Karl Marx, writing for the Herald Tribune in 1854, says the following:

the sedentary population of Jerusalem numbers about 15,500 souls, of whom 4,000 are Mussulmans and 8,000 Jews. The Mussulmans, forming about a fourth part of the whole, and consisting of Turks, Arabs and Moors, are, of course, the masters in every respect, as they are in no way affected with the weakness of their Government at Constantinople. Marxists.org

I understand Marx's usage of "Moors" refers either to people from northwest Africa, or to people with very dark skin generally.

  1. Is this a correct understanding of Marx's meaning?
  2. Is Marx's usage anachronistic? In other words, had the term fallen out of use by 1854?

The Moors Wikipedia entry only broadly addresses when the term came into common use and when it left; the details of when particular shades of meaning came into/out-of use are not mentioned.

To complicate matters, while Marx appears to have been writing in English (per the site containing the source quote), his usage may have been influenced by shades of meaning in his native German.

Note that Marx used the term in another column, some 6 months later (emphasis added);

On the other hand, the inland towns and cities [of medieval Spain] rose to great consequence, from the necessity people found themselves under of residing together in places of strength, as a security against the continual irruptions of the Moors; while the peninsular formation of the country, and constant intercourse with Provence and Italy, created first-rate commercial and maritime cities on the coast.

it seems plausible to assume his usage was consistent.

  • 1
    Have you checked the Wikipedia page on the Moors?
    – Steve Bird
    Aug 13 at 22:04
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    You might look at an earlier related question Who was included in the "Moors" of Spain?.
    – justCal
    Aug 13 at 23:20
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    I don't know that this helps at all for meaning, but it looks like the term was roughly twice as popular in written sources in the 18th century as it was in Marx' 19th (and has been on a relatively steady decline ever since). It wasn't found much at all before then, but that's so early I'm not sure the data can be trusted.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 14 at 3:05
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    And lets not forget Othello (Shakespeare play 1604) and Otello (Verdi opera 1887) as sources to keep "Moor" as an active language word.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 14 at 15:27
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    Moor was Marx' family nickname, of which he was quite proud, so it is unlikely that he intended any perjorative connotation. In the latter case he would use something like "brun" (equivalent of N-word), like in his famous libel about Ferdinand Lassalle's being descendants of Ethiopian Jews.
    – Roger V.
    Aug 15 at 6:59

3 Answers 3


Marx's demographic numbers did not look right to me, so I consulted the Wikipedia page Demographic history of Jerusalem. Sure enough, Marx's numbers differ substantially from the numbers of the official 1851 census listed there. However, modulo a bit of round-off, they are a perfect match with the numbers given in this publication, which is also listed:

César Famin, Histoire de la rivalité et du protectorat des églises chrétiennes en Orient. Paris: Firmin Didot Frères 1853.

On p. 49 Famin states that the resident population of Jerusalem comprises about 15,500 souls, of which 8000 are Jews, 4000 are Muslims, and 3490 are Christians:

La population sédentaire de Jérusalem est d'environ 15,500 âmes:
Juifs: ................. 8,000
Musulmans ... 4,000
Chrétiens ....... 3,490

Total .............. 15,490

He then proceeds to give a numerical breakdown of the Christian population. On p. 50 he describes the Muslim population as follows:

Les musulmans, qui forment à peu près le quart des habitants de Jérusalem, sont ici les maîtres en toute chose. Cette population, composée de Turcs, d'Arabes et de Maures est rude aux chrétiens et aux juif

[My translation] "The Muslims, who make up slightly more than a quarter of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, are here the masters of the entire thing. This population, composed of Turks, Arabs, and Moors is harsh on Christians and Jews; [...]"

I conclude that Marx simply translated, somewhat freely, these two sentences from Famin's book into English, turning French "Maures" into English "Moors". According to my 1998 dead-tree edition of the Larousse Unabridged Dictionary French / English this matches modern usage.

The French Wikipedia defines Maures as follows:

Maures [...] désigne les habitants musulmans et arabo-berbères médiévaux d'Ibérie, de Sicile, de Malte et du Maghreb, et à l'origine, durant l'Antiquité, les populations berbères d'Afrique du Nord, tout particulièrement du Maghreb.; [...]

[Google Translation] " Moors […] refers to the medieval Muslim and Arab-Berber inhabitants of Iberia, Sicily, Malta and the Maghreb, and originally, during antiquity, the Berber populations of North Africa, particularly of the Maghreb.; [...] "

Marx's "Moors" thus denotes the population group from northwest Africa mentioned in the question.

In comments, @ccprog points to further corroborating evidence. A little further down from the section quoted in the question, Marx writes:

The Jews, however, are not natives, but from different and distant countries, and are only attracted to Jerusalem by the desire of inhabiting the Valley of Jehosaphat, and to die in the very places where the redemptor is to be expected.

“Attending their death,” says a French author, “they suffer and pray. Their regards turned to that mountain of Moriah, where once rose the temple of Solomon, and which they dare not approach, they shed tears on the misfortunes of Zion, and their dispersion over the world.”

