Spain stands small in the Canadian imagination. As a romantic place for a vacation, a setting for Hemingway or Orwell, the backdrop for Charlton Heston's cardboard El Cid, it surely exists. But as a place where anything important ever actually happened, it usually escapes attention. Yet Spain in 1492 was pivotal to what is now called Europe and to the Eurocentric view. Various people left Spain that year. Christopher Columbus and his sailors set out for Asia, found America and the rest, as they say, is history. Others departed as well. They included the Jews who were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella and whose confiscated property helped fund, among other things, the voyage of Columbus. Finally, the Christian reconquest of Granada over which the Moors had held sovereignty for eight centuries, assured that another expulsion would not be long in coming.
Erna Paris will never be mistaken for an historical scholar but she tells a gripping tale. She writes of the remarkable culture of Spain under the Moors (the Muslims who first entered in force in 711). The brutal Visigoths were sent packing and for half a millennium, Islam, Judaism and Christianity lived in relative harmony. Spain was prosperous, politically stable and ruled by leaders who loved learning. Aristotle re-entered Europe through Moorish translations and such great scholars as Ibn Rushd (Averr?es) and Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) - though admittedly ahead of their time even in liberal Spain - achieved a synthesis of religion and rationalism that would remain heretical to the faithful elsewhere for centuries.
Why did it all fall apart? Paris' answer lacks theoretical coherence but she describes a combination of political expediency, greed, bigotry, class tensions and an emerging nationalism that allowed Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to win power, money, ideological supremacy, ethnic cleansing and control of what Paris advisedly calls the “first fascist state.” Though remote, the connections to our own lives are clear. As Paris insists, “it is nonsensical to read ... that the brief regnum of Adolf Hitler (1933 - 1945) was an anomaly.” If anything, Muslim Spain was the exception to a rule that was crudely restored by the Spanish Inquisition, a monstrous exercise of terror created by Isabella and Ferdinand, formally abolished only in 1834, and removed in spirit (for now) with the death of Franco in 1975.
As for “the rest is history,” Spain is mentioned but thrice in Noam Chomsky's book about the 500 years since Columbus began the conquest of the “new world”. Others have taken up the burden. A series of imperialisms culminate in global power used (when convenient) by the U.S.A.
Chomsky, too, will never be mistaken for an historical scholar. No matter; his fame as a linguistic philosopher is assured. In 501, though, he might be taken for a prosecutor (though not a Grand Inquisitor). His thesis is compelling. Just as the Jews (and soon the Moors and others) were the domestic victims of the Spanish Inquisition, so the Arawak Indians of the island of Hispaniola were the first of many external victims of its close relatives, European racism and imperialism.
As we watch countries fall to chauvinism and dissolve in civil war, and as we hear ominously of the New World Order, we might gain perspective by reading these passionate accounts of what happened before and after 1492.
Howard A. Doughty is Editor of The College Quarterly.