INKIZISION I KRIPTO-DJUDAIZMO EN CANARIAS SIGLOS XVII-XVIII
THE INQUISITION AND CRYPTO JUDAISM IN THE CANARIES
by Jose’ M. Brito
reprinted by permission from Aki Yerushamayim (Translated from Ladino by Michele Greene)
The reestablishment of Crypto Judaism in the Canary Islands dates from the first quarter of the Seventeenth Century. The peace achieved in 1604 between Spain and England greatly increased the trade of sugar and wine from the archipelago - a commerce in which, among others, the “New Christians” of Lisbon, Bayonne, Bordeaux, and also the Jews of Amsterdam, were greatly interested. After investing in this area, various merchants occasionally traveled to the islands and some of them took up residence in Tenerife and La Palma. This colony soon increased due to a new wave of antisemitism in Portugal (between 1612 and 1630 the Inquisition in Lisbon, Coimbra and Evora held no less than 47 large autos-de-fe.)
The new community of Crypto-Jews on the islands was very different than the one which had preceded it, dating from the end of the fifteenth century. Even though all were known as “New Christians,” the members of the first community were Jews of a humble social status, the majority of which had never formally renounced their Jewish faith. The newcomers, on the other hand, were essentially rich Portuguese Crypto-Jews of a high social class, and although most of them were baptized, they remained firm in their devotion to the Jewish religion.
Owing to the vigilance and persecutions of the Inquisition, this second group had preserved their Judaism in secret, and furthermore, they had “conquered” the Portuguese and Spanish, taking as wives or husbands “Old Christians.”
Apart from these marriages, there were also many Old Christians - free thinkers and individuals who sought newer and more open horizons - who converted to Judaism.
It was in 1625 that the Inquisition in the Canaries, which had been practically inactive for close to 30 years, began to mobilize itself against the immigrants. In this same year, an edict of faith was promulgated against Judaism. Following this a good number of denunciations uncovered the existence of a colony of rich merchant Jews on the islands. In 1626 it was affirmed that the city of La Laguna on Tenerife was full of Jews and “heretics” (the majority of which were English and Dutch Protestants.)
The denunciations and the testimonies recorded in the archives of the Inquisition give us wide and varied information about the new Crypto-jews and their way of life. From among them, two are particularly notable: Antonio Fonseca and Fernan Pinto.
The first was an (orjinario) from Oporto and a member of a family named Pina which had suffered from the Inquisition. In Coimbra he, as well as other members of his family, were arrested and judged by the Holy Office. One of his relatives was “relajado” (burned), while he, his wife, and his father were condemned to wear the “Sanbenito.” The fact that he was not imprisoned allowed him to flee to Tenerife with two brothers, and his wife who joined them later. Having relatives in various parts of Europe and America, he established commercial relations with them, sending them sugar and wine and receiving from them things from the places where they lived. There were no concrete denunciations of him for any Jewish practices, and it appears he died in peace in the Canaries.
The case of Fernan Pinto is more colorful and historically more interesting. Like Fonseca he came from a Portuguese family which had suffered greatly from the Inquisition. He also was involved in commerce, but unlike Fonseca he did not hide his Jewish religious identity and there are many testimonies that speak especially about his missionary ardor.
He was one of the first to arrive in Tenerife and to live in La Laguna. One of his sons, named Manuel, died in l631 and was buried as a Catholic in the cemetery of the city where the family lived. In April 1632, seeking a more liberal environment, Fernan Pinto and his wife went to live in Flanders (Belgium of today), where a little while later they produced another son, Juan.
It is curious to note that despite knowing of his plans to flee, based on the testimony of at least five informants, the Inquisition made no attempt to arrest him. The reason is because the Institution was in frank decadence, not so much because fanaticism was decreasing within its tribunals, but because its ideology was accepted less and less, as a consequence of political compromises between religious and civil authorities.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century relations between the Inquisition and the authorities, as wicked (corrupt?) as they were religious - and none of which were good - arrived at a genuine state of crisis. Conflicts of jurisdiction along with orders of excommunication and arrests were “coins of the realm” among the Inquisitors, the archbishop and the civil governing bodies of the day.
On the other hand, the inhabitants of the islands, who already knew and greatly appreciated the important role which the Jews had played in reestablishing a very profitable commerce with England and Holland were not quick to tolerate any sort of strong measures against them.
The peace treaty signed with England in 1604 and the accord reached with Holland in 1609 greatly reduced the finances of the Inquisition, which could no longer rely on income from goods and ships confiscated from those “heretical” nations. But the fact that the Inquisitors were not able to bring charges with the same frequency as before is not to say that they had in any way decreased the fervor of perrsecution which had existed previously. They continued to use informants as a means of gathering evidence, and would then arrest the suspects. But their work was now more difficult and encountered more opposition. The “heretics” who by now lived on the islands were not only from Spain and Portugal but also from Crypto-Jewish communities in England and France as well as from the openly Jewish communities of Holland, originally established by New Christians from the Iberian peninsula.
In order to prove the “history of delinquency” of these persons one had to produce more than just local witnesses. It was also necessary to seek evidence from among sailors and merchants who had had business dealings with the countries of Northern Europe.
As a consequence, the number of those who could be tried and condemned by the tribunals of the Inquisition was greatly reduced. After the last of these proceedings, against Gaspar de Perera, in the second half of the seventeenth century, it was already very difficult for the Inquisition to find Jews on the islands. With increasing liberty in Northern Europe, the number of marranos in Spain and Portugal had greatly decreased. The commercially active centers of Amsterdam and London discovered new commercial routes, more interesting and profitable than the possibilities offered by the Canaries. The local Inquisition had to content itself with cases of witchcraft and religious immorality at the same time it was looking to stop the flow of books into the islands. Long before it was officially suspended, the Tribunal was already subject to public ridicule and disdain.
The news of the abolition of the Inquisition, in l813, was received on the island with great joy, as much by the people as by the official authorities. The sanbenitos of those condemned by the Inquisition, conserved in the storage cellars of the Cathedral of Las Palmas, were burned.
But despite all this, the Inquisition was not dead. A few months later, when Fernando VII assumed the throne and with him a new absolutism, the Inquisition was renewed in all of its functions and began again to persecute without discrimination all those who had shown joy at its abolition.
Nevertheless, its authority continued to be ridiculed and the public continued to be openly hostile . Its edicts were torn down and the high officials of the islands displayed no interest in, nor attended, the meetings of the Inquisition.
In 1820, with a second liberal period, the Tribunal of Canaries, along with the entire Spanish Inquisition, definitely died. From that point on the islands began to reestablish something of the good situation which they had enjoyed centuries before and for which they had been given the name of “The Fortunate Ones.”