Converso Settlement Outside the Peninsula

The situation of Jews who fled to Portugal and were faced with what amounted to forced conversion was starkly different than the case in Spain. After the forced baptisms of 1497, the King of Portugal promised that no inquisitorial activity would be directed against these Conversos for a period of 20 years. In 1512, this was renewed again for an additional twenty years. As New Christians, these Conversos were required to maintain a least some measure of public conformity with Christianity. In addition, bans on travel outside of Portugal were instituted in 1499 and then again in 1502. The ban was temporarily lifted in 1507 but reinstituted in 1521.

The ability of Conversos to leave the Peninsula in the seventeenth century improved somewhat. Part of this was due to the accrued proficiencies in escaping collected by Conversos over time. It was also a reflection of changes in royal policy in the Peninsula. The default policy had made it illegal for Conversos to leave without special permission. Leaving the Peninsula without royal consent was considered tantamount to Judaizing. Following the death of Philip II, his successor Philip III attempted to address the serious shortfall in royal income. In 1601 the Duke of Lerma brokered a deal which allowed New Christians the right to travel or emigrate in return for a payment of 170,000 cruzados. The government contended the new arrangement was unalterable.

While a number of Spanish and Portuguese Conversos immigrated to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, the community of the Netherlands represents the key community in the reabsorption of Conversos into Jewish life in what I would refer to as an almost wholly independent experiment. Individual Conversos had for some time escaped to North Africa, to various cities of the Italian Peninsula, and farther east to the Ottoman Empire. There they joined existing communities of Spanish and Portuguese exiles which facilitated their return to Judaism. Jonathan Israel notes that by and large

“…Italy and the Ottoman Balkans and the Near East were the main havens of refuge for Marranos fleeing the Inquisition or religious persecution in the sixteenth century and cities such as Venice, Salonika, and Constantinople were the principal commercial centres of the Sephardic emigrants from Spain and Portugal.”

Rabbinic responsa affirms various cases of individuals from the Peninsula escaping to various places in the Mediterranean, but only the Dutch Republic offers a view of how an almost wholly indigenous ex-Converso community emerged. The immigration of Sephardic Jews into the Dutch Republic started in the middle of the 1590s. It achieved its high point in the middle decades of the 17th century.

A key characteristic of the Dutch republic was its dominance in world trade. This began toward the end of the 16th century and continued until the beginning of the 18th century. Conversos were ultimately allowed to settle in various Dutch cities including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Middeburg. They were allowed to do so as their economic benefit was generally recognized and they often offered expertise in areas that were not yet established in Dutch territory. Conversos and later as Sephardic Jews, were largely tied to business segments connected with sugar, spices, bullion, diamonds, and tobacco among others.

But the initial settlement to the Netherlands was precarious from a religious standpoint. Judaism after all was not officially tolerated in the early period of Converso settlement there. Escape to other Jewish centers such as Venice, Livorno, North Africa, or east in the Ottoman Empire were certainly more secure in terms of living an openly Jewish life. The fact the Conversos had settled in various areas in Europe where Judaism was not officially tolerated (i.e. southern France, Germany, London, etc.) has spurred debate as to whether religious considerations were the motivating or even a key factor in the decision of Conversos to reside in these areas.

For additional information on Converso settlement in the Dutch Republic, please see the post the Dutch Republic and Conversos

Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and the author of Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism.

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