The plazas de soberanía ("places of sovereignty"), formerly referred as "África Septentrional Española" (Spanish North Africa) or simply "África Española" (Spanish Africa) are the current Spanish territories in continental North Africa, bordering Morocco.
Since the Reconquista, the Spanish army had to conquer and mantain numerous emplacements in North Africa as a defense because the North African people constantly reach the Spanish coast for make pillage and looting. Many of them, such as Oran, have been lost, and nowadays, with an approximate population of 143,000 people, only the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, which constitute the two plazas mayores de soberanía (or large places of sovereignty), and the Islas Chafarinas, the Peñón de Alhucemas and the Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, which constitute the three plazas menores de soberanía (or lesser sovereignty places), are still part of Spain.
Apart from those, Isla Perejil, a small uninhabited islet close to Ceuta that was the subject of a confrontation with Morocco in 2002, has been lately defined as an extra plaza de soberanía. It is not a plaza de soberanía in itself but, rather, no-man's land. The Isla de Alborán, another small island in the western Mediterranean, about 50 kilometres north of the Moroccan coast and 90 kilometres south of Spain, administratively belongs to the city council of Almería and is part of the Almería Pescadería (fish market) district.
The "lesser places" are tiny islets off the coast of Morocco which have no civilian population. They are guarded by military garrisons and administered directly by the Spanish Government.
When Ceuta and Melilla, parts of Spanish Morocco, were also declared as free ports, Indian businessmen set up trading houses and retail shops catering to the tourist trade By the mid-seventies, there were over 200 Indian trading houses in Ceuta and Melilla.
Castile intervened in Northern Africa, competing with the Portuguese Empire, when Henry III of Castile began the colonization of the Canary Islands in 1402, sending Norman explorer Jean de Béthencourt. In 1415, Ceuta was occupied by the Portuguese during the reign of John I of Portugal. After Portugal lost its independence to Spain in 1580, the majority of the population of Ceuta became of Spanish origin. This went to the extent of Ceuta being the only city of the Portuguese Empire that sided with Spain when Portugal regained its independence in 1640 and war broke out between the two countries.
The coastal villages and towns of Spain, Italy and Mediterranean islands were frequently attacked by Barbary pirates from North Africa, the Formentera was even temporarily left by its population and long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants. In 1514, 1515 and 1521 coasts of the Balearic Islands and the Spanish mainland were raided by infamous Turkish privateer and Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. According to Robert Davis between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by North African pirates and sold as slaves between the 16th and 17th century. Slaves were captured mainly from seaside villages in Spain, Italy and Portugal.
In 1481 the Papal bull Æterni regis had granted all land south of the Canary Islands to Portugal. Only this archipelago and the cities of Sidi Ifni (1476 – 1524), known then as "Santa Cruz de la Mar Pequeña", Melilla (conquered by Pedro de Estopiñán in 1497), Villa Cisneros (founded in 1502 in current Western Sahara), Mazalquivir (1505), Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera (1508), Oran (1509 – 1790), Algiers (1510 – 29), Bugia (1510 – 54), Tripoli (1511 – 51), Tunis (1535 – 69) and Ceuta (ceded by Portugal in 1668) remained as Spanish territory in Africa.
When Spain relinquished its protectorate over the North of Morocco, Spanish Morocco, and recognized Morocco's independence in 1956, it did not give over the plazas de soberanía, since Spain had held them since before its acquiring its protectorate. They are, however, part of the Greater Morocco claimed by nationalist movements in Morocco. Isla Perejil was occupied on July 11, 2002 by the Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie and troops, who were evicted without bloodshed by Spanish Armed Forces seven days later.