New Christians

Janaina Guimarães da Fonseca e Silva (Universidade de Pernambuco)

New Christians, descendants of Jews or Jews converted to Catholicism, played a prominent role in the colonization of the Americas, specifically in what would become Brazil. Despite the suffering generated by the dispersion at the end of the 15th century, due to the expulsion of Jews from Castile and Aragon (1492), followed by the expulsion (1496) and later forced conversion to become New Christians in the kingdom of Portugal (1497), these men and women occupied spaces where Jews had no chance to act and acted in the Iberian Catholic world, even though they were under constant suspicion. Where Judaism was not allowed, the neoconverses settled and traded on behalf of the interests of their families and partners – who were then established in places where such religious practice was allowed, especially in Amsterdam (Wachtel, 2002). These merchants were participants in heterogeneous networks, which included old Christians and Protestants, but had family members, friends, or people of long acquaintance, creating the necessary trust for large investments.  Where Judaism was not allowed, the neoconverses settled and traded on behalf of the interests of their families and partners – who were then established in places where such religious practice was allowed, especially in Amsterdam (Wachtel, 2002). These merchants were participants in heterogeneous networks, which included old Christians and Protestants, but had family members, friends, or people of long acquaintance, creating the trust necessary for large investments. 

 The Dynastic Union, which began in 1580, traced new paths for subjects of Jewish descent, whose position in relation to the succession crisis was not homogeneous. These New Christians, family members or not, were located in the most diverse trading posts in the then known world, being responsible for a good part of the financing and trade of several products in Brazil during the Union of the Iberian Crowns (1580-1640). These products ranged from wheat to line, utensils, papyrus, wine, salt, and everything else that was necessary to life in the captaincies, and were traded for what interested or served European consumption, such as sugar, enslaved people, and brazilwood. 

If something is clear in the historiography about the political positioning of the New Christians in relation to the dispute for the Portuguese throne, it is that they did not act as a homogeneous group, making choices based on individual interests or according to their networks. An alleged support of the New Christians to Dom Antonio, Prior of Crato, was denounced in the First Visitation of the Holy Office to Brazil. Francisca Fernandes commented in her denunciation to the Visitor of the Holy Office in Pernambuco a disagreement between her and Antonio Lopes de Olivença, a new-Christian merchant who was also feitor of the Alfândega de Viana (Primeira Visitação…, 1984: 96, 320). Such disagreement led Antonio Lopes de Olivença to indicate her and André Magro as servants of D. António, Prior of Crato. The seriousness of such accusation could be measured, and, for this reason, André Magro was imprisoned in Vila de Olinda.

It is also pointed out that the New Christians were enthusiastic about the union of the two kingdoms, because they were the ones who profited most from the free passage to Spain. Several took advantage of this union for their enrichment, especially those connected to slave trade, such as Duarte Dias Henriques, a lord of a mill in Pernambuco, who would also participate in the tobacco trade, so significant for the exchanges carried out in the period (Primeira Visitação…, 1984: 473). Another important character to profit at this juncture was António Fernandes D’Elvas, who became a banker for the Spanish Crown, holder of several contracts for the introduction of slaves in America, since his brother, Diogo Rodrigues D’ Elvas, was in the Capitania of Pernambuco as a merchant in this period (Boyajian, 1983). It was not a question of loyalty, but of the interest of networks, of family members or of some institutions.  For the New Christians, the point was not to have Lisbon as their capital, but to participate in an empire that expanded their financial possibilities and, simultaneously, allowed them to negotiate better living conditions in the Peninsula. 

The presence of the New Christians in Brazil can be observed through the ownership of mills, the participation in public positions, the collection of tithes, the slave trade and their location, through the various inquisitorial processes and in the lists generated by the various inquiries (Mello, 1996: 5).  However, the physical absence of New Christians in the captaincy did not imply the absence of their investments in Brazilian trade, since many of them went seasonally to Angola, Lisbon, Madrid, Amsterdam, or some other entrepôt with guaranteed commercial interest. Others had fixed residence in Amsterdam, Goa or Peru, and maintained direct business with Brazil (Silva, 2012).

The presence of the New Christians in Brazil can be observed through the ownership of mills, the participation in public positions, the collection of tithes, the slave trade and their location, through the various inquisitorial processes and in the lists generated by the various inquiries (Mello, 1996: 5).  However, the physical absence of New Christians in the captaincy did not imply the absence of their investments in Brazilian trade, since many of them went seasonally to Angola, Lisbon, Madrid, Amsterdam, or some other entrepôt with guaranteed commercial interest. Others had fixed residence in Amsterdam, Goa or Peru, and maintained direct business with Brazil (Silva, 2012).

