This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.
Part 3: Moriscos in the Spanish Colonial Period
It entirely possible—in fact, probable—that the first Muslim to visit America came as part of a Spanish crew, either with Columbus himself, or with one of the many subsequent missions of exploration or conquest.
To understand how this came to be, we should remind ourselves that Muslims ruled most or part of the Iberian Peninsula beginning in 711. This came to an end in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally completed the so-called Reconquest.
Very soon thereafter the new Christian rulers ordered the expulsion or forcible conversion of the Jewish and Muslim populations. Converted Muslims were called “moriscos” (meaning “Moorish”), but the fact was that while many of these people were nominally converts to Christianity, many of them still privately or secretly considered themselves Muslims.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of moriscos sailed as part of Spanish crews to the new World during the Spanish exploration and conquest of America. And one of those men was the first Muslim in the New World.
We may never identify for certain the first Muslim in America, but one candidate is a man called Estebanico, sometimes also called Esteban the Moor, Esteban de Dorantes, or Steven the Moor.
Born in Morocco around 1500, he was sold as a slave in 1522 to Spanish nobleman Andres Dorantes de Carranza, and sailed with his master in 1527 to the Caribbean.
He was supposedly raised a Muslim and converted to Roman Catholicism soon after his enslavement, but it would not be crazy to suggest that his conversion was not altogether sincere.
In any event, Estebanico sailed to the New World and eventually became part of the extremely ill-fated Narvaez expedition, which began in 1528 with 300 men intending to establish Spanish settlements on the Florida Gulf Coast.
The expedition soon ran afoul of the natives, and led to (among other things) shipwreck near present-day Galveston, Texas, and an arduous journey on foot across South Texas and down into Western Mexico. At the end of this ordeal, in 1536, only four men of 300 had survived, including Estebanico.
Estebanico was later employed as a scout for Spanish expeditions into what is now the American Southwest, and is believed to have been murdered by the villagers of Hawikuh, New Mexico.
Nobody can say for certain how many Estebanicos came to America. It’s not hard to imagine that many moriscos who remained secretly faithful to Islam came to the New World, settled down, and started families, during the Spanish colonial period. They passed on their DNA in the New World, if not their faith.