Posted on February 23, 2020


In recent years some of the most popular history books have focused on one year. Bill Bryson’s 1927 is a good example, and a super read. The stories of Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, and others not only are entertaining, but one also learns about our America.

Winston Groom’s 1942 follows America’s entry into and early reverses, and catastrophes really, in World War II. No one, for example, really thought the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor.

Our cryptologists had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and were reading traffic from Tokyo to her embassies and diplomats all over the world. American strategists knew the Japanese were going to attack but not where.

War planners in the late 1930s had posited that possible scenario, but as December 1941 approached everyone was focused on Japanese targets in the far Pacific.

Surprise! Dec. 7, 1941 set the stage for much of what went on in 1942. Read the book.

Now, slide back more than 500 years to 1502. The big news, in retrospect, was coming from the voyages of exploration of the great mariners of the age, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alvares Cabral. Columbus set out in May on his fourth and last voyage to the New World, discovering Central America, shipwrecking on Jamaica, continuing his odyssey set off by his historic first voyage of 1492.

Vasco da Gama sailed from Portugal on his second voyage to India. Ready or not, here came the Europeans with high ambitions and powerful fighting ships. The East would never be the same again.

Cabral discovered Rio de Janeiro and set the stage for the Portuguese exploration and settlement of Brazil. Today more than half the people of South America speak Portuguese, descendants of that legacy.

And in February, 1502, Isabela of Castile, prompted by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, a Franciscan friar demanding reform and orthodoxy among the Catholic clergy and faithful, issued a series of edicts forcing the Muslims remaining in Spain to be baptized and accept Christianity or go into exile.

Arguably, we are still fighting the wars that Christians and Muslims waged more than five centuries ago to determine whether Christianity or Islam would dominate in Iberia, the old Roman name for Spain and Portugal.

But, unlike what is happening in Syria, Iraq and Iran today, where radical Islam is still simmering just below the surface, in the Spain of Isabela the expulsion of the Moors (Muslims in Spain) in 1502 was swift and the execution inexorable. It was, in fact, the culmination of the long wars of Reconquest.

In 711 Moors from Africa invaded Iberia. They crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, conquered almost all of Spain and forced the Christian culture of Spain to submit to Islam. A few small Christian kingdoms that survived the Moorish conquest began a war to expel the Moors around 1000 A.D. and this Reconquest culminated with the siege and capture of the final Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492.

In 1502, given the choice of exile or conversion many Moors chose conversion, but their conversions were often just of convenience and they continued to worship as Moors in secret. Presto, the Spanish had an answer to that form of apostasy as well, the Inquisition. It had been created by the Papacy, but the Spanish adapted it to root out heresies and demand orthodoxy among all Spaniards.

The story is not so simple. Modern scholarship has shown that intolerance does not run consistently through the history of Spain, and in fact Stuart B. Schwartz’s study, All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (2008), concludes precisely that. But “that” is the stuff of a good colloquium or seminar for which we do not have time or space.

Our time machine took us back in 1502 for a moment, when Christianity and Islam were at odds, and Spanish Catholicism’s intolerance extended to the Jews as well who were given the same choice in 1492: conversion or exile.

Moors and Christians were not always warring during the long Reconquest and today the Spanish are rediscovering how the two faiths actually lived side by side in peace for almost as many years as they were at war.

There are rich lessons in every year of our history. 1502 holds many for us. Perhaps Winston Groom or Bill Bryson will turn next to the task. They will need to brush up on a few languages, like Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Latin and probably a few others to get the real flavor of the era.

Buena suerte, or Bittawfeeq بالتوفيق ,

Pubished as “Year 1502 holds many rich lessons,” Sunday Feb. 8, 2020 in The Tuscaloosa News.

Posted in: History