In the late 16th century and early 17th century, the so-called Capitanias de Cima stood out in the presence of New Christians, they are: Bahia, Pernambuco, Paraíba and Itamaracá. Even though we have the presence of merchant New Christians, a few mill owners, sertanistas and Jesuits also in the southern captaincies, as well registered in the documentation of the First Visitation of the Holy Office to Brazil (1593-1595).  Some of these men, although out of the sight of the Visitor Heitor Furtado de Mendonça, were denounced, as is the case of six residents in Espírito Santo, where we highlight the trader Francisco Roiz; five in the captaincy of São Vicente and another four denounced residents in Rio de Janeiro. It is important to emphasize that the defense of Rio de Janeiro, during the Dutch attack on Bahia (1624) was made with intense funding from the New Christians, who owned some of the main sources of the Portuguese budget, represented by the brazilwood contracts, slaves from Angola and Cape Verde. The then governor Martim de Sá, even without authorization from the kingdom, used the revenues from the contract of Angola, which belonged to the new Christian Antônio Fernandes d’Elvas (Salvador, 1976: 355).

In the captaincy of São Vicente, there is the case of Antônio do Vale Vasconcelos, a new-Christian accused of bigamy. Son-in-law during his second marriage to the Captain-Mor Vicentino Gerônimo Leitão, he was sent by order of his father-in-law, offended by the discovery, to Rio de Janeiro, so that from there he could go to Portugal, where he would be prosecuted. However, years later, Antônio do Vale is again in São Vicente, which points to the ineffectiveness of long distance denunciations in those early moments of inquisitorial presence in Brazil (Salvador, 1969: 89).

The establishment of the New Christians in Bahia is amply documented by the first two Visits of the Holy Office to Brazil. The ensemble of denunciations, confessions and proceedings resulting therefrom demonstrate the prominence of the New Christians during the Dynastic Union as lords of mills, slave traders, members of the Chamber and collectors of various tithes. Many were relatives of the Pernambuco New Christians and at some point moved between the captaincies (Novinsky, 1972). Adherence to the Iberian or Dutch side of the conflict was not unanimous among New Christians, those whose businesses were more directly linked to the transatlantic networks supported the Dutch, while the landowners, married a few generations ago, with no interest in leaving Brazil, sided with the Spanish and Portuguese (França, 1970). In Bahia, the case of the prominent family of Violante Fernandes Antunes, from Matoim, in the Recôncavo Baiano, stands out. The matriarch, Ana Rodrigues, and her daughters were denounced several times for maintaining Judaizing practices and making their house a place to receive other members of the Judaizing community of the region. Ana had already died at the time of the visitation in 1593, but her daughters had their lives searched, were sent to Lisbon, and were prosecuted. Ana herself had her soul processed, was condemned and burned in effigy in an auto de fé (Assis, 2012).

The captaincy of Paraíba is conquered during the union of the Iberian Crowns, by the efforts of private individuals, among which many New Christians residents of Pernambuco, such as Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, Fernão Soares and Diogo Nunes. It is a Crown Captancy, its seat, Filipeia Nossa Senhora das Neves, was founded in 1585. Still in the 17th century, Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, who is the author of Diálogo das Grandezas do Brasil (Ambrósio, 1997) resented the dependence of the Paraíba plantation owners on the Port of Recife, where they shipped their goods. In his text, he exalts the possibilities of land exploration, as an invitation to new settlers and investments in the Brazilian lands.

The captaincy of Itamaracá, at the end of the 16th century, was almost an extension of the captaincy of Pernambuco, as the first donatory captain of this captaincy, Duarte Coelho, requested in his letters. Donated to Pero Lopes de Souza in 1534, Itamaracá originally encompassed a territory which extended for twenty three leagues along the coast of Brazil, from the captaincy of Pernambuco in the north, until it ended at the Bay of Traição. In the captaincy of Itamaracá was the parish of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, where the New Christians Felipe Cavalcanti, Beatriz Mendes, Branca Ramires, Guiomar Soeira, Baltasar da Fonseca, Violante Pacheca, Isabel Fernandes, Salvador Pireira, Branca Fernandes, Pero Vieira, Diogo Roiz, Branca Ramires, Francisco Soares, Jacome Lopes, Fernão Roiz, Fernão Soeiro, Isabel do Valle, Bartholomeu Roiz and Maria da Fonseca lived. The captaincy was extinguished in 1574, leaving much of its territory in charge of the captaincy of Paraíba, which would only be consolidated, as already mentioned, in 1585.

