Antonio de Sosa’s Moors/Moros in ‘Topography of Algiers’

othelloIn Covarrubia’s seventeenth century dictionary Tesoro de La Lengua Castellana O Española, moro (from the Latin Maurus) is defined as “one from the province of Mauritania.” The term is meant to be used pejoratively as in the proverb, “A Moro muerto, gran lanzada” (p.1150). The Real Academia Española offers more than eleven definitions, including the natural border of North Africa and Spain; one who professes the religion of Islam; a Muslim who lived in Spain from the eighth to the fifteenth century; a black mare with a star on the forehead and shoes on one or two limbs; Muslims of Mindanoa and Malaysia; etc. In the Oxford English Dictionary, moor is defined as “originally a native or inhabitant of ancient Mauretania” and “later usually a member of a Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent inhabiting north-western Africa (now mainly present-day Mauritania), who in the eighth century conquered Spain.”

In An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam: Antonio de Sosa’s Topography of Algiers (1612), Sosa devotes an entire chapter—“The Inhabitants and Neighbors of Algiers”—to defining the “Moor” as a category of people among other inhabitants in Algiers, including Jews, Turks and Christians. The rest of the text, however, does not always use the term in the same way; rather, its usage reveals and reproduces the conflation of race, ethnicity and religion in the early modern period.

Sosa defines four types of Moors distinguished by their history, physical characteristics and class. Here, “Moor” signifies both race and ethnicity including body type and skin color as well as language, religion, history and customs. The Baldi, or city natives not required to pay taxes, are people of wealth and described as partly white, partly tan. Their women are “white and good in figure” and thus beautiful. The second type are Kabyle from the mountains surrounding Algiers. These Moors are “ancient and natural Africans” who are “generally brown, some white and not badly proportioned.” Unlike the Baldi, they are poor and often serve Turks and other rich Moors. Their women are white and the men are considered to make good soldiers. Sosa notes that the Zwawa are a group among the Kabyles who wear a tattoo of the cross and claim to be sons and daughters of Christians since the time of the Goths and Vandals. He does not interrogate further, however, what this might mean for the Islam of the Moor (or the Christianity of the African). The third type are Bedouins who Sosa describes as the worst of the Moors. They beg and are physically ugly, very dark brown in color, and “extremely dirty pigs.” These Moors “conquered Africa and even almost all of Spain” (p.122).

220px-Tesoro_CovarrubiasFinally, those who were born in Spain or have roots in Spain are considered to be the fourth type. They are “white and well-proportioned” and “the cruelest enemies of us Christians.” He further divides these moriscos (1) into two castes—the Mudejares from Granada and Andalucia and the Tagarinos from Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia. With this final type, shared faith and language trumps shared history and geographical origins for Sosa. At once, Sosa recognizes their ties to Spain and yet denies their possible ethno-racial sameness.  His inclusion of the exiles as Moors, however, reveals that his attempt to define the Moor as an ethno-racial category essentially arising from Africa is problematic.

Sosa also uses the term “Moor” interchangeably with Muslim, Arab, Berber and African. The first time the word Moor appears in the Topography is in reference to Leo Africanus. Sosa disagrees with Leo Africanus’ origin story of Algiers as a city founded by Africans and proceeds to contrast this “Moorish author” with others like Strabo, Pliny, and Ptolemy who make the case for the Roman origins of Iol Caesarea (p.93).2  In another instance, when first describing the takeover of Bejaia and Oran, Sosa describes the inhabitants as Arabs and then later “Count Pedro Navarro seized the cities from the Moors” (p. 100).

In other parts of the text, Sosa uses the term Moor as a distinct category separate from Turks, Jews, Arabs, Berbers, Muslims, and renegades. For example, when describing how taxes were collected, Sosa says that the Turks “collect tribute from Arabs and Moors” as if they are two distinct categories in the same way that he notes that “Berbers and Moors do not pay tribute” (p.121, 129, 141). On the other hand, he sometimes uses the term “Muslim” to refer to “Moor” when being distinguished from powerful and sophisticated Turks.

