Today in European history: the “Reconquista” ends (1492)

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January 2, 1492, was the official end-date of the cleverly-named Reconquista, as it is the date upon which the last Muslim hold-out in Iberia, the city of Granada, was formally handed over to Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. While this obviously is a date of significant historical import, it’s also a little anti-climactic. All the terms of Granada’s surrender were negotiated in November, 1491, in the Treaty of Granada, which ended the 1482-1491 Granada War.

This 1790 work by Spanish painter Antonio Rodríguez shows Ferdinand and Isabella receiving ambassadors from Fez; I don’t know when it’s supposed to have taken place but it conveys the right impression (Wikimedia Commons)

Especially considering that the Granadans had just suffered a complete military defeat, the Treaty of Granada was pretty generous in terms of the religious protections it offered to the newest Muslim subjects of the Kingdom of Castile (we’re not quite at the point where we can talk about “Spain” just yet). Granadan Muslims were free to leave if they wanted, but those who stayed were promised the freedom to practice their religion unmolested. Of course with hindsight it’s easy to say those protections wouldn’t last very long, as indeed they did not. But it’s also easy to understand why, in the moment, many Granadans (estimated at around 200,000 of them) opted to remain where they were despite the change in rulers. Most Granadans were thoroughly Iberian and had never known any other home, for one thing, and for another thing packing up and going someplace else (North Africa, most likely) was expensive. Sure, Granada’s Nasrid ruling family and its nobility could afford to relocate, but the average Granadan could not. At best, moving would’ve meant winding up penniless in a completely alien land. Naturally that wasn’t an appealing prospect.

A few years after the Nasrids fled to North Africa, the soon-to-be-Spaniards followed. Portugal had already blazed this trail, conquering the Moroccan city of Ceuta (which now belongs to Spain) in 1415 and then attempting to conquer Tangier in 1437. Over the next few decades after 1492, Spanish forces captured the city of Melilla (still Spanish today) in 1497, the Algerian city of Oran in 1509, the Algerian city of Béjaïa and the Libyan city of Tripoli in 1510, and the Tunisian island of Djerba in 1521. Apart from Melilla, all of these conquests were lost to the Ottomans, who suddenly (and not coincidentally) took a newfound interest in North Africa, by the end of the 16th century

Apart from putting the cap on the Reconquista, in itself important, the surrender of Granada and the consolidation of all of what would become modern Spain gave Ferdinand and Isabella the opportunity to consider a new and particularly ambitious project: the search for a sea route to the Far East that could bypass both Ottoman control over the eastern Mediterranean and Portuguese control over the “around Africa” route. We all know where that led.