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Why are Ceuta and Melilla Spanish?

How did these two cities in North Africa become Spanish and why do they remain so to this day?

Why are Ceuta and Melilla Spanish?
Painting depicting the signing of the Treaty of Wad-Ras (1860), which put an end to the African War and increased Spain's control over Ceuta and Melilla. Painting: Joaquín Domínguez Bécquer.

The Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla are Europe’s only landmasses in continental Africa.

Their borders with Morocco are the only physical borders between Europe and Africa, and they have for centuries existed as places of contested sovereignty that ebb and flow alongside other political tensions in the region.

Humanitarian crises in Ceuta and Melilla have made headlines in recent years as thousands have attempted to cross the border into Spain from adjacent Morocco, whose leaders refer to them as the occupied “Sebtah and Melilah”.

But what’s the backstory to Ceuta and Melilla? Where are they? Why are they Spanish, and are they politically relevant today?

Where are they?

Ceuta and Melilla are technically Spanish autonomous cities on mainland Africa in a similar way to Catalonia and the Basque Country are in mainland Spain.

Ceuta is bordered by Morocco on Africa’s northern coast, sitting on the boundary between the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans. It sits about 17 km away from Cádiz province across the Strait of Gibraltar, and is just 18.5 km2 with 76,000 inhabitants. 

Melilla sits 250 km further eastwards down the coast towards Algeria, and is just 12.3 km2 with a population of 86,000.

Map of Morocco’s (in green) and Spain’s (in orange) borders, highlighting places of Spanish sovereignty in the north African nation, which includes Ceuta and Melilla but also several other small territories.


In the 5th century Ceuta and Melilla were colonised by the Carthaginians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans.

From the 7th century, Ceuta was ruled by competing Berber and Arab dynasties, and in the 8th century both Ceuta and Melilla were port towns used as launch-pads for the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula that would last for centuries and stretch as far north as Galicia. 

Melilla first fell under Spanish rule in 1497, invaded as part of the Christian reconquista of the peninsula that ended in the late-fifteenth century, and Ceuta, which was a Portuguese territory from 1415, was given to Spain under the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668.

Tile panel by Jorge Colaço (1864–1942) at the São Bento railway station, depicting Prince Henry the Navigator during the conquest of Ceuta. Photo: HombreDHojalata/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Both Ceuta and Melilla were attacked intermittently by North African forces throughout the next century and became heavily fortified. They also served as strategic hubs for trade because of their advantageous locations linking the Mediterranean with the Atlantic.

For centuries and even to this day, they have had a sizeable Spanish military population living there, and at a time both territories served as a type of penal colony for convicts banished from the Iberian peninsula. 

Why are Ceuta and Melilla still Spanish?

In the 1930s, Spanish troops stationed in Ceuta and Melilla were some of the first to rebel against the government and played a key role in Franco’s seizure of power.

When Morocco finally gained its independence in 1956 after decades of rule by the French and Spanish, Spain refused to include Ceuta and Melilla in any negotiations and they remained Spanish territories.

Morocco has made several sovereignty claims to the territories since gaining independence.

In 2002, tensions flared when Moroccan soldiers occupied the Spanish-controlled Parsley Island off the coast of mainland Morocco. They were eventually removed by force by the Spanish navy.

General view of the 16th century fortress known as “Melilla la Vieja” (The Old Melilla) located in the port of the Spanish enclave of Melilla. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

Spanish King Juan Carlos – himself no stranger to controversies – infuriated Moroccans by making an official state visit to Melilla in 2007, and in recent years the territories have also played a role in politics.

Spaniards who believe that Ceuta and Melilla should remain Spanish argue that both territories were part of Spain for more than 400 years before Morocco gained independence, considering their separation from Spain based only on their geographical location as non-negotiable as that of the Canary Islands, which have been Spanish since the 15th century. 

Unlike Gibraltar, which was given the status of colony by the UN in 1967, Ceuta and Melilla have not been classified as such by the United Nations given that they’re fully integrated into Spanish governance and administration. 

“Rabat knows well that it has no legal route to substantiate its claim (over Ceuta and Melilla), only a political one, and for this reason in principle it will never go to the International Court of Justice to reactivate a claim that has been frozen in the United Nations since 1975,” writer and analyst Ángel Manuel Ballesteros told El Faro de Ceuta.

In the last several years both the borders in Ceuta and Melilla have been the focus of attempts by refugees and asylum seekers from all over Africa, and the Spanish government’s treatment – including its illegal ‘pushback’ strategy – has earned it condemnation from human rights and refugee groups.

Most recently, Ceuta became the focus of international news when as many as 10,000 people crossed the border from Morocco in a matter of days.

Migrants climb a sea wall in the northern town of Fnideq after attempting to cross the border from Morocco to Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta on May 19th, 2021. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

This came at the height of tensions between Madrid and Rabat, and it is believed that Moroccan border guards simply left their posts in a deliberate – and rather callous – negotiating tactic to instigate a humanitarian crisis after they were angered that Spain had treated Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, a separatist group that campaigns for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco, in a Ceuta hospital.

