Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Jewish children from Portugal were slaves in Africa

In 2004, The New York Times reviewed an exhibition at the New York Public Library that mentions this amazing detail:
 Jews entering Portugal after being expelled from Spain in 1492 were heavily taxed. If Jews could not pay, their sons, ages 2 to 10, were enslaved and sent to São Tomé, a Portuguese outpost, where they were raised as Roman Catholics while having to fend off crocodiles and work in the sugar trade. Within a year only 600 children remained alive out of the 2,000 exiled. Additional slaves were brought from the African mainland. In a generation, the island became the world's biggest sugar exporter. (Relics of Jewish ritual survived there for centuries.)  

São Tomé is an island that is off of what is now Gabon. 

A master's thesis by Arinze D. Amanfo, Florida International University, explains further:

The majority of the Jews from Spain fleeing the Inquisition and expulsion emigrated to Portugal. They choose Portugal with the hopes for a better life and perhaps toleration. It is important to note that there were Jews already living in Portugal. However, the Jews of Portugal fared a lot better than their counterparts in Spain did. Although they were also relegated to their quarters and made to wear stipulated apparel, they were allowed to conduct their religious affairs themselves. Unfortunately, they soon suffered a similar fate, when the Jews of Spain joined them upon their expulsion from Spain. 

Before this expulsion, King John II had allowed the Jewish refugees to remain in Portugal. The arrangement for their stay was negotiated with the Monarchy. This involved the payment of a head tax or ‘coima' by the Jews. By 1493, many of these refugees could not pay this ransom. Perhaps this was due to the short ultimatum given to them by the Spanish Monarchy, which impoverished many of them. Gerber narrates that alongside the payment of an expensive tax, the King gave an eight-month-long reprieve period to allow the Jews to stay. Upon the expiration of this period, the King accused them of non-fulfillment of their part of the negotiation.

 According to Garcia de Resende, the official chronicler of King John II, in 1493, those who refused to convert and could not pay the stipulated fee, had their children taken away from them, baptized by force, and deported to São Tomé. They were forcefully baptized so they could be raised as Christians and help populate the island that the King had just leased to Alvaro de Caminha at an annual rent of 100,000 reis.61The island of São Tomé was uninhabited at the time of its purchase in 1470 by the Portuguese crown. However, it was a fertile land, which needed cultivation. The expulsion and subsequent enslavement of these children were likely orchestrated to meet what appeared to be an opportunity for the crown to populate and exploit the fertile land to benefit Portugal.

Before the expulsion of the Sephardic children, Caminha had been empowered to populate the land by other means. He had sent condemned criminals, who were called ‘degredados’, prostitutes and other laborers to help populate and cultivate the land. However, he needed more hands. According to Garfield, this was not the real reason the King ordered the abduction of the Sephardic children. The supposed enforcement of religious purity was what drove his hand to make such a decision.
Samuel Usque, a  Portuguese Jewish chronicler, described the scene of the Jewish children being stolen from their mothers:

The island of São Tomé had recently been discovered. It was inhabited by lizards, snakes, and other venomous reptiles, and was devoid of rational beings. Here the king exiled condemned criminals, and he decided to include among them the innocent children of these Jews. Their parents had seemingly been condemned by God’s sentence. --When the luckless hour arrived for this barbarity to be inflicted, mothers scratched their faces in grief as their babes, less than three years old, were taken from their arms. Honored elders tore their beards when the fruit of their bodies was snatched, before their eyes. The fated children raised their piercing cries to heaven as they were mercilessly torn from their beloved parents—Several women threw themselves at the king’s feet, begging for permission to accompany their children, but not even this moved the king’s pity. One mother, distraught by this horrible unexplained cruelty, lifted her baby in her arms, and paying no heed to its cries, threw herself from the ship into the heaving sea, and drowned embracing her only child. 

 Apparently the children eventually disappeared as a separate group, they maintained some semblance of Jewish ritual for several centuries. Other Sephardic Jews did move to the island and prospered for a while as well.

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