The Expulsion of the Moriscos

Exaggeration of lineage, obsession with purity of blood, fear of infiltration and contagion, all pervaded the “Morisco problem”, both ideologically and socially, and characterized many aspects of the history of Early Modern Spain

Mercedes García-Arenal

Gerard Wiegers
University of Amsterdam

Detail of “La expulsión de los moriscos” by Vicente Carducho (ca. 1627). Museo del Prado.

Spanish version

Between 1609 and 1614 about 300,000 Moriscos were forcibly expelled from Spain, chiefly through the Mediterranean ports, and sent to North Africa. This mass deportation was accomplished with the help of galleys and ships of the royal navy, and was strictly organized by the bureacracy of the Crown. With it the monarchy hoped to end more than a century of what was called “the Morisco question.” In this article we will analyze the positions of the political and religious authorities, and the factors that led to the solution that was finally found: the forced displacement of an entire religious and social group.

The beginnings

The seeds were planted in the years that followed the conquest of Granada in 1492. The capitulations or terms of surrender signed with the Muslim authorities after Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile took the city guaranteed that residents of Granada who remained in the Peninsula could continue to follow Islam, although the Christian leadership encouraged the elites, the most prominent families, to emigrate to Morocco. Therefore, for a short time, Granadans were ruled by a statute very similar to the one that had governed the Mudejars (Muslims living in Christian territory) throughout the Middle Ages. But this situation held for only about ten years. Campaigns of conversion and evangelization, repopulation of the kingdom with Christians from the north of Castile, and the subsequent revolts of the Muslim population against those policies ended with the cancelling of the capitulations that the Catholic Monarchs had decreed. It was a time when new powers and new structures were appearing, and in the eyes of the authorities the medieval agreements were no longer viable. In 1502 it was ordered that all Muslims living under the Crown of Castile must convert to Christianity; the Muslims of the Crown of Aragon were forced to convert a little later, in 1526.

The baptism of the Moriscos. Felipe Bigarny, Capilla Real, Granada, ca. 1521.

From Mudejars to Moriscos

The so-called “Morisco question” represented an exceedingly complex problem. The Catholic Monarchs’ policy toward the Moriscos (the name assigned to the newly converted Muslims, roughly meaning “Moorish” from moro “Moor”) was tending ever more toward homogenization. Campaigns were launched to convert and assimilate them, while the Inquisition increasingly persecuted them and mainstream society rejected them. A good many nobles protected the Moriscos who lived on their estates, but that turned those tenants into scapegoats in movements of rebellion against the nobles. The situation was broad and complicated, not uniform in time and space, and we cannot explore it here in detail; it involved an array of cultural, religious, and economic factors.

All this was happening within the overarching policy of the Spanish Monarchy in the sixteenth century: its goal was to impose the strictures of the Council of Trent throughout its dominions, and to affirm its role and reputation as the champion of Catholicism against the Protestant Reformation and the Ottoman Empire. Above all, from the late fifteenth century onward, its political and religious ideology required that all the king’s subjects prove their allegiance to him by embracing the Catholic faith. Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, between the Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years’ War, experienced an era of confessionalization, the unification of each political community around a single faith. All subjects had to profess the same religion as their sovereign.

The year 1492, when Granada was conquered, also saw the expulsion of the Jews. The Catholic Monarchs held a messianic belief in the future universal triumph of Christendom and Ferdinand’s role as its new emperor—for a single people, a single shepherd. Even before the forced conversion of the Muslims, other factors related to Jews and Conversos (converts from Judaism) had come into play, and these proved significant when they were extended to the Moriscos and their descendants. Waves of anti-Jewish violence that had begun in 1391 caused many Jews to convert to Christianity throughout the fifteenth century, creating a significant new population of Conversos.

Beginning of the sentence-statute of Pedro de Sarmiento (Toledo, 1449). Sixteenth-century copy. BNE ms. 9175, fol. 25r.

In particular, the “purity-of-blood” statutes and the Inquisition (the first meant to keep converts out of positions of power or privilege, the second to ensure that converts properly adhered to Catholicism) exaggerated, to a degree never seen before in the Peninsula, the ideas of lineage, of pure blood, and of religion transmitted through blood. A new concept was created, that of the “Old Christian,” which blocked the assimilation of the newly converted and caused them to be suspected and marginalized. It was feared that they would infiltrate and contaminate the body of society. The purity-of-blood statutes, first imposed in Toledo in the mid-fifteenth century, required any aspirant to public or ecclesiastical office to prove that his parents and grandparents had been Old Christians and that he had no Jewish or Muslim ancestors. The same rules were later extended to the judiciary, the universities, and the military orders. In principle the forced conversions had broken down the divisions between confessional groups, but Christian society immediately introduced other filters and motives for exclusion that would keep out anyone who had a converted background. The exaltation of lineage, the obsession with pure blood, and the fear of infiltration and contagion pervade the entire “Morisco problem” both ideologically and socially, and characterize many aspects of the history of Early Modern Spain.

