Friday, June 12, 2009

The history that europe would prefer to forget

Given the tide of anti-immigrant fervour sweeping Europe at the moment - as evidenced by the victory of Meisseurs Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Rajoy and their lesser brethren (Griffin, Wilders et al.) at last weekend's European elections - it seems like an opportune moment to repost the following article by Juan Goytisolo, originally published in El País back in March. Apologies to the reader for the roughness of my translation.

The inconvenient history of the Moriscos

Official and academic Spain is trying to forget the fourth centenary of one of the most ominous deeds in our history: the expulsion in 1609 of hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen and women of Muslim descent.

- Juan Goytisolo El País 15/03/2009

To Francisco Márquez Villanueva

The past of all countries contains alternating moments of embarrassment and patriotic pride. The fourth centenary of the expulsion of the Moriscos in the reign of Philip III obviously belongs among the former. Outside of the Andalusí Legacy[2] foundation and the conference of historians it is organising this May, official and academic Spain has maintained a defensive position of diplomatic silence on this issue, revealing its obvious discomfort.

What happened from 1609 to 1614 was an inglorious episode that provided the first European precedent for the bloody ethnic cleansings (of various magnitudes) that we have witnessed over the past century. The “preventive” measures ordered by the Duke of Lerma[3] with the strong support of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and Patriarch Ribera[4] were the subject of a long, uncertain and controversial political-religious debate. It is useful to remind ourselves, albeit only briefly, of its various stages:

1499: forced conversion of the people of Granada by Cardinal Cisneros; 1501-02: Muslims in the Kingdom of Castile given a choice between exile and conversion: the mediaeval Mudéjares[5] became Moriscos pure and simple; 1516: forced to abandon their dress and customs, although the measure was not enforced for 10 years; 1525-26: conversion by edict of the Moriscos in Aragón and Valencia; 1562: a council of ecclesiastics, jurists and members of the Inquisition prohibits the people of Granada from using the Arabic language; 1569-70: rebellion of Alpujarra and the wars of Granada… from the crushing of the Moriscos to the execution of Aben Humeya, the political strategy of Philip II consisted of dispersing the people of Granada and resettling them in Castile, Murcia and Extremadura, far from the southern coasts and possible Turkish invasions.

So many vacillations and changes of direction reflect the contradictions that existed between an ecclesiastical hierarchy with scant respect for the universal Christian ethic on the one hand and on the other the interests of the peninsular nobility, for whom the expulsion of those who worked their lands would spell agricultural ruin. As we now know thanks to historiographical work carried out since the end of the 19th century, the political-religious crusade was the subject of a furious behind-the-scenes controversy.

While some opposed the expulsion and preached baptism and gradual assimilation, the hard-line elements of the episcopacy were strongly inclined towards more forceful proposals: slavery, collective extermination or castration of all the males and the deportation to the Island of Bacalao,[6] in other words to Newfoundland.

Banishment to the much closer African coast, favoured by the majority of the members of the Council of State, was opposed by a venerable bishop with an argument of impeccable logic: after arrival in Algeria or Morocco the Moriscos would renounce their Christian faith, the most charitable thing would therefore be to put them in leaking ships so that they would be shipwrecked during the voyage and their immortal souls be saved.

In the debate that for decades pitted doves against hawks, the hawks relied upon the eloquent pens of propagandists such as Brother Jaime de Bleda, González de Cellorigo, Brother Marcos de Guadalajara and, most importantly of all, Pedro Aznar de Cardona. – for whom the expulsion marked the closing of a long and ignoble historical digression opened by the invasion of 711: thanks to the work of Lerma and Philip III Spain would be Catholic without exception.

