Those familiar with Jewish history are well aware of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain that occurred concurrently with Columbus’ sailing for the new world. A great number of these exiles fled to Portugal, where the already sad tale only grew sadder.

King Joao II of Portugal was happy to welcome wealthy Jews or those Jews trained in science or weaponry. The vast majority of other Jews were given permission to enter Portugal for only eight months. Those who did not leave at that time, or who did not pay to remain, were declared slaves. In another tragic act, many hundreds (some say up to 2,000) of Jewish children (some as young as 2) were forcibly taken from their parents and sent to the newly discovered West African island of Sao Tome (some sources connect this cruel act to King Joao’s successor), where many of these children died.

After King Joao II’s death in 1494, King Manuel I assumed the throne. Recognizing the many benefits (economic, scientific, etc.) that the Jewish community could provide, he restored freedom to those who had been enslaved by King Joao II.

This freedom was short-lived. Needing to secure his throne and expand his sphere of influence, King Manuel arranged to marry Princess Maria, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Part of the marriage contract, however, was an agreement that all the Jews of Portugal had to be converted or expelled. On December 4, 1496, the edict was issued: the Jews had until October 1497 to leave.

King Manuel I did not want to lose the talents of the Portugese Jews, so he made leaving extremely difficult. He also used extreme measures to force conversions–in March 1497, Jewish children were taken and forcibly baptized. When October 1497 finally arrived and nearly 20,000 Jews came to Lisbon for the official transports, a far different fate awaited them. They were herded together into one large courtyard where priests sprinkled the crowd with baptismal waters and declared them all “New Christians.”

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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