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Oliver Otis Howard

Moors of Spain

"And shall we leave, from age to age,

To godless hands the Holy Tomb?

Against Thy saints the heathen rage

Launch forth Thy lightnings, and consumer!"


The Moors of Spain—The War (A.D. 1481)—How Isabella Prepared for It—Reorganization—How Muley Aben Hassan Hastened the Outbreak—The Surprise of Zahara by Moors—Spaniards' Attack upon Alhama—The Marquis of Cadiz—How the City was Sacked—Muley Aben Hassan's Siege—Guzman's Relief and Reconciliation to the Marquis of Cadiz—Meeting at Seville—Advice to Abandon Alhama—How Isabella Met It.

Christian nations, so called, and those which followed Mahomet, have for ages been arrayed against each other. Practically both have resorted to arms to further the desire of propagating their doctrines, or of extending their domain; so that, along with the teachings of our Saviour which the adherents of Rome in some form brought to the people of Europe, here was always a speedy appeal to arms, either to preserve a dynasty or to conquer new lands, wresting them from the common enemies of Christianity. Mahomet's disciples were even fiercer than their foes, and for a while as persistent as they in similar efforts. Under the name of Moors they once overran all Spain and a great stretch of land beyond the Pyrenees. Little by little Christian princes, separately and in combination, had been pushing back the Moors, across the mountains and down the peninsula. In the middle of the fifteenth century, when Isabella of Castile was born, this remarkable people, so cruel in their hates and yet so abundantly successful in the arts of peace, had been constrained within the country of Granada. It was a kingdom which Irving pictures by a single sentence as "in the southern part of Spain, bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, and defended on the land side by lofty and rugged mountains, locking up within their embraces deep, rich, and verdant valleys, where the sterility of the surrounding heights was repaid by prodigal fertility." The central city, Granada, in the midst of the largest and most productive plain or rolling prairie, was already most famous. It was really the citadel of a vast fortification, where the Ronda, the Segura, the Nevada, and the Alpujarras mountain ranges presented grand and substantial faces and flanks. Isa bella, and, in fact, the inhabitants of Castile and Leon generally, had inherited that spirit of the Crusades that made it seem to them an imperative duty to regain from the Moors all the portion of Spain which they still held. Isabella never doubted this constraining spirit. Her ancestors, almost without exception, had driven the infidel southward from their limits.

As De Nervo phrases it, "Toledo, Seville, Cordova had successively opened their gates, and the flag of Castile was already floating above their mosques," when Isabella in her turn, catching up this grand idea of reclamation, cast her eyes upon the last realm which the infidels were holding, the last in all Spain; and she strongly wished to be the instrument which should complete the great work by the conquest of Granada. Her purpose had never changed. It was in the marriage contract. It appeared in her official conferences with Ferdinand and others. It seemed to be known in the halls of justice, in the reorganization of her forces, in her unyielding aim to bring about more centralized power, in her perfecting the Hermandad, and in subordinating to her authority the Church officials and the great orders of her realm. The purging her provinces from the disaffected and the rebellious was only stripping for the race. Those most hateful and troublesome conflicts for the succession but revealed weak points to be repaired, and showed the want of arms, ammunition, and other supplies to be purchased or created, all and ever with a sole view to the accomplishment of this most holy, most glorious work of her life and that of her husband—the extension of their sway to the Mediterranean, and the transfer of all the territory then under the Crescent to the Holy Cross.

Isabella had not finished the troublesome civil struggle before the new war, like a black cloud, began to darken the southern sky. As we have seen, she had reorganized her court and all that pertained to the civil functions of Castile.

With Ferdinand to help, and certainly in this with more than his wonted zeal, she proceeded to make an army. The habit of the rank and file electing their captains so much prevailed up to this period that these leaders, often, it is true, the bravest and best of the lords, controlled the coming and going of their forces. The whole army was indeed but a fairly well-regulated militia, upon which, as the trial showed, Isabella could not depend in emergencies with any reasonable certainty.