Along with their religious arguments, they put forward other ridiculous claims concerning demographics: the supposed danger of a giant increase in the Morisco population in abrupt contrast with a static or declining Christian one due to ecclesiastical celibacy, the cloistering of women in convents, the wars in Flanders and emigration to America. Such arguments, which are being revived today by the European nationalist ultras, were ironically summed up by the dog Berganza in Cervantes’ Symposium of the Dogs.[7]

The Morisco problem and the radical solution applied to it have been the subject of numerous well-documented studies in the last fifty years by historians as diverse as América Castro, Domínguez Ortiz, Julio Caro Baroja, Mercedes García-Arenal, Bernard Vincent, Louis Cardaillac, Márquez Villanueva, among many others. Thanks to these people we now know of the opposition of those whom today we would call courageous citizens to the edict of expulsion four hundred years ago. Very significantly, the majority of these people were recently converted Christians of Jewish origin – no less visible despite having altered their names and outward appearance. Their advocacy in favour of assimilation of the Moriscos was as much a plea on their own behalf and both contradicted and challenged the very recently introduced Christian statutes regarding limpieza de sangre.[8]

The reassertion of commerce, labour and merit against the “black honour” of the Old Christians offered some hope of arresting the already perceptible Spanish decline and the long “holiday from history” which was prolonged for another two centuries until the Cortes de Cádiz[9], despite the eminently sensible policies of Olivares[10] and the enlightened ministers of the 18th century.

Example of this reassertion include González de Cellorigo’s memorial addressed to the monarch Of the Necessary Policies and Useful Restoration of the Republic of Spain –its regenerationist spirit obvious from is title – and Luis de Mármol y Carvajal’s excellent History of the Rebellion and Punishment of the Moriscos – evocative of a human tragedy that could have been avoided with a more pragmatic approach. Both of these books helped to alter the current of Erasmean thought[11] to which the would-be modernisers of self-absorbed Spanish society subscribed.

In a soon-to-be-published work that I have just had the opportunity to read thanks to the kindness of the author – Moors, Moriscos and Turks in the Work of Cervantes – Francisco Márquez Villanueva analyses with his usual aplomb the writings – mostly unedited – of the humanist Pedro de Valencia, disciple and executor of the Hebrew scholar Benito Arias Montano. His Treatise Concerning the Moriscos in Spain, unknown until its publication in 1979 and which only came into my hands very recently, could be perhaps – seen from the perspective of its own time – the most reasoned defence of the cause of those who were expelled.

A convert from Judaism like Arias Montano and an enemy of the Church scholastics and the doctrines propounded by the Council of Trent,[12] de Valencia energetically denounced “the insult that is done (to the Moriscos) in depriving them of their lands and in not treating them with the same equal honour and esteem as all other natural-born citizens.” Like Brother Luis de León (he who is remembered for his famous description of the statute of limpieza de sangre as “an affront to generations that will never cease”), Pedro de Valencia opposed the statute of Cardinal Siliceo[13] and advocated a policy of mixed marriages between Moriscos and Old Christians in order to “persuade the country’s citizens that all of them are brothers of one lineage and one blood.”

Morisco refugees set sail from the Spanish port of Viñaroz, Valencia

The spectacle of tens of thousands of baptised men separated from their children while begging for mercy from God and the King and proclaiming in vain their desire to stay in the country of their birth was difficult for many sincere Christians to tolerate. The brutal nature of the expulsion and the massacres carried out on those who tried to avoid it were received with sadness and compassion by an intelligent minority, but with cries of hatred and spontaneous cheers by those like Gaspar de Aguilar who turned them into songs of heroic deeds.

The majority of the Moriscos took refuge – with varying success – in the Maghreb. The natives of Hornachos[14] set up the so-called republic of Salé in Morocco,[15] with the illusory hope of ingratiating themselves with the King and some day returning to Spain.

During a four-year relaxation those in the Ricote Valley[16] were allowed to voluntarily emigrate across the French frontier and travel on to other European countries. Although they had been completely assimilated, the Duke of Lerma signed without qualm their order of collective banishment in 1614. The episode of the Morisco of Ricote who in the second part of Don Quixote meets with Sancho Panza allowed Cervantes, a master in the art of cunning, to reclaim a voice for those who were victims of such a savage violation.

