Ambassador Abdul Guahid
Mark Evan Chimsky
Look at the portrait that was painted of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun and you see a man who has survived throughout history with much of his mystery intact. One of the first Muslim dignitaries to be granted an audience with Queen Elizabeth I at Court, his biographical details are barely known beyond what has been written regarding his six months in London in 1600. Speculation was rampant back then and more than four hundred years later it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.
Abdul Guahid (as he was known in England) was born in 1558. George Thomson, a cousin to Court spy Jasper Thomson, confirmed to Secretary of State Robert Cecil that Guahid was “a natural Moor born,” though it was gossiped that his family had lived in Fez and that they had been forced to convert to Christianity before being expelled from Spain. Apparently, Guahid renounced the conversion to return to his true faith as a Muslim once in Morocco.
As principal secretary and ambassador Abdul Guahid was trusted enough by King Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur of Morocco to be sent to England to propose a secret military alliance between his country and England, with the purpose of launching an attack on Spain. The king of Morocco had granted him permission to offer the Queen 150,000 ducats to join in such an alliance.
Abdul Guahid arrived by ship (The Eagle) in Dover, England on August 8, 1600 with a delegation of two merchants and his interpreter Abd el-Dodar). They were met in Gravesend by sixteen more ambassadors and nine prisoners that Morocco had agreed to release to England. The Moroccans, “strangely attired and behaviored” as described by Rowland White, were paraded through the streets of London on August 15, causing a stir and provoking curiosity and scorn among the crowd that gathered to see them.
It is a fact that when Abdul Guahid met with Queen Elizabeth at Nonsuch Palace on Wednesday, August 19 and was greeted with full pagentry, the Lords of the Order will their collars and a full court of Lords and Ladies” (according to the Court’s Spanish interpreter Lewes Lewkenor. The Ambassador caused a shock in the great hall when he requested that he and the Queen meet in private – an unprecedented suggestion that was surpassed only by the Queen’s decision to grant his request. We know he raised the issue of a secret military alliance to her and that a second meeting occurred in secrecy on September 10. Apparently, the Queen never gave him a firm yes or no, but deferred for months, until finally letting the king of Morocco know that she was not willing to join forces with him against Spain.
While the Moroccans were in London, they were invited to a number of festivities, including the anniversary celebration of the Queen’s coronation at Whitehall in November 1600, and a command performance of As You Like It with its author, William Shakespeare, playing the role of Adam. It is not known why Abdul Guahid stayed until February when his meetings with the Queen were done in September. However, members of the Queen’s court felt he had overstayed his welcome, as did John Ratcliffe who had loaned out his home as a temporary residence to the Moroccans – and expected to be compensated for his hospitality. In the end, the Lord Mayor of London paid a Captain Primme 230 pounds “towards the defraying of the Ambassadors charges, which will not discharge all that is owing.” Mr. Ratcliffe was also reimbursed for supplying a residence to the Moroccan delegation.
In letters from the time, it appears that the Moroccans shocked merchants and people of the city by slaughtering their own beef (in the name of Allah). Merchants were upset that they stopped in their shops, not to buy but to gather information about how much their imported goods were selling for.
Rumors suggest that Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed by the Ambassador that she wanted him to fight as an officer in the English army against Spain. One thing is certain: Abdul Guahid managed to successfully negotiate a trade agreement with the Queen by the end of his second meeting. After he left England, in early 1601 no other details about Abdul Guahid are known, with one startling exception: his interpreter El-Dodar was mysteriously poisoned on his return to Morocco. The official reason given was that he had “commended the estate and bounty of England.” It should be noted that the Queen or her Secretary of State Robert Cecil had presented the Ambassador with two men to take with him to the king: John Roiliffe, a scholar, and Richard Edwards, an apothecary with knowledge of potions and poisons.
We know what Abdul Guahid looked like because of the portrait of him that still survives. Though it is not known who the painter was or who commissioned the painting, its masterful attention to detail and deft artistry suggests the hand of a court painter, perhaps John de Critz the Elder, whose style it resembles. The portrait now hangs in The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. Though the reason it is there is because the Ambassador is thought to have been the model for Othello, art scholar Sophie Bostock has provided ample reasons to doubt that the sophisticated diplomat was the inspiration for the Moorish war hero. Still, it is fitting that the Abdul Guahid has found a home where Shakespeare was born and lived out his final days.
This biography was supplemented with historical details that are available on the Master of the Ceremonies website ( https://masteroftheceremonies.wordpress.com/2015/08/14/the-moor-at-elizabeth-is-court-2/ ).