'A Cursed and Pernicious Seed': The Destruction of the Moriscos

Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain
Matthew Carr (New York: New Press, 2009)

The tale of Granada, and its conquest in 1492, has been repeatedly told: the surrender of its keys by its last monarch, Boabdil, to Ferdinand and Isabella; his forlorn departure; his last glimpse upon his former realm from the ridge overlooking the city; and his sigh, último suspiro del moro, the Moor’s Last Sigh. For a long time, Granada outwitted fate. Toledo had fallen to the Reconquista in the final years of the eleventh century, the fabled Cordoba’s time came in 1236, Valencia’s conquest came two years later, Seville’s turn was next, in 1248. All that remained had been Granada: the unification of Castile and Aragon had doomed it, and that remnant of the Andalusian world had been living on borrowed time. The Turks had not come to the rescue of Granada, and Boabdil had cut a deal and let it go. In the annals of this much adorned history, Boabdil’s mother is said to have taunted him on that ridge on January 2, 1492: “You should weep like a woman for this kingdom you were unable to defend like a man.”

But there is another Moorish tale that has not had its share of storytellers and romance: the wholesale expulsion of the Moriscos (the Muslims who stayed behind and converted to Christianity), which began in 1609 and played out over a five-year period, driven by a relentless quest for “purity.” By the time that drive had ended, some three hundred and fifty thousand men, women, and children had been rounded up, uprooted from their world, and dispatched to North Africa.

Matthew Carr, a British journalist, has come forth with a splendid narrative of that history. He has retrieved for us the passionate obsession with the Moriscos that ate at Spain, the unhappy accident of a hapless Habsburg monarch, Philip III, who knew little about his realm but sought renown for himself in Christendom by “purging” Spain of the descendants of its Muslims. The Moriscos were all baptized, they gave every evidence of their devotion to their new faith, but the Holy Office of the Inquisition, and the monarch and rapacious courtiers and priests, eager for the savings and possessions of the Moriscos, knew no rest.

Spain had begun to falter in the closing years of the preceding century: the excitement of the voyages of discovery in the New World had faded. Disappointment and a sense of failure now suffused Spanish life. By then the Spanish had suffered the defeat of the Armada in 1588; the Spanish war against the forces of international Protestantism had ended in stalemate and frustration. Castile’s economy, which had been sustained by gold and silver bullion from the New World, had fallen on hard times. The gentry ( hidalgos ) were embittered; hunger had become a fact of Spanish life, and even the upper orders were not spared adversity as they scrambled for crumbs of bread and favors from the Royal Court. In Carr’s apt summation, the early seventeenth century “was a period of acute social distress for much of the Spanish population. These were years of hunger and famine, and poor harvest, of price rises and high taxation. . . . Between 1599 and 1600, Spain was affected by a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague, which killed an estimated six hundred thousand people.”

The Moriscos had been subdued. They were a vulnerable lot, cultivators and silkworm breeders, small artisans, farmers who worked the land of the aristocracy. Islam had been overwhelmed in Spain, but the phantom of an Islamic return was never slain. There was a struggle in the Mediterranean between Spain and the Ottoman Empire, and the humble Moriscos, trying to stay out of harm’s way, were seen as potential traitors to the realm who would aid the Turks and the forces of Barbary in a campaign to restore Islamic dominion. Prophecies abounded and fed that fear. A bigoted but influential functionary of the Church, Archbishop Juan de Ribera, in Valencia (a third of its population were Moriscos), was a vengeful agitator. Not for Ribera were the Moriscos’ professions of devotion to Catholicism. Those were Moors, he believed, like their kinsmen across the Strait of Gibraltar, “heretics and traitors to the Royal Crown.” Their presence in the land, Ribera argued, was to blame for the loss of divine favor, for the failure of that “enterprise of England,” and for the setbacks of Spain in its struggle with the forces of international Protestantism in northern Europe.

There was a cruel irony to Spain’s place in Christendom: Here was the realm of the “Most Catholic Sovereigns,” the land of militant Christendom, but Christian rivals to its north taunted Spain about the Moorish presence, and the Moorish blood, and the Moorish stain. Spain had cast out its Jews, she had gone wholesale in rooting out the conversos , the Jewish converts to Christianity, banished them from the professions and the economy—and the ranks of the clergy. Limpieza de sangre , purity of blood, had become the realm’s passion and creed.

