Spain's Ethnic Cleansing: The Expulsion in 1609 of More Than 300,000 Spanish Moriscos-Muslim Converts to Christianity-Was a Brutal Attempt to Create an Homogenous State

By Carr, Matt | History Today, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Spain's Ethnic Cleansing: The Expulsion in 1609 of More Than 300,000 Spanish Moriscos-Muslim Converts to Christianity-Was a Brutal Attempt to Create an Homogenous State


Carr, Matt, History Today


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Four hundred years ago, in April 1609, one of the darkest chapters in Spanish history unfolded when the Habsburg king Philip III secretly authorized the expulsion of the entire Muslim population of Iberia. Over the next four and a half years, approximately 300,000 men, women and children known pejoratively as 'Moriscos' or 'half-Moors' were forcibly removed from Spanish territory in what was then the largest ethnic deportation in European history. In its combination of bureaucracy and deployment of military force to remove an unwanted population, the expulsion anticipated the more recent phenomenon of 'ethnic cleansing'. Today, at a time of tension between the Islamic world and the West, the 400th anniversary of the expulsion is a fitting occasion to recall this traumatic episode.

Like the forced exodus of Spanish Jewry in 1492, the removal of the Moriscos reflected the ruthless commitment of Spain's rulers to a religiously homogeneous society in the triumphant aftermath of the Reconquista. Where Spanish Jews had been given the choice between exile and conversion to Christianity, the Moriscos were baptized Christians whose initial incorporation into the faith followed the conquest of Granada by the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella in January 1492. The fall of the last Muslim enclave in Spain was followed by surprisingly magnanimous surrender terms, which allowed the Muslim population to practise its religion and maintain its laws and customs. These agreements amounted to an extension of the medieval arrangements conceded to their co-religionists elsewhere in Spain and appeared to envisage a future of co-existence between Islam and Catholicism. In the immediate postwar period, the Granada 'capitulations' were generally observed by the kingdom's benign archbishop Hernando de Talavera, whose efforts to convert Granadan Muslims to Christianity were restricted to persuasion and example.

This dispensation lasted until the autumn of 1499, when the fanatical archbishop of Toledo, Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros, accompanied the royal court to Granada and remained behind to assist Hernando. Impatient with the results achieved by his more temperate colleague, Jimenez began to use more coercive methods, including imprisonment, which soon alienated the Muslim population and provoked a full-scale rebellion with its centre in the Alpujarras mountains of Andalucia. In the pacification campaign that followed, the Catholic Monarchs took the fateful decision to oblige all Granada's Muslims to convert to Christianity or leave the country.

In 1502 Isabella extended the same choice to her Muslim subjects in Castile. Between 1520 and 1526, the Muslims of Valencia, Aragon and Catalonia were also transformed into 'New Christians' when Spain's first Habsburg monarch, Charles of Ghent, approved the forced conversions of thousands of Muslims carried out during a vicious antifeudal rebellion in Valencia. By the end of 1526 all Spain's Muslims had become nominal Christians and outward manifestations of Islamic worship were forbidden. The Spanish authorities were under no illusions about the sincerity of these 'converts', but they believed that they would gradually come to embrace Christianity 'in their hearts'.

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These aspirations proved to be optimistic. Though some Moriscos did eventually become 'good and faithful Christians', the majority paid lip-service to Catholicism while remaining faithful to their religious and cultural traditions. Such defiance took clandestine forms; some Moriscos washed the chrism from their baptized children in order to neutralize the Christian sacrament and carried out secret circumcision and name-giving ceremonies. Others prayed and worshiped in secret and buried their dead in accordance with Muslim rather than Christian precepts.

The gulf between Morisco 'New Christians' and 'Old Christian' Spain was not made less by an incoherent policy of evangelization, which oscillated between persecution and discrimination, exploitation and neglect. …

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