Portugal´s Fateful Mistake: The Sephardic Diaspora

Lynne Booker


Tiny Portugal spearheaded the exploration of the world and was first to exploit the trade in luxury goods:  spices, diamonds, gold, and brazilwood and later silver and sugar as well. For such a small country at the edge of Europe, Portugal´s achievement in exploration was astonishing and it even became for a short time the wealthiest country in Europe.  Both Portugal and Spain had been catapulted into riches by their adventuresome spirit of exploration, and with his Bull Inter Caetera in 1493, the Spanish Pope Alexander VI awarded half the world to Portugal and half to Spain.  These two countries a year later signed the bilateral Treaty of Tordesilhas. 


It is ironic that both Spain and Portugal lost wealth and power because of their mistreatment of Jews. And it is also ironic that throughout the known world from 1497 to about 1800, it was recognised that anyone who called himself a Portugal was in fact a Jew because it was far too dangerous to admit to Jewishness.  The corollary was that everyone believed that all Portuguese were Jewish. 


In medieval times, Christians and Moslems were not allowed by the rules of their faiths either to lend money for a profit (called usury) or to forge certain materials such as gold, whereas the religion of the Jews did allow usury.  At first, Christian monarchs welcomed Jews as moneylenders and tax collectors.  The wealth that the Jews earned coupled by the unpopularity of their royal role of tax collector earned them first envy and then hatred.  In 14th century Castile Jews became subject to murderous attack by rioters and the Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1478 to institutionalise these attacks on a religious basis.  The Alhambra Decree of 1492 forced Jews to make a choice between three unappealing alternatives: leave Spain; convert to Christianity; or suffer the death sentence.  If they chose to leave, they were forbidden to take with them any gold, silver or minted money. 


D João II of Portugal (nicknamed The Perfect Prince) chose to accept the expelled Jews but their stay was limited to 8 months only.  When the time came for them to leave Portugal, they found that the only available destination was an unattractive Portuguese fortress in North  Africa, and the captains of their transport ships treated them as animals.  It is no wonder that many chose to remain in Portugal as slaves. 


When D Manuel I succeeded to the Portuguese throne in 1495, one of his first acts was to free those Jews enslaved by his predecessor.  D Manuel had a dream that he could combine the Crowns of Castile and Portugal, and that he could become the founder of the combined Iberian dynasty. He chose as his first marriage partner D Isabel, daughter of the Catholic Monarchs and widow of the Portuguese Infante D Afonso.  The dreadful condition imposed on D Manuel by both his prospective bride and his prospective parents-in-law was that he banish the Jews from Portugal. Although on the face of it the King of Portugal agreed, he had his own solution to this problem.  He summoned all of the 20,000 Jews in  Portugal to gather in the Largo do Rossio in Lisbon in April 1497 in preparation for their sea voyage into the unknown.  And then at the last moment, he decreed that all Jews were to be forcibly converted to Christianity.  The unfortunate Jews were dragged into nearby churches and forcibly baptised there and then, and these people were henceforth referred to as either New Christians or conversos.  In an unexpected way, he had complied with his in-laws´ wishes, and there were no Jews left in Portugal. 


The reason for this action by D Manuel was that the Jews were collectively so rich and numerous that it would greatly disadvantage his kingdom if he expelled them.  Now converted to Christianity, the ex-Jews were forbidden to leave the country and D Manuel prohibited Christians from doing business with them.  Although they were effectively trapped in Portugal, many of these conversos arranged letters of credit with Christian bankers so that after they had illegally left the country they could still access their money.


After years of negotiations, Pope Paul III agreed in 1536 that Portugal might found its own version of the Inquisition, but it would be another 11 years before he permitted it to begin its campaign against the crypto-jews.  Even so, the converso community was able on occasion to buy some relief and we find that in 1605 they bought a general pardon for 1.8 m cruzados and in 1629 they bought emigration rights for 246,000 cruzados. 


Since the regulations of the Inqusition permitted the Holy Office to sequester the goods of any accused crypto-jew, successful businessmen were targetted by the Inquisition as a means of acquiring money.  The families of any such accused were thrown onto the streets to starve, since nobody dared to be seen to help anybody connected to the conversos. Thousands of crypto-jews left the country, taking their wealth and their expertise with them. They emigrated to North Africa, Turkey (especially Salonika and Constantinople), Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany, England and Brazil.  Portugal lost her merchants and her businessmen, and it is possible to trace the relative economic decline of Portugal to this catastrophic and self-imposed loss. 


These religious refugees were welcomed in the Netherlands; any enemy of Spain was deemed to be a friend of the emergent Dutch nation.  From 1568 the Netherlands had begun their 80 year long fight for independence from Spain.   Amsterdam became a major Jewish centre and from there the conversos built a world wide web of trade in gold, sugar, brazilwood, tobacco and  gems.


In 1620, Brazil´s white population of 44,000 included 6,600 conversos in Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Olinda and Recife.  They owned 24 out of 120 sugar mills and dealt with people they knew in Lisbon, Amsterdam and Hamburg in the export of sugar. The Portuguese Inquisition soon began their enquiries. The conversos sent a message to their Jewish brothers in the Netherlands to promote the idea of an invasion of Brazil. The Dutch succeeded in conquering part of north east Brazil around Recife, boosted their own economy in Holland and simultaneously protected Brazilian conversos from the Inquisition. Many Brazilian conversos then publicly returned to Judaism and thrived as sugar barons, exporters, brokers, financiers and slave traders.  When the Portuguese retook Recife some 25 years later, most of the 600 conversos chose to move on.  Some took their sugar knowledge to islands of Caribbean and some moved to New Amsterdam but the majority returned to the Netherlands.


Welcomed by Lord Protector Cromwell in 1655, Sephardim arrived in Jamaica from all over the world and they began to dominate the illegal supply of European goods to Spanish America.  Between 1656 and 1676 Jamaica sent to England about £4 million worth of silver bullion. By 1770 England was making 33% of its seaborne trade with its colonies, mainly the West Indies where Jamaica was most important.


The Sephardic Diaspora left Portugal with a much reduced merchant and entrepreneurial class and the skills of the Jews in commerce and banking proved a bounty to the English and Dutch and a huge loss to Portugal.  I wonder if D Manuel´s marriage was worth the price that Portugal paid? 

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