Forbidden Passages

Muslims and Moriscos in Colonial Spanish America

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Karoline P. Cook
The Early Modern Americas
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , May
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Emigrants from the Atlantic world came to the Americas for many reasons, fueled by various motives, their moves precipitated by myriad circumstances. Some were forced, some came to escape an old society or to build a new one, others came to acquire riches or set up shop. While the local context with its diverse ecological, material, political, socio-cultural, and religious environments shaped the contours of American colonization and conquest, the colonial world was simultaneously defined and influenced by its transatlantic nature. Significantly, the historical and legal dimensions of imperial statecraft conditioned the experience of various constituencies in even the most far-flung reaches of the American empires.

It is within this transatlantic imperial nexus that Karoline P. Cook situates the narrative—as her subtitle states—of “Muslims and Moriscos in Colonial Spanish America.” By examining “Morisco” (former, or secret, Muslims who converted to, or were coerced into accepting, Christianity during Spain's reconquest of the Iberian peninsula) as a legal category transplanted from Spain to the Americas, Cook is able to focus on how individuals labeled as such negotiated their lives in the Spanish empire of the Americas, relying on archival research of legal documents and attitudes toward Muslims and Moriscos. The result is an attentive exploration of citizenship, identification, and social belonging in the sixteenth and seventeenth century transatlantic Spanish world.

As Cook explains, “by studying the often-overlooked references to Muslims and Moriscos in colonial documents, we can better understand how sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century inhabitants of Spanish America conceived of their relationships to each other and of their own location within the empire” (4). Cook’s perusal of legislation and attitudes surrounding the presence of Moriscos in Spanish America confronts categories such as “Spaniard” or “Muslim” in the colonial world. Her work expands upon previous research on identity and empire in the eighteenth-century Americas and a growing corpus of work on Muslims, Moriscos, and conversos in the Americas.

To trace this transatlantic narrative, Cook takes pains to explain multiple facets of the presence of Moriscos and attitudes toward them from the Iberian peninsula to the Spanish Americas and in between. In the rapidly changing sixteenth-century world of the Spanish empire, the term “Morisco” came to prominence as a conflation of religious, ethnic, and political identities and as a marker of “otherness” in the emerging definition of what it meant to be “Spanish.” Using the term in its broadest sense, Cook looks at the transatlantic lives and legal status of Muslims, and also of “Moors” who converted to Christianity in the wake of the Reconquista. Cook starts in Spain, outlining the increasing crackdown on Moriscos who continued to practice Islam and the trials they faced before the Inquisitions.

In her second and third chapters, Cook then follows Moriscos and Muslims across the seas to the Americas, where they had to navigate, duck, and transgress restrictions on the overseas emigration of “new Christians.” These laws were put in place as a bulwark to protect the Christianization project underway in the Spanish Americas and as part of emerging Spanish categories concerning race. These same laws overrode desires to bring Moriscos to the Americas as slaves, interpreters, or artisans. However, Moriscos arrived anyway. Spanish authorities were aware of these forbidden crossings. Knowledge of Morisco presence upset notions of Spanish concerns over title, dominion, and access to indigenous peoples, and elicited anxiety within Spanish colonial society.

As Moriscos came to the Americas, they brought a variety of personal religious beliefs, practices, and material cultures influenced by class and ethnicity in their places of origin (Granada, Spain, North Africa, etc.). However, in the Spanish Americas, public devotion was observed as an outward expression of fidelity not only to the Church, but also to the state. “Public displays of heterodoxy in communal devotional spaces” could undermine one’s status in the Spanish imperial project just as “a public reputation of piety” could account for honor even without the “requisite ‘purity of blood’” expected of Spanish citizens (101).

As Cook shows, Christians, Muslims, and Moriscos in the “New World” crossed religious, social, geographic, and political boundaries in order to exchange remedies for emotional, spiritual, and physical ills. These everyday interactions were cast within a constellation of legal prescriptions, debates over colonial authority, attitudes concerning citizenship, and public images and imaginaries of Moriscos in the Spanish empire. These everyday realities and contingent features of Morisco experience in the Spanish Americas occupy the bulk of the book, from chapters four through eight.

In this carefully researched and nuanced study, Cook situates Muslims and Moriscos into the larger narrative of Spanish empire and colonial society. Cook frames this discussion within the larger lattice of the Spanish imperial project. By doing so, she expands opportunities for discussing colonial American identities and the study of empire in the early-modern Iberian world. Furthermore, she adds archival texture to the narrative of Muslims in the Americas prior to the 20th century.

This study sits squarely within an “Americas approach” rather than in the field of global Islamic studies. A comparison to global Muslim discourses and practices, particularly in North Africa following the Reconquista, would be a welcome addendum to Cook’s already valuable volume. Anyone interested in studying the early-modern Spanish empire, Islam in the Americas, or transatlantic history in the Americas would find this book a useful addition to their library.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ken Chitwood is a PhD student at the University of Florida studying Religion in the Americas and Global Islam.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karoline P. Cook teaches history at Washington State University.


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