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Volume 43, Number 3May/June 1992

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Muslims And Muslim Technology In The New World

Written by Paul Lunde

Between 1609 and 1614, some 300,000 moriscos were expelled from Spain. These were Mus­lims who had remained in the country - partic­ularly in Andalusia, Valencia and Aragon - after the fall of Granada to the Christians in 1492. The majority were craftsmen and market-gardeners, whose huertas , or vegetable gardens, had contributed so much to the agricultural prosperity of Spain. In the 117 years since the extinction of Muslim power in the peninsula, an increasing number of laws had been promulgated by the Spanish crown against the moriscos, limiting their freedom of worship and their use of Arabic language, dress and customs. Revolts had inevitably followed, in Granada and in Valencia. It was an effort to aid moriscos involved in a revolt in the lat­ter city that had brought Turk­ish admiral Kemal Reis and his nephew Piri into Spanish waters in 1501 (See "Piri Reis and the Columbus Map," in this issue).

Moriscos, along with Prot­estants, Jews and Gypsies, were forbidden to travel to Spanish America. Even Ital­ians from the Spanish pos­sessions of Naples and Sicily were not welcome. An elabo­rate bureaucracy was set up in Seville to screen prospective immigrants; regulations were complex and very time-consuming, and it was not at all easy to get the coveted licencia that entitled one to set sail for the New World. Once obtained, the travel permits were not transferable and were valid for only two years, but travel without them was dangerous: The earliest penalty recorded for shipping out without a permit was four years in the galleys for ordi­nary culprits and 10 years' exile in Oran - the Algerian seaport, then held by Spain - for persons of quality. In 1607, a new law instituted the death penalty for voyagers without a license. Laws stip­ulating these and other punishments were frequent in the late 16th and early 17th centuries; their very number indicates the scope of the problem. Large numbers of "illegal immigrants" were clearly finding their way to America.

It is impossible to say how many of these were of Muslim descent. Between 1493 and 1600, 54,881 Span­iards emigrated to the New World, a figure based on surviving   documents   studied   by   Peter   Boyd-Bowman, a specialist on the language, trade and demography of the period. Allowing for missing documents and illegal immigration, the true figure was perhaps on the order of 100,000. Of the 54,881 "legal" emigrants, 1522 were foreigners - Flemings, Germans, Englishmen, Greeks - who for special reasons had been granted licencias, just as Elias ibn Hanna had been (See "The New World Through Arab Eyes," in this issue).

Obviously, since it was illegal for moriscos to go to the New World, they do not appear as such in the listas de pasajeros in the Archive of the Indies in Seville. Yet from very early times, per­il haps from Columbus's first voyages, male and female a moriscos are mentioned in the literary sources. Beatriz LaI Morisca took part with Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, along with Isabel Rodríguez, "La Conquistadora." For anyone with the will, there was always a way to the New World, either through simple bribery or by more complex means. A single example will show how individual initiative could succeed in overcoming bureaucratic regulations.

This story occurs in the fas­cinating Historia de la villa imperial de Potosí, by Nicolás de Martínez Arzans y Vela, composed around 1705. In 1561, a certain Captain Gior­gio Zapata, who claimed to have been in the service of the duke of Medinaceli and the viceroy of Sicily, arrived in Potosí. He apprenticed him­self to a German miner - who had presumably been al­lowed into Peru because of his specialized knowledge - discovered a very rich silver vein, and for 10 years developed it in partnership with a man named Rodrigo Pelaez. Zapata became one of the richest men in Potosí, and one of the most respected as well.

After 15 years in Potosí - it must have seemed a life­time in that cold, inhospitable place - Giorgio Zapata decided to return to his country. He gave gifts to all his friends and bid them good-bye, taking with him 2,000,000 pieces of eight and 138 kilos (304 pounds) of pure gold. But instead of sailing to Spain, Zapata went to Istanbul and presented himself to the sultan, Murad II. Istanbul, it turned out, was really his native city, and his real name was Amir Çighala. He gave the sultan part of the gold he had brought from Potosí and became admiral of the fleet. He subsequently had a very successful naval career and was later named gov­ernor of Algiers.

Meanwhile, his old partner, Rodrigo Pelaez, had retired to Spain. In 1596, while he was at Cádiz waiting for a ship to Peru, the English, led by the earl of Essex, sacked the city and captured Pelaez. Sold first to a Frenchman, and then, after a number of resales, to a North African, Pelaez eventually found himself in Algiers, where he was purchased by Kara Çighala, the older brother of his old partner from Potosí. The two friends were re-united, and Amir Çighala told Pelaez how he had secretly practiced Islam for 15 years in Potosí. Two months later, he sent his old friend back to Spain a free man, laden with gold and other gifts and a letter written in good Spanish "with some phrases in Arabic," telling the whole tale.