The Granadan War and after

The “Morisco question” brought with it a whole range of social and political issues. In 1567 the Moriscos of Granada protested against the policies that sought to suppress their cultural and religious practices, including use of the Arabic language; their views were expressed in a famous petition (Memorial) that the Morisco Don Francisco Núñez Muley addressed to the Chancellery in Granada, but to no avail. In 1569 the Granadan Moriscos rose up in revolt in the Alpujarras Mountains, and for two years the former kingdom was ravaged by a ferocious conflict, fought with great cruelty on both sides, that needed Don John of Austria and Spanish troops imported from Flanders to quell it. In fact it was thought of as a second conquest of the kingdom, and created a fear of Moriscos that would never be entirely overcome. When it ended the entire Morisco population of Granada was deported to Castile, deliberately divided into small groups that, however, only increased their resistance. Beginning with the Junta of Lisbon in 1582, and in later sessions of the Cortes, the possibility of expelling all the Moriscos from the Peninsula began to be debated. But such a measure would cause enormous religious, moral, and economic problems. Wouldn’t baptized persons exiled to North Africa become apostates, and add to the number of Spain’s enemies? How to distinguish between Moriscos who continued to practice Islam in secret and those who showed every sign of being good Christians? How to compensate the Aragonese and Valencian nobles who would be ruined by the loss of their tenants? What was to be done with the children?

[Morisco dance in an illustration from the Trachtenbuch by Christoph Weiditz (ca. 1530), Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg, Hs. 22474. Wikimedia Commons.

But the main reason that no decision to expel the Moriscos was taken was that King Philip II was never in favor of their expulsion as a collective measure. His policy was to try to assimilate them—while using their repression by the Inquisition as a fundamental strategy—and to block all possible contacts between Moriscos and the Islamic world, for example by forbidding them to leave Spain. These pressures had begun to break down their resistance, and if continued might have weakened their differences with Old Christians and the society’s general suspicion of them, which arose from the Alpujarras War, their contacts with North African corsairs, and their supposed conspiring with the Ottomans. But the persistence of Islam among the Moriscos, denounced continually by the Inquisition and the religious authorities, gave rise to prophecies that connected disasters that befell the Monarchy, such as the defeat of the Armada in 1588, with the survival of Islam in Spain, and foretold even worse evils if no solution were found.

The reign of Philip III

After the death of Philip II, the administration of his son Philip III resumed the discussions initiated at the Lisbon Junta of 1582. The new king was soon swayed by influential voices and declared himself in favor of expelling the Moriscos. The issue arose so early in his reign as a response to petitions from the Cortes of Castile. Several years before, in 1592, the Sevillian official Rodrigo Sánchez Doria had declared the Morisco problem to be a military one that threatened public order: the Morisco population was increasing, and there had been an unsuccessful uprising planned for Saint Peter’s Day in Seville in 1581. But the voice that spoke loudest of all was that of the archbishop of Valencia, Juan de Ribera: he demanded a political solution that would “save” Spain.

Portrait of Archbishop Juan de Ribera. Wikimedia Commons.

The archbishop’s political aim was to extract from Philip III what he had failed to get from his father: an escape from the “loss of Spain,” which Ribera (influenced by the abovementioned prophecies) believed was imminent. The effects of the Moriscos’ “treachery” had to be avoided, together with divine punishment for Spaniards’ toleration of their “apostasy.” Yet the decision to expel them was delayed. Some influential figures still opposed it, for moral, demographic, or economic reasons. They believed that evangelization and assimilation were still possible; that insufficient efforts had been made; that forced conversion had been a mistaken first step and was never supported with adequate measures; that keeping the Moriscos from rising in society made them reject true conversion. There were even a few who favored abolishing the purity-of-blood statutes. But the times did not favor such positions, and they were eventually defeated. Even these more moderate voices accepted the notion that the Moriscos, like all the king’s subjects, had to be good Catholics—they simply preferred to achieve that goal by other means.

