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Oliver Otis Howard

The Moorish War Continued

"Shamed be the hands that idly fold,

And lips that woo the reed's accord,

When laggard Time the hour has tolled

For true with false and new with old

To fight the battles of the Lord!"


Boabdil's Enterprise (April 21, 1483) and Defeat—His Imprisonment and Restoration—The Army Reviewed and Refitted—The Queen's Labors—An Innovation—"The Queen's Hospital"—The Count of Cabra's Reward —Plan to Seize the Coast and Sea—Siege of Velez-Malaga—El Zagal's Attack and Defeat—Velez-Malaga Taken—Isabella's Devout Joy.

That remarkable defeat in the mountains of Malaga had its likeness in the great Braddock discomfiture which preceded the American Revolution; and doubtless the procuring cause was the same—namely, the undervaluation of the enemy when that enemy was defending his own well-known passes, defiles, and fastnesses.

But this great victory for Muley Aben Hassan, turning the fickle populace of the country more and more to his standard, made it evident to Boabdil and his mother that the young king must do something in the war to exhibit his own prowess, or he would gradually be stripped of his possessions and power, and before long lose his crown.

With 9000 foot and some 700 horse, accompanied by his brave old father-in-law, Ali Atar, who but lately had successfully defended Loja against King Ferdinand, Boabdil led the way by forced marches through the Vega past Loja, aiming directly for Lucena. As soon as he had crossed the border he ravaged the country as much as his rapid march would permit, gathering in horses, cattle, flocks, and grain.

Old Ali Atar was familiar with this kind of work, for he had long subsisted upon Spanish products that his robber-like forays brought hack, and the vicinage of Lucena was called his garden spot. Boabdil hoped at this time to surprise his foes; but lie had some wide-awake cavaliers to deal with. Don Diego Fernandez de Cordova, in command at Lucena, having received early the news that the Moors were coming toward him in great force, at once took the usual means, by signal fires, to inform the neighboring towns and villages of his imminent danger. The Count of Cabra was at Baena when he heard the call of Diego. With incredible swiftness the quotas were gathered in and put on the march, picking up accessions as they approached Lucena. It is said that in his haste the count forgot his ordinary standard, so that at Cabra, finding an old, unused flag with the figure of a goat pictured upon it—the former insignia of that town—he had that unfurled at the head of his column. When all the volunteers had assembled the force was very small—not more than one third that of his foes.

Boabdil had reached Lucena April 21st (1483), made several bold attempts to break into the city; but Diego had with great gallantry and energy managed with his small garrison to make a good defence; so that Boabdil, for the sake of a better camp and to continue the foraging in which his soldiers delighted, drew off a few miles into the country. The Count of Cabra, full of ardor, at once determined to seek the Moors and give battle. Diego and others called his attention to the smallness of his force, and told him that reinforcements would join him in a few hours from Montilla and other towns; but the count was determined to fight at once. He feared that a great prize would escape him. Following his scouts, he ascended a hill, and then saw the hosts of Boabdil. They seemed to be sitting on the ground and feasting upon their supplies, which were newly gathered, the rich fruits of that fertile land. Their light cavalry, the flower of the chivalry of Granada, was so grouped as to guard well the bivouac. The Count of Cabra descended upon them like a whirlwind.

Surprised and loaded with the abundance of their booty, the Moorish infantry instantly took to flight, running toward their own border; but the cavalry of Boabdil, numerous enough under ordinary circumstances to have defeated the few squadrons of Cabra, were kept together and held in the position of a rear guard. They stood bravely and fought with their wonted fury till, at the Genii River, old Ali Atar, their indomitable leader, was slain. The difficulty of crossing the swollen river would have been great at this time if there had been no enemy near. Now it was fatal to the Moors. The confusion was extreme; large numbers of the fugitives perished in the deep swift waters; many became almost defenceless in their haste, and were slaughtered along the banks. Boabdil, conspicuous from his mount, had himself fought hard among the bravest. Being forced to a point where he was unable to effect a crossing, he at last dismounted and hid in some thick reeds near at hand. But he could not escape, and was shortly after this discovered and forced to surrender. He was treated with remarkable courtesy by the Count of Cabra, and conducted to his own castle at Baena, and, except for his restraint, was there given all the royal rites of hospitality and kindness.

The appalling news, as is always the case with evil tidings, went with lightning speed to Loja and to Granada. The sorrow and desolation that had visited Andalusia after the affairs of Ferdinand's failure and the massacre of the hill," near the valley of Azarquia, were far exceeded now throughout the land of the Moors.

Their internal divisions and the predictions of their old seer caused a cloud of thick darkness to hang over them. But the unyielding Ayxa, the mother of Boabdil, never would despair. She sent an embassy, offering a large ransom, to the Spanish court, which was then sojourning at Cordova. Boabdil was removed from Baena to Cordova; and as soon as Isabella returned from a brief absence, under her authority the unfortunate young king was kindly admitted to the audience chamber and courteously received by the sovereigns.

