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A Summary Judgment under the the Moorish Kings of Grenada

A Judgment Rendered

Recall that the age of exploration was in many ways a result of the re-conquest of Spain and Portugal from Muslim rule. In the painting above the 19th century French orientalist Regnault imagines a fearsome ‘Moorish king’ from North Africa who ruled the Spanish city of Grenada through violence. In the Middle Ages ‘Moor’ became a catch all term for Muslims and was applied indiscriminately to Turks, Arabs, and North African Berbers. The city of Granada was first occupied by Muslims in when the Umayyad dynast conquered much of the Iberia 711, and last Muslim ruler surrendered to the Castilians in 1492, almost eight hundred years later!
The summary execution depicted above reflects what many 19th century Europeans thought life under Muslim rule must have been like. We have no evidence that the execution depicted in this painting ever took place. It is very likely that he painting does not represent a fifteenth century fact, but rather a 19th opinion about ‘Moors’.
When Regnault painted his summary execution in 1870, Spain had long ago freed itself from Muslim rule and absorbed its remaining Muslim population through compulsory conversion. The vast Spanish empire had all but vanished, as France and England expanded their global presence. The Saharan World was a critical theater for the new imperial powerhouses. Both France and England sought moral justifications for their conquests of Muslim lands in Africa by drawing on the earlier tropes of Eastern Barbarism. We can see this in Regnault’s ‘recollection’ of the execution. If Islamic law was arbitrary, brutal and unenlightened then the colonialism would bring rationalism and justice.
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Making Enemies

France’s colonial exploits in the Saharan World began in Algeria, which was under Turkish rule in the early 19th century. On April 28th, 1827 the Turkish appointed governor of Algeria, Dey Husain, slapped a minor French diplomat named Pierre Duval with a fly whisk, because he refused to answer questions about a longstanding French debt. A fly whisk is essentially a fly swatter: a bundle of feathers or horse hair at the end of a rod. The French king, Charles X, was quite unpopular at the time. He capitalized on the Dey’s outburst by insisting that the slap was an insult to French honor. His claim resonated with the French people in part because the Dey was a ‘Moor’. Even though as a governor the Dey held a higher political office than the consul he struck, he was considered racially and culturally inferior in the eyes of the French.
This was the pretext for the French conquest of Algeria. It is a rather flimsy excuse for a war of conquest, and it may not have even been possible outside of a context informed by orientalism. The French conquest of Algeria was bloody. The image above this section depicts the decapitation of Algerian militants ordered by Colonel Lucien de Montagnac. By 1834 France had formally annexed and occupied portions of Algeria and appointed a colonial governor to oversee its administration. France’s effort to incorporate Algeria into its empire met resistance, and Algeria won its independence in 1962.
As the colonial government ruled Arab and Berber subjects, and fought pockets of resistance it created a body of knowledge about its allies, subjects and enemies around the Sahara. In many cases this new knowledge about the various indigenous Muslims the French encountered in the Sahara conformed to earlier ideas about Arab barbarity and cruelty. The colonial officers imagined that their new ‘Moorish’ enemies were fierce and savage just like the ‘Moors’ who occupied medieval Iberia.
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The Moorish Warrior - William Merritt Chase 1876

Worthy Foes

But to say that Westerners only thought about the people of the Orient as inferiors is an oversimplification of orientalism. They also thought of their enemies as tough and cunning. As strange as it may seem, colonial officers needed their enemies to be both. By fighting worthy opponents, like the nomadic warriors of the Sahara, officers were able to distinguish themselves as solders. Stressing the savagery of their enemy legitimized the act of conquest.