History of jews in Brazil, by Ralph G.Bennett

Find South America on a map and you can't miss Brazil. It's the largest country on the continent by far and takes up most of the bulge that is the northern part of the continent. It is a land of immense tropical rain forests interspersed with huge arid plains. It is the home of the mighty
Amazon River. Like the rest of South America, Brazil is a largely Catholic country, although the people speak Portuguese instead of Spanish. So how is there a place for Jews in Brazil's history? Few people know that centuries ago, for a short period, an area on the Northeast coast of the country was actually a Dutch colony. It was during that period that Jews from Europe found their place in the history of Brazil.

Shortly after Columbus discovered America in 1492, the Pope divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. He drew a line north and south through the western hemisphere. Everything west
of the line belonged to Spain; everything east, primarily Brazil, belonged to Portugal. In 1500, the Portuguese Admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral arrived in Brazil to explore the new territory, and soon afterward the first citizens began arriving to colonize it.

The year 1492 also marks the start of the Second Diaspora, when Jews who were expelled from Spain dispersed to many other parts of the world. Before the Diaspora, Jews had enjoyed liberty and
economic success in Spain for centuries. In the 8th century, Moslems from North Africa, called Moors, invaded Spain and Portugal. Their Islamic culture became entrenched in Spain, and many Moors became part of the Spanish nobility. Unlike other European countries, Spain offered an atmosphere of tolerance and the Jews were able to blend into Spanish society alongside the Catholics. They became craftsmen, businessmen, and financiers, and even held high government posts.

In the 1400's, Spain and Portugal began leaning toward the view that unity in their countries required all citizens to be Catholics. The Catholic Church had always guarded against the tainting of their faith by heresy, but the Inquisition, which began in Spain and spread to Portugal and their colonies, went after supposed heretics with ferocity. Moors and Jews were required to give up their religion and profess Catholicism. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were persuaded by their fanatical
confessor, Torquemada, to enact the expulsion order. This, in hindsight, seems particularly odd as we know that Jews had reached the highest circles of court life and Ferdinand himself is believed to be partially of Jewish descent. Rich Jews had offered to pay the monarchs not to enact the order, but in a dramatic gesture, Torquemada tore the crucifix from his breast and shouted "Judas betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. Will you likewise betray your Lord for money?" The King and Queen were swayed and the Jews were banished. All non-Catholics, primarily Jews, were ordered to become Catholic or leave Spain. Many fled over the border to Portugal. But in 1497 thePortuguese government banished them from Portugal as well. Many of the Jews fled to other more hospitable European countries, such as Holland. The call for settlers to emigrate to Brazil came just at the time that Jews needed to leave Portugal and many were attracted to the chance to start over far from the religious persecution they found in Europe.

Many of these Jews were "New Christians", or "Marranos", for they had officially converted to Catholicism rather than be banished or killed. The first officially sanctioned Marrano group was
given license in 1502 to settle in Brazil and export the brazil wood back to Portugal. The Marranos began farming, and it is believed that the first sugar cane was brought by a Jewish farmer from Madeira to Brazil in 1532. Sugar cane became the foundation of the Caribbean economy for several centuries. The Marranosbecame rich plantation owners, businessmen, importers, evenwriters and teachers.

Spain and Portugal were united under one monarch in 1580, and theInquisition spread to their colonies. The practice of Judaism was forbidden. Although Marranos were publicly practicing
Catholics, they set up clandestine societies to secretly practice their real religion, Judaism. In Portugal, authorities were separating the children of remaining Jews from their parents and
sending them to Brazil to be raised as Catholics. The Jews already in Brazil used their secret groups to teach these children about their true heritage, so the Jewish faith survived in Brazil, albeit entirely hidden from public view.

Many of those Jews, who had been forced to convert to Catholicism but who had stayed in Spain and Portugal, eventually emigrated as well. But the presence of a crucifix around someone's neck didn't lessen the prejudice and suspicion that had caused the expulsion edict in the first place. Wealthy "secret" Jews who had tried to stay behind ended up buying their way out of Portugal or Spain and settling in Amsterdam. In Holland, they were allowed to worship in peace; Amsterdam was a financial capital of Europe where those with money were always welcome.

The division of the New World by the Pope ignored the claims of the rest of the European powers to the New World. England, France, and Holland all had either sent explorers to the New World, or simply wanted a piece of it. They felt they needed colonies to both supply them with raw imports and to provide a market for their industrial output. In 1630, the Dutch West India Company sent a fleet to attempt to conquer the city of Recife, located at the northeastern edge of Brazil. Jewish soldiers and explorers were among the Dutch on this successful mission. The new Dutch territory was renamed New Holland. As in Holland, religious freedom was proclaimed.

