The Netherlands, at the centre of Western Europe, was a Spanish colony in the sixteenth
century and saw some of the most bitter conflicts and atrocities of religious persecution.
Geographically, a small country located at the mouths of some of Europe's great trading
rivers its population was highly concentrated and divided by religious affiliation.
Part of the Spanish Empire revolt occurred for religious freedom against the Spanish
Roman Catholics who were in occupation (for detail see Macrohistory and World Report)
After Independence religious tolerance was the key to political stability, so that
all denominations could live together peacefully and maintain trade with the rest
of the world, the new nation's lifeblood.
After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many Marranos fled first to Portugal
but moved in from there later when the Inquisition arrived. Amsterdam became the
most popular destination, a place where they could openly practice their religion.
Through the first half of the seventeenth century, Amsterdam became the world's leading
trading city and the home of a thriving Jewish community. In 1654, a group of Jews
sailed from Amsterdam to the Americas and founded the first Jewish community in the
Some of the earliest refugees from Spain and Portugal fled to the Canary Islands
and from there to Flanders. Not long after the beginning of the sixteenth century,
colonies of New Christians established their headquarters at Bruges and Antwerp,
and, strong in faith, secretly attended organized services conducted by rabbis especially
invited and smuggled in from Italy. Their courage attracted other Italian Marranos
to settle in Flemish cities. They even dared surreptitiously to publish a prayer-book.
Their systematic smuggling of crypto-Jews from Portugal on their merchant ships led
the Netherlands authorities to set up an unofficial Inquisition in Zeeland, which
compelled some of the Marranos to land temporarily in England until such time as
the coast would be clear for them to disembark in Flanders.
Portuguese Marranos who spread throughout the world established contacts with family
and friends who stayed in Portugal. These trading-houses abroad became a means of
insurance if leaving Portugal. (More detail see The Jews Come to Holland)
The Sephardi synagogue in Amsterdam was authorised in 1639 and built between 1671-5.
in 1656 a Dutch Jew named Menasseh ben Israel, petitioned Oliver Cromwell to allow
Jews to return to Britain. Bevis Marks, London, a smaller version of the synagogue
in Amsterdam was opened in London in 1701 (see Britain)
Candle Light Concert, February 5th 2009, in the Esnoga, Amsterdam
Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam
(Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997), pp. 1,2, 4 and 18.
The Portuguese conversos who made their way to Amsterdam in the late sixteenth and
early seventeenth centuries would not have been conspicuous upon arrival, despite
their ignorance of Dutch and their Iberian dress. Foreign immigration to the United
Provinces was at a peak in these years. In at least one quarter of the city, around
the Bloemstraat, it was easier to make oneself understood in French or Flemish than
in Dutch. Later in the seventeenth century the German poet Philipp von Zesen described
the Amsterdam Exchange as a place where "almost the whole world trades" - one could
find there "Poles, Hungarians, Walloons, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Muscovites, Persians,
Turks, and even, occasionally, Hindus." Some of the foreigners were temporary residents,
but by the late sixteenth century thousands of foreigners had already settled permanently
in Amsterdam. Some had fled war, some religious persecution; others were drawn by
economic opportunities in the bustling metropolis on the Amstel.
It was into this milieu that a few Portuguese converso merchants and their families
introduced themselves in the last years of the sixteenth century. By 1603 one could
speak of a tiny ex-converso community which had established Jewish worship with the
aid of a rabbi from Emden. Not long thereafter, in 1609, the community entered a
period of extremely rapid growth. In that year the Twelve Years Truce ended a Spanish
embargo on Dutch commerce and shipping which had also blocked Dutch trade with Portugal,
then under Spanish rule. The truce opened up rich possibilities in Amsterdam for
"Portuguese" immigrants, who brought with them experience in Portuguese colonial
What had begun as a small nucleus of merchant families had developed by 1639 into
a relatively conspicuous community of well over a thousand persons. Portuguese Jews
could be seen entering and leaving the public synagogue they had built, burying their
dead at the cemetery they had established just outside the city, and negotiating
on the Stock Exchange floor.
During its heyday in the 1670s, the community had a population of about 2,500; its
wealth was given concrete expression in the form of an elegant and monumental new
synagogue (still a landmark in Amsterdam); and with its Hebrew printing press, diaspora-wide
welfare activity, and distinguished rabbis, its reputation in the Jewish world was
firmly established. It would have taken a canny observer indeed to perceive that
the community was in fact facing a precipitous decline. (pp. 1-2)
[The Sephardim] - generally, in the first half of the seventeenth century, they tended
to specialize in Portuguese colonial wares such as sugar, tobacco, spices, and diamonds,
trading almost exclusively with Lisbon, Porto, Madeira, and the Azores. Being engaged
in this branch of commerce, it was highly advantageous for them to be located in
Amsterdam, which was the main northern entrepôt for colonial commodities. But as
a result they were also highly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of Dutch-Iberian relations.
This situation changed, however, in the second half of the century (after the signing
of the Treaty of Münster in 1648), when Spanish and Spanish-American ports were opened
to Dutch "Portuguese" merchants. The focus of their activity shifted in this period
to two new routes: trade between the Caribbean and Spanish America, and the wool
trade between Spain and Amsterdam.
Once communal institutions had been firmly established, the city became a magnet
for other Jews. Yiddish-speaking Ashkenzi Jews trickled in - then flooded in - from
Germany and Poland, most of them poor and unlearned. They were not welcomed by the
Portuguese Jews and lived, for all practical purposes, a separate collective existence.
The "Portuguese" community grew almost entirely from converso immigration. (p. 4)
Settlement in Amsterdam was an act of liberation and an opportunity to repossess
the past. From this point of view, the efforts of the Amsterdam "Portuguese" to reconstitute
their Jewishness bear comparison to the efforts in modern times of once-colonialized
or otherwise culturally dominated peoples to restore an "authentic" lost heritage.