In the remote Moroccan fishing town of Tarfaya, a 19th-century British fortress is collapsing into the sea. An imposing cube of gray stone with hollow, arched windows and a line of spikes over the entrance, it stands on a reef facing Tarfaya Beach. At low tide it is accessible on foot, with nothing to stop visitors scrambling around its blackened interior or youths carving graffiti into the walls. At high tide, it is marooned by Atlantic waves that eat away at its foundations. The entire northwest corner has fallen, a ragged chunk is missing from the adjoining ground floor and an ominous crack extends up the south wall. Some think it will not last another winter.
Locals call it the Casamar — short for “Casa del Mar” or “House of the Sea.” This British fortress with a Spanish name in a Moroccan town bears witness to Tarfaya’s role as a historical buffer zone, whose fractious tribal politics have mediated the ambitions of nations and empires since the Casamar was built. Its fall will erase the last visible legacy of an episode that history has all but forgotten, but which lit the touch paper on one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.
Twenty miles south of Tarfaya lies the disputed territory of Western Sahara — known by Morocco as its southern provinces, and by the U.N. as a “non-self-governing territory,” under Moroccan control since 1975. On the ground, no border separates the two. Culturally, there is a continuum between Western Sahara and the Tarfaya strip, both of which are populated by the Sahrawi ethnic group — traditionally Hassaniya-speaking peoples of mixed Arab, Berber and sub-Saharan descent. In summer, the Tarfaya Beach is bright with Sahrawi cultural markers, as the town swells with families escaping the heat of desert cities like Smara, Tantan and Laayoune. They cover the beach in “haima” tents and serve tea in the style of their nomadic ancestors, making the liquid foam into a cap of bubbles to trap errant grains of sand. Women in brightly patterned “melhfa” shawls join their children exploring the ruins of the Casamar.
There are no information boards, and visitors are left guessing what role the fortress played in history. The only clue is a plaque set in the front wall with a date — 1882 — and a list of directors of the Northwest African Company. Tucked in the middle is the name that still echoes through Tarfaya’s oral history: Donald Mackenzie.
On July 26, 1875, a young, largely unknown Scot stood before the headquarters of the City of London Corporation with an unlikely vision: to flood the Sahara and open a maritime trading route to Timbuktu.
A large tract of the western Sahara, Mackenzie told the assembled businessmen, was a depression below sea level, separated from the Atlantic by a 12-mile-wide sandbar near Cape Juby, opposite the Spanish Canary Islands. Opening maritime trade with the central Sahel, previously only accessible by camel caravans, simply required channeling through this sandbar, allowing the ocean to flood in.
The 250-page proposal Mackenzie presented was a lively anthropological account of the Saharan tribes, in which the logistics of this massive geoengineering project were confined to a brief remark that “breakwaters would require to be constructed at the [channel’s] entrance to aid in keeping it clear of sand.” Mackenzie had limited financial resources, a mysterious past, and did not appear to have visited the Sahara himself. But his lack of qualifications did not discourage his listeners, caught in the fever of the Scramble for Africa. European entrepreneurs were rushing to set up trading posts across the continent — clashing with preexisting African empires and exacerbating rivalries among local populations — often as a prelude to colonization by competing European powers. Mackenzie fitted in well among the eccentric opportunists who led the charge. His scheme was “so magnificent and yet so promising,” one newspaper gushed, “that our first feeling must be one of wonder that no one has ever thought of so easy a path into the heart of the African mystery.”
Well-versed in the logics of the colonial “civilizing” mission, Mackenzie also convinced Britain’s prominent Quaker families that British influence would eradicate slavery among the North African tribes. Several agreed to provide a ship, supplies and guns for an exploratory voyage to Cape Juby in the summer of 1876.
Letters held in the British National Archives show the British Foreign Office was less enchanted with Mackenzie’s vision, the Foreign Secretary’s blunt assessment being, “I cannot conceive of this scheme coming to any result.” Nevertheless, they agreed to contact Hassan I, the Moroccan sultan — great-great-grandfather to the current King Mohammed VI — requesting protection for the voyage. The sultan’s reply wished Mackenzie well but regretted he had no control beyond the Wadi Draa, 120 miles northeast of Cape Juby. Known for his tact in evading European demands, Hassan I likely considered this a polite way to get rid of Mackenzie. But Mackenzie took it as an open door.
