New Opportunities in the New World?

For the Jewish population, whose members were known as “New Christians” after their forced conversion, the New World presented new economic and social opportunities. However, no one was safe from the watchful eye of the Catholic Church. Inquisition officers crossed the Atlantic, bringing with them the terror that had already captured Spain and Portugal. New Christians had to deny their Jewish roots completely as they attempted to climb in social status and establish purity of blood. Notably, many of the steps New Christians took to protect themselves from the Inquisition were based in social and economic relations rather than religion. This was certainly the case in places like Brazil, where New Christians inserted themselves into the slave trade as well as the growth of sugar, coffee, and other cash crops.

Colonial sugar plantation in Rio / image via www.virginia.edu

Colonial sugar plantation in Rio / image via www.virginia.edu

As evidence from places like Rio de Janeiro shows, the Inquisition in Portuguese America was not only a means of religious purification, but also a reaction to a competitive, rapidly rising merchant class made up of New Christians. New Christians in Brazil were harshly prosecuted and then sent to Lisbon for trial. In order to understand the treatment of the New Christians in colonial Rio, it is necessary to examine their earlier treatment on the Iberian peninsula. Check out the RECENT POST links on the right to explore “Paradise Lost,” a brief view of the Jewish population’s life in late 15th Century Portugal, and “Trials and Tribulations,” which discusses the economic successes and persecution of New Christians in the New World as well as the consequences of the Brazilian Inquisition.

Paradise Lost

The exploitation of the Jewish population began long before the Inquisition in the New World. For instance, Prince Henry the Navigator welcomed the Jews, not because of religious tolerance on his part but because of the Jewish people’s scientific and mathematical skills, which they had inherited from the Moors.

Henry the Navigator was concerned with figuring out the knowledge of the moon cycles, which controlled the tides. He believed Jewish scientists were key in establishing the patterns. / via http://en.wikipedia.org/

Henry the Navigator was concerned with figuring out the knowledge of the moon cycles, which controlled the tides. He believed Jewish scientists were key in establishing the patterns. / via http://en.wikipedia.org/

Indeed, Jews developed a system of latitude and longitude known as celestial navigation, a method sailors could figure out with relatively little training. The Portuguese quickly began equating calculation of latitude with dominion. The Portuguese believed that establishing latitude also meant establishing their claim, an idea unique to Portugal at the time.

World map with latitude and longitude/ via gcps.desire2learn.com

World map with latitude and longitude/ via gcps.desire2learn.com

Despite Jewish contributions to Portugal and the world at large, however, forced conversion decrees hit Portugal in 1497, only five years after Spain. Mathematical and scientific advancements ground to a halt.

The pattern of exploitation and prosecution shown in Spain and Portugal is important to understand because it repeated itself in Brazil, specifically Rio de Janeiro. In Portugal’s case, the regime hurt its own economy by expelling its rising, commercial class — the question, as it is in all of these cases, is why. The answer lies in the vast power of the Catholic Church, which Portuguese leaders at the time could do little to reign in.

The Inquisition / via people.opposingviews.com

The Inquisition / via people.opposingviews.com

Not only did the Catholic Church control about a third of the Portuguese economy, but also, the Catholic Church had much autonomy with regard to the Inquisition. Naming other so-called “heretics” was one of the only ways to escape imprisonment or death, and the accused’s wealth was absorbed into the Catholic Church’s coffers regardless of innocence. Victims were forced to surrender their assets. The Inquisition, in a shroud of morality and symbols, was actually quite practical in one of its purposes: preventing the rise of the Jewish merchant class, whose social mores and values clashed with those of the Catholic Church. Ultimately, Portugal regretted exiling the Jews, for their expulsion was a significant factor in the decline of the Portuguese economy. In fact, during the seventeenth century, some writers in Portugal asked for the return of the “Cristãos novas” (New Christians), but by that time, nothing could be done.

Trials and Tribulations in Rio

Though New Christians experienced more opportunities for economic and social growth, their standings were often precarious. Rio de Janeiro as a whole was more tolerant than Portugal, but the New Christians were still considered untrustworthy, a population to be crushed if economic competition grew significantly. New Christians could be accused of practicing the Jewish faith at any time. Furthermore, just as it had been in Portugal, the Inquisition also held economic incentives. When brought to Brazil, it was most common in the wealthiest, gold-producing areas, where New Christians had acquired wealth and material goods.

Map of Brazil / via www.britannica.com

Map of Brazil / via www.britannica.com

New Christians could amass wealth and status to an extent, but their assimilation had to be quick and convincing, and neither wealth nor status could guarantee their safety. In Rio, New Christians owned a significant number of sugar mills and gained status through intermarriage, the adoption Old Christian customs, and denial of their Jewish roots. Still, they were not free from economically- and politically-motivated persecution. In Rio alone, the Inquisition targeted over 300 New Christians. On paper, they were accused of practicing Judaism; however, it is difficult to ascertain whether these New Christians were guilty of the charges against them. Many confessed and named other “practicing” Jews, yet as previously mentioned, this was a common act of self-preservation. Guilty or not, data gathered from the colonial period supports the theory that persecution of New Christians began due to their economic growth.