Hostility—savagery, in fact, and ultra-fanaticism seemed for a time to take possession of the majority of the counsellors of the court. "Grant the heathen no terms! Compromise not with the enemies of the Lord!" this was the burden of their cry. But Isabella would not listen an instant to such counsel. She could not think of keeping him a prisoner. Were not the internecine troubles of the Moors, without the expenditure of money, toil, and blood, so many advantages gained? So Isabella thought and spoke, and congratu lated Ferdinand and herself upon the fact that they could at this time show generosity without neglect of duty, and extend it to a humbled foe of royal blood.

Ferdinand saw to it that the terms were sufficiently exacting. They were, however, not far in excess of what the sultana had proposed. Boabdil was granted a truce for two years. He was to return to Granada to hold his crown as vassal to Castile, and, among other items of easier performance, to secure the free passage of Ferdinand's troops which should be sent against any refractory Moorish posts that did not recognize his rule. Four hundred Christian captives were to be liberated and 812,000 in Spanish gold transferred to Isabella's treasury. His own son and others were agreed upon to come and be held as hostages.

Upon these terms the sovereigns sent Boabdil in much state back to Granada. When the unfortunate young monarch was believed to have fallen beside Ali Atar the whole Moorish people were his friends. They called up his father's crimes and cruelty, and loudly lamented his untimely death; but the tide of popularity quickly turned against him when it became known that he surrendered; and now that he had made terms with his enemy, which would soon ruin his country, there were at least but few Moors who did not condemn him.

There were, however, a few stanch followers to unfurl his standard, and more still were bought up by the energetic Ayxa. Mothers seldom desert their sons—almost never in time of trouble. But it was not long after Boabdil's return and occupancy of the Alcazaba before his old father, who had gained and steadily held the Alhambra, caused such dreadful terror and bloodshed that Boabdil, for the sake of peace, agreed to depart from the capital and go to the city of Almeria, which was still fully loyal to his cause. Ayxa went with him, but berated him for his want of spirit in giving up for any cause whatever the capital of his nation. During the home troubles of the Moors, while they were quarrelling and depleting each other's strength, and while Ferdinand was often greatly absorbed with other neighbors, Isabella pushed on the war with all the energy she could command. There were yet in 1483 far more fortified cities untaken than can be found to-day in all the peninsula. Those repeated raids, which indeed destroyed much property and interrupted agriculture, were only light wounds. The strong cities must be taken one by one and held. Isabella, through her active and effective chief of staff, Don Francisco Ramirez, a man of energy and rare attainments, reviewed her entire army. Her artillery especially was enlarged and refitted. It was still clumsy enough and hard to transport, but it was needed to hatter down the thick walls. Isabella not only secured the funds and a large supply of arms, ammunition, and provisions, but we find her at the right moment even devoting her mind to practical engineering. When this department took form she was its head.

After cannon had been obtained, many of them from abroad, and cannon-balls manufactured, and abundance of powder put in depots, then the problem was how to get these things over the roads, rough, muddy, and flooded as they were, to the places where they would become of use. Better roads were constructed or the old repaired; hills were cut through, canons fined up with trees and rocks, and bridges stretched across frightful abysses. In all these preparations—in fact, in everything pertaining to the vigorous prosecution of this war, except the actual fighting, the queen bore an extraordinary part. She placed her court at all times just as near the scene of activity as possible, moving from place to place as the army was obliged to shift its positions. A regular line of couriers, like the pony express across the Rocky Mountains, kept her from hour to hour informed of what was passing at the front. From the sub-depots near her issued from time to time wagons heavily loaded and placed under convoys whose strength the queen herself prescribed. Again and again, where she believed that her presence would be beneficial, she would suddenly appear in camp with her cheery exhortation and help. There was one marked innovation that she introduced during the year 1489. A number of large tents called the "Queen's Hospitals" were there after present with her columns of troops and ready for battles. They were supplied with medicines and attendants and furniture, so that the wounded might not wait for proper attention and care. It is said that Isabella knew how to give lavishly and particularly to reward valor. For example, she gave to the Marquis of Cadiz, who surprised and seized Zahara, the titles of Marquis of Zahara and Duke of Cadiz, and also the substantial present of the city itself. It is also recorded that Isabella's court was temporarily at Vitoria when the battle of Lucena took place. After his capture of Boabdil the Count of Cabra went to Vitoria to pay his devoirs. The nobility and clergy marched out to receive him, and as he took his place at the right hand of the Cardinal of Spain, Isabella came forward to greet him, and seated him beside her at table, remarking that "The conquerors of kings should sit with kings."