Cape Juby was a remote cove on the Saharan coast, inhabited by Sahrawi tribes of the Tekna confederation, who knew the place as Tarfaya, after the hardy local tamarisk trees. In his letters, Mackenzie reported striking a positive relationship with these nomads, whom he found “peaceable … and most anxious for trade.” Returning in 1878 and again in 1879, he was received by an elderly sheikh named Mohammed Ben Beyrouk. Although he hailed from the Noun region just north of the Wadi Draa, in territory formally claimed by Morocco, Ben Beyrouk presented himself as Tarfaya’s autonomous ruler. On April 19, 1879, he signed an agreement ceding Mackenzie a tract of land around Cape Juby to establish a British trading port, though no mention was made of the great trade channel to Timbuktu.
Foreseeing riches, Mackenzie enlisted his wealthy Quaker backers into a commercial enterprise he named the Northwest African Company. He assured them this would be optimally placed to tap the existing Saharan caravan trade, while development was underway for the maritime route.
In the Foreign Office, however, there was consternation.
“Mackenzie should have first ascertained positively to whom the territory really belonged,” wrote the British Envoy to Morocco, Sir John Drummond Hay. He warned that “the dominions of the Sultan of Morocco in the south have no fixed boundary,” and that Ben Beyrouk was one of three brothers who “are ever at variance with another.” Mackenzie’s port would disrupt Hassan I’s customs monopoly on Saharan trade through the port of Mogador (now Essaouira), and raised fears that arms could be traded to the tribes on the periphery of Hassan I’s kingdom.
In conclusion, he feared, “His Majesty would use all the means in his power to assert his rights of sovereignty over these rebel chiefs.”
The cracks in Mackenzie’s plan were quick to show. For starters, the geological depression in the area was much smaller than Mackenzie had claimed, reaching nowhere near Timbuktu. Mackenzie seemed happy to quietly drop the idea of a maritime route, without a single shovelful of sand being moved — possibly having always seen it more as a marketing gimmick for his trading post than a serious proposal. But even the trading post was rapidly running into problems.
The first tensions came not from Morocco but from Spain. Alarmed at a British colonial venture so close to the Canary Islands, the Spanish blocked Mackenzie from basing himself on the archipelago. Undeterred, Mackenzie returned to Cape Juby towing a brig loaded with British goods, which he moored off the coast as an initial trading depot. He soon built a wooden storehouse on the shore, overseen by Ben Beyrouk.
Although Mackenzie held many racist colonial attitudes, he seems to have felt genuine friendship for Ben Beyrouk, even organizing a U.K. visit for his son, whom he described in letters to the Foreign Office as “very intelligent, and most anxious to see the manufacturing industry of this country.” He also quickly became well known among the Tekna tribes. “Mackenzie’s name was known far into the Sahara,” the Scottish traveler Robert Cunninghame Graham claimed in his 1898 memoir “Mogreb-el-Acksa: A Journey Into Morocco,” “for they had all heard of his red beard, his title (Scotchman) and the strong spirit kept in a barrel which none but he could drink.”
Meanwhile, Hassan I was in increasingly tense correspondence with the British envoy, Drummond Hay.
“This audacious and irregular proceeding of Mackenzie and Ben Beyrouk has caused us the greatest surprise,” Hassan I’s representative wrote in May 1879. Three months later, he demanded the British government take “efficacious measures … against anyone, like Mackenzie, who attempts to violate the right of sovereignty and to cause disorders in the Empire.”
Drummond Hay was in a bind. With Britain’s colonial forces concentrated elsewhere, his priority was to secure Britain’s access to the Straits of Gibraltar by maintaining positive — though paternalistic — relations with an independent Morocco. His confidential letters to the Foreign Office expressed exasperation that Mackenzie’s freelancing risked undermining this delicate relationship, at a time of growing colonial competition from France and Spain. On the other hand, he was under pressure from the company’s U.K. representatives to defend British interests abroad, and from the Foreign Office to check Morocco’s own territorial ambitions by maintaining Britain’s position that Moroccan territory ended at the Wadi Draa.
