Opinion: How did a Moroccan pirate queen turn out to be the ‘Spirit of California’?


A Diego Rivera mural titled “The Allegory of California” hides in a non-public staircase contained in the Metropolis Membership of San Francisco. It depicts a lady sometimes called the Spirit of California and the bounty she gives up: a cornucopia of working males and their promise of progress.

The trade and extraction proven right here convey one model of California’s historical past — the model lengthy strengthened in faculties, by which a lot of California’s origin story has been wrapped up within the Gold Rush. Nonetheless, the girl on the heart of the mural represents a a lot older theme, one woven by way of historical past in Europe and Africa, one captured unwittingly in fiction 500 years in the past, one which repeated itself in North America and gave rise to the state we all know right this moment.

The face of Rivera’s painted lady was primarily based on Olympic gold medalist Helen Wills, however the character is impressed by “The Adventures of Esplandián,” a sixteenth century novel by Castilian creator Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. The story’s antagonist, Calafia, is the {powerful} Muslim queen of a faraway land of bounty referred to as California. She sails into battle with a military of girls, preventing towards the Spanish army, depicted as forces for goodness and Christianity.

Montalvo had spent his early maturity as a soldier within the military of Ferdinand and Isabella, the well-known royal duo who drove Muslim rulers out of the Andalusian peninsula in 1492 — the identical 12 months their explorer Christopher Columbus reached North America. When Montalvo penned his later fictional battles, he explicitly drew on these Andalusian wars.

Students speculate that his Queen Calafia relies on an actual Muslim queen who started a piratical profession as revenge towards the Spanish kingdom that had pushed her household out of their ancestral house and into the mountains of Morocco. This was Sayyida al Hurra.

She rose to energy across the flip of the sixteenth century, changing into an unbiased queen within the Moroccan citystate of Tétouan. She both turned a privateer herself, taking to the Mediterranean Sea to assault Spanish holdings similar to Gibraltar, or she licensed privateers to assault Spain in her title. She was an ally of the pirate and Ottoman chief Khayr al-Dīn, higher recognized within the West as Barbarossa or Redbeard. They harried the Spanish and Portuguese royal navies, concurrently enriching their individuals and making certain the Spanish knew that their cruelty had been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

It’s not fully sure that this Moroccan pirate queen was the inspiration for Montalvo’s fictional queen, however the resemblance is uncanny. Each had been {powerful}, unbiased Muslim girls who valiantly fought the Spanish on land and on water. And each fell from energy.

Al Hurra was deposed by her son-in-law. In Montalvo’s story, Queen Calafia is captured by the Spanish. She’s Christianized, married off and tamed. When she is launched, she swears to return to her homeland and disband the ability constructions that prize girls’s views, so the land of California would favor masculine and Christian energy.

The story of Spanish victory was a sensation in Spain. The earliest extant copy, from 1519, exhibits that it went by way of many editions and reprintings. When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés took his ultimate expedition in 1536 and noticed the western coast of North America, he referred to as it California, borrowing the title from Montalvo’s romance.

The title caught. Centuries later, simply because the Gold Rush was getting began, a part of the coast turned the state of California in 1850. The hyperlink to the fifteenth century Spanish wars towards “infidels” might need been misplaced on American leaders of the nineteenth century, however now we will see how Calafia mirrors the troubling historical past of colonization and domination that created California.

Just like the tales of Queen Calafia and Sayyida al Hurra, the story of California hinges on European invasion and displacement. Spanish colonizers swarmed the West Coast, capturing and forcibly Christianizing the Chilula, Chimarike, Karok, Shasta, Tolowa, Wiyot and Yurok tribes over time. Folks had been pushed from their ancestral lands in violent ways in which upended complete cultures. Within the title of progress, a lot was misplaced and destroyed. Their tales had been erased in favor of myths of European “discovery,” American exceptionalism and Christian future. To the victor, the myth-making. However when these victors named California, they embedded extra within the mythology than they supposed.

Google Books, which might observe appearances of a selected phrase or phrase in written sources between 1500 and 2019, exhibits that “Calafia” has surged in use in a sample that mirrors curiosity within the historical past of California at numerous moments. Utilization has ticked upward in recent times, reflecting an curiosity in highlighting the affect of marginalized peoples in American historical past. The rising trajectory in 2019 hints on the surge in curiosity in marginalized histories that will are available in 2020 alongside the Black Lives Matter motion.

The steep peak round 1926 presaged Rivera’s use of Calafia in his mural within the early Nineteen Thirties. Deliberately or not, Rivera’s depiction of the Spirit of California is troublingly in step with how Montalvo’s story ends: Apart from the towering queen, the mural depicts principally males whom she helps in her arms; their work comes from her help and providing. The once-powerful Muslim queen’s face, reworked into the likeness of a ravishing white tennis participant, exists solely as a logo of magnificence and progress.

Centuries of retelling appear to have stripped al Hurra’s life story of her energy as an African queen, as an avenging pirate. She turned Montalvo’s Calafia, who was subjugated by Spain. Calafia turned Rivera’s Spirit of California, a backdrop for males felling bushes and mining. The arc of this determine by way of historical past and fiction traces the destruction of female and Indigenous energy in favor of white, Christian patriarchy. An allegory of California certainly, and one which solely just lately appears to be coming to an finish.

Valorie Castellanos Clark, a author and historian in Los Angeles, is the creator of the forthcoming “Unruly Figures: Twenty Tales of Rebels, Rulebreakers, and Revolutionaries You’ve (Most likely) By no means Heard Of.”



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