There is no indication at present that Spain will ever be willing to renounce Ceuta or Melilla as a bargaining chip over a dependence on natural gas supplies from the Maghreb or any possible future diplomatic spat between Morocco and Algeria.

But what does seem clear is that when it comes to controlling immigration from the African continent, Ceuta and Melilla are somewhat of an Achilles’ heel for Spain which Moroccan authorities are prepared to take advantage of. 

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How 22 Spanish orphans became ‘the vaccine’ to beat smallpox in the Americas

This is the unlikely story of how in 1803 one doctor, one ship and 22 Spanish orphans serving as human fridges helped the world beat smallpox by carrying out the first international vaccination campaign.

How 22 Spanish orphans became 'the vaccine' to beat smallpox in the Americas

We’re living through a time in history where the emergence and resurgence of viruses is becoming more prevalent, from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to the appearance of monkeypox, with several cases recently recorded in Spain, Portugal and the UK.

Monkeypox is a similar virus to smallpox, a devastating illness that was finally eradicated in 1980. The virus causes high fever, body aches, headaches and chills, as well as a rash of boils or sores. 

READ ALSO: Eight suspected monkeypox cases detected in Spain

While historians and scientists believe that smallpox has been around for the last 3,000 years, monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks occurred in a group of monkeys kept for research. The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The first vaccine

During the 18th century, smallpox was rife throughout the world and was killing millions. It was around this time that English doctor Edward Jenner saw that people who caught the milder bovine virus of cowpox never actually caught the deadlier smallpox.

So in 1796, he took the pus from a cowpox lesion on a milkmaid’s hand and inoculated an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps, rendering him immune to smallpox and creating the world’s first vaccine.

But it was in fact Spain that played a pivotal role in getting this vaccine out to the masses and helping to bring the smallpox virus under control. 

How did they transport vaccines in the 18th and 19th century?

Even today, transporting vaccines proves to be problematic, best evidenced by the specific temperature and storage requirements of some of the Covid-19 vaccines, as well the logistical delays and other distribution obstacles.

But back in the early 19th century, doctors and scientists came up against even more problems.

Health professionals at the time invented an ingenious method of taking the puss-like fluid from the sores of those with cowpox and placing it on a piece of material to dry out.

They would then travel to the next town and mix the dried puss with water, before scratching it into people’s skin to infect them with cowpox, thus protecting them from smallpox.

This method seemed to work in Europe, where distances between towns were relatively close.

The arrival of Spain’s Conquistadores in America led to the spread of viruses such as smallpox among native populations, killing millions, including the Aztecs of present-day Mexico.

However, the vaccine wouldn’t stay fresh long enough to take it further across the seas to the Americas. It wouldn’t even work for distances from one European capital to the next, only from town to town. 

Children become the vaccine carriers

This is where Spain comes in. The colonial power was desperate to send the vaccine over to its South American territories, where the virus was running rampant throughout the population, killing around half of those it infected.

In 1803, a doctor from Alicante in eastern Spain, Francisco Javier de Balmís, came up with a plan and asked Spain’s King Carlos IV, whose own daughter had died of smallpox, to fund a new mission.

His plan was to sail to the Americas with 22 Spanish orphans on board, infecting them with cowpox along the way, a plan that wouldn’t have much chance of being approved in this day and age due to human rights laws, but this was the early 18th century.

Francisco Javier de Balmís was integral in helping the first international vaccine campaign. Source: Foundling / WikiCommons

The cowpox vaccine only survived in the body for up to 12 days, so at the beginning of the journey only two of the orphans were infected with smallpox. Then, ten days later when they were sick enough and had boils all over their skin, doctors on board would lance these sores and infect two more boys. The aim was to keep this going every ten days until they reached South America.

Miraculously, the plan of using the orphans as vessels for the virus worked, and although all the children got sick, none of them died.

By the time the ship docked in Venezuela in March 1804, one boy still had fresh sores and puss which could be used to vaccinate the local population. 

Balmís and his team set about vaccinating the locals straight away and then split up, with half the team travelling through what is today Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia and the other half up to Mexico.

Amazingly, using this method of lancing boils and moving from town to town, they managed to vaccinate around 200,000 people, most of whom were children.

Locals who received news of their arrival would greet the heroes with all the flamboyance of a Spanish fiesta – complete with music, bullfights and fireworks. 

The mission was not yet complete

Balmís left the 22 original orphans with adoptive families in Mexico and then set out on a new voyage with a brand new set of children for the Spanish colony of the Philippines.

The ship arrived in April 1805 and again astonishingly the plan worked. Here, Blamís and his team were able to vaccinate a further 20,000. 

This vaccination plan was so successful again, that Balmís took the vaccine to China to keep inoculating the population there too. 

Thanks to the ingenious methods of one Spanish doctor and the bravery of 22 Spanish orphans, Jenner’s original vaccine was able to reach the far corners of the world, vaccinating hundreds of thousands and saving countless lives.