The Crusader, the Moor, and the Conquistador

Through our research on Latino-Arab relations, we discovered that both continents and cultures have actually much older ties than we thought.

In the following publication, we explore how the confrontation with medieval Islam in Spain shaped the mentalities and actions of the Conquistadores in the Americas.

1492, annus mirabilis – a year of  miracles – at least for the Iberian Christians.

That year, Isabella and Ferdinand, the Christian Monarchs, put an end to the long cycle of the Spanish Reconquista,[1] with the surrender of the last Caliph of Granada. They also expelled the Jews and launched the Conquista of the “Indies”- what was to become the Americas.

The farewells of King Boabdil at Granada, Alfred Dehodencq (1822-1882). The spot from which Muhammad XII looked for the last time on Granada is known as "the Moor's last sigh".

The farewells of King Boabdil at Granada, Alfred Dehodencq (1822-1882). The spot from which Muhammad XII looked for the last time on Granada is known as “the Moor’s last sigh”.

















These events are by no means coincidental. They are in fact more deeply connected than we usually assume. The purpose of this article, based on a fascinating article by historian Michael Barry[2], is to shed some light on the secret junctions that connect these two cycles: the end of the Reconquista over the Moors and the beginning of the New World’s conquest.

The Transfer of a Medieval Imaginary

The men who embarked with Christopher Columbus, in an endeavor to open a Western path to the Indies, were inheritors of generations of poor marauding lords at war with the Muslim kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula.

Spanish Caballero, 16th Century.

Spanish Caballero, 16th Century.















 These unrefined knights of the frontiers used to harass and raid the northern borders of the Hispano-Arabic realm, driven by the lust for gold, spices and precious craft from the Orient. Their Weltanschauung was thus forged in a centuries-old hostility toward an enemy they loathed, whose gold they coveted and whose highly sophisticated civilization they secretly admired [3].

In 1492 Columbus and his companions personally witnessed the fall of the last Caliph of Al Andalus, a victory widely perceived as a messianic sign of the triumph of the Real Faith over the Moors and the Jews.

The Capitulation of Granada, Francisco Pradilla Ortiz (1848-1921)

The Capitulation of Granada, Francisco Pradilla Ortiz (1848-1921)


In 1492, the Christian wealth and energy, directed for centuries at freeing the Peninsula from the Arabs, suddenly became aimless and available for other purposes. Somehow, Columbus managed to convince the Christian Monarchs to sponsor his expedition to the Indies, arguing that this remote Eldorado would help finance the Crusades and free Jerusalem.

As they landed in the New World under the banner of Isabel and the Holy Cross, the Conquistadores brought with them an unquenchable lust for gold, a violent sense of religious self-righteousness and images of mythical treasures,[4] all forged in the antagonistic relationship with the Arabs. The transplantation of this late medieval imaginary was to carry tragic and lasting consequences for the inhabitants of the “New World”.

Christopher Columbus discovers the Americas, John Vanderlyn (1775-1852)

Christopher Columbus discovers the Americas, John Vanderlyn (1775-1852)

 The Holy Justification of the Conquista

From the 11th century onward, the fight against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula, originally a local conflict became progressively part of a wider, more epic narrative opposing European Christendom against Islam.

The Roman Papacy justified the acts of war based on the Augustinian doctrine of the Just War, and actively encouraged Christian knights to rise up in arms against the Moorish “infidels” in Europe and the Orient.

In this context, the first justification of the Conquest lied in amassing enough gold for the Crown to finance the Crusades and the ultimate deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre.

In Castile, this new articulation of a Holy War sounded strikingly akin to the Islamic concept of Jihad. It progressively led to the emergence of the bellicose figure of Saint James the apostle, or Santiago “Matamoros”, the Moor-slayer, saint patron of Spain and symbol of the Reconquista.

This martial figure naturally became, during the Conquest, the symbol of Christendom’s strife against indigenous paganism under the title of Santiago Matamoros (the Native-slayer).

: Santiago Matamoros (18th century, anonymous) became Santiago Mataindios (Cuzco School, 16th century)

Santiago Matamoros (18th century, anonymous)

This martial figure naturally became, during the Conquest, the symbol of Christendom’s strife against indigenous paganism under the title of Santiago Matamoros (the Native-slayer). This oppressive figure was often represented by the native painters of the Cuzco School recently converted to the new Christian faith [5].


Santiago Mataindios (Cuzco School, 16th century)

As the medieval spirit of the crusades started fading away, the importance of the second main justification to the Conquest grew: the conversion of new souls to the “True Religion”.

 Castilian Feudalism Relocated 

The way non-Christians were dealt with following the Spanish Reconquista was used as a practical model for the Conquest of the Americas, both in terms of religious matters and economic exploitation.

