1497 THE FORCED CONVERSION OF
THE JEWS OF PORTUGAL
by Arthur Benveniste
(From an address at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, Los Angeles, October 1997)
The story of the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Span is well known. Not so well known is what happened five years later in the neighboring country of Portugal .
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, the king saw to it that 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 sent 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 in peril.
There was some dispute as to the legitimacy of Manoel's 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 be approved only if the Jews were expelled from Portugal .
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. "I 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 priests and apostate Jews harangued them 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