There was a Jewish presence in Spain (see note 2 below for our own experience of this) going back to Roman times or even earlier; and when the German Visigoth tribes conquered Spain after their attack on Rome, their adoption of Christianity led, after a time, to anti-Jewish regulations by the Church councils. The Jews of Spain looked with some hope at the conquests by Islam in North Africa. Arab historians record that from 711, as the relatively small Muslim armies swept north through the Iberian Peninsula to the Pyrenees, they called on the Jews, whenever they could find them, to garrison the newly conquered towns – specifically Cordoba, Granada, Toledo and Seville – and to take a leading part in developing economic life to meet the new needs of the country. In particular Jews were entrusted with the running of the estates abandoned by the Visigoth nobles and were soon prospering, despite the discrimination of being 'dhimmis' or subjugated aliens subject to a special tax, but nevertheless having certain civic rights (in other words they were permitted but second class citizens - a common situation for Jews as ‘people of the Book’ in Muslim lands). 

The Arabic-speaking world was quickly in a position to enjoy to the full the remarkable ingathering and development of culture that had been staged in the Muslim world of the Middle East as a by-product of their vast military triumphs. From their new territories the conquerors had brought into their orbit much of the learned heritage of Greece, Persia, and the East. Basic Greek works on philosophy and science had been translated into Syriac and thence into Arabic. Mathematical and astronomical learning from Persia and India was also absorbed; and all was presented in a lively development of art and sophisticated living. As early as the 9th century its new generation of learning, literature and science had spread far and wide in influence, and nowhere more fruitfully than in the Moorish world of Spain. Translations into Arabic of Aristotle, the neo-Platonic commentators and the medical writings of Galen – to name but a few of the basic writers – were soon to spread, with strong Jewish participation, into the revival of learning in Europe as a whole. The Jews were fortunate that in the setting of those early times their presence in Arabic-speaking lands gave them a bonus of full participation, both in the Baghdad scene (which was the home of the Umayyad caliphate that ruled Spain in the 9th and 10th centuries) and, where this culture flowered sweetly, in the more varied world of Spain. The Jewish school of cartography in Majorca in the 14th century signified key knowledge of navigation, charts and trade routes that was valued by the Muslims and the Venetians, and probably contributed greatly to the navigational success of the Spanish and Portuguese. Possibly this knowledge, and perhaps also knowledge of metalworking, stemmed from far earlier times (ref 28). A vital contribution to Portuguese navigation was made in 1497 by the Jewish astronomer Abraham Zacuto who created the first mariner's astrolabe and handed it personally to Vasco da Gama before the first return trip to India (ref 196).

Subservience to civil authority found clear expression in Moorish and Christian Spain, with both pleasant and unpleasant aspects. The unpleasant side was the principle, which later became quite clearcut, that the Jews were the ‘property’ of the ruler, to be used for his personal ends. The corollary, with wide beneficial results, was that the ruler had to protect the Jews from economic jealousy and religious fanaticism, and give them something like carte blanche in their economic operations. This opened the door to outside society, within which the Jews were able to develop social and political freedoms hitherto unknown. There were ironies in this. Jews who held prestigious positions close to the rulers, usually as financiers and physicians, stood out in sharp contrast to the Jewish masses; yet they were always intimately involved with them, believing that they had been placed by providence in this position to be of help to the Jewish people in time of need. This was in no sense restricted to a ‘welfare’ role. Their sense of responsibility was intellectual and cultural, as they showed by their devotion to learning, secular as well as religious. As a result, the opening-up of thought spread far beyond the upper-class world of the Jewish courtiers. And so, just as the position of the Jews in Spain was largely shaped by the Muslims, so was their expulsion. Roth (ref 16) links the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 with the Castilian/Catholic Reconquest of Spain which was achieved earlier in that same year; the assistance of the Jews being no longer required as sources of information about the Moors. Chaim Raphael (ref 27) informs much of the above discussion. See also note 1 below.

