Find South America on a map and you can't miss Brazil. It's the largest country on
the continent by far and takes up most of the bulge that is the northern part of
the continent. It is a land of immense tropical rain forests interspersed with huge
arid plains. It is the home of the mighty Amazon River. Like the rest of South America,
Brazil is a largely Catholic country, although the people speak Portuguese instead
of Spanish. So how is there a place for Jews in Brazil's history? Few people know
that centuries ago, for a short period, an area on the Northeast coast of the country
was actually a Dutch colony. It was during that period that Jews from Europe found
their place in the history of Brazil.
Shortly after Columbus discovered America in 1492, the Pope divided the New World
between Spain and Portugal. He drew a line north and south through the western hemisphere.
Everything west of the line belonged to Spain; everything east, primarily Brazil,
belonged to Portugal. In 1500, the Portuguese Admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral arrived
in Brazil to explore the new territory, and soon afterward the first citizens began
arriving to colonize it.
The year 1492 also marks the start of the Second Diaspora, when Jews who were expelled
from Spain dispersed to many other parts of the world. Before the Diaspora, Jews
had enjoyed liberty and economic success in Spain for centuries. In the 8th century,
Moslems from North Africa, called Moors, invaded Spain and Portugal. Their Islamic
culture became entrenched in Spain, and many Moors became part of the Spanish nobility.
Unlike other European countries, Spain offered an atmosphere of tolerance and the
Jews were able to blend into Spanish society alongside the Catholics. They became
craftsmen, businessmen, and financiers, and even held high government posts.
In the 1400's, Spain and Portugal began leaning toward the view that unity in their
countries required all citizens to be Catholics. The Catholic Church had always guarded
against the tainting of their faith by heresy, but the Inquisition, which began in
Spain and spread to Portugal and their colonies, went after supposed heretics with
ferocity. Moors and Jews were required to give up their religion and profess Catholicism.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were persuaded by their fanatical confessor, Torquemada,
to enact the expulsion order. This, in hindsight, seems particularly odd as we know
that Jews had reached the highest circles of court life and Ferdinand himself is
believed to be partially of Jewish descent. Rich Jews had offered to pay the monarchs
not to enact the order, but in a dramatic gesture, Torquemada tore the crucifix from
his breast and shouted "Judas betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. Will you likewise
betray your Lord for money?" The King and Queen were swayed and the Jews were banished.
All non-Catholics, primarily Jews, were ordered to become Catholic or leave Spain.
Many fled over the border to Portugal. But in 1497 the Portuguese government banished
them from Portugal as well. Many of the Jews fled to other more hospitable European
countries, such as Holland. The call for settlers to emigrate to Brazil came just
at the time that Jews needed to leave Portugal and many were attracted to the chance
to start over far from the religious persecution they found in Europe.
Many of these Jews were "New Christians", or "Marranos", for they had officially
converted to Catholicism rather than be banished or killed. The first officially
sanctioned Marrano group was given license in 1502 to settle in Brazil and export
the brazil wood back to Portugal. The Marranos began farming, and it is believed
that the first sugar cane was brought by a Jewish farmer from Madeira to Brazil in
1532. Sugar cane became the foundation of the Caribbean economy for several centuries.
The Marranos became rich plantation owners, businessmen, importers, even writers
Spain and Portugal were united under one monarch in 1580, and the Inquisition spread
to their colonies. The practice of Judaism was forbidden. Although Marranos were
publicly practicing Catholics, they set up clandestine societies to secretly practice
their real religion, Judaism. In Portugal, authorities were separating the children
of remaining Jews from their parents and sending them to Brazil to be raised as Catholics.
The Jews already in Brazil used their secret groups to teach these children about
their true heritage, so the Jewish faith survived in Brazil, albeit entirely hidden
from public view.
Many of those Jews, who had been forced to convert to Catholicism but who had stayed
in Spain and Portugal, eventually emigrated as well. But the presence of a crucifix
around someone's neck didn't lessen the prejudice and suspicion that had caused the
expulsion edict in the first place. Wealthy "secret" Jews who had tried to stay behind
ended up buying their way out of Portugal or Spain and settling in Amsterdam. In
Holland, they were allowed to worship in peace; Amsterdam was a financial capital
of Europe where those with money were always welcome.
