Sunday 14 May 2023

429) Were Jews expelled from Portugal in 1497?


During the late fifteenth century, two sad dates stood out for the Jews on the Iberian Peninsula. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain and in 1497 they were expelled from Portugal. This article, based extensively on the research by Andrée Aelion Brooks,[1] discusses the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and examines the question of the expulsion from Portugal in 1497. 


In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile (Spain) expelled all the Jews who refused to convert to Roman Catholicism. Many of these Spanish Jews turned to their westerly neighbour across the border, King João II (1455-1495) of Portugal, to request from him a safe haven in his land. For this, they were prepared to offer King João II “a large sum of money.”[2] The King agreed that the Jews could stay in his country but only for a period of eight months, after which they would have to leave. 

The arrival of Jews in Portugal

This was around the time of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama,[3] and King João was eager to fund this exploration and other commercial enterprises. João’s counsellors advised him not to let the Jews enter Portugal because the King’s role was to defend and uphold the Christian faith. King João argued that during the time they would be allowed to remain in Portugal, they would be inspired to turn to Christianity. This obsession with converting Jews to Christianity was an: 

“ongoing pursuit among monarchs of Christian Europe who believed that converting Jews was a sacred duty” (Brooks 2002:8). 

The local Portuguese population, however, did not want thousands of starving refugees to suddenly flood their country. The problem was that besides Portugal, there were not too many other options left because most of Western Europe refused to let Jewish refugees in. There was also the genuine belief among the common non-Jewish folk, that Jews were evil incarnate, and that they used Christian blood for ritual purposes. Jews were also blamed for the various epidemics that swept through Europe at the time. There was another factor as well. The presence of Jews in Christian lands undermined the power of the Catholic Church. However, the Jews who were prepared to convert known as the Conversos (also referred to as Maranos, Anusim or New Christians) would be allowed to stay in their home county. 

Although there had been Jews in Portugal since biblical times (Tartessus - Cadiz, is considered to have been the biblical Tarshish), there were never more than ten to twenty thousand Jews in Portugal out of a total population of about one million Christians. Now fifty thousand Jews around half the number of the Jews expelled from Spain, and three times the number of Jews already in Portugal were to suddenly cross the border and descend into Portugal. 

The expulsion of Jews from Spain

The Spanish expulsion of 1492 had taken the Jews by surprise as they too had been there since biblical times and had regularly assumed respectful leadership positions in government and other civic bodies. Because Spain was the one county in Europe that had been conquered by the Muslims and dominated by them for centuries; and because the Muslims were more tolerant of the Jews, Spain had long remained like a second homeland for the Jews, who: 

“[r]ather than live as a small and relatively unimportant minority…had been among the most distinguished citizens of the Spanish kingdoms” (Brooks 2002:11). 

This prosperity continued for some time even after the Christian armies began to expel the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. But, from around 1391, under the dictates of Rome and other Christian Kings, things began to change. A period of famine and ensuing massacres took its toll, particularly on the Jews. Some Jews soon realised the only way out was conversion. This decision was easier for Spanish Jews who generally were less observant and already more assimilated than their coreligionists in Northern Europe. 

Life was often good for these Conversos, many of whom assumed elevated positions in society and even in the Church. With time, however, both the Jews who remained true to their faith, as well as the general Christian population, became resentful of the success of the Conversos. Rumours soon began to spread that the Conversos were not sincere converts to Christianity. So, in 1481, with encouragement from the Pope, a “Holy Inquisition Against Depraved Heresy” was set up to rectify the situation. This tactic had been used before to rid heretics from the Church but never on such a large scale. By law, Inquisitions could only be conducted against Christians and Conversos were officially Christians. Victims were tortured, burned in public squares and thrown into prison. These actions began in 1492 which was exactly the year when the last Muslim kingdom was conquered and driven off the Iberian Peninsula, symbolising an official and dominating Christian new order. 

On 31 March 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed the Expulsion Order requiring all professing Jews who refuse to convert to Christianity, to leave Spanish soil by the end of July. This way, everyone left in Spain after July 1492, would be Christian. Any Jew found in Spain after that date was to be put to death and his or her wealth was to be confiscated for the Treasury. 

The result of the edict was that forty thousand Jews, one-third of the practising Jews, decided to convert and remain in Spain. Entire Jewish villages were sometimes converted en masse. Many Jews considered this a temporary situation and hoped that things would soon change back to how they had always been in the old Spain they knew so well. But this was not to be because: 

“Jews would be officially barred from Spain until the monarchy itself was abolished, albeit temporarily, early in the 20th century” (Brooks 2002:14). 

The flight to neighbouring Portugal

As mentioned earlier, about fifty thousand practising Jews sought refuge in neighbouring Portugal. The transition, however, was not a simple matter of just crossing a border to safety: 

“For the privilege of crossing the common land border with Spain at predetermined checkpoints, the incoming Jews from Spain would each pay an entry tax for which they would be given a certificate. Anyone found wandering about Portugal without a certificate would immediately become a prisoner of war and sold into slavery, whereupon an arm or a leg would be scorched with a branding iron” (Brooks 2002:14). 

This way King João was able to secure a threefold benefit for himself and the fast-developing economy of Portugal. He would benefit from: 1) the entry tax, 2) slave labour from those who could not pay, and 3) professional skills from the refugees who had served previously in positions of influence in Spain. 