The establishment of New Christians in the captaincy of Pernambuco began soon after its foundation at the beginning of its colonization process. Since the 1540s of the 16th century,  the merchants Diogo Fernandes and Pedro Alvares Madeira arrived there. Those New Christians won a sesmaria from the donatory Duarte Coelho and were soon followed by many others interested in new spaces of sociability, away from the inquisitorial action and with possibilities of economic growth. The unions between these men and the old Christians took place in several ways, just in the commercial plan, sharing projects and investments, or in the friendship and kinship relations, woven throughout almost a century of coexistence. Family connections between new-Christian and old-Christian were common since the end of the 16th century, and served a double purpose: to diminish the new-Christian ancestry of the families and, through marriage, to have access to lands inherited by marriage with old-Christian.

As for the significant presence of New Christians in the sugar trade during the period of the union of the Crowns, it is important to point out a series of restrictions. The prohibition of trade with foreigners occurred in 1591, limiting the action of important merchants that can be found in the notarial archives of Amsterdam as signatories of several agreements, through their procurators, for the negotiation of various goods, among which stand out sugar, slaves and brazilwood. Such restrictions were part of a metropolitan proposal aiming to bar the flow of profits, mostly obtained by foreigners, at the expense of their colonies (Alencastro, 2000: 21).

In an attempt to ease this prohibition and realizing that the caravels they owned could not handle the transport of sugar in 1594, the king authorized Dutch ships to sail to Brazil in two fleets of twenty ships each, which were to return directly to Lisbon. However, this authorization was not enough to disrupt the smuggling. We know that many Dutch broke the agreements and went directly to Northern Europe: legally or illegally, half or two thirds of the sugar produced in Brazil in the late 16th century was transported to Holland, as can be seen in the “Livros das Saídas das Urcas do Porto do Recife (1595-1605)” (Mello, 1993: 21, 145).

Among the shippers, we can identify the following New Christians: recognized as New Christians were forty merchants, among which we highlight Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, Duarte Dias Henriques, Duarte Ximenes, Fernão Soares, Filipe Diniz do Porto, Francisco Lopes Homem, Francisco Rodrigues do Porto, Gaspar Fernandes Anjo, Gaspar Ximenes, Gomes Rodrigues Milão, Manuel Nunes de Matos, Miguel Dias de Santiago and Tomás Fernandes. Prepared by Sebastião de Carvalho, dated 1608, the book contains the registry of several urcas, their porters in Brazil and their consignees, supposedly in Lisbon. Therefore, many of these – despite having their taxes paid in the Portuguese capital, as if they had arrived there – in fact landed in Flanders, Antwerp, Hamburg and Amsterdam. Gabriel da Costa sailed from Angola to Pernambuco in a Flemish ship in 1594, being a “shelf” merchant in Rua da Rocha when the Visitation took place (França and Siqueira, 1963: 147).

The 80 Years War (1568-1648), for the Independence of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, was the scene of the commercial relations between the captaincies under Spanish rule and Northern Europe, especially Amsterdam. Several restrictions, added to the difficulties caused by the attacks on the seas, were responsible for making transportation more expensive, generating an increase in costs for the New-Christian merchants involved in the exportation of Brazilian goods. Despite this, the risks did not outweigh the profits.

What kept many New Christians in Brazil or involved in trade relations with this part of the empire during the Dynastic Union was the continuity of economic interests in Atlantic trade, despite the difficulties suffered in the early seventeenth century. So how did these men profit in the face of this difficult conjuncture? Through the diversification of their investments, participating in associations with the Jewish members of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam – with whom, besides commercial ties, they shared an entire cultural heritage, as observed in the several inquisitorial processes. Furthermore, through partnership with Catholic and Calvinist Christians, depending on the specific extent of each network.

Through the inquisitorial testimonies, we can verify the comings and goings of many New Christians to Amsterdam. And, when the inquisitorial files do not reveal this physical displacement, we know, through the notarial archives of the community, that many New Christians had members of their network as representatives in that city. Colonial conditions provided these men with greater interaction with the Old Christians in the colony, while also allowing them to maintain ties with the Jewish community in Amsterdam. 