Choosing expulsion

In this atmosphere of fear that the Moriscos formed a fifth column in Spain, another factor in Philip III’s decision was the utter failure of his proposed conquest of Algiers in September 1601, a blow both to the king and to his trusted adviser the Duke of Lerma. Lerma had planned that action, among others, to increase Spain’s security in the Mediterranean and to enhance its reputation with a military victory. Great hopes had been placed in the expedition, which would have equated Philip with his grandfather the Emperor Ferdinand and even let him triumph where Ferdinand had failed. The humiliating defeat in Algiers helps to explain Philip’s eagerness to solve the Morisco problem: he longed for a particularly brilliant victory that would unite in his person the defense of the faith and success where his glorious ancestors had fallen short. An even stronger motive was a series of peace treaties: one had been signed with England in 1604, and in 1609 the Twelve Years’ Truce assured the future independence of the Low Countries from Spain. At the same time Muley Zidan, a declared enemy of the Spanish Crown who was allied with England and the Dutch Republic, ascended the throne of Morocco.

The expulsion of the Moriscos was decreed in that same year of 1609 and began to be implemented at once. It began in the Valencia region, where the Moriscos formed a large minority of the population; they had access to frontiers and coastlines and were suspected of allying themselves with what was then called “the Turk.” Their expulsion first from Castile and then from Catalonia and Aragon soon followed. In principle, within the Crown of Castile there were exemptions for those who could prove they were good Christians, and for children. As the other territories joined, however, the measures grew harsher and wider ranging. Successive decrees of expulsion expanded to include even those who could prove sincere Christian faith, the Christian spouses in mixed marriages, and finally, and most significantly, children.

Detail of “La expulsión de los moriscos” by Vicente Carducho (ca. 1627). Museo del Prado.

The last decree of expulsion, in 1614, affected the Moriscos of La Mancha and the Valley of Ricote, who had converted voluntarily before 1502 and had enjoyed special privileges from the Catholic Monarchs. Its motivation was no longer religious; it was now a political decision, based on the supposed “treachery” of an entire sector of the population that was identified as Muslim. That categorization was based on a belief in the Moriscos’ impure blood, which was capable of transmitting religious beliefs and, above all, “treachery.”

The process of expulsion and its consequences

The Moriscos were marched to the coasts and loaded onto ships. After early attempts to send them across the French border, to ensure that they went to Christian lands, that route was gradually abandoned as it became clear that neither France nor Italy would accept the exiles. Many naturally died during the journey; others were assaulted, robbed, and stripped of their belongings on landing in North Africa. A good number lost their children, especially during the early phases when they were forced to leave them behind. Ahmad b. Qasim al-Hajari (Diego Bejarano), a native of Hornachos, tells how the Moriscos of Seville were separated from their children: “the Sevillians said that the mothers screamed so loudly that it was like the Day of Judgment,” and that on reaching Morocco “the mothers cannot be consoled, and some of them lose their minds.”

A few years later some Moriscos wrote that they had gone willingly and even gladly into exile, which they saw as a providential escape from religious persecution. Most of them settled in Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, or parts of the Ottoman Empire. A good many managed to return to Spain undetected after some time had passed: once the “Morisco problem” was considered solved, the next king, Philip IV, was no longer concerned with them. The economic and demographic consequences of the expulsion were devastating, however. For years Spain debated whether to expel Conversos and Gypsies (Roma) as well, but that idea was eventually abandoned.

Historiographic, social, and political debates

The expulsion of the Moriscos generated an impassioned debate in Spain at the time, as well as causing tension with Rome, since the Vatican opposed it. It also gave rise to an important ideological debate among historians known as apologists or defenders of the expulsion, beginning in the early seventeenth century. It strengthened in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, as traditionalist Catholic scholars defended the measure against others who stressed the disasters it had caused, its inhumane nature, and how it could have been avoided. Dánvila y Collado (1889), Boronat y Barrachina (1901) and others tried to prove that the expulsion had been not only inevitable but just and correct, relying on the stereotypes created by the promoters of the expulsion almost three centuries before.

Cover of Justa expulsión de los moriscos de España by Damián Fonseca (1612)

We may now be witnessing a renewal of this debate, not so much among historians as among Spanish and foreign politicians and media. Some, for instance, seeing the ethnic-religious wars in the Balkans, have suggested that Spain did well to avoid such conflicts by carrying out the expulsion when it did. More recently, and from the opposite end of the political spectrum, the expulsion of the Moriscos has been called “genocide.” That is not an accurate term, it is not suitable to the Spanish situation, and it should not be invoked lightly. Not only because “genocide” implies an organized effort by a state to physically destroy an entire community, but also because the term carries applications and legal definitions that were debated exhaustively in the 1940s and that limit its utility for describing a given action, no matter how extreme. Even in its most minimal definition, genocide is the systematic annihilation or extermination of a social group for racial, political, or religious reasons. We therefore believe that it cannot be applied to the Moriscos. Spain decided to expel them in a forced and violent manner; it did not determine to kill them. As we have said, the word “genocide” has legal implications; when applied, it has serious consequences in the form of punishments and reparations. If we use it too loosely we run the risk of watering it down, or of manipulating it in order to obtain those reparations, often in economic form.