Jews who had practiced their religion in hiding for decades in South America celebrated so exuberantly with parades and marches through town that the Dutch had to ask them to restrain their

In 1636, a synagogue was built for the "Holy Congregation" in Recife. Jews began arriving from Poland, Turkey, and Hungary as well as more from Spain and Portugal. In 1642, a large group of
Jews arrived from Amsterdam. In this group were Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonseca and Cantor Moses de Aguilar. The population of Recife reached a high point in 1645, with 50% of the white population being Jewish.

The Jews who had settled early on in Brazil were the landowners and sugar barons. Those arriving later became involved in trade. Brazilian Jews formed an overseas trading network with Jews still
in Amsterdam, forming partnerships to bring supplies to Brazil. Jews even became successful slave traders. In 1645, a Jew was granted permission by the West India Company to practice law.

The New Holland Supreme Court refused to accept his license, but the Jewish community in Amsterdam interceded on his behalf and he was eventually allowed to practice law in New Holland. The Christian businessmen were jealous of the success of the Jews, particularly in the lucrative slave trade, and more than once petitioned the government to limit Jewish trading practice. The government refused to take action: the business generated by the Jews was too important to the economy of the colony to be hindered in any way.

The Portuguese wanted their valuable territory back. Using remaining Portuguese citizens and the native Indians as spies, the Portuguese planned to attack Recife and regain control of the
northeastern portion of Brazil. At the same time, many farmers were going deeply into debt with the Dutch West India Companywhen bad sugar harvests hindered their ability to pay their bills and taxes. Some feel that these indebted farmers also supported the Portuguese behind the scenes because a Portuguese victory would absolve them of their debts to Holland. The new war over
Brazil began in 1645, and lasted until 1654. Jews fought and died alongside other Dutch citizens. Some, including Jews, were captured and executed as traitors; others were returned to Portugal to be tried. Starvation killed even more citizens. Dutch ships intermittently arrived with food, but it was not enough and the Dutch finally surrendered in 1654. The period of religious freedom and tolerance for Jews in Brazil had lasted for just 24 short years, from 1630 until 1654, and now it was gone.

In their treaty of surrender, the Dutch had required the Jews to be treated the same as other Dutch citizens: they had to leave within three months and would be allowed to sell their property and businesses. Some returned to Amsterdam, among them Rabbi Aboab da Fonseca and Cantor De Aguilar. One boatload, blown off course, even settled in New Amsterdam (later New York City), and founded the first Jewish community in New York. The rest sailed to other Caribbean islands or colonies, such as Curacao, Barbados and Surinam (later Dutch Guiana). Only a few Marranos remained in Brazil. Records exist for the extradition of several hundred Jews who were send to Portugal because of the Inquisition as late as 1713. Finally, a royal decree in 1773 ended the practices of the Inquisition. By that time, however, the few remaining Marranos had been so assimilated into the Brazilian Catholic culture that they had lost knowledge of Jewish practices and
customs. Jews only began returning to Brazil in 1822 when it became independent of Portugal.

Even today, Brazil is still considered a rather adventurous travel destination. Imagine what the trip must have been like in the days when it meant a month-long sea voyage from Europe on a
creaky clipper ship. In those days, even a minor skin abrasion sustained in the tropics could result in a life-threatening infection. What kind of people would make such a trip rather than remain securely at home in a cosmopolitan city like Amsterdam? The answers are varied: some came to Brazil for its
economic potential; some came for religious freedom; some came merely to escape their past. The individual stories of some of these people, which I've managed to unearth, provide a fascinating insight, on a more "personal" level, to those turbulent times.


One prominent name in the Jewish history of Brazil is Senior Coronel. David Senior Coronel emigrated from Amsterdam to "New Holland" in 1636 during the rule of the Dutch. He was one of
those emigrants looking for economic advancement, and he did succeed in becoming one of the wealthiest men in Recife. He is descended from a well known Marrano family from Spain, whose most famous member, Abraham Senior, was an advisor to royalty.