A consensus crystallized that it was idle to try to assimilate the Moriscos. To be sure, there was a minority—landholders with a vested interest in the diligent labor of the Moriscos, some enlightened men of the Church who believed that the Moriscos were “new plants” to be gently nurtured. Assimilation could work, this minority argued, and Spain could incorporate the Moriscos as Rome incorporated outsiders. But the prevailing view was that of Ribera, who saw the Moriscos as “wizened trees, full of knots of heresy,” that were best pulled up by the roots. They were “a cursed and pernicious seed,” he said. There were perfectly respectable men speaking openly now of the extermination of the Moriscos. The dreaded thought had a purpose. As Carr rightly observes, “The argument that the Moriscos ‘deserved’ death for their religious transgressions was often used to present expulsion as a magnanimous alternative.”

The “heretics” were difficult to convert: there were radical proposals for casting the Moriscos adrift in ships and scuttling them. The monarch could affect a posture of wisdom and prudence. “If they can be expelled with good conscience, I think it is the most convenient, easiest, and swiftest course.”


“O n the morning of September 24, 1609, town criers in the city of Valencia proclaimed the decree of expulsion to a fanfare of drums, horns, and trumpets,” Carr writes. “In it Philip accused the entire Morisco population of Valencia of heresy, apostasy, and ‘divine and human lèse-majesté ’ and announced his intention to expel them to Barbary in order to ensure the ‘conservation and security’ of his realm.” Spain was done with the “equivocation.” Carr is particularly good at depicting the cruelty of expulsion. Many died of hunger and exhaustion, children were separated from their parents, countless people left their children with local Christians. Some defiance and perhaps some exaggerated joy punctuated the calamity. There were two or three incidents where Moriscos “danced on the beach to the sound of lutes and tambourines.” There were others who came to the ships clapping and singing the songs of their suppressed culture. A Morisco or two could offer the consoling thought that the North Africa that awaited them was a “land of plenty,” a place where gold and fine silver are “found from one mountain to the next.” These themes, Carr reminds us, figure prominently in the literature of the defenders of the expulsion. The real history was the violence it took to dispossess and banish a huge population. There were the privateers on whose ships the defenseless passengers were robbed of their possessions, and then thrown overboard. And there were the children kidnapped and sold into slavery. Some had refused to go peacefully. An estimated twenty thousand Moriscos took refuge in the sierra of the Laguar Valley and elected a “king” to lead them. But the odds against them were overwhelming: for all the paranoia about Morisco sedition and hidden caches of weapons and secret militias, the Moriscos were doomed. Their pursuers were crack troops eager for loot and murder.

Valencia had been a case apart. The expulsion had begun there, where the Moriscos lived apart from the old Christians. But the edict of expulsion was always meant to extend to the rest of Spain: the Crown had been shy and evasive, but other parts of the realm read the wind. In Castile, La Mancha, Murcia, and Andalusia, the Moriscos were virtually indistinguishable from their neighbors. They regarded themselves as Christians, and were viewed as such by the secular and religious authorities. From Murcia, the city council wrote to the Court pleading for their own. “They were born and bred in this city and would be offended to be taken for descendents of New Christians. . . . We regard them as such faithful and loyal vassals of the Royal Crown that we would regard it as astounding and incredible to find anything in them to the contrary.” From Granada, Church officials wrote to Philip, reminding him that “our Holy Mother protects those who have erred,” and counseled him to find “a more gentle remedy with more hesitation and time.” From Seville came a Church report that the Moriscos were “like old Christians in language, dress and acts of religion.” Little more than a century earlier, the Iberian world was more tolerant, Carr rightly observes. Ferdinand and Isabella had offered the Jews the choice between exile and conversion. Now the ground had shifted: it was blood—unchanging, a curse for the ages—that sealed the fate of men.

The machinery of expulsion was at work and was readied for Catalonia and Aragon as well. The apologists put the word out that the expulsion from Valencia had been a great and successful prelude for the cleansing of the realm. One radical “expulsionist” wrote that the deed had met with divine approval, that there had been fair winds and good weather to facilitate the journey of the ships to North Africa, and that trees and harvest crops had sprouted up in the kingdom since the departure of the Moriscos. Philip and his courtiers could not make up their minds about the Morisquillos, the little Morisco children. They couldn’t be sure if these children could yet carry “the memory of their sect into adulthood.” If left in the realm they could yet re-infect it, the priests feared. On the other hand, there were some who believed that a good Christian education might save these children and see them to the proper faith. Philip found the solution: Morisco children who stayed behind would be brought up by old Christian families until they reached the age of twelve. They would then repay these families with labor for an undetermined number of years. A form of slavery awaited these children.