As the idea grew upon her that she and her consort were destined to bring about a "total expulsion of the Mussulman" from the peninsula, she worked effectively to unify and consolidate her authority. She became, in fact, the commander-in-chief. To her artillery, rude as it yet was, she gave much attention, and as far as was possible, little by little, she made herself felt in the cavalry and infantry arms, and it was not long before Ferdinand became in fact, as well as in name, the senior general of her forces, with an army that had some coherence and that she through him could handle at will.

The immediate, ostensible cause of a war with Granada arose from the old king, Muley Aben Hassan, refusing to pay the large annual tribute to which his predecessor had agreed by formal treaty. Irving gives a graphic account of the visit of the haughty. Christian knight, Juan de Vera, to the proud king in his palace at Granada, preferring the demand for the tribute, which Muley Aben Hassan had of late willfully neglected to pay.

"Tell your sovereign," said the fierce old Moor, "that the kings of Granada who used to pay tribute in money to the Castilian crown are dead. Our mint at present coins nothing but blades of cimeters and heads of lances."

This Spanish embassy was sent in 1478; but till the contest with Portugal had been fully concluded, it would have been impossible to enforce by arms the demand which had received so bitter and contemptuous a refusal.

Finally, three years after, the war began (in 1481). Though Isabella had already made abundant preparations for the conquest, and Ferdinand at Medina del Campo had partly revealed his plans to his subordinate commanders when he said, "I will pick up the seeds one by one of these pomegranates" (Granada), it was left to the enterprising Muley Aben Hassan to make the first advance and attack of the war.

The first blow came upon the strongest frontier post along the border, Zahara, situated on the mountain road from Medina Sidonia to Ronda. The strength of the place, like a fort cut in solid rock with perilous approaches, had induced a fatal carelessness on the part of the commander, Hernandez de Saavedra, so that Muley Aben Hassan, with a large force, was able at night to surprise the garrison and put the most of it to the sword. The inhabitants were gathered at the dawn, and without pity marched off to Granada. After repairing all weak points of the works, and giving the place a garrison of Moors, the old king returned to his capital in triumph. This took place just after Christmas in 1481.

It is not difficult to imagine the intense chagrin of Ferdinand and Isabella when the news, with exaggerated horrors, first reached their court at Medina del Campo. It taught them, however, thus early a wholesome lesson, which may be summarized in the common expression, "More than one can play at the game of war." But in this game one can seldom predict the end from the beginning; this very disaster served to unite and inspirit all Spaniards, and begot for them among the Christian nations a wide and deep sympathy. And, strange to say, the potion appeared too strong even for Granada. An old Moorish prophet, on hearing the first tidings, cried in the streets: "Woe! woe to Granada! its hour of desolation approaches. The ruins of Zahara will fall upon our heads! My spirit tells me that the end of our empire is at hand!"

To Muley Aben Hassan's fierce challenge and fiercer action the sovereigns were not slow to respond. They now went into the campaign with all the vigor, energy, and force that they could command. Immediately, before Ferdinand's indignation and disappointment could subside, for he and Isabella had greatly desired to begin the war themselves, the former issued retaliatory instructions. Every Spanish commander along the irregular Moorish frontier was to put himself in readiness, keep a constant vigilance, and expect to rush across the border upon any favorable occasion, in order somehow to compensate quickly the losses already sustained, and procure military advantage by further ravages and slaughter. The first onslaught reached Alhama, a city of the Moors, situated on a mountain road between Granada and Malaga.

The place, with its famous citadel, was naturally capable of the strongest defence. It was renowned for its baths, and had gathered there, as in a safe storehouse, much merchandise; furthermore, it always had a reasonably large garrison of soldiers for its protection.

