The Return – Exits and Entrances

–My heritage, part six

Richard the Lionheart’s  (1188 -1189) claim to fame was that he fought bravely  in the Crusades. He was portrayed as an almost saintly hero when I was young. His brother John was the wicked one. What happened during the Crusades, still is recounted by some Moslems as part of  the justification for their today’s militant views and actions. Up to 1.7 million were killed during the Crusades – both Moslems and Christians. In addition there were the Jews that died in incidental massacres by the Crusaders   en route to the Holy Land. In the Rhineland massacres in the year 1096 alone  5000  Jews . If Richard  l is  still recalled today by the English as a good man because of his role in the Crusades then memorials to him are not only evidence of historical points of view but also reflect their today’s views. If this were to be the case would not some people feel entitled to consider those memorials as offensive?

During my heritage tour of Portugal I visited the Castle of the Knights Templar in Coimbra. It was not just a relic of the past but was possibly to become the world headquarters of the Knights Templar.

I hope, perhaps vainly, that this organization is careful not to glorify past events deserving only the opposite of glorification. Christians, Moslems and Jews need to work together as a matter of urgency  to eliminate prejudice.  It is important that long ago actions of all our  ancestors are not celebrated in a way counterproductive  to achieving inter-denominational harmony today.

In England, following the expulsion, there would be but a negligible sprinkling  of “closet” English  Jews. By “closet” Jews I mean  Jews secretly practicing  their religion  knowing that if discovered they would face severe consequences. To the outside world they would be baptised Christians and, post 1500, Marranos from Spain and New Christians from Portugal and officially Catholic.

Jewry’s returning  to England became a real possibility only when Cromwell became interested in gaining the commercial expertise, network and the access to military intelligence of some Jews overseas who might  be motivated to move their homeland   if only his invitation could be seen as sincere and friendly. His targets were Sephardi Jews still identifying with  their roots  in Spain and Portugal and still suffering much for their religion – all a result of the major  events of 1492.

1492 was the year Jewry was required to EXIT Spain  after a stay of over 700 years. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel gave  Jews, including ancestors of mine, the choice of one of two unfriendly options –  to leave Spain for ever or to stay but convert and no longer be Jewish.

Those who decided to stay would become the “Marranos” (Spanish  for Pigs) or “Conversos” . They would then be at risk of their lives should they be thought by inquisitors to be practicing Judaism and thus  guilty of heresy. Not an easy decision for some of the Jews.  Sephardi Jewish family lines had dwelled in their homelands longer than those of the majority of the population. It was with Moors of North Africa that Jewry in significant numbers had made their first ENTRANCE into Iberia. The  Moors were now rulers of the existing native population including some of a Christian faith  but who should be thought as ancestors of the Catholic subjects of Ferdinand and Isabel. For over 7 centuries Jewry lived there under the control  of the  Moslem Moors – an age often referred to as a golden age.  Not too long before 1492 the last piece of Moorish Iberia was lost by the Moors  to the Spanish Catholics at the end of what was more accurately called a “Reconquest for Christianity” and not inaccurately the regaining of ancestral  land. 700 years of residence counted for nothing. a decision, –  to leave or convert,   had to be taken by each and every one of the Spanish Jews.

Isabel and Ferdinand had in their court  two Jewish senior members responsible for  financial matters , Abraham Seneor (who decided to convert, changing  his name to Fernando Coronel but remaining a secret Jew) and Isaac Abrabanel (who decided to exit). Some  of those who did not convert would  EXIT to  Portugal, where they were welcomed, some  to Morocco in Africa  but most of the rest  to elsewhere in Europe. Amongst those entering Portugal were members of  my paternal Israel family line which includes my grandfather Moses Israel, the Rubber Baron, who features in my family’s Brazilian Adventure saga which you may have already  read.

Unsurprisingly there also are many statues around honoring this anti-semitic Isaac and Isabel because their attitude to Jewry was more than just acceptable to the majority of their subjects  during their lifetime and to their descendents for centuries after their deaths. In modern times, Spain has  opened its doors to the return of descendents of these Spanish Jews and I prefer to concentrate on this gesture and the future rather than worry about memorabilia on display.

There was another 1492 event- one that changed the world and the lives of most of the people in it. It was, of course, Christopher Columbus setting out on his first voyage of discovery to the “New World”. Soon following that   voyage,  under the Treaty of Tordesillas , the Pope would divide much of the world outside Europe between Spain and Portugal. Africa was in the part he allocated to Portugal and from which the Portuguese would authorize 12 million Africans to be sold by African slave traders and shipped by their  European purchasers to the Americas and the Caribbean.

This was welcomed as substantial business by the slave traders and  was additional  to their supplying  the long established non European market. New World  slaves would work on plantations and mines for the European settlers  in the colonies of  the major  Empires of European  countries to such an extent that the economies of much of the entire known world would soon  revolve around the commodities their labors produced. The new European immigrants completely  ignored the rights of  the indigenous populations of the colonies and as a consequence of this and of the diseases the immigrants brought in with them many tribes would disappear. The world had been changed like never before in recorded history consequential on one voyage across the Atlantic .