Thus with womanly tact and resourcefulness and more than manly vigor was the war pressed forward from 1483-87, with its varying fortunes. There was not a month passed in which some important siege was not progressing. One city after another the Spaniards thus brought into subjection—Ronda, Zagra, Banos, Moclin, called the "shield of Granada," and Llora, named "Granada's right eye."

The sovereigns had indeed picked up the pomegranates of the Moors, having by (lint of the changing fortunes of war advanced their lines over fifty miles southward, eastward, and westward. They had carefully put into citadels and garrisons their own soldiers, and encouraged Christian colonies and settlements, so that the Spanish avenues to the great capital were now very little obstructed by hostile populations. The queen urged upon Ferdinand and her countrymen one more great effort—the seizure and control of those channels which enabled the Mussulmen of Africa to strengthen and reinforce their brethren in Spain. To take Malaga and Velez-Malaga and reorganize her fleet upon the Mediterranean seemed to Isabella to be the final move upon the chessboard of operations.

Nervo says: "In 1487 Isabella, after having obtained the Pope's sanction to use certain revenues—ecclesiastique—of Castile and Aragon, in person opened up the campaign." It was on April 7th, 1487, when at Cordova, Isabella, having buckled on his sword, bade adieu to her Ferdinand for this campaign. With his army fairly well equipped, he appeared before Velez-Malaga on the 17th of the same month. Situated between Granada and Malaga, it was deemed wise to subdue that smaller place before attempting to assail or besiege Malaga itself.

When the beautiful valley which contains the little city burst upon Ferdinand and his army, they were filled with great joy and hopes of a speedy triumph. The city, strongly walled and fortified, was in the upper part of the valley—in fact, on the mountain slope. Far above it, on the mountain crest, was the famous village and citadel of Bentomiz. Ferdinand took position and made a fortified camp for his army along the slope above Velez-Malaga, but below Bentomiz. He held the narrow defiles and mountain paths leading to the city, but he would be in peril should any force more than the strong Moorish garrison now there seize the crest of the mountain. He had to wait some days for his lum bering artillery, drawn by oxen. The valley roads could not be worse, and the guns and other siege apparatus, much scattered, were making not more than three or four miles a day.

Just at this awkward juncture old El Zagal, who since Muley Aben Hassan's retirement and death had divided the kingdom with Boabdil, emerged from Granada with an army of 20,000 men. Ferdinand had scarcely heard of his setting out when the host appeared and covered the heights of Bentomiz. It now seemed to the furious old warrior an easy thing to pounce upon the Spaniards and crush them. But he first endeavored to destroy the slow-moving and divided sections of artillery. In every effort, however, in this direction he was anticipated and foiled.

At last El Zagal sent a "Christian spy" into Velez-Malaga to carry a message to his faithful commander there: "Make a sortie against the Christians! Give me the night signal of it, and while they are fighting you, we will rush upon their flank and rear, dislodge and destroy them." But the shrewd old warrior in vain watched for the appointed signal. At last, in impatience and fury, he made a move for attack; but Ferdinand's men were lying in wait. A prolonged, fitful battle worried out the night. At dawn one of Ferdinand's cavaliers, a little more enterprising than the rest, seized an important height, and drove the Moslems down the steeps. In the dimness of the morning light El Zagal's other men thought that all was lost, and his army was taken with one of those unaccountable, unmanageable panics which come in somewhere in every war. The old man was shamefully deserted. He scarcely saved his own life by flight, and all Granada was filled with terror by the scattered fugitives from this field of battle. The people of the city' arose, and expelling El Zagal, re-established the unlucky Boabdil, that he might enjoy for a few short days the uncertain fruits of such a public act of the changeable populace.

The brave Rodovan de Vanegas, holding Velez-Malaga, would not surrender, even when he knew of El Zagal's disastrous affair. "Your artillery," he answered to the repeated summons, "can never get here; the mud is too deep and the roads too bad." But by much labor the artillery began to arrive. No help could reach him now, and the brave soldier yielded to the entreaties of the inhabitants to seek a lenient surrender. For once the Spanish king gave liberal terms. The 120 Christians taken from the prison were hurried off to Cordova. Isabella, as usual, received them with great tenderness at the old mosque cathedral. As she had heard of El Zagal's sudden move, she trembled with anxiety lest the "hill massacre," that had befallen her choicest knights in those very Malaga mountains, was about to be repeated. She had quickly brought out the reserves of Andalusia, old men and boys, and organized a strong reinforcement. This was already setting forth from the gates of Cordova when the good tidings came. And, indeed, it seemed to her more than ever before a victory straight from Heaven.

She and the women of her court were more fervently and devoutly than ever hymning and chanting praises to Him who sitteth upon the throne of the heavens. The incoming, released captives added to the joy and to the fervor of their devout recitations.