When Bigotry and Intolerance Reigned: The Expulsion of Moriscos from Renaissance Spain

Muslim Moriscos converted to Christianity under duress, faced racial discrimination and systematic marginalization by mainstream Catholic Spaniards in Renaissance Spain. They were eventually exiled from their Iberian homeland, but their legacy remains.

Etymologically speaking, the word “Morisco” is derived from the word “Moor” or “Moorish,” which refers to the Muslim inhabitants of North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. The term “Morisco,” however, was a designation given to Muslim converts to Christianity in Medieval Spain. Moriscos, thus, were a racial and cultural minority within mainstream Spanish Catholic society.

Despite having converted to Christianity, Moriscos continued to embrace their racial and cultural identities through various deep-rooted cultural practices. The reproduction and perpetuation of their cultural traditions, however, was seen as a threat by the Catholic authorities, who accused them of maintaining loyalty to the Muslims of North Africa and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire.

King Philip III decided to expel them from Spain on September 22, 1609, decreeing that “all Moriscos be taken from this kingdom and be expelled to Barbary [North Africa].” The Morisco population set out in search of safety and shelter by taking routes that took them as far as North Africa, France, Turkey, and even colonial Latin America.

On foot and horseback, the Moriscos took different — and ultimately deadly — routes in search of refuge. An eyewitness to and proponent of the expulsion, Pedro Aznar Cardona, wrote a description of the Moriscos’ forced exodus out of Valencia. They set out in large groups, “bursting with grief and tears, amid a great uproar and confused shouts, burdened with their sons and daughters and wives and their infirm and aged and children, covered in dust, sweating and panting . . . . [They] suffered at the beginning of their banishment incomparable travails, terrible bitterness and sharp pains and sentiments in their body and soul, and many died in pure affliction, paying for water and shade along the way, for it was in the summertime that the poor wretches left.”

There are many conflicting estimates of the number of expelled Moriscos, but scholars agree with the research of Henri Lapeyre, who estimated the number at around 300,000. Moriscos were expelled on masse largely due to distrust and fear. After Charles V, the King of Spain and Holy Emperor of the Roman Empire, had forced them to convert between 1525 and 1526, the Moriscos resisted complete assimilation and retained their ethnic and cultural identity, embodied in their Moorish forms of dress, music, cuisine, language, names, and other practices.

The Spaniards understood this as a sign of apostasy and insincerity toward Catholicism and, thus, a threat. They justified the mass expulsion, therefore, as a necessary protection for “Christendom,” the secular or worldly expression of Christianity, to preserve its “religious unity” from contamination and corruption.  

Prior to the decision to engage in systematic expulsions of the Moriscos, the Spanish authorities and the church had widely promulgated the ideology of religious unity and disseminated anti-Islamic propaganda. They used this later ostensibly to legitimize the expulsion. The vilification of Islam and Muslims took many forms. The propaganda labeled Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) as the “antichrist” and his followers as heretics and demonic infidels. The Spanish Inquisition, established by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1478, adopted the concept of “Purity of Blood” (“Limpieza de sangre”) which legitimized discrimination against people with Muslim, Jewish, or “heretical” ancestry.

The Moriscos, unlike Jews and Muslims, had already converted to Christianity. They were nevertheless vilified, stigmatized, and placed at the bottom of a social hierarchy based on ancestry and blood rather than merit. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s campaign to “purify” Catholic Spain began in the late fifteenth century by driving out non-Catholics, especially Muslims, Jews, and Protestants, committing brutal acts of torture and murder in the process.

Today, the majority of the Morisco diaspora is dispersed throughout North African countries. In Morocco, descendants of Moriscos live in Rabat, Salé, and the northern cities of Chefchaouen, Tetouan, and Tangier. When they fled Spain, the Moriscos left everything behind but their culture and traditions. Moriscos brought with them Andalusian music, which is still very popular in the Maghreb today.

The influence of the Moriscos is still very evident in matters of dress, music, food, celebrations, and architecture. The city of Chefchaouen, which was founded in 1471 by Ali Ben Rachid, a friend of the last ruler of the Emirate of Granada, is architecturally similar to the city of Granada, reflecting its alleys, minarets, mosaics, blue wall colorings, and house designs.

Today, the Morisco diaspora exists beyond the Maghreb, in places as disparate as France, Turkey, and Latin America. The brutality and injustice of the expulsion have been almost forgotten at a time when racial and ethnic minorities are starting to gain recognition and support. If early modern Spain failed to absorb and tolerate religious minorities and cultural pluralism, modern Spain, says Dr. James Amelang of The Autonomous University of Madrid, should realize that multiculturalism is a strength, providing society and culture with ample opportunities and possibilities that have not previously been available. He says that it is “high time” that Spain reconcile with its past and admit its crimes against the Moriscos.

In non-apology apology, Spanish Minister of Justice Rafael Catala issued a statement in June 2015 acknowledging the “historic mistake” of expelling Jews from Spain and inviting the descendants of Sephardic Jews to apply for Spanish citizenship. Spain’s lower house of Parliament enacted a law in October 2015, to grant Spanish citizenship to Jews of Spanish ancestry. While such a law is certainly a positive step, Spain’s policy, which overlooks people of Morisco descent, does not go far enough and reinforces double standards with respect to the victims of Spain’s violent history.

The Spanish Inquisition, according to both Muslim and non-Muslim historians, inflicted the most brutal violence on Muslims and Moriscos. Apologizing and granting citizenship to descendants of expelled Spanish Jews while excluding Muslims of Morisco descent is at odds with the “open, diverse, and tolerant Spain” that Minister Catala and his government seemingly envision. Such an omission suggests that true reconciliation and acceptance of Moriscos may still be out of reach.

Spanish public opinion is integral to the question of what kind of society contemporary Spain aspires to be and what kind of pluralism may exist within it. Any claim Spain makes to cultural pluralism or coexistence which neither recognizes the historical plight of the Moriscos nor grants their descendants the right of return, would be incomplete.