On Christmas Day, 1522, 20 enslaved Muslim Africans used machetes to attack their Christian masters on the island of Hispaniola, then governed by the son of Christopher Columbus. The assailants, condemned to the grinding toil of a Caribbean sugar plantation, killed several Spanish and freed a dozen enslaved Native Americans in what was the first recorded slave revolt in the New World.
The uprising was quickly suppressed, but it prompted the newly crowned Charles V of Spain to exclude from the Americas “slaves suspected of Islamic leanings.” He blamed the revolt on their radical ideology rather than the harsh realities of living a life of slavery.
By the time of the Hispaniola revolt, Spanish authorities had already forbidden travel by any infidel, whether Muslim, Jewish, or Protestant, to its New World colonies, which at the time included the land that is now the United States. They subjected any potential emigrant with a suspicious background to intense vetting. A person had to prove not just that they were Christian, but that there was no Muslim or Jewish blood among their ancestors. Exceptions were granted solely by the king. Catholic Europe was locked in a fierce struggle with the Ottoman Empire, and Muslims were uniformly labeled as possible security risks. After the uprising, the ban applied even to those enslaved in the New World, writes historian Sylviane Diouf in a study of the African diaspora.
“The decree had little effect,” adds historian Toby Green in Inquisition: The Reign of Fear. Bribes and forged papers could get Jews to the New World with its greater opportunities. Slave traders largely ignored the order because West Africa Muslims often were more literate and skilled in trades, and therefore more valuable, than their non-Muslim counterparts. Ottoman and North Africans captives from the Mediterranean region, usually called Turks and Moors, respectively, were needed to row Caribbean galleys or perform menial duties for their Spanish overlords in towns and on plantations.