The division of the New World by the Pope ignored the claims of the rest of the European
powers to the New World. England, France, and Holland all had either sent explorers
to the New World, or simply wanted a piece of it. They felt they needed colonies
to both supply them with raw imports and to provide a market for their industrial
output. In 1630, the Dutch West India Company sent a fleet to attempt to conquer
the city of Recife, located at the northeastern edge of Brazil. Jewish soldiers and
explorers were among the Dutch on this successful mission. The new Dutch territory
was renamed New Holland. As in Holland, religious freedom was proclaimed.
Jews who had practiced their religion in hiding for decades in South America celebrated
so exuberantly with parades and marches through town that the Dutch had to ask them
to restrain their joy.
In 1636, a synagogue was built for the "Holy Congregation" in Recife. Jews began
arriving from Poland, Turkey, and Hungary as well as more from Spain and Portugal.
In 1642, a large group of Jews arrived from Amsterdam. In this group were Rabbi Isaac
Aboab de Fonseca and Cantor Moses de Aguilar. The population of Recife reached a
high point in 1645, with 50% of the white population being Jewish.
The Jews who had settled early on in Brazil were the landowners and sugar barons.
Those arriving later became involved in trade. Brazilian Jews formed an overseas
trading network with Jews still in Amsterdam, forming partnerships to bring supplies
to Brazil. Jews even became successful slave traders. In 1645, a Jew was granted
permission by the West India Company to practice law.
The New Holland Supreme Court refused to accept his license, but the Jewish community
in Amsterdam interceded on his behalf and he was eventually allowed to practice law
in New Holland. The Christian businessmen were jealous of the success of the Jews,
particularly in the lucrative slave trade, and more than once petitioned the government
to limit Jewish trading practice. The government refused to take action: the business
generated by the Jews was too important to the economy of the colony to be hindered
in any way.
The Portuguese wanted their valuable territory back. Using remaining Portuguese citizens
and the native Indians as spies, the Portuguese planned to attack Recife and regain
control of the northeastern portion of Brazil. At the same time, many farmers were
going deeply into debt with the Dutch West India Company when bad sugar harvests
hindered their ability to pay their bills and taxes. Some feel that these indebted
farmers also supported the Portuguese behind the scenes because a Portuguese victory
would absolve them of their debts to Holland. The new war over Brazil began in 1645,
and lasted until 1654. Jews fought and died alongside other Dutch citizens. Some,
including Jews, were captured and executed as traitors; others were returned to Portugal
to be tried. Starvation killed even more citizens. Dutch ships intermittently arrived
with food, but it was not enough and the Dutch finally surrendered in 1654. The period
of religious freedom and tolerance for Jews in Brazil had lasted for just 24 short
years, from 1630 until 1654, and now it was gone.
In their treaty of surrender, the Dutch had required the Jews to be treated the same
as other Dutch citizens: they had to leave within three months and would be allowed
to sell their property and businesses. Some returned to Amsterdam, among them Rabbi
Aboab da Fonseca and Cantor De Aguilar. One boatload, blown off course, even settled
in New Amsterdam (later New York City), and founded the first Jewish community in
New York. The rest sailed to other Caribbean islands or colonies, such as Curacao,
Barbados and Surinam (later Dutch Guiana). Only a few Marranos remained in Brazil.
Records exist for the extradition of several hundred Jews who were send to Portugal
because of the Inquisition as late as 1713. Finally, a royal decree in 1773 ended
the practices of the Inquisition. By that time, however, the few remaining Marranos
had been so assimilated into the Brazilian Catholic culture that they had lost knowledge
of Jewish practices and customs. Jews only began returning to Brazil in 1822 when
it became independent of Portugal.
Even today, Brazil is still considered a rather adventurous travel destination. Imagine
what the trip must have been like in the days when it meant a month-long sea voyage
from Europe on a creaky clipper ship. In those days, even a minor skin abrasion sustained
in the tropics could result in a life-threatening infection. What kind of people
would make such a trip rather than remain securely at home in a cosmopolitan city
like Amsterdam? The answers are varied: some came to Brazil for its economic potential;
some came for religious freedom; some came merely to escape their past. The individual
stories of some of these people, which I've managed to unearth, provide a fascinating
insight, on a more "personal" level, to those turbulent times.