The Anousim of Portugal

The year 1492 was not just the year in which Columbus sailed to America. For it was also in that same year that the infamous Edict of Expulsion was signed at Granada by the very Christian rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, on March 31, 1492, and a whole era of Jewish history came to a sudden end.

Jews were given three months to decide whether to convert to Catholicism or leave the country, where their ancestors had lived for over a thousand years. Those who refused to accept baptism, were compelled to seek refuge wherever they would be accepted, some went to North Africa, some to Italy, Greece or Turkey, but many thought that near-by Portugal might offer them a new home.

Between 120 and 150.000 Spanish Jews thought they had found a temporary refuge in Portugal. None of them could have foreseen the terrible fate that awaited them.

Consequently, as soon as the infamous decree was promulgated, a Jewish delegation went to Portugal to negotiate their eventual admission in the country. King John II and some of his advisers, saw immediately an opportunity to augment the royal treasury and he approved their admission under certain conditions. Affluent families were charged the large sum of 100 cruzados per family, for the right of permanent residence (there were over 600 of them.) The majority of the exiles, however, were taxed eight cruzados per head, for the right to remain in Portugal for no more than eight months, at which time ships would be provided to take them to other destinations. Between 120 and 150.000 Spanish Jews thought they had found a temporary refuge in Portugal. None of them could have foreseen the terrible fate that awaited them.

Hardly had the refugees set foot on Portuguese soil, when they began to be subjected to various pressures from the government and the populace. They were blamed by some for bringing the plague, and by others, for defying the teachings of the Church. King John, himself, eventually changed his mind about the Jewish refugees, when he realized that they might be an asset to his country and that it was therefore imperative to retain them in Portugal.

As the eight-month term drew to a close, in the Spring of 1493, he saw to it that only a small number of ships would be provided for the exodus, so that only few Jews were able to leave. The rest were now accused of having violated the initial agreement and, in accordance with one of its stipulations, they were declared to be slaves and handed over to Christian masters, unless they accept baptism. In that same year, some 700 children were forcibly taken away from their parents and shipped to the African island of São Tomé in an unsuccessful attempt to populate this inhospitable place.

The wretched circumstances in which the Spanish refugees in Portugal now found themselves were alleviated, for a time, when Dom Manuel acceded to the throne in 1495. One of his first decisions was to order that the enslaved Jews be set free. Alas, the hopes aroused by the new regime, proved to be illusory.

Indeed, an event in the royal family had tragic consequences for the Jewish community of Portugal, as a whole. King Manuel was considering marrying Princess Isabella, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Such a marriage would have had considerable political significance for it would have made it possible for one of his descendants to eventually inherit the throne of Spain, one day. But Isabella had stipulated, as a precondition for the marriage, that Portugal should follow the Spanish example by expelling the Jews from the country.

This prospect of a possible unification of the entire Iberian Peninsula under a monarch of the house of Braganza, proved irresistible. On December 5, 1496, Manuel issued a decree ordering all Jews — and not only the Spanish refugees — and all Moors, to leave Portugal by the end of October 1497.

The expulsion, however, was never carried out, because Manuel had second thoughts about it. Realizing that by ridding Portugal of all its Jews, he would lose an important segment of its middle class, with none to carry on their commercial, industrial and fiscal activities, Manuel resorted to a most drastic measure, which had not been tried before, not even in Spain. He would simply compel all the Jews of his country to convert to Christianity. He had tried persuasion and torture, with little success. The Chief Rabbi, Simon Maimi, had died resisting conversion. He would now proceed in the most forceful manner.

Manuel did not waste any time. He decreed that all the synagogues and study-houses should be confiscated and the Jews were commanded to surrender their books. On March 19, 1497, during the Jewish Passover, orders were given that all the Jewish children between the ages of four and fourteen, be forcibly converted and permanently separated from their parents unless they accepted baptism as well.

Scenes of indescribable horror were witnessed all over the country that day; some fathers strangling their sons in a last embrace, rather than surrender them to a fate that they considered worse than death; yet only in few cases, did they convert in order to be able to stay with them. Although three ports of embarkation had been designated for the final expulsion, the Jews were now told that they would all have to depart from Lisbon. And thus, they came there from all parts of the country. Once in the capital, however, all pretense at carrying out the expulsion was dropped.

