The 17th-century expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain: what happened?

In 1609, Spain initiated the expulsion of 300,000 'Moriscos' - descendants of Muslims converted to Christianity - in what was then among the largest forced depopulations in history. Matt Carr explores divergent experiences of an early exercise in 'ethnic cleansing'

A painting of 1616 depicts the Moriscos boarding ships to sail from the port of Valencia

On 4 April 1609, the Habsburg king Philip III of Spain and his corrupt, all-powerful first minister, the Duke of Lerma, authorised the phased expulsion of the entire population of the people known as Moriscos (‘Little Moors’) from Iberian soil. These were all nominal Catholics, their ancestors having been forcibly converted to Christianity in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The king’s order was not made public, in order to preclude flight or rebellion, and stipulated that the expulsion should begin that autumn in the kingdom of Valencia – home to the largest Morisco population in Spain.

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Throughout the spring and summer, Spanish officials worked in total secrecy to prepare for the expulsion of the Valencian Moriscos. Spanish naval ships and specially commissioned foreign ships from across Europe were brought to designated ports on the Valencian coast. Soldiers and militia forces stockpiled weapons throughout Valencia and also inland in Castile to prevent the Moriscos from retreating into the interior.

On 24 September, town criers in the city of Valencia accused the kingdom’s entire Morisco population of apostasy, heresy and “divine and human lese-majesty”, and announced the king’s intention to expel them to Barbary (as the north African coast was then known) to ensure the “conservation and security” of his realms.

Perilous journeys

Over the following three days, Morisco families and communities across the kingdom frantically attempted to gather their possessions and sell them to their Christian neighbours before they were escorted by the king’s officers to their designated ports. Not all acquiesced quietly: in October, thousands of Moriscos in the Valencian interior launched a doomed rebellion that was quickly and brutally suppressed.

At the coast, some were taken immediately on board the waiting ships and shipped across the Mediterranean to Barbary. Others waited for days and even weeks before their transportation. Many were robbed and even murdered by their escorts or by Christian bandits before they could reach the Spanish coast. Hundreds and perhaps even thousands of Moriscos were attacked by Muslim pirates on the high seas, were killed by their own crews, or were robbed and murdered in north Africa by nomadic Muslim tribesmen who took them for Spaniards and Christians. By the end of 1609, some 130,000 Valencian Moriscos had been expelled. A jubilant Philip and his ministers extended the expulsion to Castile, Andalusia and Aragon.

Over the next four years, Moriscos across Spain were escorted to the Mediterranean coast or driven overland across the Pyrenees. By the time the expulsion was called to a halt in August 1614, Spain had sent some 300,000 men, women and children – about 4% of its population – to exile and death, almost eradicating from the Iberian peninsula the last traces of the old Moorish emirate of al-Andalus.


The Christian perspective

Morisco children carried in their blood the ‘bad seed’ of Islamic faith

To Spain’s Habsburg rulers and the anti-Morisco lobbyists who had for many years called for the Moriscos to be driven from Spain, the expulsion was a glorious and divinely ordained act of religious purging. In their eyes it removed a seditious and heretical enemy from Spanish soil, and cleansed Spain of the last remnants of its despised Islamic past. During the tumultuous autumn of 1609 in Valencia, supporters of the expulsion – such as the archbishop of Valencia Juan de Ribera and the Dominican monk Jaime Bleda – praised the king for having finally taken action against an inveterate Muslim “enemy within” that had stubbornly continued to worship “the sect of Muhammad” ever since the initial conversions of the Moriscos around a century before.

Bleda witnessed the expulsion in Valencia, and found confirmation of this treachery and dishonesty in the Moriscos who arrived in Valencia singing and dancing, or who waded into the sea to praise Allah for their deliverance.

Philip III and his ministers saw the Moriscos in very similar terms. In the many ministerial discussions on the ‘Morisco question’ that had preceded the expulsion, clerics and ministers argued that the Moriscos had been given ample time to become “good and faithful Christians” and had collectively refused to embrace their new faith. Some noted how the Moriscos had failed to take advantage of the periods of grace that had been granted to them at various times since their conversions, and had continued to worship as Muslims despite the attentions of the Spanish Inquisition.

Others described the Moriscos as a fifth column whose members were secretly colluding with Spain’s Muslim and Protestant enemies and with Muslim corsairs operating from north Africa. Some cited Inquisition reports of real or imagined Morisco plots. Some expressed fears of another rebellion, like the savage War of the Alpujarras (1568–71) during which the Moriscos of Granada had risen up against Philip II’s decrees prohibiting their language and customs, and committed vicious atrocities against the Christian population in the mountains south and east of Granada with the support of Turkish and north African volunteers.

Turkish threat

These security fears were exacerbated by the ongoing Turkish threat – Ottoman forces having fought Habsburg empires, including Spain, since 1526 – and also by reports of Morisco banditry emanating from various parts of the country. Proponents of expulsion argued that the Moriscos were religiously incompatible with Christian Spain, and that they were also culturally inferior. Some pointed to the Morisco birth rate, claiming that the ‘New Christian’ Morisco population was inexorably increasing while the ‘Old Christian’ population was decreasing, and that this would result in the collapse of Christian Spain.

Philip III, in common with many of his Christian subjects, regarded the descendants of Spain’s former Islamic occupiers as an unwanted aberration and a threat to its religious identity. He also saw Catholic Spain’s recent military reverses in its wars against ‘heretics’ (Calvinist Lutheran rebels in Flanders, the English in various naval encounters) as evidence of divine disapproval for having allowed the Moriscos to ‘defile’ the country.

