The Empire Strikes Back: the Morisco Revolt in southern Spain (1568-1571

by Francisco J. González

By the mid-16th century the Spanish Empire was, without a doubt, the largest, richest and most powerful political entity in the World. The Empire extended from the Netherlands to Sicily in Europe, to the rich Native American realms of the Aztecs and Incas, and included trading posts and colonies spread across Asia, the South Pacific and Africa. Annual galleon fleets transported the fabulous wealth of the New World back to Spain. The Spanish Empire was ruled by the ascetic King Phillip II, whose main concerns were maintaining the integrity of his far-flung dominions against both envious European rivals and the expanding forces of the Ottoman Turks; while simultaneously fighting the internal “dangers” of Protestantism and other “evil” religious practices, such as Judaism and Islam! Within the heartland of the Empire, in Spain itself, the remnants of the once-glorious Islamic civilization of Al-Andalus struggled to survive. The Arabic-speaking descendants of the North African and Middle Eastern conquerors of medieval Spain, known as Moriscos, had been forcibly converted to Catholicism earlier in the 16th century, but this conversion was more apparent than real. They lived mostly in the southern part of the country, which included the city of Granada, former capital of the last independent Islamic state in Spain, conquered by the Christians in 1492. They excelled as craftsmen, producing high-quality cordovan leather goods, and metal smiths. Other Moriscos earned a living as farm laborers, small-scale farmers, and as traders. However, the backbone of their economy was the silk industry, which produced textiles and garments that rivaled those of China or Baghdad in quality. In response to the demands of special interest groups wanting to cut into the Morisco’s dominance of the silk trade, the export of woven silk was banned and in 1561 a large tax assessment was imposed on silk from Granada. This severely hit the Moriscos. Added to the economic downturn, the Catholic Church tasked the Inquisition with ferreting out those who continued to practice Islam in secret. The straw that broke the camel’s back came in January 1567, when a series of “reforms” of Morisco habits were imposed by the Spanish authorities: the use of written or spoken Arabic was to be absolutely prohibited within 3 years; so were traditional Moorish garments; house doors were to be kept open on Friday afternoons (the traditional Islamic Sabbath); feast-days and marriage celebrations, zambras and leilas, were forbidden on Fridays and feast-days; the use of henna was to be abandoned; Moorish names were not to be used; all hamans or baths, both public and private, were to be destroyed.


The Moriscos sent a deputation to Madrid to plead for relief, but to no avail. Conflict seemed inevitable at this point. Some Spanish officials sympathized with their plight. One wrote to a friend that “the Moriscos are rebelling, but it is because the Christians drove them to the point of desperation. For years they have suffered injustice, murder, robbery and rape; in one parish, the Moriscos asked that their local priest be removed because all their children are being born with blue eyes, just like his!” The revolt broke out in 1568, centered in the hill country known as the Alpujarras. The leader of the Moriscos was Aben Humeya, an able commander that managed defeat several hastily-raised Spanish forces. The Moriscos had few firearms or artillery, and relied on mostly on their traditional Moorish weapons of crossbows, javelins and slings to wage a guerrilla campaign against their enemies. However, the uprising was doomed to failure. Phillip II mobilized the military assets of the Empire and raised a large army of seasoned Imperial soldiers, to be commanded by his half-brother Don Juan of Austria, the future victor of Lepanto. He waged a ruthless campaign against the Moriscos, methodically destroying rebel villages and enslaving their inhabitants, men, women and children. The rebellion was finally defeated in 1571, with all the major leaders dead in battle or executed. In order avoid further uprisings and to hasten their forced assimilation, Philip II ordered that the Moriscos be dispersed throughout the country in small isolated villages, their former lands to be resettled by Christians. To add insult to injury, by order of the Spanish crown two Morisco families were required to remain in each village in order to demonstrate to the new inhabitants, land-hungry peasants from central and northern Spain, the workings of the advanced Arab-designed irrigation systems and agricultural techniques. Many Moriscos left Spain for the Islamic lands of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, and some continued to fight the Spanish Empire as pirates, attacking Christian shipping in the Mediterranean and raiding coastal villages in Spain itself.


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