1639: The auto de fe of Lima, Peru

Add comment January 23rd, 2017 Headsman

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.

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

Add comment May 5th, 2014 Headsman

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.

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1481: Diego Suson, by his daughter’s hand

Add comment February 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1481, Spain’s first auto-da-fe under the recently established Spanish Inquisition saw six burned at the stake in Seville.

These pageants of orthodox Catholic authority, with parades of heretics publicly confessing their error and being received back into the community on penitential terms, while others more contumacious were consigned to the flames, would soon become one of the signature features of Inquisition Spain. Some 700 people were executed at such events over the decade to come.

But here in the early 1480s, the terrifying powers of the Holy Office for the Propagation of Faith (the Inquisition’s business-card title) were, well … unexpected.


/Mandatory

Don Diego Suson, one of the six put to death this date, was the wealthy patriarch of a marrano family — Jews, who had converted a century prior. The Inquisition’s whole founding spirit was the sense of characters like Torquemada that as such conversions had generally been obtained under duress, the families in question were still secretly maintaining their Semitic rites. That would make them apostates (since they were baptized and supposedly Christian), and it would implicate them in God knows what other malignancy (since they were malignant Jews).

Spain, you’ll recall, is at this point about 11 years away from expelling all its Jews full stop.

This made it especially dicey for Suson that he was also a rabbi to an underground community of still-practicing “converted” Jews. (Spanish source) Torquemada was on to a real thing here.

Unfortunately his daughter — so the legend says — didn’t quite grasp what the Inquisitors had coming and lightly betrayed the fact to her Christian lover. In no time at all, the guys with the racks and thumbscrews had the terrible family secret in hand.

It’s said that the beautiful (of course) daughter was so riven with grief and shame for the careless destruction of her father that she shut herself up in a convent … and arranged that when she died her guilt-stricken head should be hung up at her former home.

The location of this macabre monument is still marked in Seville today; once known as the Calle de la Muerte, it is now called the Calle Susona.

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1596: Francisca Nunez de Carvajal, her children, and four other crypto-Jews of her family

3 comments December 8th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1596, the Inquisition sent nine Jewish converts to Christianity to the stake in Mexico City for Judaizing — a cruel fate offering a window into a secret history of New World settlement.

When Spain expelled its Jews (and subsequently its Muslims), those who did not flee had to convert. Conversions at swordpoint being of suspect sincerity, the Inquisition spent much of the following centuries hunting Conversos — so-called “New Christians” — who secretly preserved their outlawed faiths.

For some crypto-Jews, the New World held an appeal akin to that which would draw later generations of northern Europe’s religious minorities.

Latin America in particular attracted considerable numbers of New Christians. The advantage of these territories was that they offered the New Christians a familiar culture and the possiblity of direct — even if infrequent — contact with the mother countries … These factors also helped permit [crypto-Jews] to practice Judaism.

The Carvajals (or Carabajals) were just such a family, settling in Monterrey under the aegis of their kinsman, Spanish governor Luis de Carvajal y Cueva.

But in 1590, the governor’s sister Francisa was tortured by the Inquisition into implicating her entire family in Judaism.

They got off with a humiliating public recantation, but evidence of a relapse a few years later resulted in Francisca being burned at the stake at an auto de fe — along with her children Isabel, Catalina, Leonor and Luis, and four of their in-laws. The 30-year-old Luis left a testimonial to his faith and his tortures.

A headstone in New Mexico, USA, suggests crypto-Jewish descent. Image used with permission.

Despite the grisly doings of this day, however, the Inquisition never could extirpate Jews from its American territory.

These hidden communities filtered into Mexico and north to the present-day United States, keeping adapted versions of Jewish traditions secretly alive.

Still, crypto-Jews produced scant potentially self-incriminating documentary evidence. Although DNA testing has latterly entered the scene, the true extent and nature of these populations has been the subject of lively scholarly controversy.

But the Carvajals and others like them, seemingly lost to the Inquisition’s depredations, are coming alive again. This day’s executions are the subject of a modern opera and a spring 2008 Texas A&M symposium.

And the wider community of crypto-Jews have their own umbrella organization and a burgeoning body of historical literature.

Books about crypto-Jews

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1491: Eight current and converted Jews at an auto de fe

6 comments November 16th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1491, the murder of the Holy Child of La Guardia was punished with an auto de fe and the public execution of eight Jews — some practicing, some converted to Christianity (who enjoyed the mercy of strangulation before being burnt) — and three others already dead but exhumed for the occasion.

The auto de fe — literally, “act of faith” — was a public ritual of religious penance for the condemned. Though its performance did not always precede the execution of its participants, it became closely associated with the savagery of the Spanish Inquisition.

In the hysteria of the Holy Child of La Guardia case — one of history’s better-remembered instances of “blood libel” implicating Jews in the ritual murder of Christian children — the result was foreordained.

Knitting together (inconsistent) confessions obtained under torture, the famed Inquisitor Torquemada proved a conspiracy of Jews had kidnapped and crucified a child further to the concoction of a magic potion that depended on the heart of an innocent Christian — despite a fruitless high-and-low search for some missing child who might have been the actual victim.

After this day’s gaudy public slaughter, a cult sprang up around the supposed martyr, adored in a chapel erected where one of the prisoners had once had a home — the very spot, it was said, where the Jews conspired. The Holy Child was a staple of Spanish literature down to the 20th century and is still venerated in La Guardia.

But Torquemada aimed for results well beyond Christendom’s martyrology, and the wretches at the stake would not be this day’s only victims.

John Edward Longhurst argues in The Age of Torquemada that the Inquisitor seized on the Holy Child case to orchestrate “his heart’s desire — the expulsion of all Jews from Spain.”*

Early the next year, the Spanish monarchy obliged, permanently remaking Spain:

If Ferdinand and Isabella were hesitating over expelling the Jews from Spain, the discovery of this latest Jewish plot would surely resolve all doubts. The Auto de Fe of November, 1491, exploited the affair to its fullest, emphasizing not only all the gruesome details of the Murder but the Jewish menace to Christians intended by it. The sentence against the Jew Juce Franco, read aloud to the great crowd at the Auto de Fe, identifies him as a seducer of Christians to the Law of Moses in language that clearly foreshadows the Edict of Expulsion four months later

We may be sure that Ferdinand and Isabella were treated to a lengthy account of this case. It also is clear, from their own observations in the Edict of Expulsion, that Torquemada impressed on them the determination of the Jews to persist in their efforts to seduce Christians to Judaism. As long as they were permitted to remain, the danger of infection would never be eliminated, no matter how harsh the measures employed against them.

* Or, their forcible conversion … which would then keep the Inquisition in business for years to come.

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