Although Drummond Hay reminded Hassan I of his admission that he had no control south of the Wadi Draa, Hassan I saw sovereignty differently — as based not on territorial control, but on religious bonds that underpinned his status with local tribes. Morocco had always been a patchwork of tribal fiefdoms, later reified by French colonial theorists as “bled makhzan” (lands of government) and “bled siba” (lands of dissidence). While simplistic, these categories recognized that while some regions were under the sultan’s direct control, in others his influence was tenuous, dependent on unstable relationships with tribal leaders.
When the Foreign Office raised its concerns with Ben Beyrouk, he reacted defiantly. “Tarfaya and its dependent districts … are under our command and rule,” he wrote. “The inhabitants refer to the Sultan in nothing. We always governed our tribes.”
Ben Beyrouk had his own reasons to support Mackenzie. For a century, Morocco had blocked trade from the southern Saharan coast, forcing the Tekna traders to journey 300 miles past the Wadi Draa to the port of Mogador. There, goods were subject to heavy customs duties — which since 1860 Morocco had used to service debts to Britain and Spain — and the Tekna received little in return. For Ben Beyrouk, Mackenzie’s arrival was a golden opportunity to break free of this system, while gaining advantage over his rival brothers.
In 1880, Hassan I took matters into his own hands. He organized a mission of inquiry to Cape Juby — the first time he had ever sent an official party so far south. Accompanying it was Ben Beyrouk’s brother, Sheikh Abdeen. Mackenzie entertained the visitors, but found them vague about their intentions.
“It would appear the men were sent as spies for the purpose of alienating the goodwill of the people towards us,” Mackenzie later reported to the Foreign Office. “Rumors were abroad … that the Sultan had informed the people that whoever came to trade with us would be decapitated.”
Relations deteriorated rapidly. While Ben Beyrouk’s allied tribes remained loyal to Mackenzie, those under his brothers’ influence became hostile. Mackenzie’s usually effusive dispatches are terse about this period. “Threats against our lives (and mine especially) being frequently made, it became necessary to use extreme caution,” he informed the Foreign Office. Observing that Ben Beyrouk seemed powerless to protect the staff and goods in the wooden storehouse, he moved them back to the offshore brig. Weeks later, the storehouse was burnt to the ground.
The next year, to the Foreign Office’s apparent surprise, a British naval captain observed “a solid-looking mass of masonry” being erected on a reef off the Cape Juby coast. By 1882 it was complete: a stone castle with mounted guns and under-floor tanks capable of storing nine months’ water supply, protected from attack by 600 yards of ocean. Mackenzie had built his fortress.
Hassan I was not the only one keeping a close eye on Mackenzie.
After the spat over use of the Canary Islands, Mackenzie’s project galvanized Spain to develop its own colonial interests in the western Sahara, which by geography it considered its rightful possession. Like Mackenzie, the Spanish proceeded by striking deals with local tribal leaders. Unlike Mackenzie, their interests went beyond trade. In 1884, they declared a Spanish protectorate over Rio de Oro, the southern half of modern-day Western Sahara. With the French simultaneously pushing west from Algeria, Hassan I was increasingly hemmed in, and the tenuous status quo in the Sahara was on the brink of collapse.
Another interested party was Sheikh Mohammed Mustafa Ma El Ainin, a nomadic religious leader born in present-day Mauritania, who later established Western Sahara’s historic capital of Smara. A renowned and charismatic scholar, Ma El Ainin exerted a powerful influence over the Sahrawi tribes, gradually uniting them against the Christian invaders — particularly the French. In this, he saw Morocco as an ally. Fearing Mackenzie’s venture also presaged a British occupation, he urged Hassan I to oppose it.
In 1883, Ben Beyrouk died. “I was not present,” Mackenzie wrote, “but just before he died, he handed his rosary [Islamic “tasbih” prayer beads] to his son for me, as a sacred token of our friendship.”
The loss of his closest ally was a bitter blow to Mackenzie. Ben Beyrouk’s son lacked his father’s status, and was easily controlled by his uncles. Meanwhile, Hassan I was deploying troops to the region, determined to show his authority over the Saharan tribes in the only way Europeans seemed to understand. In 1882 and 1886, Hassan I himself traveled south. Although he stopped just north of the Wadi Draa, he appointed a governor of Tarfaya, and reinforced his threat of severe punishment for anyone cooperating with the British.
