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A history of the Jews in Brazil

By Paul Barnett - posted Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Jews have had a very strong influence in Brazil from the days soon after the first foreign settlements. They came as New Christians with the Portuguese, and more arrived later with the Dutch, who gave them religious freedom. They were mostly professionals: doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists and navigators. They were also wealthy and acted as financiers. These features of the Jewish community gave them influence, and they were able to play a significant role in the early development of what is now Brazil.

The story of the Jews in Brazilian history is long and runs deep. This article will not attempt to tell the whole story, but will give an overview.

The Jews in Portugal

Prior to the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536, the Jews in Portugal lived side-by-side with Christians, Arabs and those of other cultures in an age of prosperity and peace. Their influence over the Portuguese in Europe was great in the 15th and 16th centuries. The well-educated Jews expanded Portuguese horizons and knowledge of the world. Their knowledge helped in the design of better ships; and their understanding of astronomy and mathematics lead to improvements in marine navigation. These advances allowed the Portuguese to explore the new world.


The Portuguese Inquisition came long after the Spanish started theirs in 1470. The Spanish version promoted religious intolerance and the idea of Catholic orthodoxy, which demanded conversion of faith or expulsion, but initially the Portuguese resisted pressure to adopt similar policies. Instead, they tolerated those who added such wealth and value to their country. Royal marriages between the Portuguese and Spanish put an end to this, and in December 1496 the expulsion of Moors and Jews from Portuguese territory began.

The loss of labour and capital drained the Portuguese economy. Eventually, the King stopped the exodus and chose instead forced baptism to ensure the religious conversion of the Jews to New Christians, and they were prohibited from leaving the kingdom. Forced to stay, they were isolated and persecuted, and in 1506 many in Lisbon were massacred. Soon after, the King used the law to declare equality between new and old Christians since they were all of the same religion. The Jews were allowed to leave ghettos and integrate.

When the King asked the Pope for the Inquisition for Portugal in 1515, under pressure from the clergy and from Spain, the Jews had little to fear. By then they were Christians. The first Inquisitor was not in place until 1531. He immediately mistrusted the convictions of the New Christians and prohibited them from leaving the Kingdom until 1538. It was during these years that the Portuguese discovered and began occupying the Brazilian territory.

The first Jews in Brazil

Given that the Jews were not allowed to leave the Kingdom of Portugal during the early years of the Portuguese occupancy of Brazil, how can we explain the presence of New Christians in Brazil at this time? In fact, the explanation is simple; Portugal and Brazil were considered the same kingdom. Some came with Duarte Coelho, the first captaincy of Brazil. Coelho himself gave land grants for the construction of sugar mills to New Christians.

In the early years, and for almost half a century, Brazil was something of a haven for the New Christians. The wealth and competency of the Jews mattered more to the early colonisers than faith. In a short time they got rich and were well integrated in society. In Olinda, one of the first urban settlements of the New World, Christians and Jews, passing for Christians, lived together.

When the Inquisition finally came to Brazil in 1593, and the accompanying denunciations began, the time of living in close proximity with each other resulted in great problems for many Jews. The fact that everyone knew the details of each others’ lives turned out to be a curse. Fear and mistrust soon gripped the city, dividing those who had lived in relative peace.


The Inquisition came and went, but fear and mistrust between old and new Christians lingered.

The second wave of Jewish settlers

In 1630 the heavily armed, Dutch owned, West Indies Company came to Pernambuco. With it came many Jews, many of which were the relatives of those who had fled Spain and Portugal for Amsterdam over a century earlier. The Dutch abandoned and burnt Olinda in 1631, settling instead in Recife, believing the port to be of greater strategic and commercial importance. The Jews at that time settled in Goat Street, also known as Jew Street. The street was almost entirely occupied by Jews, and a synagogue was established, the first in the Americas. The Dutch, being far more tolerant, permitted the freedom of religious worship.

Freedom lost

With the departure of the Dutch Governor Mauricio Nassau in 1644, the freedoms enjoyed by the Jews began to diminish immediately. This happened as the Portuguese fought many battles to regain control. During this time starvation was a real problem, but greater problems faced the Jews in 1654 when the Portuguese-Brazilians won the battle, and Jews were given three months to leave, unless they pledged allegiance to Portugal. The dream of freedom and a good life was over.

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First published in Recife Guide on March 18, 2009.

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About the Author

Paul Barnett is a Britsh expat living in Brazil. He developed the site Recife Guide and offers guided tours and other services to English speaking tourists.

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