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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in Brazil 01: Dutch Brazil

Portuguese Brazil - Jews in Dutch Brazil - Jews in Dutch troops - sugar business and Inquisition - Jewish slave trade and export import business

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Brazil,
                            vol. 4, col. 1323, map showing main areas of
                            Jewish settlement in Brazil Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Brazil, vol. 4, col. 1323, map showing main areas of Jewish settlement in Brazil
from: Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Brazil, vol. 4.

Colonial period: São Vicente, São Paulo, Río de Janeiro, Paraíba do Sul, Recife;

agricultural settlement beginning of 20th century: Quatro, Philippson;

Jewish settlement in the modern period: Belém, Recife, Bahia, Río de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, Curitiba, Porto Alegre.

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)



<BRAZIL, South American republic.

Colonial Period.

[Portuguese Brazil and New Christians]

When the Portuguese admiral Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in what is now Brazil in 1500, he was accompanied by at least one person of Jewish birth, Gaspar da *Gama, who had been kidnapped and forcibly baptized by the Portuguese in India three years before. In 1502 a consortium of *New Christians headed by Fernando de *Noronha obtained from King Manuel I of Portugal a concession to colonize and exploit the newly discovered land. The man business of the group was to export Brazil wood (from which the name of the new land was derived) to Portugal for the purpose of dyeing textiles.

There is good reason to believe that New Christians transplanted sugar cane from Madeira to Brazil in the early 16th century. New Christian foremen and workers are said to have been brought over from Madeira and São Tomé when the first sugar plantations and mills were established in Brazil around 1542.

[Sugar business - Inquisition - Jews sent to Lisbon to trial]

One of the first five engenhos (sugar plantation and mill) was owned in 1550 by a New Christian, Diego Dias Fernandes. A large number of the 120 engenhos that existed in Brazil in the year 1600 belonged to New Christians, many of whom were also administrators. some of the New Christians were staunch Catholics, but the majority secretly observed Jewish rites and customs and were in fact *Crypto-Jews called *Marranos by the Catholics.

The Inquisition was never formally introduced in [[Portuguese]] Brazil. From 1580 on (after Portugal was united with Spain), the bishop of Bahia received investigation powers from Lisbon, and after 1591 the Holy Office in Portugal sent inquisitional Commissaries to Brazil at intervals. The first commission worked from 1591 to 1593 in *Bahia and afterward until 1595 in *Pernambuco; in 1618 a commission again visited Bahia. The investigators of the Inquisition held hearing based on denunciations, and the suspected were arrested and sent to Lisbon to trial.

Brazil had about 50,000 European inhabitants in 1624, a high percentage of whom were New Christians. They were owners of engenhos, businessmen, importers and exporters, teachers, writers, poets, even priests. Bento Teixeira (also known as Bento Teixeira Pinto), the author of the Prosopopéia (Lisbon, 1601) - the first poem written in Brazil - and Ambrósio Fernandes *Brandão, author of Diálogos das Grandezas do Brasil - one of the greatest books ever written about that country- were both New Christians.

[[The natives are hardly mentioned in this article]].

[Jews in the West India Company colonial war business]

From the end of the 16th century Amsterdam became an important Jewish religious, cultural, and economic center. When the West India Company, aided by the Dutch government, equipped an expedition to Brazil, Dutch Jews - mainly fugitives from the Inquisition - were its allies. IN May 1624 two important forts of Bahia were captured by the Dutch; but a large Portuguese and Spanish expeditionary force arrived shortly after and after two months the Dutch had to surrender (May 1625). All Dutch (col. 1322)

troops, including some Jews from the Netherlands, could leave Bahia, but five New Christians who had returned to the practice of Judaism during the Dutch occupation were hanged for treason.