Broadening Christendom while keeping its purity

The Christian Monarchs of Castilla dreamt of a Peninsula exclusively Catholic, purified of any traces of other religions. This led to the forced conversion or expulsion en masse of, first the Jews (1492), then the Muslims (1499), and to the establishment of a number of institutions that were to play a lasting role in the Americas.

The “Requerimiento” was a procedure imposed by the Monarch to the conquerors in 1513. A document was read aloud by the Conquistadores to native peoples, demanding that they submit to Spanish rule and to the Christian faith. In case of refusal or lack of answer, the attack was legitimate. Michael Barry[6] sees in this codification of forced conversion a reminiscence of the way Muslim Moors would practice Da’wah (preaching) in the non-Islamic land they conquered.

The “Limpieza de Sangre” or “Purity of blood” act (1449), by which “Old Christians”  without Muslim or Jewish or ancestors were granted exclusive access to official positions, was exported to the American colonies. This notion, one of the first systematic use of a racist concept by a European nation[7], kept natives and mestizos under the domination of a cast of Criollos – locally-born people of pure Spanish ancestry.

The Holy Office of the Inquisition(1448), established to fight hidden heresy in the Peninsula, was first granted authority over Spanish America to prosecute hebreos cristianos (Hebrew Christians), conversos (converts), Moriscos (Moors), and other heretics, in spite of several decrees barring their entry in the New World. Later, it also looked into local forms of heresy, fighting syncretic forms of religious practices by indigenous people.

Divide and Exploit

The Castilians who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the caravels brought with them from the Old Continent a spirit geared towards the exploitation of any available land, plants, minerals and men.

La Conquista, mural de Diego de Rivera, Mexico

La Conquista, mural de Diego de Rivera, Mexico

During the Reconquista against the Moors, the warmongering knights – los adelantados – were rewarded by the Crown with land or encomiendas that were granted together with slaves to cultivate it, the repartidos. In return, the knights were responsible for the Christianization of the slaves’ souls.

Native slaves working in the fields

Native slaves working in the fields

This feudalization of the land applied in the context of the Spanish Reconquista was replicated in the Americas: conquistadores were granted property titles[8] over indigenous land and souls in return for their services. To some extent, this system still underpins the structure of land ownership across Latino-America.


Multi-secular antagonism against the Moors thus shaped the modes of thought and action of the Castilian Conquistadores. They brought to America the intolerant breath of the Crusaders and a late feudal imaginary filled with tales of lost golden cities, Amazons, and Fountains of Youth.

They also brought with them the foundation of a certain socio-economic order that was first tested on the Moors, Jews and Converts of the Spanish Peninsula. In many respects, the structure of agrarian property – the latifundist model[9] – inherited from the encomiendas and the social power of prestigious families of Criollos forged the basis of modern Latino-American nations and still painfully haunt their present.

[1] Les Maures des Indes et leurs seigneurs d’Espagne in « Amérique, continent imprévu », Editions Bordas.

[2] Although of high symbolic value, the surrender of Granada is but the last Spanish victory in centuries of efforts that can be dated back to the first conquest of the Principality of Asturias in the 8th century. It is also the result of a long, endogenous decline of Al Andalus. In 1492, Granada was the last, isolated and vulnerable Muslim enclave left on the northern shore of the Mediterranean.

[3] Echoes of this fascination are still perceptible in contemporary literature (see Adam Gopnik’s comments in the New Yorker on M. Houellebecq’s “Submission” : “In the back-and-forth of fantasies of conquest and submission between panicked Catholics and renascent Muslims, Islam plays an ambiguous role, as both the feared besieger and the admirable Other”).

[4] Arabic and Aljamiado (Romance manuscripts using Arabic alphabet) versions of the Alexander Romance and the episode of the Fountain of Youth were very popular in Spain during Moorish rule, and would have been known to the explorers who journeyed to America.

 [5] To propagate the new faith, Spanish clerics taught indigenous people the skills and subjects of religious painting. This gave birth to the Cuzco school: naïve, colorful and often distorted representations of Bible scenes and saints.

[6] Ibid

[7] Maria Elena Martinez, Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico, Stanford Univ. Press, 2008. The Limpieza de Sangre can also be considered as one of the earliest manifestations of Biopolitics in the context of the progressive shaping of a modern, centralizing monarchy.

[8] Unlike in Spain, the knights did not permanently owned the land, which remained property of the Crown. The children of the knights could not, in theory, inherit the encomienda, thus barring them from starting a local, potentially rebellious dynasty.

 [9] Very extensive parcel of privately owned land (Haciendas in Spanish, Fazendas in Portuguese).  This model leaves millions of poor peasants with no property rights over the land they cultivate.

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