A few years after Spain’s ultimatum to Jews, Portugal followed suite and all its resident  Jews, including the recent immigrants  from Spain were ordered to convert without  the option of leaving the country. Some of the native Jews were descended  from Jews living there at the beginning of the common era. Sufficient to say their ENTRANCE was long ago and there would now be no permitted EXIT for Jewry. King Manuel l wanted to ensure his country would benefit from their commercial expertise and international network so stay they must.

There are statues of the anti-semitic  King Manuel l around which I also prefer to view as part of history and not as support for his actions by the Portuguese of today who , like the Spanish, are also welcoming back the descendents of the relatively few who  fled the country, not as Jews,  but as New Christians.

Soon after the issue of the edict for compulsory conversion , some children of the Portuguese Jews were seized and taken as slaves to São Tomé and Principe Islands.  They were eventually returned to their parents, now to be considered as being  “New Christians”.

One of those captives was an ancestor of mine-  but that is another story. In both Spain and Portugal the intention was not that conversions would be  in name only. Nevertheless in Portugal, if you were about to enter a particular home,  you knew immediately if it was one of a New Christian. As I saw in my heritage tour of Portugal,    the cross outside the home of a New Christian was clearly different from that of the home of an “Old Christian”.

A century and more later after the edicts, most of the descendents of Spain and Portugal Jews still living there still  risked facing torture and worse at the hands of those  countries’ Inquisitors if  they were suspected of secretly practising Judaism. I imagine if most people today were asked to guess the date of the final death at the hands of the Spanish Inquisitors  their response would be way out. The last to die was Cayetano Ripoli when he was garotted in Valencia on 26th July 1826 – more than 300 years after the Spanish Inquisition started.

Both Spain and Portugal inevitably lost the expertise and loyalty of the most entrepreneurial of their closet Jews, including many members of my  family, who managed to move to countries prepared to adopt a friendlier attitude towards them. Some moved  to the colonies of Spain and Portugal thinking mistakenly that this would distance them from the Inquisitions. The commercial network of the families of  New Christians may have expanded to new lands but so had the network of the Inquisitions. Many living in the colonies of Spain and Portugal would suffer from the attention of  local Inquisitions established in their new homelands .

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel of Spain and King Manuel l of Portugal set in motion 300 plus years of oppression, torture and  death of their Jewish subjects including members of my family tree. Notwithstanding departures of fleeing New Christians and Marranos the majority of  the descendents of Iberian Jews would be  lost to Judaism and Sephardi Jewry would never be the same force again. In 1492 Sephardi Jews amounted to 80% of world Jewry whereas now it is only 15% – a victory for prejudice. Those who are today considered as Spanish and Portuguese Jews are descendents of those who left Spain in 1492 for countries other than Portugal and are descendents of closet Jews who later left Spain and Portugal wishing to live afterwards openly  as Jews.

This might have proved to be just a pipe dream.. For example, there were 35  Iberian still closet Jewish families living  in London during the first decades of the 17th Century including the Lousado and Oliveira families. One of the most impressive  London residents was Antonio ( Moises) da Costa OLIVEIRA, a rich merchant from Lisbon who was a director of the Bank of England . “Antonio de Acosta” was  also important enough to be mentioned in  a communication with Philip lll of Spain. Antonio de Acosta  moved around having been in Cartagena in Columbia in 1620 (according to a Barrow- Lousado document on their family history)  where he represented the  “Lamego” family, in particular, Antonio Rodrigues de Lamego a leading merchant  of Rouen – a major port for all types of Atlantic trade.

Not unexpectedly to anyone knowing how New Christian families organized their lives, the two Antonios were related and not only in business. Antonio in Cartagena was the brother of Lisbon born  Sarah Curiel aka  Beatrix Henriques  (1592-1679)  who was the wife of Antonio in Rouen. As an aside the Curiel  family often chose to use “Acosta” in their family names. Brazilian sugar was one of the most important commodities being traded and sugar was at the center of events leading to the readmission of Jewry  to England. It is no surprise to learn that in 1624, when  Antonio de Acosta Oliveira was staying at his London home in order to be able to attend to an English legal action, it  was in respect of a sugar related transaction.


Clive Russell
Clive Russell
CLIVE currently serves as Joint President of Russell Business LLC (“RB”), which is the collective name for a community of synergistic and complementary activities and businesses encompassing the International Property Market. RB is engaged in business activities that combine cutting-edge structured finance and technology geared to maximize returns from various sectors, including residential and commercial property, hotels and energy-related assets. Over the years, Clive’s forte’ has been the ability to develop and/or identify “below the radar” concepts, strategies and opportunities ripe for leveraging and ultimate success.

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  1. Hi Clive,
    I hope you get this message as I believe we are related. Abraham and Simha are my 6th grandparents. They had four daughters, two of whom you mentioned, Esther and Leah, and the other two were Rebecca and child 5, Rachel. Rachel is my 5th grandmother. She married Benjamin Isaacs and their youngest son Lewis married his first cousin, Simelia, daughter of Leah and Lazarus Phillips. Rachel and Benjamin’s oldest son Abraham is my 4th grandfather.
    I was so interested to read your article!
    Thank you