One Sunday in 1888, the company manager, referred to in Foreign Office records only as Mr. Morris, left Mackenzie’s fortress to visit the sultan’s soldiers stationed on the shore. According to the subsequent witness statement of the three staff who accompanied him, Morris was talking amicably with the soldiers when the commander gave an order to strike. Drawing clubs, one dealt Morris a blow that threw him to the ground, “immediately followed by others which smashed in his skull, and scattered his brains on the sand.” Coming under attack themselves, the staff fled, turning to fire revolvers at their assailants.
This incident was the final straw for the Foreign Office. The Cape Juby station had become a headache, a liability and a serious source of tension with a broadly allied government. Its minimal trade had ground to a standstill, and flooding the Sahara was clearly a non-starter. While publicly they demanded Hassan I pay compensation for Morris’ death, privately they were searching for a solution to what Drummond Hay called “a subject of constant vexatious questions.”
Mackenzie held out for seven more years. He explored the areas surrounding Cape Juby, obtained declarations of support from several other Sahrawi tribes, and assisted members of allied tribes to repel the sultan’s soldiers. The company even called for a British protectorate, but the writing was on the wall. In February 1895, Mackenzie received an unusual commission to investigate slavery in Zanzibar. On his return, he was presented with a fait accompli: The Cape Juby station had been sold to Morocco for £50,000 — a deal one British diplomat privately declared “really splendid!”
Moreover, an agreement had been signed between Britain and Morocco, declaring that all the land between the Wadi Draa and Cape Bojador — the northern limit of the Spanish protectorate — “belongs to the territory of Morocco.” It added that none of these lands should be ceded “to anyone whosoever without the concurrence of the English Government.” The Northwest African Company scrambled to remove its staff from Cape Juby, anticipating a furious reaction from Mackenzie’s allied tribes. The new sultan of Morocco, Abdelaziz, swiftly installed his governor in Mackenzie’s fortress, in agreement with Ma El Ainin.
If Mackenzie suspected any underhandedness in this episode, he kept quiet about it. In a later memoir, he noted only that he “acquiesced with reluctance and pain.” He would “always look back with regret on having had to give back to barbarism … a beacon of civilization in a part of Africa which had been so long neglected.”
But Europeans had no intention of “neglecting” the western Sahara any longer. France, Spain and Germany were all encroaching on the greater Morocco region, emboldened by the weakness of Hassan I’s young successor, Abdelaziz, though inhibited by Britain’s policy of promoting Moroccan independence as a bulwark against French colonial expansion. The situation shifted with the 1904 Entente Cordiale, which saw Britain give France free rein in Morocco, with “special consideration” for Spanish interests, thus effectively renouncing the 1895 British-Moroccan agreement. Six months later, the French and Spanish agreed to the Wadi Draa as a border between their spheres of influence, with the Spanish claim roughly corresponding to the Sahrawi ethnic zone.
The treaty asserted Spain’s “absolute liberty of action” south of the 27 degrees 40 minutes parallel, 20 miles south of Tarfaya, which they considered “outside Moroccan territory.” North of that line — where a Moroccan claim was now undeniable — the terms were ambiguous. Over the following years, Spain steadily expanded its presence in the Saguia el-Hamra region north of Cape Bojador. But it wasn’t until 1911 that the Spanish colonial administrator Francisco Bens entered Tarfaya.
According to Bens’ account — perhaps not devoid of self-interest — he found the sultan’s governor holed up in Mackenzie’s fortress, in fear for his life. The 30 soldiers deployed to protect him had deserted six years earlier on nonpayment of their wages, and it was “thanks to the holy Sheikh Ma El Ainin that he hadn’t starved to death.” On Bens’ departure, the governor attempted to flee, and was promptly taken prisoner by local tribes.
