Black History Month: Africans in Europe

February 27, 2011 at 8:09 PM | Posted in Abs Fab, Education | 2 Comments

I first read the word ‘Moor’ in Shakespeare’s Othello. I noticed it was said with disdain and it was used repeatedly to describe Othello, instead of his name. I also noticed there was a problem with Othello’s involvement with Ophelia. I deduced the problem with Othello was that he was a Black Moor. 2+2=4 Then it led me to do a bit more research on what exactly a ‘Moor’ was. Years later here’s more.

The Moors
Many historians say the Moors were the group that brought the Western world out of the Dark Ages making a significant impact on the current day world. But who were they?

illustration of angus mcbride showing the Emir of the Almohad dynasty Yaqub al-Mansur with his bodyguard, Yakub al-Mansur reigned from 1184 to 1199 with distinction. During his tenure, trade, architecture, philosophy and the sciences flourished. on July 18, 1195, he defeated the Castilian King Alfonso VIII. After victory, he took the title al-Mansur Billah ("Made Victorious by God").

The Moors inhabited Europe from 711 AD, until Columbus set sail to the Indies in 1492. They were driven out by the Spaniards, along with the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, who ordered the burning of the accumulated literature. Hence a people, their history, culture and empire were lost and forgotten. But not in its entirety.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Moors, as early as the Middle Ages and as late as the seventeenth century were, “commonly supposed to be black or very swarthy, and the word often used for Negro.” James E. Brunson and Runoko Rashidi, authors of The Moors of Antiquity wrote, “There is considerable difficulty in determining the ethnicity of the early Moors through terminology alone.”

There are several terms that have been used to identify the Moors. Arabic texts, for example, rarely used the word Moor and instead applied the term Berber (a word thought by some to be pejorative) to the early non-Arab peoples of Northwest Africa.

What Scholars Say
Although scholars generally agree that the word Moor is derived from Mauri, there are profound disagreements among history authors on what the word originally meant and how it was applied. Philip K. Hitti, author of History of the Arabs, contends that the term Moor has a geographic designation meaning Western. He wrote.“The Romans called Western African Mauretania and its inhabitants, Mauri (presumably of Phoenician origin meaning ‘Western’) whence [the] Spanish Moro [and the] English Moor. The Berbers, therefore, were the Moors proper, but the term was conventionally applied to all Moslems of Spain and North-western Africa.”

Some historians described the Berbers as war-like, nomadic and a predatory population stretching from the borders of Egypt to Morocco, and often lived on the borders of the desert and at the foot of mountains.

Some Were Called Berbers
Further research reveals the Moors were not all of Arab and North African mixed blood as many historians report, many of them were black. According to Ivan Van Sertima, associate professor of African studies at Rutgers University, Black Moors were in every corner of Europe. “Most people do not know that the peoples called Berbers by the classical Greek and Roman historians were black and affiliated with the then contemporary peoples of the East African area.”

Although much of the literature about the Berbers was burned, their presence was recorded by the Vikings and many others. Anthropologist, Dana Reynolds traced the African roots of the original North African peoples through a dozen Greek and Byzantine (neo-Roman writers) from the first to the sixth century AD. They describe the Berber population of Northern Africa, as “black-skinned and woolly-haired.”

Black as a Moor
The “Moorish” people, as the blacks were described in the pre-Islamic era, were noted for their skin color by such descriptive phrases as “black as melted pitch” and “blacker than ink,” quoted by Van Sertima in his book Golden Age of the Moor. In certain well-known European epics and histories, the phrase “black as a Moor” was used from Roman times until the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, masqueraders used to blacken their faces, so they might better pass as Moors.

Westerners choose to concentrate on the most recent world of the Arab and Berber-speaking peoples as if it is a world that has always been. The story of when North Africa was Moorish and Arabia (land of Saracens) has yet to be told.

Source: Identifying the Ethnicity of the Moors: Who Were the Berbers?

Modern Moors in Morocco

The Moors in Europe
It would not be inaccurate to say that the Moors helped reintroduce Europe to civilization. But just who were the Moors of antiquity anyway? As early as the Middle Ages, and as early as the seventeenth century, “The Moors were,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “commonly supposed to be mostly black or very swarthy, and hence the word is often used for negro.” Dr. Chancellor Williams stated that “The original Moors, like the original Egyptians, were Black Africans.”

At the beginning of the eighth century Moorish soldiers crossed over from Africa into Spain, Portugal, and France, where their swift victories became the substance of legends. To the Christians of early Europe there was no question regarding the ethnicity of the Moors, and numerous sources support the view that the Moors were a black-skinned people. Morien, for example, is the adventure of a heroic Moorish knight supposed to have lived during the days of King Arthur. Morien is described as “all black: his head, his body, and his hands were all black.” In the French epic known as the Song of Roland the Moors are described as “blacker than ink.”

William Shakespeare used the word Moor as a synonym for African. Christopher Marlowe used African and Moor interchangeably. Arab writers further buttress the Black identity of the Moors. The powerful Moorish emperor Yusuf ben-Tachfin is described by an Arab chronicler as “a brown man with wooly hair.”

Black soldiers, specifically identified as Moors, were actively recruited by Rome, and served in Britain, France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. St. Maurice, patron saint of medieval Europe, was only one of many Black soldiers and officers under the employ of the Roman Empire.

