On Battleship Hill

Marsaxlokk-Jabal Ali; On Military Logistics in the Age of Philip II

4 February 2015


The presidio at Algiers, c. 16th century

What becomes clear in reading Braudel’s vol II about war-making is the extent to which your martial power really depends on your economic ability to supply the garrisons intended to act as your line of defence. His fascinating discussion of the presidios, fortified bases used as defensive means against Ottomans and others, absolutely points to the centrality of these logistics lines.   His brilliant research shows how such garrisons can act as massive drains on treasuries, not only through the salaries paid those garrisoned there, but also through the difficulty of efficiently, physically, logistically, supplying them with the basic things they needed.  He compares the Spanish strategies in North Africa and Mexico and writes that “Cortés on arriving in Mexico, burnt his boats; he had to triumph or die. In North Africa, there was always the supply ship with its fresh water, fish, cloth or garbanzos.”

The problem on how to man these garrisons was not easily solved though.  At some point, they even though of using Moriscos (Moors who had converted to Christianity) as settlers. But who wanted to live in this landscape defined by “its immensity and its aridity”?

How were these deportees to live? In a Spain dazzled by the lure both of the New World and the good fare of Italy, where were the men to be found? There were also plans to make these strongholds economically viable, to create some kind of link with the vast interior, off which they would live.

But even there they failed because the North African trade went through “Tajura, La Misurata, Algiers and Bône, none of which was in Christian hands.”  His description of the hardship of these frontier bases is fascinating and makes clear the centrality –again- of military logistics:

Life in the presidios must have been miserable.  So near the water, rations rotted and men died of fever. The soldiers were hungry all year round. For a long time, the only supplies came by sea. Later, but only at Oran, the surrounding countryside provided meat and grain, which had become a regular supplement by the very end of the century.  Garrison life was in many ways similar to shipboard life, not without its hazards.

Meanwhile Malaga and Cartagena acted as suppliers for the North African bases. I love his matter-of-fact enumeration of man and materiel:

The traffic passing through Málaga was very considerable. All supplies for Africa travelled from there: munitions, rations, construction materials, soldiers, convicts, labourers and prostitutes. Supply and transport posed serious problems –wheat for instance had to be bought, then transported from the interior by files of pack donkeys, which was costly for a start. To transfer it from the administration’s granaries to the port and from the port to the presidios meant more work and more delay.  The sea was infested with pirates. So it was only in winter, when pirates were few, that the risk would be taken of sending to Oran a corchapin, two or three boats, a tartane, or perhaps a Marseilles or Venetian galleon, placed under embargo, and requisitioned transport supplies or munitions. On more than one occasion, the boat was seized by the galliots from Tetouan or Algiers, and the Spanish would be lucky if they could buy it back from the corsairs when they anchored, as was their habit, off Cape Falcon.  So pirates, quite as much as negligence by the administration, were responsible for the recurrent famines in the western presidios.