Lima, Peru on this date in 1639 celebrated a huge auto de fe featuring 72 prisoners. Of these, 12 were executed at the stake, one of whom had the consolation of being already dead by his own hand. (He was punished in effigy.)
Their crime, per the Inquisition, was Judaizing — but we might better consider it today in the vein of terrorism, an idee fixe crawling from a swamp of public insecurities both real and projected: race, religion, geopolitics, and crass opportunism all vying for precedence under the Inquisitor’s cowl.
This post will speak of “Jews” but it’s important to remember that the Spanish empire at this point officially had no Jews: it had forced its Jewish population into exile or conversion. That latter set, Jews who had converted to Christianity under that very Catholic realm’s pressure, thereafter became suspected down the generations of sustaining their Hebraic rites in secret, sapping the Church from within while looking for the odd opportunity to sacrifice a Christian child.
It is uncertain in the end in what proportions these forced converts and their descendants did maintain Jewish devotions versus absorbing themselves into Christianity. But by whatever opinion, these are our “Jews”, conflating as the word often does both faith and race; the terms “New Christians” or “conversos” or “crypto-Jews” are also widely used in the literature and all refer to the same universe of suspected and former (at least somewhere up the family tree) Jews who presented themselves publicly as Christians.
No matter the loyalty of individual converso, the suspicion each was born under placed them in an obvious practical difficulty, and it was compounded in the 17th century as Jewry, that eternal bugbear, also came to stand in for a host of other worries dogging the Spanish state.
To begin with, many Jews had in their day fled from Spanish conversion to Portugal, but had recently become re-absorbed when the Spanish crown added Portugal as an unwilling bride to its imperial conquests in 1580. So, the Portuguese, and the tensions thereto, became equated with the Jew in the Spanish imagination.*
In the New World, the already onion-layered specter of the secret Jew further aligned with the menaces of an unknown frontier, where unfamiliar opportunities abounded and dangers too.**
Spain’s rival on the Caribbean coast was its very own disobedient former possession, the Netherlands, and the latter offered Jews a liberal grant toleration. Spanish conversos’ loyalty to their own crown, already doubted on principle, was doubly suspect for the proximity of rival settlements with unconcealed synagogues — no mere paranoid fantasy, as Jews on Spanish soil were prominent among the collaborators who aided Dutch incursions in the 17th century.
Jews also came to be credited more generally with a scary affinity for the subject populations of conquered Indians and imported African slaves — their pagan magicks, their unusual tongues, and their frightful potential for revolt. And of course, there was all that odious money-handling.
“For the past six to eight years, a great number of Portuguese [read: Jews] have entered the kingdom of Peru and there were a great number already there,” Don Leon de Alcayaga wrote of Lima in 1636. “They came to rule over all commerce, which from the brocade to the sackcloth, and from the diamond to the cony, all run through their hands. The Castilian without a Portuguese partner could expect no success in trade.”
Commerce is cutthroat, and the evident power of Jews among the colonies’ emerging mercantile elites — and not just in Lima, but in Cartagena, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere — seems to have co-evolved with appeals from New World Castilians for the Inquisition’s scrutiny of this potentially disloyal element. Strictly out of piety and patriotism, you understand.
The arrival from Cartagena of Inquisitor Juan de Manozca, who had prosecuted crypto-Jews in that city as well as native “witches”, set the scene for one of the Spanish colonies’ bloodiest purges.
In 1635, a great wave of arrests seized upwards of 100 of these “Portuguese” for La Complidad Grande, a supposed grand conspiracy among the heretics whose contours are little described in the documentation that survives for us. Was the “conspiracy” essentially Judaism itself? Or did Inquisitors perceive a more daring and tangible plot?
“Apropos of the famous auto de fe of the Portuguese, Pelliza y Tovar, the famous chronicler of Aragon, says that on the day the Spanish authorities took possession of the letters and correspondence of the resident Portuguese they found keys and letters in code and they discovered that the synagogues of America were in intimate relations with the Jews of Holland.”† Manozca apparently communicated to the mother country that the Hebrews were stockpiling munitions.
They were bound ultimately for the auto this day — years afterwards — via the Inquisition’s cumbersome judicial machinery. The two most famous of them mark the entire futile spectrum of choices available to the New Christian whom the Old Christian was sufficiently motivated to destroy:
Francisco Maldonado da Silva, a Jewish physician who had been imprisoned since 1627 for returning to Judaism, and been completely unapologetic about it, even evangelizing other prisoners held near him. “This is the doing of the Lord God of Israel, so that I may now look upon Him face to face,” he said at the stake.
Manuel Bautista Perez, a powerful merchant reputed to be the wealthiest man in Lima — his fortune built on mining, shipping, and the slave trade.‡ Perez hailed from a New Christian family but unlike da Silva he insisted on his fidelity to the Church and refused to admit any heresy. Indeed, he had always been conspicuous in his devotions, and (his words) “never let it be known, either to persons from his household or outside it, that he was a New Christian … because he always tried to be taken for an Old Christian.”
This purge devastated not only New Spain’s Jewish populace but her economy too; with many of the wealthiest magnates clapped in irons from 1635 and their assets suddenly demobilized, other operators be they ever so devout immediately faced an epidemic of financial reversals and bankruptcies.
* Even though a Portuguese Inquisition also existed, predating the 1580 union of the two realms.
** See Irene Silverblatt, “New Christians and New World Fears in Seventeenth-Century Peru,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, July 2000, who notes that
The colony’s take on the Jewish menace, then, elaborated a familiar but divergent set of charges: New Christians had usurped trade and merchandising to the detriment of Castilians; New Christians, with international ties, were not loyal to the Spanish empire; New Christians — merchants and traitors — aligned themselves with potentially subversive groups within the Colony (namely, indios and negros) …
† The comment is that of Peruvian historian Ricardo Palma, quoted by Seymour Liebman in “The Great Conspiracy in Peru,” The Americas, October 1971.
‡ For a detailed exposition of Perez’s career in slaving, see From Capture to Sale: The Portuguese Slave Trade to Spanish South America in the Early Seveacnteenth Century.