The Marquis of Cadiz, a typical young noble of that chivalric period, full of ardor and the love of enterprise, was at Marchena when he received the orders of his sovereigns. He promptly sent around to neighboring towns, and soon had gathered a force of some 6000 soldiers, of whom about 3000 were light cavalry. Meanwhile, he had dispatched a trusty and experienced leader, Ortego de Prado, to make a most thorough reconnoissance of the roads and approaches to Alhama. This was completely done. Ortego penetrating the citadel itself, found that the Moors' fancied security in their fastness was so great that even the men of the garrison of the citadel were not exercising the .usual care and vigilance.

The marquis did not wait for Ortega's return. He and the leaders of the expedition, undiscovered, halted their men in a valley near Alhama, and there for the first time the marquis explained to the command what they were to undertake, and seems to have awakened the greatest enthusiasm and universal eagerness on the part of his men to make the desperate assault.

Ortega and his scouts having joined him, his presence as yet unsuspected by the Moors, the marquis hastened to execute his plan. A French writer (the Baron de Nervo) gives the following brief recital: "They arrived at night at the foot of the immense rocks, at the top of which was the citadel. The ladders were at once set up, and thirty men scaled the ramparts, strangled the sentinels, and pushed on into the fort, whose gates they then swung wide open. All the garrison of this fort, caught asleep, were put to the edge of the sword; and, in the morning, when the inhabitants of the city caught sight of the Castilian flag planted upon the ramparts of their fortress, they were paralyzed with terror and astonishment."

The Moors were always fierce warriors, and soon recovered in a measure from their surprise, and attempted a vigorous defence. All—women, old men, and children included—seized arms, and when the Christian soldiers endeavored to enter their streets, already fully barricaded, they found death to meet them "under a shower of stones and projectiles of every sort; they were burned by boiling water, oil, and tar cast upon them from roofs and balconies by the women."

The Castilians, after a hard struggle, were at last (February 28th, 1482) victorious; but the scenes that followed in the path of the victors were replete with horrors. Many of the helpless inhabitants were massacred, and of those that were spared, both men and women were taken and held as the slaves of the haughty conquerors, for this was at that time the favorite custom of cruel war.

The pillage, also, of this rich city was excessive. Lying as it did so far within Muley Aben Hassan's domain, the Spaniards believed that the place must be finally abandoned, so they proceeded to waste and destroy what they could not carry off. They discovered plenty of gold and silver and precious stones; silks, satins, and choice fabrics of divers sorts. There were also in great abundance the usual fruits of that fertile region, tanks of olive oil, grain, and honey.

Perhaps the only palliation for this work of destruction was the finding and setting at liberty of many Christian prisoners, some that had been long in confinement, and some that had been recently penned up in those dreadful dungeons, such as the Moors delighted to keep ready for their captives.

Amid triumphant joy the Marquis of Cadiz, finding a renegade spy, chose a point on the citadel ramparts which was the most conspicuous, and had the man hanged in sight of his army and the Moorish captives.

Very soon, however, thinking of the retaliation that must ensue as soon as the old King of Granada heard the unwelcome news of his daring seizure of Alhama, the marquis turned his attention to his defences. All breaches were repaired, and the fort was properly garrisoned against any possible attack or siege. After the heavy losses incurred in the capture of Alhama, the brave marquis had remaining not to exceed 5000 men, with whom to maintain himself in the enemy's country. He was not kept long in suspense. Muley Aben Hassan, without waiting an instant, at the first breath of the disaster, dispatched r000 light cavalry as an advance. These, however, met such a warm reception from the Spaniards outside of the gates of Alhama, that they rode with precipitation back to the capital, and spread the alarm, "Alhama is fallen! Alhama is fallen!"

It may well be believed there was terror, widespread and not easily curbed or controlled; for the fulfillment of the old Moorish prophet's prediction was indeed already at hand. The fierce old king, however, wasted no time in indulging in useless sentiment or in replies to the frightened. He took with him an army 50,000 strong, but unwisely, in his impulsive haste, without artillery. He had but little of that arm, and was too impatient to delay for the slow moving of heavy guns.

