent a Marinid retreat). But hunger doesn’t discriminate, and the Castilian besiegers suffered nearly as much as the besieged. The Castilians were constantly facing the threat that Algeciras would be reinforced, either by an army from nearby Granada or by forces sent from Morocco. Yes, the city and the bay were blockaded, but the Aragonese, Portuguese, and Genoese ships that maintained the blockade were constantly coming and going depending on the needs of their own home principalities (and, with respect to the Genoese, depending on whether Alfonso could keep paying them). So in addition to covering the land approaches to and from Algeciras, the Castilians tried to speed things along with the judicious use of artillery–specifically, trebuchets launching heavy stone balls. The city’s defenders returned fire using bombards, or early cannon, and this siege actually marks the first time that gunpowder weapons were used in Iberia (and one of the first times they were used anywhere in Europe).
Algeciras had held out for over a year when a very large (perhaps around 50,000 men) relief army embarked from Morocco to come to the city’s aid. The blockade held, albeit only after Alfonso agreed to make a hefty overdue payment to the Genoese, and the Moroccan army was forced to land at Gibraltar (in October 1343). It met up with a Granadan army and marched toward Algeciras. Some kind of battle was inevitable, and it came in December at the Battle of the River Palmones. The Castilians were able to overwhelm the Marinid-Granadan army as it crossed the river and eventually rout it. At that point the siege became a race against time. The Marinids could still reform their army and attack again, but that would take a little while. The people inside Algeciras were starving, but small supply ships from Gibraltar were getting through the blockade, bringing just enough food to keep the defense going. So in January 1344 Alfonso ordered the creation of a boom across the sea approach to the city, consisting of ropes stretched across the bay, supported by empty barrels turned into makeshift buoys. By early March it became impossible for even those small ships from Gibraltar to get into Algeciras, and the defenders were forced to surrender in lieu of starving to death.
The capture of Algeciras was of considerable importance to the Christians, but largely insofar as it denied the Marinids their most important European port. The Castilians didn’t actually hold the city very long; a fourth Siege of Algeciras, this time conducted by Muslims against Christian defenders, took place in 1369. Castile at the time was mired in civil war, and so Granada, under Sultan Muhammad V (d. 1391), was able to take the city. The Castilians regrouped, however, and Muhammad opted to destroy the city in 1379, when it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to defend it. Algeciras remained defunct until 1704, when it was rebuilt by people fleeing the British conquest of Gibraltar during the War of Spanish Succession.
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