Historical Oddities: The Cape Spartel Lighthouse

Historical Oddities
I’m back! In order to keep this going more, I’ve decided to do shorter posts each day talking about some of the weird little things that happened throughout history. These will be alongside my other ramblings.

Back in the 19th century, the North African coast was still a danger to the merchants and ships traveling along it. The United States had just put an end to the Barbary corsairs, but there was still the issue of natural hazards along the rocky cliffs. Cape Spartel, the northernmost point of Morocco and an important landmark near the Strait of Gibraltar, was of particular danger to captains. As early as 1852, there was already international discussion on the construction of a lighthouse at the cape, as the thousand foot high promontory was visible from the western entrance to the Strait as well as from the Rock of Gibraltar.

The construction of the lighthouse took place between 1861 and 1864, and was a prime example of international agreement. The British, French, Spanish, and American governments all supported the lighthouse’s construction, but each had to gain assurance from the Sultan of Morocco that the lighthouse would remain neutral in times of war between the great powers. The Sultan accepted, on the condition that the great powers would also pay for the upkeep of the lighthouse. And so representatives of the ten powers interested in the lighthouse met in Tangiers to discuss the division of payment for its maintenance. On May 31, 1865, the governments of Austria, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United States all signed an agreement with Morocco that each power would contribute 1,500 francs toward the upkeep of the lighthouse. The signatory powers also guaranteed the neutrality of the lighthouse, to be under the control of the International Commission of Cape Spartel. This agreement lasted through the partition of Morocco between France and Spain and through both World Wars until Morocco regained its independence in 1957.

This neutral territory around the lighthouse was later incorporated into the Tangiers International Zone in 1923. However, the inclusion of the Cape Spartel lighthouse in the international zone created a curious snarl in international law. While the lighthouse was within the international zone, the legal jurisdiction over the lighthouse itself fell to the original Cape Spartel Lighthouse Commission, still going since its creation in 1865. In 1929, a legal inquiry found that disputes between the Lighthouse Commission and the International Zone could only be resolved by a third party tribunal accepted by both parties.

But those two bodies were not the only ones with supposed authority over the lighthouse. The original 1865 agreement establishing the Lighthouse Commission also reserved the property rights of the Sultan of Morocco over the lighthouse. While the French had conquered Morocco and made the country a protectorate decades before, the Sultan retained his position and title during the era of the protectorate, and so could possibly have been a third claimant of legal authority over the lighthouse.

There is also a fourth possible legal jurisdiction; that of the American Consul in Tangier. This authority comes from the formation of the Sanitary Council in Tangier in 1840 as part of a treaty between the great powers and Morocco to protect the port of Tangier for shipping. Over the decades, the Sanitary Council gained numerous powers within Tangier such as maintaining the port and roads of the city and controlling movement into and out of the city. By 1900, the Sanitary Council had grown and now was a de facto city council for Tangier. While the council was originally a shared authority of all the diplomatic legations in Tangier, many consulates resigned their powers in the Sanitary Council to the International Zone in 1925. However, Italy and the United States did not. In 1929 Italy also was a signatory to the International Zone Commission, which left the United States consul as the only remaining authority in the Sanitary Council. The United States never was a signatory to the creation of the Tangier International Zone, and the American Consulate frequently rejected requests to defer to its court. Based on this, the American Consul was another potential authority over the Cape Spartel Lighthouse.

In total, there were theoretically four simultaneous judicial authorities over the Cape Spartel Lighthouse. Of course neither the American Consulate nor the Sultan of Morocco was ever considered to have actual jurisdiction, but a hypothetical case could have brought one of both of those into play if for instance an American national were involved. Fortunately, no serious cases regarding the Cape Spartel Lighthouse ever happened, and it remains a mere peculiarity in international law. The lighthouse still stands proudly on the edge of Cape Spartel lighting the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. It is a hallmark of 19th century global cooperation and one of the first truly neutral and international territories to be created in modern times before the existence of the League of Nations.

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