Don Abraham Senior -- "Don" is a title similar to "Sir" given to Spanish noblemen -- was born around 1410 in Castile, Spain. He was the financial advisor to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, and in fact proposed the match of the two which united Castile and Aragon into one country, Spain. Legend has it that Queen Isabella offered to sell her jewels to finance Columbus's journey; in fact, it was Don Senior who actually provided the money to outfit the ships which carried Columbus to the New World. Along with his trusted position as friend and advisor to the monarchs, Don Senior also served as Rabbi for the Jews of Castile. Because of that position, he was exempted from manyr estrictions that had been placed on "ordinary" Jews, and he, infact, used his position to shield the Jews of Castile from muchof the Inquisition. When Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand weremaking their decision about the expulsion order, it was DonSenior who oé!
him were he to leave Spain but he was, after all, in his eighties which is considered an old man even by modern- day standards. He chose not to leave Spain. Instead, he was baptized a Catholic, with the Queen and King serving as his godparents, and he changed his name to Fernando Nunez Coronel. His descendants used the name "Senior Coronel", probably both to claim their heritage as a
"Senior" and to keep the protection as a Christian family the "Coronel" provided.

It seems obvious that Don Abraham Senior's conversion was only on the surface, as the Senior Coronels were later to become a prominent Jewish family in Brazil. Don Abraham's descendent,
David Senior Coronel, was actually born in 1575 in Spain as Duarte Saraiva, his "Catholic" name. He moved to Amsterdam in 1598 at age 23, and was married there. Many young Jews were attracted to Amsterdam because the government was tolerant of Jews and they could openly practice their religion, but also because of Amsterdam's reputation as a financial center of Europe. By 1601, the future "David" was in the shipping business, sometimes using the name Duarte Saraiva Coronel. There is documentation of his case against the British for reimbursement for their seizure of a ship loaded with sugar; records of the details of trade in salt and other commodities with Portugal have also been found. He began trading with Brazil in the early 1600's. When the Dutch conquered northeastern Brazil in 1630, the government actively promoted emigration to Brazil and, in 1636, David and his family moved to Recife. It was while he lived in Brazil that he became known as David Senior Coronel. He owned real estate and sugar mills, and became the wealthiest man of the community. He died in Brazil in 1650 at the age of 75.

David's son Ishac had the misfortune to inherit his father's estate while Recife was suffering through the war with Portugal.

The businesses had been heavily mortgaged, and the family still owed a great debt to the Dutch West India Company. The Senior Coronel family returned to Amsterdam in 1654 after the Dutch
surrendered. In the courts, Ishac attempted to regain control of the Senior-Coronel property that had been confiscated by the Portuguese, but was unsuccessful. Ishac's son, also named David, had been 11 at the time of the family's move to Brazil. He may have been Treasurer for the Jewish community of Recife in 1652, but returned with the rest of his family to Amsterdam in 1654. He died there in 1676 at the age of 51. His descendants eventually emigrated to Surinam (Dutch Guiana), on the northern coast of South America, where they also went into the sugar business.


Jorgo Homen Pinto is another Jewish immigrant who came to Brazil to reap the riches of the New World. The Pinto name, however, is not so kindly remembered as the Senior Coronel name.

When the Portuguese attempted to regain Brazil from the Dutch, Jorgo Homen Pinto was one of those farmers who apparently sided with the Portuguese in hope of debt relief from the Dutch.

The Dutch West India Company was in charge of the administration of New Holland for the Dutch government, and was involved in everything from raising taxes to selling slaves. In the 1640's,the sugar crop, a mainstay of the economy, failed for severalsuccessive years. The Dutch West India Company accepted taxpayments from the plantation and mill owners in sugar in lieu of cash. When there was not enough sugar to pay the taxes, many of the farmers were forced to offer their property as collateral against their debts. In fact, one of the wealthiest men in New Holland, Jorgo Homen Pinto, owned nine sugar mills, 370 slaves and 1,000 oxen, and even he was not able to pay his taxes. He offered the Dutch West India Company his mills as collateral on his debt.

The Company itself had caused some of the farmers' economic problems by inflating prices on slaves, who were necessary for harvesting the sugar crop. It also knew that if the richest men in the country went bankrupt, it would cause economic problems for all; therefore, the Company absorbed debt from many of the plantation owners. Ironically, things would have eventually straightened out, for the sugar crop revived and the debts could have been settled. Unfortunately, the war with the Portuguese began and the subsequent surrender of the Dutch meant the debts were never repaid. Most Jews supported the Dutch, remembering the toleration the Dutch had always shown them in religion and business. Jorgo Homen Pinto was one of the few Jews who supported the Portuguese side. Some Jews thought the Portuguese were sure to win and they didn't want to face the Inquisition afterward for having fought on the Dutch side. Others were swayed by a proclamation issued by the Portuguese leaders that Jews would continue to have the same rights as under the Dutch; this, unfortunately turned out to be just propaganda. Others, in debt to the Dutch West India
Company, hoped that a Dutch loss would absolve their debts. Jorgo Homen Pinto was apparently one of these. But after the war was over, it is not known what actually happened to him.