The West India Company soon prepared another expedition, this time to Pernambuco. The States General at The Hague proclaimed that the liberty of Spaniards, Portuguese, and natives, whether Roman Catholics or Jews, would be respected. Jewish soldiers, traders, and adventurers joined the expedition that successfully landed at the ports of Olinda and Recife in the middle of May 1630. After the arrival of the Dutch, many Marranos who had lived in the northeastern part of Brazil, happy to be able to give up their double life, were circumcised and became professing Jews.

Johan Maurits van Nassau, who was appointed governor-general of Brazil in 1637, gave the inhabitants of Dutch Brazil a sense of security. Jews were enrolled in the militia; one of the four companies was composed entirely of Jews and was exempt from guard duty on Saturday. On the other hand, Johan Maurits and Calvinist preachers tried unsuccessfully to convert Jews and Catholics to Calvinism.

In 1636, a synagogue already existed in Recife and a rudimentary congregation in Paraiba. Jews from Recife addressed an inquiry regarding the proper season to recite the prayers for rain to Rabbi Hayyim (Ḥayyim) Shabbetai in Salonika, the earliest American contribution to the *responsa literature.

[Jewish sugar industries - Jewish tax farming - Jewish slave trade - Jews in export import business]

By 1939 Dutch Brazil had a flourishing sugar industry with 166 engenhos, six of which were owned by Jews. Jews also became leaders in tax farming (about 63% of it was in their hands) and were largely engaged in the slave trade. The import of Negro slaves from Africa was a monopoly of the West India Company, which sold them at public auctions for cash. Jews purchased the slaves and resold them with great profit (on credit, payable at the next sugar harvest) to the owners of the plantations.

[[The dreadful conditions for the blacks from Africa are not mentioned in this article]].

Negro slaves generally preferred to work for Jews because under Jewish masters they did not have to work on either Saturdays or Sundays, while the Portuguese allowed them to rest only on Sundays and the Dutch, especially in the hinterlands, required that slaves work seven days a week.

Jews were also very active in the export and import business, and all these opportunities attracted many Jews to Dutch Brazil.

[Jewish cultural life in Brazil in 17th century]

In 1638 a group of 200 Jews, led by Manoel Mendes de Castro, arrived on two ships. Soon after, the Jews of Recife needed (col. 1323)

rabbis, Hebrew teachers and hazzanim (ḥazzanim) [[cantors]] and thus invited the famous Rabbi Isaac *Aboab da Fonseca, one of the four rabbis of the congregation Talmud Torah in Amsterdam, and the scholar Moses Raphael d'*Aguilar to come to Brazil as their spiritual leaders. They arrived in Recife at the beginning of the year 1642, by which time two congregations, Zur Israel in Recife and Magen Abraham in Mauricia, already existed.

[A Jew from Brazil on stake in Lisbon in 1647]

A young Jews by the name of Isaac de *Castro, who had come to Bahia - then under Portuguese rule - from Amsterdam via Dutch Brazil, was arrested for teaching Jewish rites and customs to Marranos. He was extradited to Lisbon and was one of the victims of the auto-da-fé on Dec. 15, 1647.

[Again Jews in Dutch war business against Portugal - Dutch defeat]

As early as in 1642 the Portuguese, in collaboration with Brazilian patriots, began preparations for the liberation of northeastern Brazil.

[[The colonial powers are fighting each other on foreign territory. The natives are not asked...]]

In 1645 they began a guerrilla war that lasted nine years. Jews joined the Dutch ranks, and some were killed in action. Scores of persons died of malnutrition. Famine had set in and conditions were desperate when, on June 26, 1649, two ships arrived from Holland with food. On that occasion, R. Isaac Aboab wrote the first Hebrew poem on the America, "Zekher Asiti le-Nifle'ot El" ("I Have Set a Memorial to God's Miracles").

Soon afterward other ships arrived with 2,000 soldiers and more supplies. The guerrilla war continued, and some Jews taken prisoner by the enemy were sentenced and hanged as traitors; other were sent to Lisbon for trial. The war ended with the defeat and capitulation of the Dutch in January 1654.