A contemporary term that we can employ here, however—with all the caution required in applying a modern concept to the past—is “ethnic cleansing”: attempting to achieve a supposed ethnic homogeneity in a given territory through deportations and transfers of populations. It is based on the ideological assumption that a nation-state (in modern terms) is identified with a specific ethnic, religious, or political group considered “pure.” We do not mean that “ethnic cleansing” is less serious, simply that the expression is better suited to Spain’s basic intent in expelling the Moriscos. Of course their expulsion occurred within the context of “confessionalization” that prevailed at the time, which was very different from that of newly created nation-states today. At the same time, in the sequence of expulsion measures there was a clear attempt at “cleansing” that gradually abandoned the arguments that were religious, or even political or social. A purity of blood that cannot be achieved even through baptism displays a clear racial or “racist” assumption. In the historiographical debate we have described the racist element is sometimes denied, because discrimination against the Moriscos, and the negative stereotypes about Islam and Islamic culture that attached to them, did not include physical descriptions or references to phenotypes such as skin color, which are important ingredients of the definition of racism today. Still, the notion of the biological transmission of cultural traits or religious beliefs as proof of inferiority ought to be classified as racism.

There is no question that the expulsion was an extreme measure that brought terrible human suffering and enormous consequences. But it was never meant to murder all the Moriscos; they were removed forcibly and violently for the ideological purpose of cleansing the “nation” and its “land” in order to “save” it. The term “ethnic cleansing” can be a point of departure for a deeper reflection that can be extended into the present. To that end we should lay aside our competing nationalist positions, the ideological definitions of our nation’s past and of the identity of “Spaniards”; we should stop arguing about whether the expulsion was good, bad, or a necessary evil. We are dealing here with belief in a mirage: the idea that homogeneous societies have existed, or might someday exist, and that they would bring us harmony and the absence of conflict. It is a mirage that is rife with dangers.

For further reading:

  • Benítez Sánchez-Blanco, Rafael. Heroicas decisiones. La monarquía católica y los moriscos valencianos. Valencia: Institució Alfons el Magnànim, Diputació de València, 2001.
  • García-Arenal, Mercedes and Gerard Wiegers (eds.). Los moriscos: expulsión y diáspora. Una perspectiva internacional. Valencia: Universitat de Valencia, 2013. (Expanded) English translation, The Expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain: A Mediterranean Diaspora. Leiden: Brill, 2014.
  • García-Arenal, Mercedes and Gerard Wiegers (eds.). Morisco Diaspora and Morisco Networks across the Mediterranean. Leiden: Brill, 2024 [forthcoming].
  • García-Arenal, Mercedes and Felipe Pereda (eds.). De sangre y leche. Raza y religión en el mundo hispánico moderno. Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2021.
  • García-Arenal, Mercedes and Yonatan Glazer-Eytan. “Forced Conversion and the Reshaping of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Tradition, Interpretation, History.” In Forced Conversion in Christianity, Judaism and Islam: Coercion and Faith in Premodern Iberia and Beyond. Leiden: Brill, 2019, pp. 1-30.
  • Garrad, Kenneth.“The Original Memorial of Don Francisco Núñez Muley.” Atlante 2, no. 4 (1954): 199-226.
  • al-Hajari, Ahmad b. Qasim [Diego Bejarano]. Kitab Nâṣir al-Dîn ‘Alâ ‘l-Qawm al-Kâfirîn (The supporter of religion against the infidel). General introduction, critical edition and translation by S. van Koningsveld, Q. al-Samarrai and G.A.Wiegers.Madrid: CSIC, 2015. Arabic translation by Jaafar ben al-Hajj al-Sulami, Tetouan, 2019. Spanish translation of Kitâb Nâṣir al-Dîn by Adil Barrada and Celia Téllez, El Periplo de al-Ḥayarî. Madrid: Diwan Mayrit, 2019.
  • Lomas Cortés, Manuel. El proceso de expulsión de los moriscos de España (1609-1614). Biblioteca de estudios moriscos 8. Valencia: Universitat de València, 2011.