Judaic Research Continues in Balearic Islands and Sao Tome

By Gloria Mound

As an individual researcher in the 1970s, then very part-time, I started to examine the Jewish history of the smaller Balearic Islands of Ibiza and Formentera, near southern Spain. I was fortunate enough in this exceptionally insular society to be introduced to a number of persons who were willing to admit that these two small islands not only had a Jewish history, but that a community had continued there until modern times. When the Jews of the controlling island of Majorca had only two choices in the 15th century -- flee or convert -- a community of Jews continued there, protected by the islanders.

In the course of the next 20 years, I discovered two secret synagogues in use until the Spanish Civil War in 1936, a Megilla Esther from the 14th century (at present being restored by the Spanish Government), and numerous families who (when I finally gained their confidence) told me many things about the traditions and customs of the families of this community.

I lived with my family in London, but by 1985 our children were already married and living in Israel, and we knew we would eventually make aliyah. However, we decided to spend some time living on these islands to learn more about their Jewish history. Our stay lengthened from one year to three, during which we held open house on Shabbat, opened a cheder for children that expanded to accommodate their parents and grandparents, and held an annual seder, packing in as many as our tiny flat would hold.

Later our research extended to Majorca and Minorca, where I discovered two synagogues and a cemetery, as well as other Jewish artifacts and documents.

Upon arrival in Israel, on a minimal budget, my husband and I decided to collate all the Marrano/Anusim material we held, as well as our unique book collection, so as to be a data base for those interested in the subject. I started to have invitations to lecture in the U.K. and America and to publish my findings. In 1988 I was given the honor, on account of my discoveries, to be made an Honorary Research Fellow of the prestigious University of Glasgow, Scotland, an honor that has been renewed each year since. I have also lectured at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as several American universities.

From these visits I have had the opportunity to investigate other secret Jewish communities and their history in places like Mexico, New Mexico, the Caribbean, and Sao Tome Y Principe, consulted by other researchers as well as individuals searching out their Jewish roots.

The Jewish history of Sao Tome Y Principe, two small islands off the west coast of Africa, close to Guinea, includes a tragic era. In 1493, one year after the Jews were expelled from Spain, a large percentage of them had taken refuge in Portugal, where the edicts of banishment did not begin until 1496. King Manuel of Portugal, seeking funds to finance his program of considerable colonial expansion, exacted huge head taxes on the Jews, with very little time to pay, and fines if not paid by a certain date.

The king wanted to colonize the islands of Sao Tome Y Principe (to "whiten the race," as he put it), but the Portuguese did not relish settling in the fever- and crocodile-infested islands. When it was seen that there was very little likelihood that the majority of the Jews would pay the demanded tax, the king deported their young children, aged 2 to 10, to Sao Tome Y Principe. In the port of Lisbon, no fewer than 2000 children were torn from their parents and herded onto boats as slaves (Samuel Usque reports this in his book, Tribulations of Israel ). Within a year, only 600 of the children remained alive. Usque recorded that when the parents of the children had seen that the deportation was inevitable, they impressed on the children to keep to the Laws of Moses; some even married them off amongst each other.

The entreaties of the parents apparently had not gone in vain, as reports reached the Office of The Inquisition in Lisbon that in Sao Tome there were incidents of obvious Jewish observance. The local church was greatly incensed. The bishop appointed in 1616, Pedro da Cunha Lobo, became obsessed with the problem. According to an historical source, on vimhat Torah 1621, he was awakened by a procession, rushed out to confront them, and was so heartily abused by the demonstrators that in disgust he gave up and took the next ship back to Portugal.

There was a small influx of Jewish cocoa and sugar traders to the islands in the 19th and 20th centuries, two of whom are buried in the Sao Tome cemetery.

Today, these islands of approximately 100,000 inhabitants are independent of Portugal. Two years ago Israel's first ambassador, Dr. Mose Liba, was warmly received. He found that the descendants of the child slaves were still a very distinctive section of the population (by their whiter skins) proud of their historic past and desirous of contact with Jews outside. Some Jewish customs seem to have continued, although by now mixed with the heavy Creole society values and culture.

In order to commemorate the children who were torn from their parents in the 15th century, an International Conference was held to coincide with the islands' twentieth Independence Day, on July 12, 1995. Participants attended from Israel, the US, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain. It is hoped that sponsorship will come forward for further research and studies in the area. Inquisition archives that have been closed for hundreds of years, including 571 pages dealing just with Jews in Sao Tome, have now been opened to researchers and are eagerly being awaited at the Institute for Marrano (Anusim) Studies in Gan Yavneh, Israel. It is hoped interested persons will come forward to enable this valuable opportunity to be used.

The author, executive director of the Institute for Marrano (Anusim) Studies, is seeking speaking engagements for her tour next spring. Interested groups and individuals are invited to contact her at Casa Shalom, PO Box 66, Gan Yavneh, Israel 70800. Tel/Fax 972-(0)8-573-150.