This is a translation of contents found on pp. 54 & 55 of Famin's book:

Ces juifs, au surplus, appartiennent tous à diverses contrées lointaines, et ne sont attirés à Jérusalem que par le désir d'y choisir leurs places dans la vallée de Josaphat, et d'y mourir sur les lieux mêmes où la résurrection doit les retrouver. En attendant la mort, ils souffrent et ils prient ; ils pleurent sur les malheurs de Sien, sur leur dispersion dans le monde, les regards tournés vers ce mont Moriah où s'élevait jadis le temple de Salomon, et dont ils n'osent pas approcher : douleur immense dont le spectacle arrache souvent des larmes aux chrétiens eux-mêmes.

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    I feel bad because I just got on someone's case for thinking words had exact equivalents in other language cultures like this, but I'm pretty sure Maures is the French version of the Latin Mauri which came into English as "Moors". The meanings don't seem to have evolved separately in French and English all that much. So in this case its probably reasonable to consider them the same word.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 15 at 13:07
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    @T.E.D The point here is that French "Maures" is not used to refer to "people with very dark skin generally", at least not according to the French Wikipedia. FWIW, the meaning of German "Mauren" largely matches the meaning of French "Maures". I am not sure I follow your general issue: cognates and loanwords are a thing, but of course divergent meanings can evolve over time, so one needs to check usage, not make assumptions based purely on etymology.
    – njuffa
    Aug 15 at 13:24
  • Fair. I guess I missed the point(tree) there for the forrest.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 15 at 13:26
  • so I consulted the Wikipedia page NB. I would note the Wikipedia page dismisses the 5 censuses conducted by Sir Moses Montefiore of the Jewish population, in which an estimated 99% of the Jewish population participated and searchable online, with a quote by Edward Robinson that the 1st census was falsified. A perusal of the 1849 census data shows some 1800 households with 3-5 members (i.e. not widows and orphans alone); the Jewish figure of 8000 is not out of the realm of possibility.
    – Zev Spitz
    Aug 15 at 18:08
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    @ZevSpitz The number that made me suspicious of Marx's data was actually the low percentage of Muslims among Jerusalem's population. As for the lack of attribution, I assume that the standards for newspaper articles are much laxer than for scientific publications even today, and especially a 170 years ago, when copyright was not quite a thing yet.
    – njuffa
    Aug 15 at 19:52

An answer can be either simple or complicated.

The simple interpretation is: Marx was trying to describe the ethnical makeup of the complete population of Jerusalem. So, when he writes about "Mussulmans...consisting of Turks, Arabs and Moors", the Moors must be all Muslims that are neither Turks nor Arabs.

The complicated way to interpret the text has to take into account that for Karl Marx, English (the original language of the text) was a foreign language, and one he learned (to my knowledge) only as an adult (in contrast to German, his mother toungue and French, learned as a schoolchild). It is known that until 1853 he employed Wilhelm Pieper as a private secretary and for English translations. Whether he still used the help of a translator in 1854 is unclear to me, it seems that these "private" translations have not been documented. Anyway, it is possible that he thought of a German term before the English one was written down for the manuscript sent to the Herald.

That gives a bit of a problem, as there are two German words that are based on the originally spanish "moro".

  • Maure is and was mostly used to describe the Muslims of el-Andalus and northwestern Africa (Berbers). It is the closest one to the English use of "Moor".

  • Mohr has been a term that was used in multiple ways across the centuries. Its most colloquial usage since middle ages designates a person with dark skin, and it was used to translate the greek aithiops, burned skin. Martin Luther consequently used the term "Mohrenland" for Ethiopia, and until the 19th century there is a tradition to use it specifically for people from northeastern Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Abessinia, Eritrea, Nubia), while others used it for all sub-saharan Africans. At the time of Marx, the term "Neger" had become much more common, based on the contemporary theories of "race". "Mohr" started to become an outdated, literary or heraldic term. Today it is considered to be stereotypical and degrading. If pronounced the German way, "Moor" and "Mohr" sound the same.

The re-translation into German for Marx-Engels-Werke uses the term "Maure". But since this edition is not based on historical-critical methodology, that is only a weak hint. The detailed circumstances of the word usage could possibly be found in MEGA, which I don't have available.

Here are some German word usage statistics for Maure, Mohr and Neger.

  • Interesting. Is that pair of words ("doublet") just a feature of German? I know in English often the same word can get borrowed from the same language multiple times.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 15 at 13:23
  • I guess the interesting thing here, wrt. my ngrams search in the question comments, is that Marx may well have been bucking the English trend of decline in usage of that word because German was his first language, not English.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 15 at 13:30
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    @T.E.D. The WP article mentions danish morian/maurere, swedish morian/morer, finnish murjaani/maurit and polish murzyn/maurowie.
    – ccprog
    Aug 15 at 13:37

What if just means "not better specified non-europeans"? I'm Italian. My almost illiterate grandmother would call "moro" anybody who was dark-skinned. In her mind, all dark-skinned people came from Africa. She couldn't see a difference between what Americans would call "brown" or "black", they were all "mori". Even a white person could become a Moor after a day at the beach: "Ti xé diventà moro" "You're so tanned (lit. "You've become a Moor)". A "Moor" was and in common speech is someone who is dark-skinned (it doesn't matter how dark-skinned) and therefore is not European so it means they come from Africa. It's a matter of pigmentation, not religion. You can be a Moor and a Christian, for that matter. What I mean is that "Moor" often means "from Africa" whithout any better knowledge. Of course, most Africans in the past were Muslims, just like most Europeans were Christians. So a "Moor" would more often than not be a Muslim, too, but that was not always the case.

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