500th ANNIVERSARY OF THE FORCED
CONVERSION OF THE JEWS OF PORTUGAL
by Arthur Benveniste
(From an address at Sephardic Temple Tifereth
Israel, Los Angeles, October 1997)
Five years ago we commemorated the expulsion
of the Jews from Spain. The founders of this temple and most of its
members today are descendants of those Jews. The story of the Spanish
Expulsion is well known. Not so well known is what happened five
years later in the neighboring country of Portugal. It is to honor
the memory of the victims of that event that we gather here tonight.
Of those Jews who chose
to flee Spain in 1492, large numbers went to Morocco, Italy and to the
Ottoman Empire. But, the greatest number, perhaps half of the total
went to Portugal.
King João II, of Portugal, allowed
them to enter. He was preparing for war against the Moors and he
needed the taxes collected from these Jews to finance that war. He
also was aware of the great talent of the Jews in many fields including
the mechanics of arms making, which he hoped he would call upon and he
did not want that talent to be available to the Moors.
But his welcome was not
complete. Permanent residence was granted only to 630 wealthy families
who were allowed to establish themselves in several parts of the country
upon payment of 100 cruzados. A number of craftsmen, skilled in arms
making, were also granted permanent residence.
Others were allowed to settle for only eight
months upon payment of eight cruzados for each adult. The king then
bound himself to provide shipping so that they could leave.
One hundred thousand refugees may have entered under these conditions.
At the end of eight months, however, little shipping was available and
few could leave. Those left behind were declared forfeit of their
liberty and were declared slaves of the king. In 1493, many
Jewish children were torn from their parents and send to the recently discovered
island of São Tomé off the west coast of Africa:
In this year of 1493, ... the king
gave to Alvaro de Caminha the Captaincy of the Island of São Tome
of right and inheritance; and as for the Castilian Jews who had not left
his kingdom within the assigned date, he ordered that, according to the
condition upon their entry, all the boys, and young men and girls of the
Jews be taken into captivity. After having them all turned into Christians,
he sent them to the said island with Alvaro de Caminha, so that by being
secluded, they would have reasons for being better Christians, and [the
king] would have in this reason for the island to be better populated,
which, as a result, culminated in great growth.1
In 1993 the descendants of
those children, still living on São Tome, held ceremonies to commemorate
that tragic event.
The son of King João
II, Crown Prince Affanso, was married to Princess Isabel, the daughter
of the Catholic Kings of Spain. One day Affanso went fishing.
Later that day his body was found, drowned. It is not known if this
was an accident or foul play. Princess Isabel, now a widow and still
a very young woman, returned to Madrid.
In 1494 King João died. Next
in line of succession to the throne was a cousin, Manoel.
The new king recognized that the Jewish slaves
were guiltless and he restored them their liberty. He even refused
a gift offered to him in gratitude. Was this because he was truly
an enlightened monarch or because he hoped to win them over to Christianity?
The status of the Jews of Portugal appeared to be improving and they must
have felt secure to be ruled by such a seemingly merciful king.
But, their good fortune did not last. Soon their lives were again
There was some dispute
as to the legitimacy of Manoelís claim to the monarchy. He
needed a way to solidify his position. His solution: marry Princess
Isabel of Spain. A union with the widow of the late crown prince
would not only give him a stronger claim to the throne, but also create
a possible future union with Spain in which all of Iberia would be ruled
by Manoel or one of his descendants.
He made an offer to Ferdinand and Isabella.
Their answer: the marriage would approved only if the Jews were expelled
Manoel was in a dilemma;
he did not want to lose the wealth and skills of Jews and he feared that
these skills would be used to the advantage of the Moors in the coming
war. But, he felt that a marriage to Princess Isabel was necessary.
Finally, Isabel herself
interceded; she announced that she would not accept the marriage unless
the Jews were expelled. Manoel agreed to the terms. A marriage
agreement was signed on November 30, 1496. Five days later, the king
issued a decree banishing the Jews from the country. They were ordered
to leave Portugal by October 1497.
Soon Manoel began to question
his decision. He knew of the value of the Jews and may genuinely
have felt he could convert them. He wanted to find some
way to keep them in Portugal as Catholics. On the advice of the Apostate
Levi ben Shem-tob he found a way to achieve this goal.
Friday March 19, 1497 (the first day of Passover)
Jewish parents were ordered to take their children between the ages of
four and fourteen to Lisbon. On arrival in the capital, they were told
that their children would be taken from them and given to Catholic families
to be raised as good Catholics.
At the appointed
time, those children who were not presented voluntarily were seized by
the officials and forced to the font. Scenes of indescribable horror
were witnessed as they were torn away by the royal bailiffs. ...
In many cases, parents smothered their offspring in their farewell embrace.
In others, they threw them into wells in order to save them from the disgrace
of apostasy, and then killed themselves. Sometimes, even old men
were dragged to the churches and forcibly baptized by over-zealous fanatics,
who were under the impression that a general conversion of all the Jews
had been ordered. The desired effect of forcing the parents to accompany
their children into baptism rather than lose them for good was achieved
only on exceptionally rare occasions. In all other cases, the unwilling
neophytes, some mere babies, were distributed throughout the country, as
far as possible from home, to be brought up in Christian surroundings.
More than thirty years
later, the terrible scenes still lived in the mind of the old Bishop Coutinho.
" saw many persons dragged by the hair to the font," he wrote. "Sometimes,
I saw a father, his head covered in sign of grief and pain, lead his son
to the font, protesting and calling God to witness that they wished to
die together in the law of Moses. Yet more terrible things that were
done with them did I witness, with my own eyes." The children of the Moslems,
who were included in the edict of expulsion, were untouched. The
authorities cynically confessed the reason. It was that there were
lands in which the Crescent was supreme, and in which reprisals might be
carried out! 2
Meanwhile the final date
for departure was arriving. At first the king gave the Jews
three ports from which to leave. But soon he changed his mind and
ordered them all to leave from Lisbon. In October 1497 some twenty
thousand Jews from all parts of Portugal gathered in Lisbon where they
were herded onto the courtyard of Os Estâos, a palace normally used
for diplomatic receptions. Here they were harangued by priests and apostate
Jews in an attempt to bring them to the baptismal font. Some succumbed.
The rest were kept under guard until the time for their departure had elapsed.
They were then informed that by their failure to leave they were now declared
forfeit of their liberty and again were the king's slaves. More succumbed,
others were dragged to the font by force. And the remainder?
Holy water was sprinkled on them and they were declared to be Christians.
King Manoel then informed the Catholic Kings
of Spain. "There are no more Jews in Portugal"
1. Source: Pina, Rui de. Chronica
D'El Rei Dom João 11. Collecqão de Livros Inéditos
de História Portugueza (first published in Lisbon, 1792).
As quoted in : Raphael, David The Expulsion 1492 Chronicles, Carmi House
Press, North Hollywood, CA 1992
2. Roth Cecil: A History of the Marranos,
Fifth Edition, Sepher-Hermon Press, Inc New York, 1992