Ceuta and Melilla are two cities from Spain in African territory.

Ceuta And Melilla image

According to the dictionary, a definition for the colony is:

A body of people living in a new territory but retaining ties with the parent state

And two European cities in Morocco seem to be "people living in a new territory but retaining ties with the parent state".

Another definition from Wikipedia is:

In political science, a colony is a territory subject to a form of foreign rule. Though dominated by the foreign colonizers, colonies remain separate from the administration of the original country of the colonizers, the metropolitan state (or "mother country")

In this case, there is a "foreign rule" but Ceuta and Melilla are not separated "from the administration of the original country of the colonizers".

I've seen this map where Gibraltar is considered as "Non-self governing territory" (like Western Sahara from Spain) but Ceuta and Melilla don't appear.

Colony map

I've found also this article where a Spanish ambassador says about to compare Ceuta and Melilla with Gibraltar:

"It is absurd to compare them," he said. "[Ceuta and Melilla] have never been colonies and are not now."

So, Ceuta and Melilla cities have never been colonies and also are not colonies now. But why? Why is another example as Gibraltar is considered a colony but not two cities on another continent?

  • 1
    Occupy something for a few centuries, have the population develop a new identity, and it's not a colony anymore. Better ask if the people of Ceuta and Melilla would rather be part of Morocco now. I'm sure there are some polls. Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 20:12
  • Spain did "give back" (retrocede) Ifni after the population basically rebelled. Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 20:44
  • 4
    Should Egypt call Sinai a colony because it is on a different continent?
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 22:15
  • 1
    You have to define "new territory" and "foreign rule". Why spanish rule over a tiny piece of northern Africa should be "foreign rule"? It's Istambul "foreign rule" of Turkey? Is it Hawaii "foreign rule" of the USA? Same thing with "new territory". Modern Morocco exists since 1956, the oldest Alauite monarchy going back to 1631, meanwhile Ceuta has been punic, roman, vandal, roman, idrisidian, malaccan, almoravid, almohadian, other dozen minor muslim kingdoms and finally portuguese since 1415, staying with Spain after Portugal's independence in 1640. "New territory" for who?
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 7:48
  • 1
    @r13: It would seem to be equally accurate to describe Ceuta & Melilla as the only parts that weren't conquered, or which were successfully reclaimed from the Islamic conquerors. How far back in history do you want to go? The Visigoths, the Romans, the Carthaginians...?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 15:50

4 Answers 4


The logic that Spain applies is that these two enclaves are legally and politically part of Spain. Whereas Gibraltar (for example) is a subordinate entity, owned by the UK, but not part of the UK.

Your source explains this reasoning:

Gibraltar, [the Spanish government] point out, is a colony. Ceuta and Melilla, both military emplacements, are fully paid-up parts of Spain whose citizens elect their own representatives in the Madrid parliament and have exactly the same rights as any other Spaniard. Source

You might think this sophistry. Certainly the Moroccans disagree and have demanded the return of these colonies/enclaves.

  • 3
    It is also worth observing that Ceuta is very nearly contiguous with the Spanish mainland. No one would suggest that Key West is a colony rather than part of the State of Florida, simply because it is on islands near, but not connected to, the State of Florida.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 20:08
  • 2
    @ohwilleke But it's also worth observing that Africa is usually considered a different continent from Europe. No one would suggest the Florida Keys are a colony because no one would suggest the Florida Keys are on a different continent. Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 8:04
  • 2
    @AmiralPatate Colonialism is a human phenomena and not a physical geography phenomena. Social-ethnic boundaries shift. It implies at least somewhat non-democratic rule of indigenous people by foreign people. In the 800s the cultural divide between the Islamic world and the Western world was in Northern Iberia. Now, it is near the straight of Gibraltar. In the 200s, Algeria and Tunisia were part of the Western world. Settling uninhabited lands (as the Austronesian mariners did and as future moon colonists might) isn't colonialism. Nor was repopulating Europe after the Ice Age.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 16:06
  • @AmiralPalate Edirne and most of Istanbul are on a different country from the vast majority of Turkey, but no one in their right mind would consider it an instance of colonialism. Geographic boundaries are not everything Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 6:39
  • 1
    @Denis Nardin: Why would anyone NOT consider Istanbul a instance of Islamic colonialism?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 30, 2021 at 2:52

By whom? By the Spanish ambassador? The terms colony and colonial have a highly negative connotation nowadays so get used by whoever wants to criticize something. In this case, Spain is criticizing Gibraltar, so of course, that's a colony.

Conversely whenever referring to your own dominions, or when you to remain polite and neutral, you call such areas overseas territories or some such.

Therefore, Ceuta and Melilla are not colonies, to the Spanish ambassador.

Any what does Morocco think?

Morocco has claimed the territories are colonies.

You can see the same terminology games with the Falklands.

Las islas Malvinas son uno de los últimos vestigios de la época colonial, en la que países europeos como Reino Unido, Francia y España se dividían el recién descubierto continente americano.

Or some US territories in the Pacific: Most countries have given up their colonies. Why hasn’t America?.

Few discussions of indigenous issues in Canada don't include the term colonization, often to refer to modern contexts, at least when its indigenous people doing the talking. Quite the opposite when it's folk claiming all is well.

Basically, nowadays territories vs colonies is a highly subjective term and indicates neutrality vs disapproval, respectively. In the past, before 50-60s and decolonization, Western nations made no bones about using the term colony.

