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  • Forbidden Passages: Muslims and Moriscos in colonial Spanish America by Karoline P. Cook
  • David Coleman
Forbidden Passages: Muslims and Moriscos in colonial Spanish America
By Karoline P. Cook. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

The research upon which Karoline Cook based this book was exceptionally challenging. Because the Spanish crown officially forbade entry of Muslims or Moriscos into its growing empire in the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, documentary traces of such persons are scattered and of a highly eclectic nature. In piecing together the extant evidence, Cook identifies through the course of the book, by my count, some 48 documented specific individuals (as well as some passing references to others) in the Spanish New World colonies between 1512 and 1659 who either were or were accused of being Muslim or Morisco. Examining the archival traces of their lives alongside textual depictions of Islamic faith and culture in colonial Latin America, Cook argues that the ways in which early modern Spaniards understood and acted toward Muslims and Moriscos contributed fundamentally to the ongoing definition and redefinition of Spanish identity in the colonial context.

Cook defines the term “Morisco” broadly, in the spirit of the early modern employment of the term as an adjective meaning “Muslim-like” (in addition to its more common historiographical usage as a noun signifying formerly Muslim converts to Christianity or descendants of such converts). In this vein, she analyzes multiple cases of individuals detained by colonial authorities for dangerous “Morisco” cultural practices of Iberian and/or North African origin in activities ranging from love magic to the healing arts. While some individuals so persecuted were in fact either known or reputed to be Muslims or “Moriscos,” some “Old Christian” settlers and even Indigenous peoples either engaged directly in and/or expressed awareness of such practices as well, illustrating to Cook the transatlantic transfer of cultures as well as peoples.

Among the only official exceptions made to the policy against Muslim or Morisco migration to the New World were for the slaves of powerful settlers, and several of the individual cases analyzed by Cook involve Moriscos who arrived in the Americas in bondage. One of the book’s most poignant case studies involves an astonishing case of an allegedly escaped formerly Muslim slave named Diego Romero, who arrived in the Americas sometime in or before 1536 as a free man and participated heroically in Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada’s conquests of the interior regions of what later became Colombia and Venezuela. Like many such conquistadores, Romero was richly rewarded and became one of the wealthiest encomendero lords of the early Spanish colonial history of that region. Two decades later, however, he was imprisoned for three years while authorities investigated accusations that he had been born to Muslim parents in North Africa and later captured, enslaved and baptized. Whether or not true (and Romero was ultimately cleared of the allegations), Cook shows that his accusers went to great lengths to gather copious testimony in Spain and build what they regarded as a plausible case that Romero was in fact a Morisco slave who had managed to escape to the Indies and build an entirely new identity.

Testimony from Inquisition proceedings provides some of the book’s richest documentary materials. Yet evidence concerning the New World’s Inquisition tribunals provides some surprises as well. In the 1580s and 1590s, for instance, Cook demonstrates that controversies swirled within Lima’s Inquisition tribunal itself, in which many of the households of powerful Inquisition officials were alleged to be filled with Moriscos.

Although the number of Muslim or Morisco individuals within the Spanish settler communities was very small, Cook makes a reasonable case that colonial understandings of Spanish identity continued even thousands of miles from the Iberian homeland to be underpinned in demonstrable ways by images of, interactions with and opposition toward Muslims and Moriscos. The fact is perhaps not surprising given the eight centuries of complex interplay between Christian and Islamic cultures in the Spanish kingdoms that preceded conquest and colonial settlement in the Americas. To date, however, Cook’s study is the first book-length attempt to substantiate and explore the concrete contours of this...


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