They were kept without food and drink in the hope that these privations would open their eyes to the true faith. Renegades and friars tried to persuade them that life was worth a Mass. Some succumbed to the temptation. Those who refused were kept closely guarded until the time limit for their departure had lapsed. They were then informed that their penalty for their disobedience was enslavement and that they could recover their freedom only by adopting the Christian faith.

Twenty thousand Jews were brought in successive groups to the palace grounds of the Estaos. Those who would not go willingly to the baptismal font, were dragged with brutal force. Those who were still protesting, had Holy Water flung over them from a distance, and declared to be Christians. By September, the forceful conversions had been completed. All the Jews who had not previously left the country, be they native Portuguese or refugees from Spain, had been made Christians against their will. Deep in their heart, however, they retained the memory of their origins for centuries. The new converts became known as Christianos Nuevos, Conversos or Marranos, a Spanish term which mean “pig.”

Professor Yerushalmi, quoting a recently discovered document published by Tishby, states that there were a few exceptions, mainly some twenty seven scholars and leaders who refused baptism and were imprisoned and then expelled from the country six months later.

Thirty years later, Dom Fernando Coutinho, Bishop of Silves, could still remember with horror, the episodes he had witnessed with his own eyes at this tragic time, when he saw heartbroken fathers bring their sons to the font, protesting and calling God to witness that they wished to die together in the Law of Moses.

Recalling the objections he had shared with other prelates and royal counselors at the time, Bishop Coutinho observed that: “baptism received by force may have the appearance of a sacrament, but its spirit is lacking, and stabbing a person in the breast is not the only form that invalidates a conversion.”

Great humanist chroniclers as Jerónimo Osório and Damião de Góis, otherwise favorable to Manuel, roundly condemned the forced conversion and wrote heartbreaking accounts of these events.

Only months before the final upheaval, Manuel had consulted astronomer and astrologer Abraham Zacuto about the advisability of sending Vasco da Gama on his voyage to India. Jews were involved in all the facets of the economy of the nation. They were developing printing and map-making. In the academies of Lisbon and elsewhere, Jewish scholarship was flourishing.

“A poignant symbol of this period” writes Yoseph Yerushalmi, “may be seen in a granite stone inscribed in Hebrew that was recently unearthed in Gouveia. The stone was apparently once on the façade of a synagogue:

The glory of this house shall be greater than that of the former, says the Lord of Hosts (Haggai, 2:9) Completed was our holy and glorious house (Is. 64:10) In the year: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return unto Zion with joy (berinah) (Is. 35 and 51)

Berinah provides the date 5257 of the Jewish calendar, which began on Sept. 9, 1496, that is exactly two months before the edict of expulsion.”

The forced conversion of 1497, was illegal by any standards, says Yerushalmi, as he quotes the Converso scholar and poet, who eventually returned to Judaism, Samuel Usque, who referred to it as “this violence which is contrary to divine and human laws” “esta violência, contra as leys diuinas e humanas.”

Solomon Ibn Varga, another converso who later returned to Judaism, would write a few years later: “And what will it profit our lord and king to pour holy water on the Jews, calling them Pedro or Pablo while they kept their faith like Akiba and Tarfon? Know, Sire, that Judaism is like an incurable disease.”

Having achieved his immediate purpose, Manuel felt that he could afford to adopt a relatively lenient policy towards the converts. He promised that for a period of twenty years, no inquiries would be made into their religious beliefs. In the words of this proclamation, he stated that the converts would eventually “lose their accustomed habits and be confirmed in our holy faith.”

History, however, showed that Manuel was completely wrong on this matter and the New Converts (Conversos) or Marranos managed to retain a strong sense of their identity for centuries, in some cases to this day, five hundred years later. They formed a new social class in Portugal and Spain and the Christian countries where they were able to settle and they played a major role in the culture and the economy of theses nations. The Conversos used to marry among themselves thus strengthening their family ties and their sense of community.

Thus, a secret religious culture developed in Portugal, as it had in Spain among the majority of the New Christians…

Those who were able to escape to Moslem countries, usually reverted to their ancestral faith. When the New Christians were able to settle in Holland after 1590, they returned to Judaism and formed one of the most important centers of former Conversos in Western Europe. Saloniki had been the first center since 1492.

Conversos continued to emigrate, prompting the authorities to withhold the right of emigration from the New Christians, except for those who had received permission from the king.

