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Albert Eckhout, 'Mameluca woman', 1644. Via Wikimedia.

Albert Eckhout, ‘Mameluca woman’, 1644. Via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

When the Portuguese landed on the eastern coast of South America they, like the Spanish elsewhere in the Americas, intermarried with local women. In Spanish Latin America those descended from both Europeans and Amerindians were termed mestizos, while in Brazil the first mixed-ancestry people were called mamelucos. Interestingly, the term mameluco appears to have been derived from the Arabic mamluk, which refers royal slaves or, more famously. an enslaved warrior caste. This adoption of an Arabic loanword seems to align with other instances of Iberians framing their encounters with Amerindians in the terminology of their interactions with Muslims. As related in Jon Manchip White’s Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire, in Cortés’ dispatches he refers to Aztec temples as “mosques”, the only other non-Christian religious buildings with which he would have been familiar. 

The Iberian Christians of the 15th and 16th century inhabited a world divided into two separate spheres: Christendom, and the alien. For Iberians, this alien signified Muslims, which had recently been evicted from the peninsula in the centuries-long reconquista. It is unsurprising that the Iberians adopted the same terminology they used to categorize the other they had previously impinged on — the Muslims — with the new other of the Amerindians.

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