Source: The Global African Community

Spain and Portugal
These Moors, who were religious fanatics, arrived in Spain in the year 711 and thus began a period of history which would shape Iberia differently than the rest of Europe as the land adapted to a new religion, language and culture. Hispania became a part of the caliph of Damascus which was the capital of the Muslim world.

This Moorish land was known as Al-Andalus and included all of the Iberian Peninsula except for the extreme north-west from where the Christian Reconquest would originate.

Internal divisions within Moorish rule largely explain why the Moors didn’t conquer the whole peninsula in those early days. Had they done so Spain may well have remained a Muslim state until today. Instead an Asturian mountaineer called Pelayo led a band of Christians to the first victory over the Moors at Covadonga in 718. The reconquest had begun.

Strangely Moorish Spain wasn’t really ruled by Arabs. It is true that many high positions were taken by Arabs but most of the Moors were Berbers. Later Muwallads (converted Christians) together with the offspring of the first invaders became dominant in Moorish Spain. The invaders brought no women so the second generation of Moors were already half Hispanic!

The first 40 years of Moorish rule was volatile and Al-Andaluz needed order and unity which came in the form of Abd-er-Rahman who arrived in Almuñecar on the coast of Granada in 755. Within a year he became Emir of Al-Andalus and during his 32 year reign he would transform this land into an independent state which was the cultural light of Euro.

Source: History of Moorish Spain

Like Spain, Portugal was to be culturally influenced by the Moors. Its association with Africa dates as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries when Africans arrived in southern Europe. But it was in 711 A.D. that they marched in as conquerors under the command of Tarik. The Moors ruled and occupied Lisbon and the rest of the country until well into the twelfth century.

Source: The Global African Community

Seven hundred years of Moorish influence left an unmistakable mark on Spain, making it markedly different even today from the rest of Western Europe. The Moors not only brought their religion, but also their music, their art, their view of life, and their architecture…two of the greatest examples of which are the Alhambra in Granada and the Escorial in Cordoba.

Source: The Moorish Invasion of Spain and the Christian Reconquest

Italy and Sicily

Sicily was frequently attacked by Barbary pirates from North Africa. The subsequent rebuilding created the distinctive architectural style known as Sicilian Baroque. Periods of rule by the crown of Savoy (1713–1720) and then the Austrian Habsburgs gave way to union (1734) with the Bourbon-ruled Kingdom of Naples, under the rule of Don Carlos of Bourbon (later Charles III of Spain).

Source: History of Sicily

After the fall of the Roman empire, there was an invasion by Theodoric’s Ostrogots in 493 aC, a very bad period of byzantine domination (535 aC, 827 aC). Then the Arab invasion (probably requested by some locals, to stop the byzantine’s oppression). The Moors landed at Mars-Allah (Allah’s port), today’s Marsala, and beat the Byzantines. In 831 AC they entered Palermo, in 859 aC Enna, in 902 aC Taormina. So inserted in the Islamic area of influence, Sicily experienced a long period of growth, both economical and cultural. This is when things such as the citrus cultivation (still a major economical resource today), water seeking technologies (new for the times) and new agricultural tools were introduced.

Source: Sicilian History

Africans have been present in Europe from classical times. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries Roman soldiers of African origin served in Britain, and some stayed after their military service ended. According to the historians Fryer, Edwards and Walvin, in the 9th century Viking fleets raided North Africa and Spain, captured Black people, and took them to Britain and Ireland. From the end of the 15th century we begin to see more evidence for the presence of Black Moors in the accounts of the reign of King James IV of Scotland, and later in Elizabethan England.

Source: Black Moors in Scotland



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  1. A ‘Moor’ is basically a blanket term, similar to how ‘anglo’ doesn’t refer any particular people, the Berbers and Arabs that invaded Spain certainly improved Spain but there was no ‘dark ages’ the concept is largely a product of British and French narratives sort of a “we were miserable so everyone else was” supremacy thing. The middle ages was a Slavic golden age: Kievan Rus, the republics of Novgorod and Pskov were advanced with republican institutions, legal codes that punished crimes through fines without violence, peasants were free (serfdom didn’t exist until the time of troubles), female rights and homosexuality was tolerated, (it wasn’t mentioned in any legal codes). It was the height Byzantine science and civilization which had no serfdom (read up on pronoia for details), it wasn’t a dark age for Gaels who had republican institutions and advanced legal codes. The commune movement (local democracy) blossomed into the Swiss confederation, Three leagues, Corsica’s terri di commune system and other states. Scandinavia thrived with republican institutions and no serfdom, medieval Iceland was an anarchic entity without serfdom and produced more literature than the Ottoman empire’s entire history. Not to mention Persian civilization, I’d say the ‘dark ages’ claim is offensive to many peoples who have suffered on colonial rule longer than many of the most infamous examples. Oh yeah about the barbary pirates: funny thing is the most prominent ones were European converts like Jan Janszoon and even protestant pirates ‘teamed’ with Muslim corsairs to attack Catholics, so much for the ‘clash of civilizations’ claim.

  2. Also I’d say its crucial to avoid trying to force Berber cultures and achievements into ‘pan’ ideologies: they suffered greatly under Gadaffi’s version of pan-Africanism, pan-Islamists and their predecessors attacked them, French colonialists distorted their history out of some sort of contrived ‘pan-whiteness’ (for want of a better term). The only way that the French colonists could explain advanced and egalitarian Berber culture was to invent a narrative that they were of Germanic stock and ‘not really Muslim’.

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