Spain's Ethnic Cleansing: the Muslim Moriscos

The expulsion in 1609 of more than 300,000 Spanish Moriscos – Muslim converts to Christianity – was a brutal attempt to create an homogenous state, writes Matt Carr.

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.  

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