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Buenos Aires, Argentina


Colonial Period

The presence of Portuguese New Christians began with the discovery, conquest, and colonization of the land that would become Brazil, then inhabited by many groups of indigenous peoples. In the colonial period (1500–1822), thousands of New

Christian Portuguese came to Brazil, but they never formed an organized Jewish community that expressed publicly what could be characterized as Judaism.

Until the proclamation of independence in Brazil, in 1822, Catholicism was the official religion and there was no freedom regarding the practice of other religions. The New Christians contributed to the establishment of the first villages, to the mercantilist state and church struggle against the Indians, to the finance of and participation in the expeditions to the interior, and to cultivation of the land and of sugar cane, particularly in the mills of Bahia, Paraíba, Pernambuco, and other states. New Christians were also slave merchants, farmers, and craftsmen, among other occupations. They ascended socially and economically, but they were faced with the restrictions on belonging to religious orders or holding political positions, such as the Irmandades de Misericórdia and Câmaras Municipais (city councils), plus marriage restrictions with Old Christians. Other groups such as Indians and black slaves also suffered from these restrictions.

Some sources maintain that one New-Christian, Gaspar da Gama, was part of Pedro Álvares Cabral's fleet, in 1500. A significant number of Jews were involved in the sciences and the art of navigation in Portugal during the period of overseas expansion in the early 15th century. During most of the colonial period, the Tribunal do Santo Ofício da Inquisição (the Inquisition) was active in Brazil. Established in Portugal in 1536, it operated in the Metropolis up to 1821. The conversion of non-Christians in the Americas (such as members of the indigenous and pre-Columbian cultures) was a central colonial activity in the process of the expansion of the Portuguese and Spanish empires. After the first auto-da-fé, in 1540 in Portugal, the emigration of New Christians to the Brazilian colony grew, and many of them arrived in Bahia and other regions of the northeast with the first governors.

The Inquisition did not settle permanently in colonial Brazil. From 1591, the Tribunal do Santo Ofício carried out several visitations to Brazil, powers were delegated to some bishops, as for instance the bishop of Bahia, and clergymen used to indict people for Jewish practices and send them for trial in Lisbon. The action of the Inquisition became more intense after the union between Portugal and Spain in 1580.

The best-known action of the Inquisition against Crypto-Jews in Brazil were the Visitations of 1591–93 in Bahia; 1593–95 in Pernambuco; 1618 in Bahia; around 1627 in the Southeast; and in 1763 and 1769 in Grão-Pará, in the north of the country. In the 18th century, the Inquisition was also active in Paraíba, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais. The Inquisition also condemned people accused of sexual deviations, witchcraft and slandering the Holy Church.

In 1773, during the liberal government of Marques de Pombal, governor general of Brazil, the differentiation between New Christians and Old Christians was abolished and the Inquisitional procedures came to an end. Consequently the New Christians were then integrated into society at large. The Inquisition in Brazil was less systematic and more infrequent than its Portuguese counterpart, probably owing to the difficulty of controlling the colony, the fact that a permanent tribunal was never established in Brazil, and the greater permeability of the social and religious relations established in the Portuguese New World, which also allowed the New Christians to find alternative forms of social and economic advancement and often alternative ways to get around restrictions, creating identity strategies to survive socially, including, in some cases, disguising New Christian traces. During the 17th century, in Rio de Janeiro, episodes were recorded of Old Christians testifying in court in favor of New Christians belonging to the same social strata, proving that there were also forms of social intercourse coexisting with the system of Inquisitorial persecution.

According to Arnold Wiznitzer, in the two and a half centuries of the Inquisition in Brazil, around 25,000 people were brought to trial by the Portuguese Inquisition, out of which 1,500 were condemned to capital punishment. In Brazil, approximately 400 judaizers were prosecuted, most of them being condemned to imprisonment, and 18 New Christians were condemned to death in Lisbon. Three New Christian writers stood out in the colonial period with works that reveal elements of Jewish expression: Bento Teixeira, author of Prosopopéia – one of the most important colonial poems; Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, author of Diálogos das Grandezas do Brasil (both in the 16th century); and one of the best-known Portuguese playwrights, Antonio Jose da Silva, "the Jew," who lived part of his life in Portugal and part in Brazil, and was condemned to death by the Inquisition in 1739.

The presence of New Christians in colonial Brazil has always been a controversial issue in both Brazilian and Portuguese historiography. Some historians believe that the interventions of the Inquisition Tribunal in Brazil, supported by the nobility and the Catholic clergy, were aimed at expropriating the New Christians' possessions and impeding the social ascension of a group with bourgeois aspirations. Therefore, the Inquisition created a myth regarding the origin and purity of blood, which discriminated against those with "infected blood," according to the Statutes on Blood Purity. Other historians see strictly religious and political reasons related to the history of the Portuguese Catholic Church and Portuguese Empire.

Meanwhile, some historians maintain that Judaism or Crypto-Judaism was "fabricated" during the Inquisitional processes (that is, by means of intimidating, indicting, menacing, and torturing, the Inquisition "created" Judaism or Crypto-Judaism in order to justify its own existence and legitimacy). Others maintain that New Christians deliberately and furtively professed Judaic or Crypto-Judaic traditions inherited from their ancestors, even though in the 18th century the Inquisition condemned New Christians as such, that is, as descendants of Jews rather than Judaizers, which would show a more definite anti-Judaism on the part of the persecutors. The debate includes the manner in which to read documents of the Inquisition, the main source for these studies, and in what measure they can constitute a trustworthy source from the point of view of the Jewish way of life of each person prosecuted. This debate assumes different forms when it relates to the 16th or the 18th centuries, since in the 1700s the New Christians were evidently much more distant from their Jewish origins. There was also a regional variation in Brazil that needs to be taken into account. According to Anita Novinsky, the New Christian was a "split human being," socially and existentially, with a differentiated identity in the colonial Portuguese-Brazilian world.

The anti-Jewish attitude found in the Inquisition's procedures did not lead to disseminating hatred against Jews among the population in Brazil, although the imaginary extension of the Inquisition and the terror it implied can hardly be assessed and there are traces in the country of a Catholic popular imagery, which – although it has never triggered any form of persecution in modern history – does have a relatively medieval vision of the Jews and Judaism.

There is no actual link between the history of New Christians and contemporary 20th century Jewish history. Nevertheless, the remote (and secret) Jewish origin of many traditional Catholic Portuguese has been recently acknowledged by the traditional families of the country through genealogical research, and the presence of the Jews, or "Semites," has been brought to light in the historical studies of the country. Equally, the theme and memory of the New Christians have been exaggerated by the Jewish communities in Brazil, which tend to consider erroneously all the New Christians as secret Jews, exaggerating the Jewish colonial heritage of the country. This memory often transcends the boundary which separates the New Christians' lives in the colonial period and the establishment of modern Jewish communities in Brazil, as if we were dealing with – and this is not the case – a continuous and identical historical line, which began with the conquest of Brazil by the Portuguese in 1500.


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