In fact, the Conversos were still considered as Jews by most Portuguese people. And that may explain what happened in the spring of 1506. On Good Friday, enflamed by the sermons of zealous Dominican friars, the populace went on a rampage and massacred over two thousand New Christians in Lisbon. Those who incited the massacre (pogrom) including the friars, were severely punished later.

Aaron Lichtenstein writes in the Encyclopedia Judaica:

If the Conversos had had any thoughts of finding solace in the religion thrust upon them, such riots would have surely dissuaded them.

The New Christians lived in constant fear of being denounced, not just by informers, but even by friends. Indeed, those who were accused by the Inquisition could only be reconciled, if they submitted the names of individuals who might still be attached to some Jewish belief or custom.

Thus, a secret religious culture developed in Portugal, as it had in Spain among the majority of the New Christians; that culture has been described as “crypto-Judaism.” While attending church and conducting themselves as Catholics, externally, they maintained an acute sense of their Jewish identity, reciting some Jewish prayers and practicing some Jewish observances, often at great risk of being arrested by the agents of the Holy Office or being denounced inadvertantly by a friend under torture.

In 1516, King Manuel requested the permission from Pope Leo X to establish an Office of the Inquisition, on the Spanish model. After half a century of negotiations with the Holy See, the Inquisition was finally firmly established in 1547. Other short-lived attempts had not succeeded because the Conversos had used all their influence to prevent it from happening, sending some delegates with important sums of money to Rome in order to discuss this matter with the pope himself.

In 1579, the Inquisitors obtained the right to confiscate the property of those who had been found guilty of Judaizing. Any one who did not have a certificate attesting to the purity of his/her Christian background or pureza de la sangre (purity of the blood), was living in fear of being arrested by the Inquisition for whatever reason and then, having his property confiscated for the slight condemnation.

Father António Vieira accused the Agents of the Inquisition of being motivated more by greed than by religious zeal. The Inquisitors were soon able to build themselves palaces and enjoy the tremendous wealth that had been confiscated from the Conversos who were tried by their tribunal.

The agents of the Inquisition would organize an auto da fe (act of faith) from time to time, that is a popular ceremony during which the Inquisitors would make known their judicial sentence and the eventual reconciliation of penitents. It was held in great pomp in a Church or a central square, in the presence of the dignitaries of the Church and large crowds. Those who were found guilty were “relaxed” to the secular authorities who were responsible for their execution at a place of burning (quemadero.) Vituperative sermons were usually delivered by some cleric on that occasion and we actually possess copies of many of them.

They thought they were the only Jews left in the world […] until he recited the Shema Yisrael and they then recognized the name “Adonay.”

The Inquisition was finally abolished on March 31, 1821. During the 270 years of its existence, the Holy Office of the Inquisition had implicated over 40,000 persons, of whom 30,000 were sentenced at autos-da-fe. A total of 750 of these were staged, and 29,000 persons were reconciled to the Church, 600 were burned in effigy and 1200 were burned alive on the stake for the sin of Judaizing.

A constant flow of Conversos were escaping to the communities of the Marrano Diaspora, where most of them would then revert to Judaism. Some ex-Marranos, however, experienced great difficulties in entering a social and religious community totally alien to their background. Their conversion from Catholicism to Judaism did not occur without painful emotional stress. Some could not accept the norms and practices of the Jewish community and were thus not accepted by the Rabbinical courts.

Such was the case of a number of extremely well-educated and refined individuals like Uriel da Costa, Juan de Prado and the distinguished philosopher Barukh Spinoza.

  • Uriel da Costa

    Was born in Oporto in 1585. After much soul-searching, he decided to flee to Amsterdam, only to discover that his version of Judaism was at variance with that of the Dutch community. He ultimately was incapable of reconciling his concepts of the Jewish faith with the accepted norms of the rabbis. He criticized the “Pharisees of Amsterdam” as rigid and ritualistic. He was eventually excommunicated and publicly humiliated and he left the Jewish community. His autobiography, the Exemplar Humanae Vitae, gives us a moving account of his unsuccessful efforts to return to Judaism. He apparently committed suicide soon after writing this work.