Finally, for Sosa, ethno-racial elements of “the Moor” supersede religious conviction particularly when he contrasts them with the renegades (i.e., European Christians who converted to Islam).  It is at these points in the text when it is clear that religion–specifically Islam–is believed to be intrinsically tied to blood, and that Sosa has conflated religion with ethnicity and race.  In this paradigm, a Christian European’s conversion to Islam could never be a complete conversion of faith and theological commitment.

moor%20arabiaThus, he states unequivocally that Christians are not to be considered “inhabitants nor neighbors” of Algiers although “there is an infinite number of them” because they arrived as captured slaves or visiting merchants (p.119). When Sosa notes that “renegades and their children outnumber Muslims, Turks and Jews,” Sosa clearly does not consider renegades to be true Muslims.  He acknowledges the renegades’ ethno-racial identity by distinguishing them from Muslims without recognizing their shared religion—because here, “Muslim” is a racialized category which can be understood as “Moor” (p.125).

Sosa says, “Few are the renegades who are truly Moors or Turks” although he writes earlier that renegades are “Turks by profession” and describes the renegade after circumcision as “the new Turk OR Muslim” (p.228).  At the same time, there is evidence from Sosa’s observations that the renegades were recognized as Muslims by other Muslims as demonstrated by the statement, “They [Muslims] consider it a grave sin to eat an animal or bird that has not had its throat cut by a Moor, Turk or renegade” (p. 217).  For the Muslim, the permissibility of meat ritually slaughtered according to Islamic law is not dependent on the ethno-racial origins of the butcher.  In this moment of observation of an Islamic ritual, Sosa shows that the Moor, Turk and renegade were considered within the same community of faith.

The early modern Spanish discourse on blood purity strongly impacted the theological and political acceptance and rejection of
Christian converts.  It also, undoubtedly, shaped the way the term Moor both obscured the historical and racial divergences of Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, Mediterranean and Africa by confining Islam to racial origins.  Sosa’s imprecision regarding the use of the term “Moor” reflects how Muslims were imagined as racialized and foreign in this period.  Finally, Sosa’s ethnography underscores a colonialist project that would continue expanding in the Americas, Africa and Asia during the early modern period and onward.  Although the impulse to define the Moor does not result in a neat control of this problematic identity, the category is functionally elastic enough to encompass a wide range of colonized subjects—including historical exiles from the colonial center.3

1.  After the official exile of Muslims and Jews from Spain, those Muslims who remained and converted to Christianity were referred to as moriscos or “little moors.”

2.  By establishing a historical legacy of Roman origins rather than African origins of an important Mediterranean city is significant for a number of reasons.  In terms of race thinking, it affirms the narrative of racial hierarchies and potential.

3.  Anthony Pagden similarly explores how 16th and 17th century Europeans theologically and politically defined and categorized New World communities in efforts to properly manage their newly acquired lands. In Citizen and Subject, Mahmood Mamdani explores later developments of colonialism in Africa in the 19th century and argues that tribal, ethno-racial categories and customary law were useful for “management” purposes.

About Sahar Ullah

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature and a Literature Humanities Preceptor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She is currently completing her dissertation on the continuities and transformation of the amatory prelude in thepost-classical Prophetic Encomia.

One thought on “Antonio de Sosa’s Moors/Moros in ‘Topography of Algiers’

  1. Thank you for your well researched article. Interesting information with regard to the change in usage of the words Moors, Arabs, Berbers, etc. by a Portuguese individual in that period. Remarkable that he mentions the people later European colonialist painters refer to as “Arabian” or “Arab bedouin” as the “Moors” that in particular conquered Spain.

    Also to be noted is where Sosa maintains the formerly Christian renegades outnumbered the other Muslims, Turks and Jews in Algiers. Correlates with the mention by Robert Brown in his translation of History and Description of Africa by Leo Africanus of the “endless” number of Europeans turned Muslim or renegade that had come and were present in the Maghreb in general.

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