Moriscos, Captivity, and Community in Northern New Spain

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:50 AM
Superior Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Karoline P. Cook, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
From the earliest voyages to the Caribbean, Spanish authorities hoped that only “old Christians” – those who could prove they had been Catholic for at least three generations – would board ships bound for the Western Hemisphere.  During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, royal officials tried to prohibit Spanish converts from Islam, known as Moriscos, from crossing the Atlantic.  These officials hoped to instill religious orthodoxy in the Americas and they believed that Moriscos would interfere with their plans to transform indigenous peoples into devout Catholics.  Yet the Spanish Crown could not prevent Moriscos from evading the restrictions by a variety of means and settling in the forbidden territories.  Enslaved Muslims from North Africa and the Philippines also found their way to New Spain, through the Caribbean galleys, or the Manila galleons’ connections with Acapulco.

Knowledge about captivity in the Muslim world played a role in everyday interactions between Spaniards and indigenous peoples in the so-called frontier regions of Spanish America.  During the 1530s, Spaniards brought interpreters to northern New Spain, some of whom were Moriscos or North African Muslims who were conversant in Arabic dialects.  Multiple linguistic skills and perceived facility with languages made these individuals seem like attractive candidates for learning Nahuatl and accompanying early expeditions to New Galicia.  The North African slave Estebanico, who accompanied Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, is perhaps the best known of these individuals, but lesser-known cases shed light on early encounters between Spaniards and semi-nomadic indigenous groups.  My paper explores how memories and lived experiences of Muslim-Christian relations in the Mediterranean world informed ethnic and linguistic encounters in northern New Spain.