Although the role of Moriscos in the diplomacy of North African Muslim polities has long been recognized, next to nothing is known of their contribution to Ottoman diplomacy. Yet, during the sixteenth century, and especially after their expulsion from Spain in 1609, Constantinople became an important node in the Moriscos’ Mediterranean-wide network. Unlike other intermediaries active on the diplomatic scene of Constantinople, Moriscos had a special role in sultanic image-making during the age of increased confessional polarization in both Europe and parts of the Middle East, between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries. The essay examines how European and Ottoman sources represented Moriscos as both subjects and objects of Ottoman diplomacy, explores the significance of their religious affiliation in the diplomatic process, and argues that the Moriscos’ mediation provided the Ottomans with valuable opportunities to exploit confessional tensions and articulate their claims to sovereignty to their European interlocutors.
In the early 1610s, communities of diplomats and traders with the status of müste’min (foreign resident) in Ottoman Galata were put on alert by the concerted attempt of certain Ottoman officials, especially the kadı of Galata, to extract from them the harac—the tax typically paid only by the ḏimmis (non-Muslim subjects of the sultan).
Interwoven into this legal and diplomatic crisis is another story that sheds an interesting light on the entire affair. In 1609 Spanish king Philip III proclaimed the expulsion of Moriscos—(forcibly) Christianized Spanish Muslims—from the Iberian peninsula, triggering a massive exodus of a large segment of population into North Africa, but also to Ottoman Constantinople, via France and Venice. Although Constantinople received a significantly smaller number of refugees than North African principalities under Ottoman suzerainty, the impact of the Morisco diaspora was disproportionally large. In Constantinople, the refugees were settled in Galata, in what appears to be a deliberate attempt by the Ottoman authorities to change the confessional make-up of this overtly non-Muslim section of the city. This is how the fierce economic and confessional competition among the local, already established trading and diplomatic communities and the newcomers began. The paper will reconstruct these competitive relationships on the basis of Ottoman, Venetian, and French contemporary sources by focusing on the incidents surrounding the attempted imposition of the harac on foreign residents and the attempted takeover of Galata churches by the Morisco refugees. It appears that the arrival of the Moriscos and familiarity with their plight in Spain prompted Ottoman officials to rethink the legal status and the notions of extra-territoriality in relation to religious identity in the Ottoman context as well.