“I left our town – said the Morisco – entered France and although I was well-received there, I wanted to see it all. I went to Italy and Germany and there it seemed to me that one could live with more freedom, the inhabitants being a good-natured people: each one living as they wished, because for the most part there is freedom of conscience.”

Freedom of conscience! Almost casually and as if not even wanting to, the author of Don Quixote puts his finger on the problem. The agents of the Inquisition did their job well but to a good reader sometimes words are not needed.


[1] A term that has no direct equivalent in English, but refers to the Muslims living in Spain after the reconquista who converted to Christianity.

[2] Andalusí – person coming from al-Andalus/Spanish Muslim

[3] Don Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma (1552/1553-1625), courtier and favourite of Philip III

[4] Saint Juan de Ribera (1532-1611), Archbishop of Valencia and Patriarch of Antioch.
[5] Mudéjares: the name given to those Muslims living in Spain after the reconquista who did not or had not yet converted to Christianity.

[6] Mystery island in the Atlantic depicted on many 16th Century maps as lying just off the coast of Newfoundland.

[7] Reference to one of the Novelas Ejemplares or “exemplary novellas” by Miguel de Cervantes (published 1613) in which two dogs share their bemused observations on the contradictions and nonsensical elements in human society.

[8] “purity of blood” i.e. favouring of those of pure Christian descent.

[9] The Cortes of Cádez met in 1810 during the Napoleonic occupation of Spain and the detention of King Ferdinand VII in France. It promulgated Spain’s first liberal constitution, which provided for a limited constitutional monarchy ruling through parliament and universal male suffrage. It was repealed by Ferdinand after his restoration in 1813.

[10] Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel, Count of Olivares (1587-1645) was prime minister for 22 years under Philip IV.

[11] Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69-1536) Dutch Renaissance humanist and Catholic theologian.

[12] Ecumenical council of the Catholic Church which took place in the middle of the 16th century, at the height of the Counter-Reformation drive against Protestantism and other “heresies” in the Church.

[13] Juan Martínez Guijarro (1477-1557), Archbishop of Toledo and intellectual author of the statute of limpieza de sangre.

[14] A town in Extremadura near Badajoz.

[15] A small maritime republic that existed for a brief period during the 16th century encompassing the cities of Salé and Rabat.

[16] In Murcia, south-east Spain


  1. El rastro de los moriscos españoles en África llega hasta la curva del Níger. En Tombuctú existe la Biblioteca española, un conjunto de documentos del siglo XVII producidos por moriscos andaluces que emigraron a Marruecos, y al servicio del sultán de ése país conquistaron lejanas tierras en el corazón del Africa Negra.

    Esos "españoles", como se llamaban a sí mismos, conservaron su lengua (hasta no hace muchos años se podían rastrear palabras españolas en la zona del Níger), y constituyeron una casta guerrera aristocrática que sobrevivió en esos territorios hasta el siglo XIX.

    Estupendo post el tuyo.

    Un saludo cordial.

  2. Hola Joaquim,

    me fascina lo que has dicho sobre los moriscos en África (y en Tombuctú, nunca lo creyese!) - sabes si hay algún sitio en la red donde se puede leer más sobre este tema?

  3. Hola,

    Dame un par de días, y te enviaré algunas referencias sobre ése asunto, ok?.


  4. Hola,

    Te dejo algunas referencias en Internet sobre el asunto:

    La primera es un artículo de El País que sitúa el tema de la expulsión:

    Artículo de Wikipedia sobre
    Yuder Pachá (Diego de Guevara), líder de los moriscos en África:

    Reseña en la web de la Sociedad Geográfica Española del libro de José Prieto "la conquista de Tombuctú", sobre los moriscos en la curva del Níger:

    "Andaluces en la curva del Níger", un artículo muy interesante sobre la cuestión:

    La Biblioteca Española de Tombuctú:

    Más sobre este tesoro:

    Un artículo sobre el estado actual del Fondo Kati (Biblioteca Española de Tombuctú)

    En algunos de esos artículos encotrarás más referencias para seguir ampliando conocimientos sobre el tema.

    Un saludo.