Concern about the sincerity of New Christians in the period before 1492, which the commencement of the Spanish Inquisition in 1480 of course illustrates, did not greatly threaten highly-placed Jewish advisors, financiers and physicians though it did pose a risk to many insincere New Christians. Don Abraham Senior of Castile and Don Selemoh of Aragon were two such influential Jews who had felt no need to be baptised (though some of their peers did). They negotiated the 1469 marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, a step in the strengthening of Catholic Castile and of course the Reconquest and the expulsions. Just before the expulsion of Jews, to the delight of Ferdinand, Senior converted with his fortune intact; Don Isaac Abravanel opted to leave with some of his fortune (ref 49). The year of 1492 is celebrated by some - it brought the Spanish discovery of the New World through Columbus, and the completion of the Christian re-conquest of Muslim Spain - but it brought tragedy and centuries of unrest for Spanish Jews. Despite all the benefits of their very long residence in Spain, the Jews were given an order of expulsion as it was thought that their presence was a temptation for existing Spanish New Christians to relapse to Judaism. Unsurprisingly, few of the unconverted Jews saw conversion to Christianity as a good alternative, so there was a departure of Spanish Jews for many Mediterranean and North African locations, and also a movement across the border into Portugal. Unfortunately Portugal was not a satisfactory refuge; for the Jews there were unwillingly converted to Christianity in 1497 with little prior chance to leave. Especially after 1580 some Portuguese New Christians moved to Spain; but before then they had been encouraged to go to the colonies opened up by the voyages of Vasco de Gama; and they appeared in European ports where they were able to strengthen family connections with the Atlantic trade and to travel onward to suitable Jewish havens. A relapse to Judaism among New Christians was heresy - but at least if baptism had been forced the Catholic Church had intermediate punishments which perhaps deferred a death sentence - those baptised at birth were not so favoured. For more than 2 centuries after 1492 - when an Inquisition could be set up by any Catholic ruler - New Christian families were at risk of imprisonment, trial, impoverishment and death; their restless flight is very difficult to trace. In recent decades there has been much attention paid (refs 8,15,123) to the international family and business networks of the Portuguese-speaking New Christians and the Sephardic Jews with whom they co-operated. In the 1540-1740 period they played a major role in the competition between England, Holland, Spain and Portugal in the commercial world of Atlantic trade and development in which sugar and Latin American bullion were major factors; and they dominated the diamond trade as it evolved from the Mediterranean coral/diamond trade (ref 84) which linked Livorno with Antwerp and India, to a trade which included Brazilian diamonds, where London became the centre of the uncut diamond trade and Amsterdam the centre for cutting and polishing. Some of them became master diplomats in a multi-lingual world (see note 3 below). The excommunication of Baruch Spinoza in 1654 is part of their story. In banking their system for settlement of international transactions evolved into the modern system first based in Amsterdam. Some assisted Cromwell; some assisted King Charles 2 before and after his 1660 restoration; and some financed the accession to power of William and Mary in 1688/9. Their Iberian economic hub did not survive Inquisitional erosion, nor did their counterparts in Iberian colonies, but Jews of Iberian origin and their descendants became firmly established in England and (until WW2) Holland, and they contributed greatly to public life.

 

Notes:

1. Simon Sebag Montefiore (ref 73) constructs a history of Jerusalem which enables one to sense how the Jews were dispersed through the Roman Empire and beyond, and how they related to the various peoples and rulers under whom they lived. Additionally, he takes the narrative forward to 1967, and thereby creates an epilogue to our story - which (reflecting our families) only really only follows the Iberian Jews to safe havens like England, which turned out to be not so safe. Certainly Holland wasn't. Thus, he enables us to see how Zionism evolved in practice, and how Sir Moses Montefiore - an eminent Anglo-Jew of Iberian origin - played such a prominent role in this evolution.

2. In a visit to Portugal and Spain in June 2015, Julian Land saw many indications of the Jewish presence. He visited Lisbon, Porto, Guimaraes, Lamego, Castelo Rodrigo, Salamanca, Madrid, Cordoba and Seville - click on the links to see what was found! In Madrid we were told by Fernando Gonzalez del Campo Roman that we happened at that point to be walking quite close to where Tomas Rodrigues Pereira and Fernando Montezinos lived after they left Villaflor for Madrid! Later in 2015, Spain made further progress in admitting the mistake it made in 1492 (click here for full Spanish text)!

3. Spain engaged Baron Manuel de Belmonte on diplomatic duties in The Netherlands, duties he performed with such success that he was ennobled by Spain as marked by a ceremony in Den Haag in 1693 (ref 123 p497-8). Three generations of Curiel/Nunes da Costas were similarly engaged by Portugal - and we have uploaded a profile of Jeronimo in the 2nd generation. The 3rd generation inherited the role, but eventually Portugal cancelled the arrangement for the 4th generation in 1737 on the basis that they were Jews (ref 123 pp500-1).