[Figures about Dutch Brazil]

The Jewish population of Dutch Brazil had reached its peak in in 1645, when about 50% (1,500) of the European civilian population was Jewish. Even though during the war many Jews died and many returned to Holland, in 1650 there were still about 650 Jews in Recife and Maurícia.

[Details about the Jewish cultural life in Dutch Brazil]

The minute book of the congregations Zur Israel and Magen Abraham, which was brought back to Holland and has been published, shows that the Jewish community was very well organized along the same lines as the parent body in Amsterdam. All Jewish residents were members of the community and were subject to its regulations, taxes, and assessments. The executive committee (mahamad) consisted of five members who were nominated by their predecessors. There was a talmud torah [[school]] and an Etz Haim yeshivah [[religious Torah school]]. The "sedaca" (charity) was the general fund of the community.

The mahamad [[executive committee]] exercised strict control over the legal aspects of community life, disputes, and civil or commercial suits between members of the community; it also had almost dictatorial powers over law enforcement.

The Jewish cemetery was located in the hinterland, separated from Recife and Maurícia by the Capibaribe River. The dead, therefore, had to be transported to the cemetery on boats until 1644, when bridges from Recife to Mauricia and then to the hinterland were completed.

[[The natives were driven away and never asked...]]

[Expulsion of Jews from Portuguese Brazil in 1654 - flight to Amsterdam or Caribbean Islands - sugar business - or flight to New Amsterdam]

Other parts of Brazil, which were not occupied by the Dutch, such as Bahia, *Rio de Janeiro, *São Paulo, São Vicente, also had New Christians among the population. It was stipulated in the capitulation protocol of Jan. 26, 1654, that all Jews, like the Dutch, were to leave Brazil within three months and had the right to liquidate their assets and to take all their movable property with them. The majority left for Amsterdam, but some sailed to Caribbean Islands (Curaçao, Barbados, etc.), where they are believed to have introduced the sugar plant and the sugar industry.

A group of 23 Brazilian Jews arrived in New Amsterdam (old name of New York), then under Dutch rule, on the Saint Catherine at the beginning of September 1654. They were the founding fathers of the first Jewish community in *New York. (col. 1324)

[Further persecutions of the Jews in Portuguese Brazil - standstill of sugar business - death penalties]

After 1654 there were either few Marranos left in Brazil or they were not discovered. About 25 of them were sent to Lisbon for trial in the second half of the 17th century. Persecutions and extraditions began again in the 18th century. Several hundred Marranos from Brazil appeared at autos-da-fé in Lisbon in 1709, 1711, and 1713. The persecutions, arrests, and confiscation of property brought the manufacture and export of sugar to a temporary standstill and seriously disrupted trade between Brazil and Portugal. The most famous Brazilian Marrano and Inquisitional martyr in the 18th century was *Antonio José da Silva, who achieved prominence as poet and playwright. Altogether dossiers of 18 Brazilian Marranos who suffered the death penalty [[normally this was the stake]] are found in the Archivo da Tôrre do Tombo in Lisbon.

[Abolition of the Inquisition in 1773 - assimilation with mixed marriages]

The Portuguese royal decree of May 25, 1773, which declared all legislation discriminating against New Christians null and void, applied also to Brazil. From then on the Inquisition left the New Christians in peace. Mainly because of the high incidence of mixed marriages, the Brazilian Marranos became more and more assimilated and abandoned any residual Jewish beliefs and practices, becoming henceforth good Catholics. Jewish immigration began again only after 1822, when Brazil became independent from Portugal.

[A.A.W.]> (col. 1325)


Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Brazil,
                          vol. 4, col. 1322
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Brazil, vol. 4, col. 1322
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Brazil,
                          vol. 4, col. 1323-1324
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Brazil, vol. 4, col. 1323-1324
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Brazil,
                          vol. 4, col. 1325-1326
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Brazil, vol. 4, col. 1325-1326

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