Amir Çighala must have been related to the famous Yusuf Çighala-Zade, known as Sinan Pasha. The son of the viscount of Cicala, a Sicilian noble in the service of Spain who had married a Turkish woman, he entered Ottoman service and rose to high office, mar­rying two granddaughters of Sultan Süleyman in suc­cession. He was high admiral of the Ottoman fleet in 1591 and took part in the successful siege of Eğri in the Balkans in 1596, whose main purpose was to ensure Ottoman control of the extensive mines in the region. Perhaps Amir Çighala was his younger brother.

The story shows the great mobility that charac­terized the 16th and 17th centuries, and how perme­able both political and religious barriers were in fact, despite the elaborate bureaucracies so characteristic of both Hapsburg Spain and the Ottoman Empire. Amir Çighala may have been far from an isolated case, judging from an account that tells of 20 Turks who were "redeemed out of captivitie by Sir Francis Drake in the West Indies" and repatriated by order of Queen Elizabeth I.

So, counting Amir Çighala, at least 21 Turks had gone to America before 1586. There were probably others. It is hard to form any clear idea of the numbers of people involved, however: Only five persons were brought before the Inquisition in Lima during the 16th and early 17th centuries charged with being "secret" Muslims. On the other hand, it required considerable finesse for Amir Çighala, a Turk, to spend 15 years in Peru as a covertly practicing Muslim without arousing suspicion; the task would have been much easier for Muslims who were also native-bred Spaniards. And it is curious that fashions such as the tapada, a long shawl covering most of the body and leaving only one eye free, originally developed in Andalusia by morisca women to evade the prohibition of the veil, should have become fashionable wear in 16th- and 17th-century Lima.

Of much more significance than the physical pres­ence in America of Spaniards of Muslim descent is the transfer from the Old World to the New of agricultural products and associated technologies originally elaborated in Muslim lands. Boyd-Bowman calculated that 379 percent of the Spanish immigrants to the New World between 1493 and 1600 came from Andalusia; it is no surprise that the crops they turned to in their new environment should be those with which they were familiar. The two most important of these were sugar (in Arabic, sukkar) and cotton (qutn), both introduced into the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghrib by the Arabs.

These were the two cash crops par excellence of the late Middle Ages. After the severe population losses in the 14th century due to repeated outbreaks of the Black Death, great tracts of land in Syria and Anatolia, formerly devoted to cereal cultivation, were turned over to cotton. Much of this was produced for export to the West, to the fustian factories of northern Europe, with the Genoese and Venetians acting, as usual, as intermediaries. The Ottoman Empire's major industry was cotton production - growing, spinning and weaving - both for internal consumption and for export. This flourishing industry began to suffer set­backs in the 1650's, when Indian calicoes began flood­ing into the Levant; it eventually succumbed, in the 19th century, to cheap European cotton goods made from American cotton.

Cotton did not have to be taken to the New World; it already grew there, and is one of the very few plants that may have been brought to America from Asia in remote antiquity. Columbus was offered balls of cot­ton thread by the Indians of the Bahamas and of Cuba on his first voyage, and he noted that the Indians knew how to weave it. When the placer gold that had kept the hopes of the first colonists in Hispaniola alive gave out, as it quickly did, new sources of income had to be found. Illegal slaving, disease and forced labor had greatly reduced the indigenous population. When King Ferdinand died in 1516, Cardinal Cisneros, regent of Spain, sent a representative named Zuazo to report on the island. Zuazo recommended cotton and sugar cultivation - even designing an early cotton gin - and by 1570 cotton from the West Indies and Brazil was appearing in German markets.

Silk production was underway in Central America, then called New Spain, by the 1550's. Here the native population had a long tradition of weaving and dyeing, and the cloth produced was comparable to the best Europe could offer. Indigo and cochineal were being produced here in the 17th century, both extremely valuable cash crops and both formerly pro­duced in Muslim lands and traded to the West.

Indigo is a blue dye obtained from the leaves of Indigofera tindoria; as its name indicates, the plant orig­inated in India. It was grown in a number of places in Muslim lands, particularly Khuzistan, Egypt and Morocco's Sous valley. Indigo, unlike most natural dyes, does not require a mordant, or fixing chemical, which made it all the more valuable. It was widely counterfeited in the Middle Ages, and merchant's handbooks give elaborate instructions on how to test for "true blue."

