The Secret Jews of Portugal

Marranos, at one time a pejorative term applied to Jews who were forcibly baptized in Spain in 1391 and in Portugal in 1497, is in common usage by some academics in Portugal who attribute its origin to the Aramaic-Hebrew Mar Anus, forced one, like the widely used Hebrew term today, Anussim. Christianity adopted the nomeclature of  converso or New Christian , who were not necessarily Marrano. The term Marrano is used here because of its association with the forced baptism of 1497 and the Inquisition, its acceptance in Portugal, and its growing meaning as a badge of identity and resistance to the demonic unHoly Office of the Inquisition (which still exists!). (Azvedo)

See also Myth of the Marrano Names’ which clearly shows the importance of names in the Marrano story

A Jewish delegation went to Portugal to negotiate their admission after being expelled from Spain in 1492.  The Portuguese said 600 families could pay for permanent residence, others would pay less to stay for eight months after which ships would be provided to take them elsewhere.  On arrival the government faced pressure for their immediate removal as some blamed them for bringing the plague, while others accused them of defying Church teachings.  

In 1495 Dom Manuel became King and ordered that enslaved Jews be set free.  Unfortunately he was considering marrying the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. hoping a descendant would inherit the Spanish throne and unify the Iberian Peninsula under the house of Braganza. As a precondition Isabella stipulated Portugal should follow Spain by expelling the Jews.

On December 5, 1496, Manuel issued a decree ordering all Jews and Moors, to leave Portugal by the end of October 1497. Deciding that expulsion would remove an important segment of the middle class he compelled all Jews to convert to Christianity.  Synagogues and study-houses were to be confiscated and Jews commanded to surrender their books. On March 19, 1497, during the Jewish Passover, orders were given for Jewish children between four and fourteen to be forcibly converted and permanently separated from their parents unless they also accepted baptism.

That day there was horror everywhere with fathers strangling their sons in a last embrace so as not to surrender them to a fate they considered worse than death.  A few converted to stay with them.

Instead of three embarkation ports for the final expulsion, they were told they would have to depart from Lisbon.  Once there all pretence 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 gave in. Those refusing were guarded until their departure time had passed. They were then told their penalty for disobedience was enslavement and freedom could only be obtained only by converting to Christianity.

Twenty thousand Jews were brought in successive groups to the palace grounds of the Estaos. Anyone not going willingly were dragged to the baptismal font with Holy Water flung over them and declared Christian.  Forceful conversions were completed by September and new converts became known as Christianos Nuevos, or Novos Cristaos (‘New Christians’). It was not until 1768 that Portugal officially abolished the distinction between "Old" and "New" (i.e. Jewish) Christians.  

Having achieved his immediate purpose, Manuel felt he could afford to adopt a lenient policy towards the converts by promising no inquiries would be made into their religious beliefs for twenty years.  His proclamation proclaimed that converts would eventually 'lose their accustomed habits and be confirmed in our holy faith’.

Manuel was wrong as Conversos retained a strong sense of identity, which in some cases still exists, 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 played a major role in the culture and the economy.. The Conversos married among themselves strengthening family ties, and sense of community.


During his reign (1405-1521) the wealth of the Indies began to pour into Portugal.  Cabral announced the discovery of the coast of Brazil (1500), and commanders such as Francisco de Almeida and Afonso de Albuquerque built up the Portuguese commercial empire. Portugal became the leading commercial nation of the West. This sudden wealth had corrupting effects on officials and started the process of turning interest away from the agricultural and industrial development of Portugal itself

Those going to other countries usually reverted to Judaism, For example, in Holland they formed an important community and later emigrants from there went to England forming an English community

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.

New Christians lived in constant fear of denunciation by informers and friends. Those 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.

The secret religious Portuguese culture as in Spain among the majority of the New Christians was 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 Inquisition.

The demand by Jews to leave Portugal was led by the wealthier Jews and became the core pf new communities as in Amsterdam and South America.  These communities created other communities as for example the Amsterdam community providing the rebirth of the English community.

According to an old, possibly apocryphal story, Portugal’s King José I was considering an inquisitional proposal to require descendants of Jews to wear yellow hats so they could be identified in public. One day the Marquês de Pombal, his prime minister, arrived at court carrying three yellow hats. When the king asked who they were for, the marquis replied, “One for me, one for you and one for the grand inquisitor.” He broke the power of the Inquisition in the late eighteenth century, though it wasn’t abolished until 1821. In the nineteenth century a new community grew when immigrants from Gibraltar and Morocco arrived in Lisbon and the Algarve. The first post-Inquisition synagogue was built in Lisbon in 1902.  

In the 20th century two events occurred

In 1916 Jews in Belmonte thought they were the only remaining Jews until found by a Swiss engineer and rejoined the world Jewish community.

A Potuguese army officer called Captain Barros Basto converted from a marrano to a Jew and saw his mission as reviving Judaism in Portugal.

Many Jews escaping from the Nazis headed for Portugal. Until May 10, 1940 entrance visas to, or transit permits through Portugal, could be obtained at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux. On that date, when Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, the Portuguese Government prohibited further crossings especially of Jewish refugees. Only British citizens recommended by the British consul could get visas. Some 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews mobbed the Bordeaux  Portuguese consulate to obtain the piece of paper that would enable them to leave France.

Sousa Mendes, a devout Christian, seeing the terrible plight of the refugees, decided to disobey his government’s explicit instruction. He received a delegation of refugees at the consulate, headed by Rabbi Haim Kruger and promised transit visas to everyone in need. He even added that those who could not pay the visa fees would receive the documents free of charge.

Rumors about Sousa Mendes’ actions reached Lisbon who ordered him to return home immediately.  In Lisbon, he was brought before a disciplinary panel and dismissed from the Foreign Ministry leaving him destitute and unable to support 13 children. He died penniless in 1954. Only in 1988, thanks to external pressure and his children’s efforts, did his government grant him total rehabilitation.

When asked to explain his actions, he said: “If thousands of Jews are suffering because of one Christian [Hitler], surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews”.

On October 18, 1966, Yad Vashem recognized Aristides de Sousa Mendes as Righteous Among the Nations.

Lisbon now has memorials where the 1506 massacre occurred

In April 2008 a ceremony was held attended by the Lisbon Patriarch Dom José Policarpo, the Chief Rabbi of the Lisbon Jewish Community Eliezer Shai di Martino and representatives of other ethnic and religious communities in the city.

The monument comprises two sculptures by architects Graça Bachmann and Segismundo Pinto and sculptor Carlos Ramos and a mural with the phrase Lisbon – City of Tolerance, by designers Susana Jesus and Paulo Cardoso.  They were donated by the Jewish community and the Catholic Church to symbolise reconciliation and respect.


See Also The Nutshell History of Marranos of Portugal  

By Manuel Azevedo