T he Moors had been banished, Muslim bathhouses and mosques had been destroyed. But still Islam would remain like an apparition, making furtive appearances in Spain. Cervantes gives Ricote, an old Morisco, a chance to return to his native land, disguised amidst a band of German travelers. Ricote was a man of Castile and spoke pure Castilian. He had yearned for his country, yet he found some acceptance of the fate that befell him. “It was not safe,” he is made to say, “for Spain to nurse the serpent in its bosom.” Banishment and distance had not dimmed his love for Spain: “Wherever in the world we are, we weep for Spain, for after all, there we were born and it is our fatherland. Nowhere can we find the compassion that our misfortunes crave; in the Barbary and other parts of Africa, where we expected to be welcomed and cherished, it is there where they treat us with the greatest inhumanity. We did not know our happiness until we had lost it.”

The absolution offered Spain by Ricote puts Cervantes in the mainstream of Spanish opinion. (The first part of Don Quixote had been published in 1605, the second in 1615; Cervantes was thus a witness to this history.) After all, Cervantes himself had lost the use of his left hand in the great sea battle of Lepanto between the Spanish and Ottoman navies; he had spent five years in a prison in Algiers. There was no love lost for the Moors in Cervantes. Where Cervantes, via Ricote, is right is on the cruel fate that awaited the Moriscos in North Africa. Muslims in a Christian land, they were now Christians and infidels in Muslim lands.

It did not take long for the enthusiasm occasioned by the expulsion to give way to indifference and disillusionment. The sycophants had hailed Philip as the “last and ultimate conqueror of the Moors of Spain.” The monarch himself had claimed that it was “divine providence” that had given him the firmness and the vision to see the deed through. But the “giddy expectation of national regeneration,” Carr writes, “would be swiftly forgotten, as Spain continued to experience an inexorable decline that was in many ways as spectacular as its rise to power.” Revisionism soon reared its head. It had been wrong, the second-guessers now opined, to have banished the Jews and the Moors. It would have been the better part of wisdom to grant the Moriscos “some honor without marking them with infamy,” one prominent chaplain now thought. The Moriscos might have come into the “temple of virtue” had they been shown leniency and regard. Philip’s own son and successor, Philip IV, a year after his father’s death, officially recognized the “great harm caused by the expulsion.” The Count-Duke of Olivares, the great figure who dominated the politics of Spain and its empire in the 1620s and 1630s, would proclaim that the laws of the limpieza de sangre were “contrary to divine law, natural law, and the law of nations.”

For the Moriscos, home would be hard to shake off. The exiles put together new lives in North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, the Balkans. “The exiles tended to pursue the same occupations in their adopted countries that they had practiced in Spain,” Carr writes. “Some worked the land, others were craftsmen and artisans, adapting their skills to local needs or introducing innovations of their own.” In the way of exiles, as best they could, they would attempt to recreate the culture and vegetation of the Valencian plain and the splendor of the Granadan vega.


O n March 11, 2004, Madrid would be visited by the furies of the Islamic world. In the morning rush hour, ten bombs tore through four commuter trains. One hundred and ninety-one people were killed, some two thousand wounded. This was the deadliest terror attack in Europe since the Second World War, and it was the work of al-Qaeda. “This is part of settling old accounts with Spain, the Crusader, the American ally in its war against Islam,” read a letter sent to a London-based Arabic daily. History hadn’t gone away, and peace hadn’t come between Spain and its Muslim neighbors across the Strait of Gibraltar. Spain had rid itself of its Muslims, or so its people thought. Some four centuries later, a new Muslim presence would put down roots in the Iberian Peninsula.

The newcomers were not Moors battering the Visigoths. This encounter was made of different material. The Muslims were now drifters and desperate young men outgrowing their crowded homelands and looking for a way out, and bands of militants and terrorists. But it would be banal and wishful thinking to believe that history does not hover over this new encounter, that Spaniards and Muslims alike are not given to a thought or two about what had played out between these two peoples in a blood-soaked time when the Iberian soil was the subject and the prize of a merciless struggle.

Fouad Ajami is a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of The Foreigner’s Gift.

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