Elias ibn Hanna, the Arab traveler, noted indigo cul­tivation in San Salvador in the late 17th century: "Everyone has a plot on which he grows indigo. It is as tall as wheat and some years grows to the height of a man: At that time it had become cheap in Mexico. When harvest time comes they gather it and throw it in a large trough, heat it and boil it down. In the trough are wheels which churn the water. Then they empty it into another trough and three days later it is ready. Then they form the paste into balls with their hands and spread it out in the sun. This is what they call 'curd indigo' in our country; from what is left at the bottom they make 'sheet' indigo."

In the Old World, a brilliant color-fast red dye was produced from an insect (Coccus cacti) which breeds on the grasses Aeluropus litoralis and Aeluropus leavis. The female insects were gathered, dried, crushed and used as a dye, which had to be fixed with a mordant. This was the true cochineal; it was only produced in Armenia and northern Persia, and was extremely expensive. A less brilliant and cheaper red was obtained from another insect, Kermococcus vermilio, a parasite of the kermes oak. Again, the dye was pro­duced from the female insect and the color was fast. The second sort, "false cochineal," was produced in the province of Seville and near the city of Valencia in Arab times.

In the New World, cochineal was first cultivated commercially in the region of Oaxaca. Here was a different insect, Dactylopius coccus, and a different host, the nopal, a species of cactus of the Opuntia genus, very similar to Opuntia indica, the so-called Barbary fig or prickly pear. This dye was produced in Mexico in pre-Columbian times, when it was known as nochezli, but under the Spanish its production was commercialized and it rapidly became a valuable export to Europe, with Seville the great cochineal mar­ket for the European textile industry. This is a fascinat­ing example of how an ancient staple of the eastern luxury trade was replaced by a New World substitute.

Sugar was the earliest cash crop grown in the New World. Columbus brought sugarcane to the West Indies on his second voyage, as well as other Old World plants, in order to see how they would thrive in the new environment. Lettuce didn't do very well, but the sugar germinated in only seven days. Obviously Columbus was thinking of the prosperous sugar plantations on the Atlantic islands, and it has even been suggested that it was the search for new "sugar islands" that led to Atlantic exploration in the first place. This is probably an exaggeration, but the importance of sugar in the 15th and 16th centuries was great and growing; sugar was still a great luxury and very expensive.

The extensive sugar plantations of Andalusia, espe­cially around Motril, had been particularly productive in the 14th and 15th centuries, but with the fall of Gra­nada and the emigration of the moriscos, production had declined. So did Mamluk sugar production as the 15th century drew to a close. The Genoese-financed plantations in the Canaries and Madeira thus had a ready market. The earliest producer was the Canaries, and the system of plantations, irrigation, mills, refineries and slave labor elaborated there provided the prototype for the West Indies' sugar industry in the early 16th century.

Zuazo introduced sugar production to Hispaniola in 1517. Mills and refineries - ingenios - were set up with the help of experts brought from the Canaries; the technology was that developed over the centuries in Islamic lands. Hispaniola had a great advantage over Andalusia, the Maghrib and the Canaries in that there was plenty of fuel, which sugar-making required in quantity. Indeed, it is possible that one reason for the decline of sugar production in the Levant had been the deforestation that resulted from the fuel demand of the sugar vats. The problem of labor was solved in Hispaniola by importing black slaves from West Africa, sowing the seeds of a revul­sion against sugar production that still today effec­tively proscribes the industry from certain Caribbean islands where it could be successful.

With the introduction of the sugar industry to the New World, another product that had traditionally been a virtual Muslim monopoly was now being pro­duced in a new environment outside the Muslim world. In that sense, the New World was in effect being transformed into the Indies that Columbus had imagined that he found.

 Historian and Arabist Paul Lunde, author of the whole issue of Aramco World , is a frequent Contributor to the magazines with some 50 articles to his credit over the past two decades, including special multi-article sections on Arabic-language printing and the history of the Silk Roads. His immediate research for this issue was carried out in Seville, Rome, London and Cambridge, and he wrote from his base in Seville’s Barrio do Santa Cruz, a stone’s throw from the city’s cathedral—once a mosque—and from Alcázares Resales, the Moorish palace complex that remains today one of the residences of Spain’s Christian kings.

This article appeared on pages 38-41 of the May/June 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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