Some Jews were participants in the West India Company (WIC), but not with investments so large that they could impose their wills on the Administrative Council, responsible for administering it and its conquests. And some New Christians who left for Amsterdam in the beginning of the 17th century returned to Pernambuco during the Dutch conquest, as is the case of Duarte Saraiva, now David Senior Colonel, who in 1635 was already in Recife, as lord of the Santa Madalena mill, in Várzea do Capibaribe. In his house were held, temporarily, the meetings of the Jewish community that little by little would grow, having as signatories almost 140 men in only one of its communities. There were two, until 1654, the Kahal Kadosk Zul Israel, at Rua do Bom Jesus, functioning first at Duarte Saraiva’s house and then in its own building built between 1640/1641 and the Israel and Magem Abraham, probably founded in 1637, at Antônio Vaz Island (Mello, 1996: 231). 

The height of the Jewish arrival in Recife was after 1635, at the end of the most intense period of wars for the conquest of the territory. The life of the community was restricted by the rules of the Council of XIX and many were the complaints and disputes between Catholics, Protestants and Jews that appear in the documents of the Company. After the Dutch capitulation in 1654, the building of the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue, today excavated and open to visitation, was donated to the master of the field João Fernandes Vieira, by charter of the then governor Francisco Barreto, drawn up in Recife on September 27, 1656.

Many New Christians of Portuguese origin ventured into the Spanish territories of America since the 16th century, as for example the New-Christian merchant Rodrigo d’Avila, a teenager who lived in Pernambuco in the house of the Flemish Manuel Nunes and who, around 1594, when he was denounced, said he was leaving for Rio da Prata. Rodrigo was then found in the kingdom of Peru, in the meshes of the inquisition. (Silva, 2012:157). Another case of a prominent new-Christian that comes to us through inquisitorial documentation is that of Luiz Gomes Barreto, a slave trader, resident and member of the Cabildo of Cartagena, where he settled in 1590. The New-Christian presence is also strongly documented in the region of the Río de la Plata, where many of the slaves entering Brazil were taken. The city of Buenos Aires was founded for the second time in 1580, in order to prevent foreign infiltration and illicit trafficking between Brazil, the province of Tucumán and the centers of silver extraction. The “peruleiros” were responsible for supplying these centers and for the outflow of the production. Many were new Christians who participated in the slave trade and had bases in the Capitanias de Cima (Pernambuco, Paraíba, Itamaracá, and Bahia), to which they resorted to providethe ships with esorted to supplements the ships with food needed in the silver extraction areas, mainly with European manufactures bought with Brazilian sugar and with enslaved blacks brought from Angola. The term “Portuguese” in Spanish America became synonymous with “Jew”, as also occurred in Amsterdam. It is important to note that most of the New Christians, even in Spanish America, were of Portuguese origin, which facilitated this association. 

Two New Christians, from Pernambuco, had great importance in the development of the slave trade in the Spanish possessions, without, however, staying there. Antônio Fernandes d’Elvas and Duarte Dias Henriques, both linked to Diogo da Veiga, one of the main smugglers of the period, a Portuguese New-Christian trader established in Buenos Aires, with family members established in Madrid with correspondents in Portugal, among whom were Jorge Lopes Correia and João de Argumento. This slave smuggling included not only merchants, but also royal officials, and sometimes had support from the governors themselves. Diogo da Veiga was the feitor of Antônio Fernandes d’Elvas and the proxy of Duarte Dias Henriques. Diogo da Veiga held, practically, the monopoly of the business of the port of Buenos Aires (Hultz, 2017).

In view of the intense New Christian presence in Brazil during the Dynastic Union, it is important to point oThe so-called “sugar elite” at the end of the 16th century and in the first half of the 17th century is full of New Christians  and a genealogist from the 18th century, Borges da Fonseca, committed what Elias Lipiner will call “Genealogicide”, when he tried to erase the New Christians, Indians and Blacks from the Pernambucanian sugar-mill owners who could no longer enter the religious orders, especially the Order of Christ (Lipiner, 1969). However, it is worth remembering that these men who won the sesmarias were not noble either, which also disqualifies them for various titles and functions. Linking them to a notion of purity only by not exercising mechanical trades, a problem that will also be observed in other captaincies. For the understanding of the dynamics of circulation of people, cultures and materials during the Dynastic Union, it is important to note that beyond being able to initially join religious orders or to affirm the absence of the so-called mechanical defect, the New Christians were intensely present in the colonization and in the trade networks that involved what we now understand as Brazil.

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