    I was born in Portugal, in a city of the same name, but commonly called Oporto. My parents were of the nobility, originally descended from those Jews who were forced to embrace Christianity in that kingdom. My father was a true Christian and a man of unquestioned honor and integrity. I received a good education at home. I studied liberal arts as young gentlemen generally do and I applied myself to the study of law. As to my character and disposition, I am by nature very pious and compassionate I always had an aversion to that insolent tribe of men who are inclined to despise and trample upon others, and I therefore took every opportunity to defend the oppressed and to make their cause my own.

    Religion has brought incredible suffering in my life. I was raised in Roman Catholicism but the dread of eternal damnation always made me anxious to observe all its doctrines punctiliously. I used my leisure time to read the Gospels, the Breviaries of the Confessors and other religious literature. But the more time I devoted to them, the more perplexed I became. This caused me so much anguish, doubts and inner conflicts that I was overwhelmed with grief and melancholy…

    I found it difficult, however, to shake off the religion in which I had been educated from childhood on. When I was twenty years old, I began to question the teachings concerning the afterlife. I asked myself whether or not they were forgeries and whether belief in them was consistent with reason.

    In my twenty fifth year, I obtained an ecclesiastical benefice as treasurer in the Church, but I was unable to find satisfaction in the Catholic Church. I wanted, however, to attach myself to a religion and so, I studied the Books of Moses and the Prophets. I found that there were some sharp contradictions with some of the doctrines of the New Testament. Hence I decided to become a convert to the Law of Moses and make it the rule of my life. Having made this decision and finding it unsafe to profess this religion in Portugal, I began to think of leaving my native home. I resigned from my ecclesiastical benefice.

    I observed in Amsterdam that the customs and ordinances of the modern Jews were quite different from those commanded by Moses. If the law was to be observed to the letter as it expressly declares, the Jewish interpreters are not justified in adding to it interpretations that are quite contrary to the original text. And this led me to oppose them openly. The modern rabbis are an obstinate group of men vigorous advocates of the teachings of the Pharisees. They could not bear my differing with them.

    Besides, I thought it both sinful and beneath the dignity of man, to be a slave with respect to matters pertaining to the conscience. Therefore I resolved to suffer the worst they would inflict upon me from their congregation. Even my own brothers who before had looked upon me as their teacher, dared not take any notice of me as they passed me in the street, for fear of the rabbis.

  • Barukh Spinoza (1632-1677)

    Was another descendant of Marranos who experienced difficulties with the organized Jewish community of Amsterdam. He must have studied with the leading rabbis of the city, Rabbi Manasse ben Israel and Rabbi Morteira and became deeply influenced by the teachings of Maimonides and Abraham Ibn Ezra. He also studied the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Spinoza became an original and creative philosopher, greatly admired by many. Before long, Spinoza engaged in various controversies with the leaders of the Amsterdam Jewish community and he was eventually excommunicated and declared persona non grata. Here is the text of the rabbinical sentence which was written by Saul Levy Morteira:

    The heads of the Council make known to you that fully aware of the erroneous opinions of Barukh Spinoza, they have endeavored to make him abandon his evil ways. Aware of the abominable heresies taught by him and having examined many testimonies, the Council decided with the advice of the rabbis, that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and cut off from the Community of Israel

    Spinoza wrote an apology in Spanish. It was lost but it may well have been the basis of the Tractacus Theologico-Politicus his work on Biblical criticism which was partly inspired by Abraham Ibn Ezra.

  • Dr. Eliahu da Luna Montalto (16-17th century)

    Was another New Christian who returned to Judaism. He fled Portugal at the end of the 16th century. Owing to his reputation as a distinguished doctor and scientist, he was invited to serve as the personal physician of Marie de Medici, the wife of Henry IV, king of France. He later accepted a post at the University of Pisa, teaching medicine. He then, spent some time in Venice, where he published several medical treatises and eventually returned to France and remained at the service of the Queen until his death, in 1616.

    While in Venice, he formally declared himself a Jew and became a zealous defender of the Jewish faith, endeavoring to convince other conversos to renounce their Christian faith and return to Judaism. He wrote a number of letters to Pedro Rodrigues and Isabella da Fonseca, a sister of his wife, who had escaped from Portugal and settled in Southern France, entreating them to follow his example and affirm their Jewishness.