  • 1
    By whom? By the UN. United Nations says Gibraltar is a colony and says Ceuta and Melilla not. Meanwhile Morocco says Ceuta and Melilla are colonies. Who has the reason? (if anyone has it)
    – J.F.
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 12:08
  • 1
    @J.F.: "Non-self governing territory" is not the same as "colony"... although frankly the way the UN has been deciding NSGT status has been opaque/haphazard/politicized at times. For Gibraltar see my own Q: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/68406/… Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 13:39
  • Some of the examples given don't have the same legal and political status as the main part of the country. A better example for the U.S. than Guam for comparability are the Aleutian Islands and military bases in Hawaii. And, arguably Basque country is a better socio-political fit to a colonization model than Ceuta and Melilla, which have no current ethnically non-Spanish inhabitants.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 20:14
  • @ohwilleke Honestly, I dunno. But there is a lot of wiggle room to argue one way or another. Ceuta seems to be "part of" Moroccan geography and the absence of present-day Moroccans doesn't mean all that much if the previous inhabitants were chased out at some point. Re. Guam, how do you count areas where a majority of native inhabitants find it advantageous to be part of a bigger country, rather than "going alone"? re. Hawaii, how much does a majority vote count if only 7-10% of residents are native Hawaiians? You can argue various ways, but they will mostly remain subjective. Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 0:17

Ceuta and Melilla are not considered colonies in any international agreements because they don't suit the definition of colonies.

Your mistake come from think that here is a "foreign rule" in Ceuta and Melilla. There is no more foreign rule in Ceuta and Melilla than in any other Spanish region. They have exactly the same democratic rights, and vote in the elections. They have also their own "autonomy" called Ciudad Autonomy, where they decided their regional laws in the same way than the region of Madrid or the region of Catalonia (or any other region).

Morocco claim is inconsistent since there are no historic reason for that claim. Ceuta and Melilla are not in Morocco territory, they are surrounded by Morocco. And that territory surrounded them is historically inestable, it ended belonging to Morocco as it could be ended in Argelia hands. Morocco stablished itself as a country in the XXth century, but they consider themself as heirs of the Almohads. However the Almohads also didn't control that territory consistently to consider it belonging to them. Ceuta and Melilla has been Spanish since more than 400 years ago, it is difficult to apply the concept of colony to them. As some comments point is like to say that Istambul is a colony of Turkey.

I am Spanish so I can give you a insider perspective about the comment of Spanish ambassador. From Spanish perspective Gibraltar is a region that was conquered from Spain not so long ago, in a war where other european powers participate in internal Spanish matters. Spain was already very established and England took a part of us. Also the people living in Gibraltar suit very well the definition of colonizers since they went from England and put themselves there, they have no mix with locals. People in Melilla and Ceuta are genetically very mixed with berbers. Of course, at the end people of Gibraltar live there since generations, and I don't see lot of point to this claim of Spain (being fair or unfair is time to forget it)

  • Ceuta was Portuguese till 1640. Just compare the coats of arms of Lisbon and Ceuta. Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 18:07

The term colony is obviously rather contentious as it is generally understood in a negative manner in the late 20th and 21st century. Thus, in many cases people have labelled regions as 'colonies' of the country controlling them mainly to make a political point of the controlling country being an oppressor or the region being entitled to independence/joining a different country.

Looking at the historical idea of a colony, however, the most defining question was often 'does the region have representation in national politics in a similar manner as the mainland?' For example, take a look at the federal German election of 1903: As shown in the map below, deputies were sent to the Reichstag from all of the German constituent states and the Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine which was considered part of Germany proper. No deputies were elected from any of Germany's colonies (e.g. present-day Namibia).

Map showing the results of the 1903 election in the German Empire

Applying this school of thought to the questions of Ceuta, Melilla and Gibraltar:

  • Ceuta and Melilla each form a constituency of Spain in the elections to the parliament's lower chamber. While each of these elects only one member, they are somewhat overrepresented compared to other regions. Each of them have approximately 80,000 inhabitants; compare this to e.g. Girona which has 740,000 inhabitants but only elects 6 members each of which represents about 123,000 people. Likewise, they are (over-) represented in the Spanish Senate as are all smaller regions.

  • Gibraltar while having taken part in EU elections and the EU withdrawal referendum does not participate in UK general elections and there is no 'Honourable Member for Gibraltar' sitting in the House of Commons.

So looking at this simple denominator it becomes clear why Ceuta and Melilla would not be considered Spanish colonies while Gibraltar would be considered a British one.

In the same vein, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man could be considered UK colonies as they also do not participate in UK general elections and thus have less representation than e.g. Wales.

  • The problem with the analysis which regards the Channel Islands as UK colonies is that they were ruled by William, Duke of Normandy (as part of Normandy) before William became William the Conqueror, King of England. So, one may ask, why are they colonies of the UK rather than the UK being a colony of the Channel Islands?
    – Nemo
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 13:57
  • @Nemo Indeed, all across Europe things get increasingly fuzzy once one goes back further than around the 18th century. In the same vein, pre-Magna Carta England doesn't really fulfill any of the criteria as there wasn't really any government outside of the Lord of the Land (i.e. the monarch and his tributaries). In his function as Duke of Normandy, the English kings were for a long time subjects of the Kings of France for that precise reason.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 11:18
  • The reason why I listed them was that most political power was slowly but surely transferred from the monarch to an elected parliament; only using this elected parliament as the basis does the analysis of colony/not colony make sense in my eyes. At whichever time HM Government started taking responsibility for foreign and domestic policy, the Channel Islands would have essentially shifted from something else to a colony in this analysis. Note that statuses like these are not set in stone: Mayotte acceeded from a essentially French colony to a French département in 2011.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 11:24
  • By HM government do you mean the UK government? The government of Jersey (for example) is also HM government
    – Nemo
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 11:27

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