How the Specter of Islam Fueled European Colonization in the Americas

December 17, 2020

In the following article that appears in today’s Literary Hub, Alan Mikhail, professor of history and chair of the Department of History at Yale University, considers the historical ripples of Islamophobia.

As every schoolchild learns, Columbus set sail with India on his mind’s horizon. Rarely, though, do schoolchildren learn why Columbus sought to cross the Atlantic. Hoping for an alliance with the Grand Khan of the East, he aimed to retake Jerusalem and destroy Islam; more prosaically, his voyages promised an end run around the trade monopolies of the Ottomans and the Mamluks. And when Columbus arrived in the Americas, fresh from the battle which marked Spain’s final defeat of the Muslim kingdom of Granada, he saw—or, more accurately, imagined—Muslims everywhere. Spanish conquistadors would claim to see mosques in Mexico, American Indians wearing “Moorish” clothing and performing “Moorish” dances, Turks invading New Spain from the Pacific, and West African slaves attempting to convert America’s indigenous peoples to Islam. Filtering their experiences in the Americas through the lens of their wars with Muslims, Europeans in the New World engaged in a new version of their very old Crusades, a new kind of Catholic jihad. Long after the many Matamoros—Moor-slayers—who sailed to the Americas aboard Columbus’s ships were dead themselves, Islam would continue to forge the histories of both Europe and the New World and the relationship between the two.

On either side of the unambiguous watershed represented by the year 1492, Islam endured as Europe’s primary obsession, its perennial rival and major cultural “other”—a spur of innovative historical change as well as an enemy on the battlefield. Throughout the 17th century and into the 18th, Europe remained far more concerned about the Ottomans and Islam than about the lands across the Atlantic. Remarkable, in fact, is the apparent lack of interest in the Americas among most Europeans. Spain’s Charles V, for example—the leader most responsible for his empire’s enormous expansion in the New World—uttered not a word about the Americas in his memoirs. What obsessed him were the Ottoman advances in Europe and his fears about the growing weakness of Christianity vis-à-vis Islam. 16th-century France produced twice as many books about Islam as it did about the Americas and Africa combined. Overall, between 1480 and 1609, Europe published four times more works about the Muslim world than about the Americas. This disparity only increased over the course of the 17th century.

Following the lead of their Spanish predecessors in the New World, the British, a century later, initially understood American Indians through their own history of encounters with Muslims in Europe and the Mediterranean. Before it ever set sail across the Atlantic, that quintessential symbol of British arrival in North America, the Mayflower, had begun its seafaring life trading with Muslims in the Mediterranean. And before he crossed the Atlantic, John Smith, the founder of Jamestown in 1607, spent several swashbuckling years helping to beat back the Ottomans in Hungary and Wallachia (now part of Romania). The Ottomans captured him in 1602 and held him enslaved for two years before he managed to escape.

Later, when he became Admiral of New England, Smith named three islands across from Cape Cod “the three Turkes heads,” and he dubbed what is today Cape Ann “Cape Tragabigzanda,” after a young woman with whom he had fallen in love while serving her family as a slave. Smith’s personal coat of arms—like the one Melchor de Castro drew up after the 1521 Wolof Rebellion in Hispaniola—featured the severed heads of three Turks he had supposedly killed while fighting in eastern Europe. “The lamentable noise of the miserable slaughtered Turkes,” he wrote, “was most wonderfull to heare.” In addition to his account of his travels around the Mediterranean and works on Virginia and New England, Smith produced the first map of Virginia, with his coat of arms proudly displayed in the bottom right corner. Thus, more than a century after Piri Reis drew the first world map to join the Americas to the Old World, the Ottomans appeared yet again—in very different circumstances—on one of the first maps of North America. Beneath the three heads on his crest, Smith emblazoned his favorite Latin dictum: Vincere est vivere (To conquer is to live).

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