He came upon Alhama so quickly as to stop and turn back, in much disappointment, a re-enforcement of the Andalusians, under Don Alonzo de Aguilar, who had just then approached within a few leagues. He chased Don Alonzo till he was rid of his presence and annoyance, and then with indescribable fury and persistence assailed the city of Alhama. After his assaults, which at each renewal proved vain against his well-prepared and vigilant foe, he resorted at last to every kind of strategic contrivance.

There was but one spring or well of water inside the walls, and this gave an insufficient supply. The people were necessitated to go to the river, which was beyond the city limits, for their daily needs. They effected this without difficulty by an underground passage. Muley Aben Hassan discovered this gallery, and so obstructed it that it was said that "hereafter each drop of water cost a drop of blood."

With the water supply so cut off and provisions failing a famine set in, when even the brave Marquis of Cadiz began to fear that he might be forced to give up his brilliant prize, thus losing the city which had been taken at so much peril. But there came a relief that he had not dreamed of. The wife of the marquis seemed instinctively to have apprehended the imminent straits of her husband, and, strange to say, appealed to one who was powerful enough, but who had long been (and most probably still was) an avowed personal enemy of that husband and all his belongings. It was Don Juan de Guzman, the Duke of Medina Sidonia.

But the woman's tender and strong appeal found in his heart a ready response. Instantly all the past was either forgotten or forgiven, and the relief of the gallant little besieged army was assured to the faithful Marchioness on the spot. The duke drew his warriors from all parts of Andalusia. He assembled his forces at Seville in an incredibly short time, and he soon more than matched the Moorish host in numbers, gathering 5000 horse and 50,000 foot.

Ferdinand, from Medina del Campo, rode night and day to overtake this army and take command; but the enterprising Guzman was too rapid for him. He was indeed beyond the border, far on the way, when the king's desire was made known to him. He sent a message to the effect that it was impossible to stand still, and that the danger of destruction to the besieged was too imminent to admit of an hour's delay. So for a time the disappointed Ferdinand remained behind.

The rapid approach of this great army left no choice to the Moor. With sullen anger, after one more bold attempt wherein he lost seventy of his bravest warriors, the old king retired to Granada. It had been a siege of three short weeks, which had proved to be to his cause worse than useless, and fraught at every step with most cruel losses.

The duke and the marquis, at their first meeting, embraced each other like brothers coming together after alienation and separation, and they soon put Alhama to rights.

They garrisoned the place with the queen's favorite Hermandad, and put a trusty commander, Diego Merlo, in charge; and then marched homeward across the mountains to receive the plaudits of their anxious and waiting friends. Thus spasmodically the Castilians and the Moors made war in those times. To-day an army of 50,000; to morrow the scattered inhabitants of towns and villages, telling tales of their heroes' prowess, and perchance too of their own.

Isabella, at Medina del Campo, as soon as the good news of the taking of Alhama arrived, went, as she was wont, to the Church of St. James, and, having the Te Deum sung, returned thanks to God for this initiatory victory.

Then she followed her husband to Andalusia. They met at Seville; and here came the leaders of the late expedition to receive from her the most marked approval for their enterprise.

But, as one might anticipate, Muley Aben Hassan did not leave them much time for glorification. Understanding the smallness of the force left at Alhama, he returned, this time dragging along his siege artillery with him, and with his usual energy invested the city.

This news without delay came to the court at Seville. What was to be done? A council was hastily assembled, and after considerable deliberation, as councils of war are apt to do, decided "that it was more prudent, considering the forces and position of the Moorish king, to destroy and abandon Alhama." As soon as Isabella heard of the unwelcome decision, her strong character at once became manifest. "No! no!" she. said; "Alhama must not be given up!"

She demonstrated in a few words the absolute necessity of completing the victory; the honor that would result to their arms, to the future plans, and to Castile by promptly succoring the little garrison and its brave commander.

The effect of the young queen's spirit and language was then, as always, electric. The brave among the cavaliers, including Ferdinand, who desired to command an active army, were soon ardent for an immediate return to Alhama.