Spain’s Alien Nation

By Rodrigo De Zayas
Le Monde Diplomatique
October 2004

SIR Richard Fox Vassal, the second Lord Holland (1773-1840), was a rich, intelligent aristocrat; in 1802 his doctor advised him to spend some time in a dry climate for his health. He decided to visit Madrid, where he learned Spanish and collected manuscripts for the library of Holland House, the family mansion in London, and in 1804 he bought a bundle of manuscripts from Don Isidoro de Olmo. He failed to recognise the significance of what he took back to London and simply listed the contents of the bundle: papers, memoirs and correspondence from 1542-1610, relating to the history of the moriscos in Spain. Some items were copies, others originals. Among the originals, he noted, were several letters from Gonzalo Pérez (father of court minister Antonio Pérez) to King Philip II (1), with comments in the king’s own hand.

All these documents were auctioned in London on 21 November 1989 and are now in my archives in Seville as the Holland collection. Detailed study of the collection reveals the terms of a debate within the highest circles of the Spanish state about a significant Hispano-Muslim minority that been forcibly converted to Catholicism.

The word morisco was used to designate such a convert. Their presence created a social and political problem associated with most minorities: an otherness that the majority found difficult to tolerate. This was primarily religious - they remained crypto-Muslims- but also linguistic and social, since they insisted upon retaining their Arab language, dress, festivals, culinary and hygienic practices; they refused to eat pork and washed frequently, habits that Christians of the period struggled to accept. Their otherness defined them as agents of a foreign power, active allies of the Ottoman empire and a threat to Christian Spain.

After 1481-83, when Spanish Catholic kings established the Inquisition as an integral institution of state, Spain pursued religious unity and uniformity. There was a "morisco question", with causes and consequences reminiscent of the "Jewish question" of the 1930s and 1940s and of the situation of ethnic minorities in Europe today.

The importance of the Holland collection lies in what it reveals about Spain’s transition from a sectarian state, which still allowed any member of an oppressed religious minority to integrate with society as a whole through conversion, to a racist state in which that option was no longer open, since the persecution of that minority was no longer based on religious considerations.

The first step towards a racist state pre-dates the earliest documents in the collection. In 1535 the cathedral chapter in Cordova had asked Pope Paul III to approve the introduction of criteria of blood purity (limpieza de sangre) as a condition for securing any paid appointment within the chapter. When the pope refused, the chapter turned to the emperor Charles V (2). He was taken with the idea and leaned on the pope to allow the test to be applied to the entire kingdom. Paul III was forced to give way: henceforth, anyone applying for any paid position in Spain would have to prove that there had been no Jews or Muslims in their family for at least four generations. Apart from a brief interruption during the reign of Joseph Bonaparte (3), the law enforcing this was not fully repealed until 13 May 1865.

With marranos - Jewish converts - Spain actually seemed to have recognised a conflict between national tradition and an "unassimilable Jewish tradition". The problem was the same whether the suspect tradition was Jewish or Muslim. Was there state racism under Charles V? I think not, because although individuals were required to demonstrate their pure blood, purity was still defined in religious terms. Only through practising your religion did you define yourself as a Jew or Muslim and you could argue that religious identity is not transmitted genetically. Perhaps this was just confusion or an error of judgment, a subtle shift in the state sectarianism instituted by the kings of Spain.

It may have been subtle, but it was significant. The documents in the collection that date from the reign of Philip II introduce a new definition of the moriscos as a "nation". What did nation mean in 16th century Spain? Broadly, any clearly differentiated community can be so labelled. As a result, many good Spanish Catholics found themselves defined as members of the morisco nation.

The concept of blood purity had contributed to the evolution of a new group criterion, as absurd as the definition of a Jew as belonging to a "race". Spain’s highest authorities and its most influential ecclesiastics thought it was time to deal with the morisco nation once and for all. There were three possible ways for the state to eradicate them: genocide, mass deportation or forced assimilation under surveillance. Opinion differed only on which was best. This was still not state racism: there was no law outlawing the presence on Spanish territory of any minority, even when defined as a nation.

Five documents in the collection explicitly recommend genocide, either through execution or through forced labour in the South American mines and the galleys, allowing the moriscos no chance to reproduce. This policy was impractical at the time. Spain’s kings dismissed it and adopted alternative suggestions. Philip II favoured assimilation. His son, Philip III (1598-1621), sided with those who advocated deportation, whose decisions were partly determined by economic considerations. For Philip II, the income from tithes imposed on moriscos was an important incentive to allow them to remain. Everyone benefited: the state, the church and the great lords who, in their ministerial capacity, received the levy.

Philip II was a prudent realist. He was sensitive to the ambitions of the great lords, whose interests were opposed to those of the Inquisition. He played for time, delegating the problem to a series of commissions. The moriscos went on paying their tithes. When, between 1568-71, they rose up in the ancient kingdom of Grenada, they were defeated and afterwards exiled to other parts of Spain. They continued to pay tithes, sometimes lower in value since silk cultivation, their most profitable business, had disappeared from Grenada. But they remained the most successful growers of fruit and vegetables in areas that they had developed and irrigated over generations.

Philip III saw things differently. Lacking his father’s intelligence and determination, he left the reins of government in the hands of a Valencian favourite, the Marquis of Denia, whom he made Duke of Lerma and a cardinal, and whose paternal uncle was Grand Inquisitor after 1608. The case for deportation, strongly supported by the duke’s adherents, who controlled the state apparatus, had an economic justification. The money from the confiscation of morisco property would easily make good the loss of revenue (4).

On 22 September 1609 Philip III signed a decree that made Spain the first racist state in history. Henceforth any member of the morisco nation was banished from any Spanish territory on pain of death.The Duke of Lerma, rather than the king, was responsible for this decree.

The most important theorist of the racist state, Fray Jaime Bleda, was a Dominican member of the inquisitorial tribunal in Valencia. He wrote a book outlining his ideas to prove that the elimination of the moriscos was an urgent necessity. It was too dense for the king to read, so one of Bleda’s Dominican colleagues, Fray Luis Beltran, produced a simplified summary.

The king recorded his decision upon this document, number 40 in the collection. The Duke of Lerma had his way; half a million men, women and children were deported. All their possessions were forfeited to the duke and his party; the duke gained a fortune greater than the reserves in the treasury, which he controlled anyway.

Spain had a population of eight million at this zenith of its military and political dominance in Europe. Knowing about the deportation we can assess one of the chief reasons for Spain’s subsequent ruin: fields were abandoned across whole regions, while the workforce evaporated from the most profitable trades: moriscos had dominated haulage, the masons’ guilds, breeding of horses and mules, irrigation and market- gardening. The deportation, on top of the 16th century’s galloping inflation, administrative corruption, the Duke of Lerma’s negligence and greed, and incessant wars, plunged Spain into the darkest era in its history.

Now, under the Schengen agreement, Spain has become southwest Europe’s border watchdog. Its civil guard patrols the coasts of Andalucia to intercept economic immigrants from north Africa. Four hundred years ago sea captains hired to transport deported moriscos to Oran threw them overboard to save time and money. Today their counterparts, who bring immigrants from Morocco to Andalucia, sometimes force them to disembark at night so far from the beaches that they drown. Those lucky enough to make it ashore are arrested and sent back in handcuffs by the civil guard. There is still sometimes racist violence against the Gypsies, Spain’s last clearly constituted and distinct minority. Beyond Spain, the ethnic cleansing by Serbian and Croatian nationalists of Bosnia’s Muslim population in 1992-95 reminds us that the racist state has not yet passed into history.

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