But however ineffective, the governor was a symbol of Moroccan authority that the Europeans thought it imprudent to ignore. It served both France and Spain to maintain a buffer zone between their colonial possessions that placated the sultan and his allied tribes by at least vaguely honoring the 1895 British-Moroccan agreement. When France and Spain formalized their claims in 1912, they agreed that the area north of the Wadi Draa would be a French-Moroccan protectorate, and south of the 27 degrees 40 minutes parallel would be the colony of Spanish Sahara. The strip in between would be a Spanish-Moroccan protectorate, administered by Spain but “under civil and religious authority of the Sultan.” Bens occupied Tarfaya in 1916, after receiving assurance from Ma El Ainin’s son that a Spanish presence would be tolerated.
Despite these niceties, there was little difference between Spain’s governance in its Saharan colony and the protectorate. Tarfaya — now dubbed Villa Bens — became a Spanish military fort, while Mackenzie’s castle — now dubbed the Casa del Mar — was converted into a barracks and later a military prison. They remained so until the 1950s, when northern Morocco achieved independence and turned its attention to reclaiming the Spanish territories in the south. Initial attacks in the Spanish enclave of Ifni spread to Spanish Sahara, with guerrilla strikes on colonial targets by both northern Moroccans and Sahrawis. The Spanish eventually cut their losses by consolidating their forces south of the 27 degrees 40 minutes parallel, surrendering the Tarfaya strip to Morocco in 1958.
Most of Tarfaya’s military installations were abandoned, reclaimed only by Saharan sands that accumulated in rising drifts among the faded buildings of the Spanish fort. The same drifting sand was filling in Tarfaya bay, gradually reducing the distance between the Casamar and the shore, even as the rising sea eroded its once impenetrable walls.
But Mackenzie’s role in history was not yet over.
By the 1970s, colonialism was in its death throes. In its Saharan colony, Spain faced militant resistance from the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi nationalist movement that eventually achieved Algerian backing. Internationally, new postwar norms upheld decolonization based on the self-determination of peoples. As Polisario forged increasing popular support, Spain looked to withdraw.
The United Nations expected that self-determination would usually entail direct transformation into an independent state. But — partly in response to Moroccan protests that this meant capitulating to arbitrary boundaries imposed by Europeans — it conceded that, where historically appropriate, self-determination could also be achieved through consensual integration or free association with an independent state. On that basis, both Morocco and Mauritania made claims to Western Sahara. In 1974, Morocco referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), asking: “Was the Western Sahara at the time of colonization by Spain a territory belonging to no one?” And, if not: “What were the legal ties of this territory with the Kingdom of Morocco and the Mauritanian entity?”
In five volumes of oral arguments and documents submitted to the ICJ, Mackenzie’s name appears 129 times. Spain — which favored a referendum — submitted several British Foreign Office letters from the Mackenzie affair, asserting the Wadi Draa was Morocco’s southern border. Morocco again insisted that Saharan sovereignty must be understood through the sultan’s ties to local tribes. Among other examples, Morocco argued that Mackenzie’s ousting illustrated the sultan’s authority over the Sahrawi Tekna sheikhs. A difficulty was that the Tekna heartland around Tarfaya was now already in Morocco — a fact that also complicated Polisario’s aspiration to represent the Sahrawi people. Morocco claimed that pre-colonial nomadic routes extended Tekna authority over the southern Sahrawi tribes, and pointed to international agreements, particularly the 1895 British-Moroccan treaty that recognized Moroccan sovereignty down to Cape Bojador. Spain, recalling Ben Beyrouk’s displays of autonomy, argued that the Tekna hardly had a consistent position within their own tribes and submitted Spanish agreements with Sahrawi tribal leaders.
Another controversial figure was Ma El Ainin. Many Sahrawi nationalists saw Ma El Ainin as one of their own — a powerful, autonomous ruler, capable of uniting the fractious desert tribes into an early version of the Sahrawi nation. Morocco, however, argued that Ma El Ainin’s cooperation with the sultan against the Europeans made him a historical agent of Moroccan sovereignty.
As a nonstate actor, Polisario was not invited to present an argument to the ICJ. A U.N. mission visited Western Sahara and found the population “categorically for independence,” while exiles from the territory in Morocco were strongly pro-integration. The political context was tense, with both sides suspecting the other of darker motives behind the historical wrangling — either a resource grab by Morocco, or territorial encirclement by an alleged Algerian proxy.
