Tag Archives: Inquisition

Jew of the Week: Moses Cohen Henriques

The Jewish Pirate Who Conquered Brazil

Moses Cohen Henriques (b. 1595) was born to a family of Sephardic Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. The family eventually made their way to Amsterdam and returned to their Jewish faith. Henriques joined the Dutch navy, and rose up through the ranks to be the right-hand man of famed Dutch admiral Piet Hein. Together, they defeated the Spanish fleet off the coast of Cuba in 1628. Following this, Henriques went to scout the Portuguese colony of Pernambuco, Brazil as a spy, to prepare for a Dutch invasion. He was part of that invasion in 1630, leading a contingent of 3000 men to successfully capture the colony. Henriques helped to turn the area into a Jewish refuge, bringing in America’s first rabbi, and establishing the first synagogue, mikveh, and yeshiva in the New World. When the Portuguese recaptured the colony in 1654 and restarted persecution of Jews, Henriques fled along with the rest of the Jewish community. To survive harsh times, he was forced to become a pirate, soon joining the infamous Henry Morgan. He became Sir Morgan’s trusted advisor. Henriques later ventured on his own, establishing a pirate island off the Brazilian coast. The Inquisition sought to capture him for years, unsuccessfully, and Henriques saw it as his mission to avenge the evil that the Spanish and Portuguese had done to the Jews. After the English conquered Jamaica, Henriques settled there and lived out the rest of his life on the island, helping to establish its Jewish community. When his old friend Henry Morgan became Jamaica’s governor, he gave Henriques a full pardon for piracy in 1681.

Illustration depicting the burning of Jews at the stake, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

Words of the Week

The Jews are our chief supplyers in Barbadoes, and would sell very cheap, and give one not seldom two years to pay, by which credit the poorer sort of planter did wonderfully improve their condition.
Sir Thomas Modyford (d. 1679), English governor of Barbados and Jamaica

*The biography above is adapted from Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, by Ed Kritzler.

Jew of the Week: Fernando de Noronha

Founder of Brazil

Fernão de Loronha (c. 1470-1540) was born in Lisbon, Portugal to a Sephardic Jewish family that had been forcibly converted to Christianity by the Inquisition. Like many such families, they continued to practice Judaism in secret. Loronha became a wealthy merchant, and also worked for the German Augsburg banking family. He was knighted by King Manuel I of Portugal (and for this reason, was often associated with the Noronha nobility, being incorrectly referred to as “Fernando de Noronha”.) In 1501, he financed a Portuguese expedition to explore the newly-discovered lands of South America, then called Vera Cruz. Scholars believe his primary motivation was finding a new home for persecuted Jews, where they could finally live free of the Inquisition. Some say Loronha captained the expedition himself, and we know for sure that on board was Amerigo Vespucci (after whom “America” is named). At the time, Europeans imported expensive red dyes made from brazilwood from India. Loronha came back to Portugal in 1502 describing the abundant brazilwood in the new lands and the opportunity for great riches. King Manuel gave him an exclusive ten-year charter for all the commercial rights to brazilwood in Vera Cruz. In exchange, Loronha had to send at least six ships per year on behalf of Portugal, build a fort for the Portuguese military, explore new coasts, and pay the crown 4000 ducats per year. His first six-ship fleet set forth the following year, establishing the first brazilwood factories in the New World. Soon, vast amounts of the precious dye were being imported to Europe, making it the continent’s second most valuable commodity (after gold). The fleet also discovered a new group of islands, which Vespucci named São Lourenço, or São João. Shortly after, a grateful King Manuel gave the islands as a gift to Loronha and his descendants, and made him the first official donatario (“administrator”) in South America. Today, the idyllic islands are still referred to as “Fernando de Noronha” in his honour. Unlike many other colonists, Loronha did not employ slaves, and obtained all the brazilwood through trade with local natives. Most interestingly, it was Loronha who was responsible for renaming the new land to “Brazil” instead of its original name, Vera Cruz. Still a Jew at heart (and soul), Loronha did not want to use the Christian term Vera Cruz (meaning “True Cross”), so he would always refer to it in all of his business dealings as “Brazil” instead. The new name stuck. Similarly, he renamed his main ship from São Cristóvão (“Saint Christopher”) to A Judia (“The Jewess”). In 1506, his crew on that ship discovered a set of islands in Mozambique, named Bassas da Judia. Today, the name has been corrupted to “Bassas da India”.

Words of the Week

Given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicates a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than antisemitism.
– Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who passed away two weeks ago

The main island of the Fernando de Noronha archipelago of 21 islands, off the coast of Brazil.

Jew of the Week: Abraham Seneor

The Crown Rabbi Who Built Spain

A Castilian maravedi gold coin issued in 1191

Abraham Seneor (1412-1493) was born in Segovia, Castile, into a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family who served as treasurers and accountants for Spanish monarchs. Seneor himself served the Castilian crown. In 1469, he was the key negotiator that arranged the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon, resulting in the eventual birth of the new Kingdom of Spain. Seneor became Isabella’s main advisor and confidante. In 1480, Isabella decreed that Seneor would receive a lifetime pension of a whopping 100,000 maravedi coins per year for his invaluable services. He was also appointed the Jewish chief justice and “crown rabbi”. In this role, he worked together with his close friend and fellow rabbi-treasurer, Don Isaac Abarbanel. Between the two of them, they were able to raise the sums needed for the Spanish to defeat the Moors in the War of Grenada. They were also the ones that got crown support and funding for Christopher Columbus’ first trip to America. Seneor often intervened on behalf of the Jews, and saved countless Jewish lives by ransoming those that had been captured by pirates. In 1492, the Spanish decreed the Edict of Expulsion to exile all Jews who did not convert to Christianity. Seneor was 80 years old, and knew he wouldn’t survive exile and expulsion. While the younger Abarbanel refused to stay in Spain (although he was given an exemption), the older Seneor decided to convert, at least publicly, in order to keep his influential role and try to ease the plight of the Jews as much as possible. He helped secure temporary refugee for the Jews in Portugal, then did whatever he could to make sure the Jewish exiles did not lose all of their wealth. Still, he was unable to survive the stress of the ordeal and passed away just months after the Expulsion. Seneor had taken on the new name Fernando Coronel, starting a new lineage of Spanish nobility. The Coronel children continued to play important roles in Spanish affairs for decades to come. Many of them were arrested by the Inquisition for continuing to practice Judaism in secret; some were executed and others deported. A great number ultimately returned to Judaism in Holland and the Americas.

Words of the Week

Israel was extraordinary in being the one socially revolutionary people in the Near East to produce a literature and to survive as a distinctive cultural and religious entity.
Norman Gottwald, renowned professor of Biblical studies and political activist