Spanish racial identity in 1492, when Columbus arrived in the Americas, was in its early stages. Most people in Spain did not yet clearly think of themselves as white – even though they had been ruled by darker-skinned Moors from Africa for hundreds of years! Yet it was from this very time and place that Western ideas of race got their start.

In the 700s Spain fell under Arab Muslim rule. They came to be known as Moors. Most were from northern Africa and were generally darker. In Shakespeare they can be “tawny”, even “coal-black”.

  • The Moors were not racists, so skin colour was not a big deal.
  • The Moors allowed people to practise their own religion – so much so that Jews prospered under their rule, becoming important in the arts, scholarship, banking and trade.

The Christian kings in the north took back Spain bit by bit – the Reconquista.

In 1492 they overthrew the last of the Moors in Spain.

These Christian kings were religious zealots. They thought everyone should be Catholic. Everyone. You either converted or left. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Moors converted, some by force. Those who did not convert were forced out.

Notice: Everyone should be the same – and should be punished if they are not.

Converted Moors kept their culture. Many sank to the bottom of Spanish society, becoming labourers.

Converted Jews remained important in business, banking and so on. They were blocked from certain professions – despite converting to Catholicism.

Some converted Jews were accused of secretly practising their old Jewish faith. They were brought before the Inquisition where their behaviour and family tree were closely examined to determine if they were Secret Jews.

The Catholic Church offered, for a fee, a certificate of Limpieza de Sangre – purity of blood. Even some whose families had never been Jewish got one as protection against the Inquisition.

Notice: Ideas of what we would call racial taint – though not yet the idea that such taint can be judged by physical appearance.

Most Moors and Jews who converted were accepted as Catholics in good standing and remained so, at least till the 1600s. Yet you had the beginnings of a caste system based on purity of blood lines, blood lines which the Spanish called raza, from their word for breeding stock of horses.

In the 1500s the Spanish stereotyped the native peoples of the Americas by their raza as “Indians” but still used their religion (or apparent lack thereof) as an excuse for policy.

By the late 1500s, raza had become the word “race” in English.

By the 1700s Western thinkers of the Enlightenment divided the world into a handful of races. They used race, not religion, to excuse genocide and slavery.

Montesquieu in 1748 tells us why, here speaking about black slaves as a white Christian:

It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.

Originally posted: Spanish racial identity in 1492