Spanish History, 101

Posted on September 14, 2017


I first went to Spain in the late summer of 1964, sent by the USN as a newly minted Ensign to join my ship then in the Sixth Fleet. I landed in Rota, across the bay from the more famous city of Cadiz, and lingered there a few days waiting for a flight, first to Naples, and then on to Malta where my ship, the USS Donner (LSD 20) was anchored in the ancient harbor of Valetta.

I have returned to Spain frequently since then and I like the people and the land. That I speak Spanish fluently from having grown up in South America probably helps. While I look like a gringo, I speak like a Peruvian, or some suggest a Cuban or Mexican, and it throws a bit of humorous drama in my encounters with Spaniards.

My first long residence in Spain was in 1970-71 when I lived in Seville while researching for my dissertation in history at the Archive of the Indies. I remember seeing plaques and signs carried by demonstrators downtown with something like “Franco sí, ETA no!”

ETA I learned were the initials for Basque separatists who wanted a Basque/Catalan republic separate from Spain, while Franco was, of course, the great caudillo/dictator of Spain in the mid-twentieth century, General Francisco Franco.

Occasionally over the years I heard of ETA separatists throwing bombs and setting off explosions to make sure their voice was still heard.

That the latest round of violence took place in Barcelona, in the province of Catalonia, was not too surprising. I thought for a moment that the old ETA terrorists, or nationalists depending on your point of view, were at it again, but I suspected it was different this time. It was.

As I write, a Moroccan holding dual Spanish/Moroccan citizenship is under suspicion of driving the murdering rampage a few days ago. He was not an ETA terrorist. He was a jihadist, a Muslim infected with the desire to destroy Christians and establish Muslim rule.

Spain was really the first European “country” or what was left of the old Roman Empire to be invaded by Muslim armies. In 711 A.D.—less than a hundred years after Muhammad preached and taught in Arabia—Muslims from North Africa, known as Moors in Spain, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and continued with the advance of Islam from North Africa into Europe proper. I remember steaming out through the Straits in late 1964 as my ship left the Med to return to our homeport in Little Creek, Virginia.

I was thrilled, as a budding historian to be, to be passing through these storied Straits, the Pillars of Hercules so called by ancient Romans and Greeks, Europe to my starboard side, Africa to port.

The Moorish invasion of Europe through Spain reached all the way into southern France before a Christian army led by Charles Martell stopped the Moors at the Battle of Tours. They returned to Hispania, as Spain was called by the Romans, and consolidated their hold on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal today). Then about the year 1000 A.D. a small number of Christian kingdoms in the far north of Spain that had survived the Moorish invasion began what eventually came to be called the Reconquest in Spanish history.

It lasted until 1492 when the last Moorish kingdom in Iberia, Granada, fell to the combined Christian armies of Queen Isabel of Castile and her husband King Ferdinand of Aragon.

The Moors of Spain, always suspect of possible treason and subversion in a rapidly uniting modern Spain under Isabel and Ferdinand, were given a choice in 1502: conversion or exile. While Christianity and Islam had co-existed in some peace, in some places of Spain, hundreds of years before 1492, the Christian Church militant was not disposed to tolerate a continuing Muslim threat to Christianity and Western culture in their midst.

Most Moors left, but a few converted and became the conversos of Spain, Christians in name but always suspect and hounded into either true conversion by the Inquisition or forced off Christian Spain.

In the face of modern radical Islam, whose goal is to destroy Christianity and establish a Muslim state of the world, it is instructive to draw on history for some lessons, although history today is being battered around by various ideologues in this country.

Europe today may be pusillanimous in dealing with the threat to her culture, her languages, her ideals, and even among a dwindling Christian population today, her religion, but it was not always that way.

Published as “In the Face of Radical Islam, History offers Instruction,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday August 20, 2017.