The ICJ released its advisory opinion on Oct. 16, 1975. It found that before colonization, Western Sahara was not “terra nullius” but “inhabited by peoples which, if nomadic, were socially and politically organized in tribes and under chiefs competent to represent them.” It also found that “a legal tie of allegiance existed … between the Sultan and some, but only some, of the nomadic peoples of the territory, through Tekna caids of the Noun region.” However, in the court’s view, these ties did not establish territorial sovereignty over the land to the south, whose complex nomadic societies meant that multiple sovereignties overlapped in the same space. Western Sahara’s fate, therefore, should be decided through a “free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the territory.”
That same day, King Hassan II made a speech on Moroccan TV and radio. “We must undertake a Green March from the north, the east, the west to the south,” he declared. “We must act as one to reunite Western Sahara with the motherland.” Within days, 350,000 Moroccans answered his call, gathering in Tarfaya to march unarmed into the territory they considered integral to their homeland. Spain caved almost immediately, ceding Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania on Nov. 14, 1975.
The 16-year war that followed saw at least 10,000 dead, and the territory divided by a 1,700-mile fortified sand wall, as Moroccan forces, with tacit French and American backing, pushed Polisario back to a sliver of desert along the eastern border. Tens of thousands of Sahrawis — roughly half the population — fled to Polisario-controlled camps surrounding the Algerian town of Tindouf. A 1991 U.N. attempt to broker a referendum eventually fell apart, one major sticking point being whether members of the tribes from southern Morocco with questionable ties to the Western Sahara territory should have the right to vote.
Today, the question of Western Saharan sovereignty remains as fraught as Mackenzie found it nearly 150 years ago. While Morocco has gained some international support for a 2007 regional autonomy proposal, Polisario holds out for a referendum on independence. The U.N. estimates that at least 90,000 Sahrawi refugees and their descendants remain stranded in the Tindouf camps. The old caravan routes to the southwest, by which the desert nomads once brought goods to Mackenzie’s port, are severed by the longest minefield on earth.
In his homeland, Mackenzie has vanished.
While his professional ventures are well documented, his personal life is an enigma. Nobody knows when or where he was born or died, or anything about his family. The name is so common he is almost impossible to identify in genealogical records. In my own search for Mackenzie, I spent weeks trawling censuses, received generous help from Clan Mackenzie’s genealogist, and visited four different archives, but came away with more questions than answers. I speculated whether Mackenzie had deliberately covered his tracks, or befallen some disgrace that saw him erased from British history.
But in Tarfaya, Mackenzie’s memory lives on.
Some say he died in Tarfaya and is buried just north of town, toward the Bora fishing grounds. Others insist he had children there — five, by two different women, I heard — and see echoes of the Scottish Highlands in every red-tinged beard or flash of green in local eyes. Such stories may seem fanciful. But while Mackenzie’s fate remains unknown, they are as good as any others.
Likewise, there is a Mackenzie for every political persuasion, in a region where military families from the north live alongside ethnic Sahrawis, whose own opinions remain divided: Mackenzie, the crackpot; Mackenzie, the visionary; Mackenzie, the vanquished colonialist; Mackenzie, the friend to their ancestors; Mackenzie, the betrayer; Mackenzie, the betrayed.
But while all these rival histories remain embedded in the contested symbolism of the Casamar, the building itself unites more than it divides. For all its historical baggage, Tarfaya is small and tight-knit enough to feel like a family, and the Casamar is its heirloom. It is the backdrop to countless childhood memories, rounds of tea and sunsets spent fishing on the reef. It is Tarfaya’s main historical landmark and tourist attraction. It is even the symbol of their football team, whose supporters greet every goal with embraces, firecrackers and chants of “Ca-sa-mar! Ca-sa-mar!”
As the building crumbles, residents have begged to see it restored. Yet 60 million dirhams (nearly $6 million) pledged by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture in 2014 never materialized, and soon there will be nothing left to save. During rough weather in April 2023, the Friends of Tarfaya Facebook page posted a heartfelt appeal:
The clock is ticking. We are in the blessed month of Ramadan, and on the 15th day, Casamar continues to collapse. The remaining part fell to the west, removing the last breakwater, and the worst is yet to come. We may soon see summer at a beach we have long called the beach of Casamar without it. It is a disgrace that no one can lift a finger; there is no power, except with God.
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