    Here are some excerpts from the letters Montalto sent to Rodrigues from Venice, in the year 1612:

    The present captivity and the violent tyranny with which the kings of France, Castille, Portugal, England and other kingdoms, force the Jews to adore their false gods and their idols of wood and stone of what other sect does Scripture speak, if not of the erroneous one which you follow and which you entered, not out of conviction, nor by Divine inspiration, but through the compulsory force of kings Dom Manuel and Dom Juan. Indeed, you are not a true Christian, because your father — who lived and died as a secret Jew — acted only out of fear. He did not reveal to you this family secret, when you were a child, and because of that, you have become used to these errors.

    The Lord has led you to a free country in order that you may recognize the truth and free yourself from the abominable blindness and the torpid idolatry in which you have lived up till now, in order that you may come to know and to follow the true God: Creator and not creature, spiritual and not corporeal, most sublime and not subject to human miseries and weaknesses. My soul is extremely pained about your misfortune and your losses. Everything I can do or that the Lord gives me, shall always be yours, because I love you like my soul. Do not get discouraged, because the Lord will remedy everything. May He keep you and comfort you.

  • Michel de Montaigne

    Among the descendants of Marranos who did not return to Judaism, we must mention one of the most original thinkers of the 16th century in France: Michel de Montaigne. His mother was Maria de Lopez and his father also were issued from Marrano families who had settled in Bordeaux. Montaigne actually served as the mayor of this city for a few years.

    According to the late Prof. Salo Baron (vol. XIII, 119) “Montaigne’s awareness of his Jewish antecedents, which he outwardly ignored, may have contributed to his moderate religious skepticism.” There is not a single high-school student in France who does not study the Essays of Montaigne and I, for one, did not know he was of Jewish descent.

Having mentioned the name of the Lopez family, I would like to mention also that Aaron Lopez of Newport, Rhode Island, one of the benefactors of this community, which is one of the oldest ones in the US, sent one of his ships to Lisbon in the early 1750s to rescue his Marrano brother and his family, who all returned to Judaism when they reached America!

The Attitude of the Jewish Community

The majority of the Jews, particularly in Sephardic communities, extended a brotherly reception to the newcomers. The mere knowledge of the fact that they were of Jewish descent would lead all Jews to accept them as brothers and sisters. When they settled in a community, they were not treated as proselytes. They did not even, have to prove that their mother was Jewish. In the Sephardic community of Curaçao, in the Caribbean, they were formally welcomed by a prayer in Portuguese:

Brother/sister, we welcome you in our community. We are glad you chose to return to the faith of our ancestors. We shall not ask you any question about your past. May the God of Israel bless you and your family.


In 1917, Samuel Schwartz, a mining engineer, originally from Galicia, discovered a community of Conversos in a remote northern area of Portugal, near the town of Belmonte. They thought they were the only Jews left in the world. They did not want to believe that Schwarz was a Jew, until he recited the Shema Yisrael and they then recognized the name “Adonay.”

They had succeeded in maintaining their Jewish identity for over four hundred years, marrying mainly among themselves, adhering to the belief in a single personal Deity who would redeem his people at the end of days. They practiced a modicum of Jewish observances, the Sabbath and some of the holidays. They would often light candles on Friday night where they could not be seen from the outside. They would observe Passover and Yom Kippur a day or two before or after the date according to the Jewish calendar in order to confuse the agents of the Inquisition.

They had preserved a few customs of mourning, like the Tahara, the washing of the corpse and the burning of a light during the first seven days of mourning, the Shivah. They performed their own marriage ceremony, by making a declaration in Portuguese which said:

Em nome de Deus de Abrahão, Isaac e Jacob, eu vos uno. Cumpri vos a Sua benção (I commend you to His benediction)

While Schwartz was publicizing his discovery, Captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto, publicly declared himself a Jew and undertook to revitalize the spiritual life of the Marranos in Portugal. He started the publication of a magazine called Halapid, the Torch, and hundreds of descendants of Marranos followed his example. There are probably tens of thousands of them today that are anxious to learn about Judaism and return formally to the faith of their ancestors.

In our days, many Jews are quite perplexed when they learn about various communities which claim to be a Jewish descent and that is unfortunate. Kulanu and Amishav are the two organizations that are actively involved in this outreach work. We need more support from the Jewish community. We need to establish a Jewish presence in Portugal — among other countries — and we must endeavor to undo what the Roman Catholic Church did in centuries past.