During the reign of his father, Philip II, clerics and ministers had considered radical and even genocidal ‘solutions’ to the ‘Morisco question’ that included castration of all Morisco males, or even wholesale massacre. Eventually, Philip II settled on expulsion as the most humane ‘Christian’ option, but the ‘prudent king’ did not implement his own decision. Instead, it was left to his famously lazy son to carry out what the Portuguese Dominican monk Damián Fonseca called “the agreeable holocaust” and settle the ‘Morisco question’ once and for all.

By the time Philip decided to implement his father’s expulsion order, the anti-Morisco consensus in the upper echelons of church and state was no longer prepared to listen to Christian landowners who regarded Moriscos as an essential component of their labour force. Nor would it heed the more moderate clerics who insisted that it was un-Christian to expel baptised Morisco children. To the king and his ministers, these children carried in their blood the ‘bad seed’ of their parents’ Islamic faith that would continue to grow if they were not expelled.

Faced with criticism from European diplomats and the pope himself regarding the inhumanity of the expulsion, Philip insisted that it had been carried out humanely. He hailed the destruction of Spanish Islam as a great victory for Spain and Christendom that restored Spain to its rightful destiny as a Catholic state. These assumptions continued to echo down through the work of historians of the 19th and 20th centuries who hailed the expulsion of the Moriscos as a painful but essential milestone in Spanish and European history.


The Morisco perspective

An expelled Morisco wrote that the exiles were ‘crying tears of blood’

The hagiographic accounts of the expulsion written in the early 17th century tend to ignore the complexities of the Morisco predicament that might have allowed for less radical ‘solutions’. They also ignored the extent to which Christian Spain itself had helped create the problem the expulsion was intended to solve. There is no doubt that some Moriscos saw their expulsion as a form of liberation and deliverance, and relished the opportunity to return to a land of Islam where they could worship openly as Muslims.

Certainly, many Moriscos had little reason to feel any affection towards the Catholic church or the Spanish state. This antipathy was partly due to the Inquisition. For the best part of a century, the institution that many Moriscos regarded as the ‘devil’s tribunal’ had tormented and punished them for a range of transgressions that included actual Islamic religious worship as well as ‘Moorish’ cultural practices such as eating couscous, bathing or refusing to eat pork.

Exploited by priests

Such repression did not endear many Moriscos to Christianity, yet even the most embittered were not allowed to leave Spain but were forced to remain in ‘Morisco lands’ where their parish priests despised and exploited them. Some Morisco parishes rarely saw a priest at all, and had no idea what their new faith even expected of them. As a result, the intermittent ‘periods of grace’ granted to the Moriscos were often fruitless – and, too often, punctuated by repression.

When Philip II introduced his draconian prohibitions in Granada in 1566, leading Moriscos and Christians warned the king that they would provoke rebellion. These protestations were ignored, and the result was a bloody rebellion in the Alpujarras. The expulsion and dispersion of the entire Morisco population of Granada across Castile that followed the suppression of the rebellion only added to the bitterness and alienation felt by many Moriscos.

Some Moriscos undoubtedly colluded with Spain’s Muslim and Lutheran enemies abroad, and dreamed of an Islamic restoration. Others took to the roads and became bandits in order to take revenge on Christian society. Moriscos near the Mediterranean coast sometimes facilitated the slave-hunting expeditions of the Barbary corsairs – some even became corsairs themselves. But many, perhaps the majority, had no such ambitions – and even fewer opportunities to realise them. Most Moriscos occupied humble positions as artisans, muleteers, labourers, entertainers and shopkeepers, living on the fringes of a Spanish society that feared and despised them – yet which still insisted that they become ‘good and faithful Christians’.

Though it was true that some Moriscos never accepted their conversion to Christianity, others eventually came to sincerely embrace their new faith. Philip III discovered this himself, to his astonishment, when he extended the expulsion to Castile and Andalusia, where he found many local bishops and priests who testified to the ardent piety of their Morisco parishioners.

Even then, the king and his ministers insisted that both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Moriscos were to be expelled. Spain’s rulers also failed to appreciate that most Moriscos, whatever their religious convictions, regarded Spain as their homeland. Most of them spoke Spanish, not Arabic, and knew little of the world beyond the estates and villages in which they lived. In Valencia in 1609, rebel Morisco women threw themselves and their children off cliffs rather than allow themselves to be escorted to the coast.

Aftermath of the expulsion

Many expelled Moriscos experienced a profound culture shock on their forced arrival in North Africa. One of the reasons why the expulsion lasted as long as it did was because many Moriscos, like the character Ricote in Don Quixote, returned to their towns and villages after their expulsion.

Some expelled Moriscos languished in France, from where they petitioned the king to allow them to return to Spain. Many shared the sentiments of the expelled Morisco Diego Luis Morlem, who wrote to his former lord in Castile that he and his fellow exiles were “crying tears of blood” for their lost country, and were determined to return to it “even if they hang us”.

Many returned to Spain, where they were flogged and expelled again, but some succeeded in remaining in their homes after the expulsion process was stopped, and continued to live in Spain. Others found new homes in Algiers, Tunis and Morocco, and eventually managed to integrate and form the distinctively ‘Andalusi’ communities whose traces can still be found across North Africa.


Matt Carr is a journalist and writer, author of Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain, 1492–1614 (Hurst, new edition 2017)

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This article was taken from issue 05 of BBC World Histories magazine