Tag Archives: conversos

1639: The auto de fe of Lima, Peru

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.

Juan de Manozca became Archbishop of Mexico in 1643.

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.

1624: Antonio Homem, at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition

On this date in 1624, Coimbra University theologian Antonio Homem was burned at the stake in a Lisbon auto de fe.

Homem came from a “neo-Christian” family, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity. Considering the compulsion, one could fairly question the piety of such “Christians”; in a great moment in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t, the Spanish Inquisition fired up to probe the potential un-Christian activity of neo-Christians.

Neighboring Portugal was just a beat behind Spain in all this; Spain expelled its Jews — the ones who weren’t willing to convert — in 1492, and Portugal did so in 1497. The Portuguese Inquisition began in 1536 and, like Spain’s, took conversos as a primary focus.*

Homem’s family’s response was to be more Catholic than the Pope and have Antonio trained for the clergy; he became canon of the Cathedral of Coimbra and a doctor at the University of Coimbra.

Homem was in his fifties when it became known among his colleagues that he was of New Christian stock, and this circumstance soon attracted unwanted attention — and eventually, his denunciation for allegedly leading a secret Judaic cell. Homem, it is said, “often took the part of priest”; The Other Within: The Marranos, Split Identity and Emerging Modernity describes a Kippur ceremony from the Inquisition records.

The public, all fasting and dressed in white, used the Christian Bible (the Vulgate) to recite Latin Psalms that expressed a Jewish-Marrano sentiment (Psalms such as “When Israel came out of Egypt,” “On the rivers of Babylon,” and “From the Abyss I called you, O God”). In those ancient Jewish poems the Marranos expressed their own, specific sense of exile and yearning for redemption. A few “priests of the Law of Moses,” replicating a Catholic ceremony, dressed Homem in a long elegant garment and put “a sort of miter” on his head, decorated with golden plaque. There was an altar there, and incense, and painted images of Moses and of a Marrano martyr or saint “who had been … burned as a Jew.”

The inner life of the converso is a great riddle from our distance of time and context. It is immediately tempting to perceive religious martyrs here, people who were forced underground but still kept what they could of the faith of their fathers at risk of life and limb.

Such a reading paradoxically allies us with their persecutors, for it is by the Inquisition’s hand that we have the evidence — and this is a source whose evidence we greet very skeptically when it, for instance, charges conversos with murdering Christian children. Inquisitors all around Europe were after all involved in these very years in scaring up secret witches’ covens to incinerate, and it was not unknown for the deadly judicial apparatus to be borrowed here and there from restraining the minions of Hell in order to service business opportunities, political aspirations, or private grudges of the personal or professional variety. Try asking a present-day academic how easy they’d sleep knowing their colleagues on the tenure committee also had a few buddies in the Holy Inquisition.

Antonio Jose Saraiva’s The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquisition and Its New Christians 1536-1765** contends that most “Judaizing” Christians were just plain Christians — caught up like accused witches and warlocks could be in some specious neighborhood rumor that became a self-fulfilling accusation. “Inevitably,” says Saraiva, “a family quarrel or a commercial intrigue would lead to several series of denunciations, followed by arrests. Arrests led to trials which spiraled into new rounds of arrests and trials.” Saraiva argues that Homem’s recently-exposed Jewish heritage probably just made him a ready target when a commercial dispute of some sort led the Inquisition’s Coimbra tribunal to seize “scores of merchants engaged in the triangular commerce between Brazil, Oporto and Amsterdam.”

Whether Homem really did head a covert cult with 100-plus adherents reading Old Testament verses from the Latin Bible — or whether this was what an inquisitor goaded by Homem’s enemies supposed a secret Jew might do — he was left to rot in prison several years† after his 1619 condemnation while the Inquisition investigated dozens of his alleged adherents. These included other cathedral canons, professors and students at the university, nuns from four nearby convents, and other persons of some stature. (Homem, to his credit, refused to accuse anyone else.)

Homem was eventually among eight burned (Portuguese link) at an auto this date at the Ribeira de Lisboa, and his house was torn down to be replaced with a pillar inscribed “Praeceptor infelix”. Prior to their destruction they were favored with the preachings of Friar Antonio de Sousa who railed against the insidious Semitic threat to homeland security.

For our sins of the last years people of quality have been cross-breeding with these perverse Jews to whom I am referring. They became corrupted by their contact with them and have become Jews like they are. Just a few years ago only low-class, trashy Jews were paraded at the autos-da-fe. See what now appears for sentencing in the autos-da-fe and in this very one at which I am preaching: ecclesiastical personnel, friars, nuns, holders of master’s degrees, licentiates, doctors and professors with family connections to the nobility, people only half of New Christian origin, or a quarter, or an eighth, all confessing and convicted of Judaism. (Translated excerpt via Saraiva)

Readers with Portuguese proficiency can find more on this case in this 1999 book exploring the Inquisition’s Coimbra archives, or in Antonio Homem e a inquisição.

* For the setting of this post, the 1620s, Spain and Portugal are under the personal union of a common monarch, Philip IV.

** We’ve mentioned it before.

† One of the great (and eventually fatal) inefficiencies of the auto-de-fe system was its tendency to leave its future exhibits to languish for years in prisons before the prescribed spectacle could be properly arranged.