In Brazil as a whole, the most New Christians were arrested during the period of highest gold production in 1728, 1729, 1730, 1732, and 1734, and after the establishment of the gold route, the Inquisition intensified. Inquisitors ordered a crack down on the Jewish population. The Inquisition targeted, quite predictably, the wealthiest areas of Brazil — Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. This is also reflected in the sugar trade.

Slaves working a sugar plantation / via imgkid.com

Slaves working a sugar plantation / via imgkid.com

In Rio, most arrests occurred in the 1710s, and depleting the sugar market of its valuable New Christian merchants and landowners had repercussions. In 1714, a French dispatch to Portugal wrote that the amount of sugar delivered from Rio de Janeiro had dropped noticeably. Though the economic dip was not as dramatic as in Portugal, it is obvious that both the persecution of Jews in Portugal and New Christians in Brazil were detrimental to each places’ respective economies.

Small Victories

Despite the Brazilian Inquisition, many New Christians achieved economic success in Rio. Between 1570-1630, the period of slave trade in which Portugal was most dominant, New Christians played a central role in the economy. Perhaps most importantly, they established flourishing sugar mills and plantations. Their contribution was not inconsequential, either. New Christians developed twenty percent of Brazil’s sugar productive capacity. This already seems like a massive contribution; however, the New Christians did even more for the sugar market — they actively participated in the slave trade.

Slaves resting in colonial Rio / via en.wikipedia.org

Slaves resting in colonial Rio / via en.wikipedia.org

"Slavery in Brazil," by Jean-Baptiste Debret, a French artist in Rio / via commons.wikimedia.org/

“Slavery in Brazil,” by Jean-Baptiste Debret, a French artist in Rio / via commons.wikimedia.org/

By the 1600s, Brazilian merchants and plantation owners were already importing thousands of slaves each year. New Christians supplied the majority of these slaves. Rio, of course, was included in this trade — it received the most slaves of any port in the New World throughout the slave trade.

The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1451-1600, via The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West

The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1451-1600, via The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West

The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1601-1700, via The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West

The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1601-1700, via The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West

The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1701-1810 / via The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West

The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1701-1810 / via The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West

Map of the Atlantic slave trade / via www.slavevoyages.org

Map of the Atlantic slave trade, showing the massive amount of slaves imported into Southeast Brazil, where Rio de Janeiro was the biggest port / via www.slavevoyages.org

Interestingly, the New Christians received their authority in the slave trade from a contract with the Portuguese king, which allowed them to control the distribution of slave-selling licenses. They were not the only slave traders; however, they tended to keep the majority of the licenses for family members and other New Christians, which meant that the power of the slave trade stayed largely within their New Christian network. This New Christian network created by the license system expanded on a global scale, as New Christians were most comfortably conducting business with one another. Because New Christians were dismissed and distrusted by Old Christians and formed their own global trading network, they were among the founders of the European-Asian-African-American complex that served to create slave-based economies in places like Rio. Though the Inquisition pitted them against one another, New Christians still trusted each other more than they trusted the Portuguese.

 

Repercussions of the Brazilian Inquisition

Though the Inquisition had obvious consequences for those New Christians who were apprehended, it also caused problems for those who were not. The Inquisition in Rio de Janeiro officially ended in the 1770s when Portugal abolished legal discrimination against New Christians, but Old and New Christians were still on a far from even playing field. Even post-1771, many people still acted as informants for the Inquisition. Additionally, though there existed a façade of acceptance, the only New Christians truly integrated into society were ones who completely denied their Jewish background and acquired economic and social status on Old Christian terms.

The consequences of the Inquisition continue to plague Brazil. For instance, the Inquisition caused Jewish people to reject their roots so fully that most New Christian heirs are likely ignorant of their Jewish backgrounds. Though an estimate is difficult to ascertain, some think Brazilian New Christian descendants could number in the millions.

Modern day Rio de Janeiro / via wikipedia.org

Modern day Rio de Janeiro / via wikipedia.org

Rio de Janeiro, which has the second largest number of Jews in Brazil after São Paulo, is likely home to many of these Jewish descendants, unaware of their roots. Hounded for economic reasons along with religious ones, New Christians hid their Jewish origins to the extent that historians now suspect that a sizable portion of colonial Brazil’s white population is of Jewish origin, and an even bigger portion of the economically prominent class comes from a Jewish background.

Professor Anita Novinsky believes over half of seventeenth century Brazil came from Jewish roots. The numbers will never be definitive, but it is obvious that the New Christians of Brazil, despite their prosecution, made a substantial mark on the social and economic dynamic of the colony.

For more on the Brazilian Inquisition, watch this interview conducted with Professor Anita Novinsky of São Paulo / via vimeo.com.

A modern synagogue in Belem, Brazil / via alljewishtravel.com

A modern synagogue in Belem, Brazil / via alljewishtravel.com