One of the most flamboyant families to emigrate to Brazil was the Da Costa clan. The Da Costas were of that class of immigrant who made the trip to Brazil in order to escape something in the old
country they fervently wished to leave behind. One of the brothers was so eccentric that, after his death, the family felt they just could not remain in Amsterdam. That brother was Gabriel da Costa, born in Oporto, Portugal in 1585. The family had moved to Portugal after being expelled from Spain in 1492. He was of a Marrano family that had converted to Catholicism and presented themselves publicly as devout Catholics. Gabriel himself was treasurer of his local church until he began to question the Catholic faith.

Somehow, he convinced both his widowed mother and his brothers to move with him to Amsterdam where they could reclaim their Jewish heritage. There he became known as Uriel da Costa. Uriel's
ideas of Judaism were far from the mainstream but he believed them with such fervor that he became involved in a dispute with the local congregation that eventually included Jews in Hamburg,
Germany and Venice, Italy. One of his followers was the famous philosopher Baruch Espinoza. His fanaticism left him friendless and ostracized from society for seven years. Eventually he relented, but was forced to undergo a public display of his atonement. He was totally humiliated and wrote a scathing autobiographic essay called "Example of a Human Life", then committed suicide. His family was so ashamed that many of them emigrated to Brazil.


Finally, we know that some immigrants, like those on the Mayflower of American history, left their old country in search of the new for religious reasons. One of the Jews arriving in Brazil for that reason was Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first Jewish author in the Americas and the first rabbi in Brazil. That he would make such a trip is not surprising: his family has a history of religious leadership and scholarship dating back to the 15th century. In fact, "our" Rabbi Isaac was the third famous cleric in his family to bear that name.

His ancestor, Isaac Aboab the elder, had lived in Portugal or Spain in the early 1400's. He wrote a famous book in which he attempted to provide a moral guide for Jews to help them handle any dilemmas which might arise in daily living. He discussed all matter of problems, from humility and modesty to clean speech and study of the Torah. Isaac the elder's descendant, Rabbi Isaac Aboab the younger, was later famous as a rabbi and Bible commentator in Castile, Spain. After Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, he led a group of Jews to settle in Oporto, Portugal. He died in Oporto shortly after arriving in Oporto.

"Our" Rabbi Isaac, known as Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, was Isaac the younger's great-great grandson, and he was born in Oporto, Portugal in 1605. But his family soon moved first to St. Jean de Luz, France, and then to Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition.

Isaac was an outstanding student, and became an assistant to the Rabbi of the large Sephardic congregation in Amsterdam. In 1641, he joined a group of Amsterdam Jews who moved to Recife, Brazil, and therefore became the first rabbi in the new world. For thirteen years, he led the large congregation there, which numbered in the thousands. In 1646 when the Dutch held back a Portuguese assault of Recife, Aboab da Fonseca composed a hymn of gratitude, which earned him the distinction of being the first Jewish author in the Americas. Ironically, that battle proved to
be inconsequential, for we know the Portuguese eventually triumphed and the Dutch surrendered in 1654. Rabbi Aboab da Fonseca returned to Amsterdam where he became the leader of the Sephardic congregation, whose previous Rabbi had recently died. Aboab da Fonseca's sermons were so moving that he is credited with inspiring the building of the magnificent Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam.

He went on to publish many more books, including a translation of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into Spanish, with a commentary. He died in 1693 at the age of 88.

As we have seen, for a very brief period in its distant past, Brazil's history intersected with Jewish history. For just a few decades, the Dutch controlled Brazil. These Jews in Brazil, whether they had come for economic, religious, or personal reasons, received rights they were unaccustomed to. They were able to conduct business, amass property, and worship freely. Furthermore, since much of the early history of European expansion in the New World involves Spanish conquistadors and priests, it is fascinating to find a small window where the story is so very different. For these reasons, the period of Dutch control and Jewish influence in Brazil, though brief, stands out in Jewish, as well as Brazilian history.

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- Copyright © 1993 Moïse Rahmani - Institut Sépharade Européen