The entry tax only granted permission for a stay in Portugal for up to eight months. Anyone caught remaining longer would be sold into slavery to assist the working force required for the growing economy and the aspirations for sea exploration. Yet King João did not want the Jews to stay too long in Portugal so he offered, at his own expense, to ship them to other lands. However, an exception would be made for six hundred of the most wealthy Spanish Jews who would be permitted to remain in Portugal indefinitely. 

A contemporary historian, Andrés Bernáldez records the journey of Jews from Spain to Portugal: 

“They took to the difficulty of the road, the small and the large, the old and the young, on foot and riding on donkeys…and on carts…with great difficulties and misfortune, some falling, others rising up, others dying, others being born, others becoming sick…there was not a Christian who did not feel their pain…the rabbis (asked) the women and the young men [to] sing and play timbrels and frame drums (as they went) in order to make them happy.” 

King João did not keep his word about providing ships at his expense for the Jews to leave after eight months. Instead, he deviously delayed, waiting for the time to run out so that he could amass extra slaves. The children of these slaves were sent to populate the recently acquired West African jungle island of São Tomé in preparation for reluctant Portuguese settlers who did not want to go to an uninhabited island. 

King Manuel I succeeds King João II

King João died soon afterwards of an illness, in 1495. His cousin Manuel took over the throne at the age of 28. Manuel was looking for a wife and he took Isabel, the daughter of the Spanish Queen Isabella. Isabel agreed to the marriage proposal on the condition that Manuel expel all the Jews from Portugal, as her parents had done in Spain. It is believed that this had less to do with religion and more to do with economics. This was because Spain was lamenting the loss of their wealthy Jews, while and their hitherto insignificant neighbour, Portugal, was gaining them instead. King Manuel did not want to expel the Jews for that very reason. Portugal was on the ascension and needed the professional skills that the wealthier Jews had brought with them: 

“Manuel had no intention of parting with such a valuable community…He and his loyal counsellors therefore devised a secret plan. On December 5, 1496, they promulgated the desired Edict of Expulsion. It required all Jews to leave by October 1497, thereby fulfilling the wishes of the bride” (Brooks 2002:17). 

Two historical versions

It is true that some Jews left Portugal immediately. The traditional version of the ensuing story takes the following lines: 

King Manuel, like King João before him, also promised to provide ships to send the Jews away. Soon twenty thousand Jews gathered at the port of Lisbon. Manuel ordered his soldiers round up the Jews in an area known as Rossio Square. There he gave them an ultimatum to either convert or be expelled. The Jews resisted, and the soldiers responded by seizing their children who were baptised by force. The parents were then left without food and water in the hot plaza for three days. If they converted, their children would be returned to them. Some Jews gave in while others stood firm. Those who refused to convert were then forced into the churches where they had the waters of baptism thrown over them without consent. This way Manuel could return to his bride and say that no Jews were left in the land and he “even had an edict of Expulsion to prove it” (Brooks 2002:18). 

Brooks, however, with support from modern historians, maintains that the traditional version is not entirely accurate. Twenty thousand people would never have been able to fit into Rossio Square and other details are also questionable. What is believed to have happened is that the numbers were much smaller and that a negotiated settlement was reached. Accordingly, their children would be returned and they would submit to baptism but it was agreed that no official investigations would be made into the religious beliefs of the “converts” for a period of twenty years. 

“The expulsion of Jews from Portugal, a touchstone of Jewish history, was thus a fraud: a travesty that many believed was worse than eviction for those who suffered through it. It never occurred the way it was billed. Instead, the king created thousands of bitter, outraged and defiant converso families…[T]he idea that most Jews left Portugal as openly practising Jews was a fiction” (Brooks 2004:19). 

The expulsion from Portugal was an edict, not a reality

A great irony was that instead of an “expulsion” many Jews tried to escape from Portugal and there were even restrictions against them leaving which lasted many generations! This account of history is sometimes difficult to accept, especially by the descendants of these Portuguese Jews: 

“Even today, many Jews who trace their ancestry to Portugal bristle at the notion that their forebears once lived as Catholics” (Brooks 2002:19). 

The Portuguese conversos continued to lead respectable and predominantly professional lives as bankers, cartographers and physicians while secretly holding on to the faith of their fathers and mothers. Portugal, unlike Spain, did not have an Inquisition to keep a beady eye out for such secret Jews, and: 

“Indeed, Portuguese conversos would become the most committed crypto Jews living in Christian lands where Judaism had been outlawed” (Brooks 2002:19). 

Instead of an “expulsion,” these conversos firmly remained in Portugal as secret Jews, unable to leave, yet granted equal trading and property rights and they were free to live anywhere they desired, even in Lisbon. It was these secret Jews who contributed to the rapid growth of a once-insignificant fishing nation to one of the great centres of European exploration and commerce.

[1] Brooks, A.A., 2002, The Woman who Defied Kings: The Life and Times of Dona Gracia Nasi, Paragon House, St. Paul.

[2] This is according to Garcia de Resende’s memoirs: Chronicle of the Valorous and Distinguished Deeds of King João of Glorious Memory.

[3] Vasco da Gama sailed around the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope and on to India in 1498. This event transformed Portugal from a sleepy fishing nation to a great commercial empire.

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