Jewish Expulsion from Portugal

Pirates and plague loomed, and prized possessions sold for a pittance.

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Portugal and Navarre --Short-Term Havens

The exodus began in the first week of July. The majority of Jews from Castile, numbering about 120,000, set off for neighboring Portugal, where, for a hefty fee, King John II granted them a temporary entrance permit good for eight months. Those who were unable to pay for the entrance permit were forthwith sold into slavery. At the end of the period of asylum, 600 families of affluent Jews would be permitted to remain, at a cost of 100 cruzados per household, along with a certain number of skilled craftsmen and artisans.

The king at first agreed to provide ships to take the rest of the community elsewhere. Much more promising, in the short run, was the reaction of the independent kingdom of Navarre, which refused to be persuaded by the enemies of the Jews to bar their immigration. Several thousand Sephardim sought sanctuary there and set up their own communities of “foreigners” and “newcomers” alongside the original Jewish inhabitants. Unfortunately, the expelled Jews would not long find peace in either Portugal or Navarre, for in both kingdoms they were forcibly converted to Christianity within a few years.

Portuguese Cruelty and Risks of Transit

[The circumstances in Portugal were notably cruel. Having changed his mind about sponsoring passage for the Jews, King John II gave them the choice to convert or be sold into slavery. He arrested children of Jews who refused to convert and sent these children to the Portuguese island of Sao Tome, where, a Portuguese Jewish chronicler reports, almost all were swallowed up by huge lizards and the remainder died of starvation.

John’s death in 1495 brought temporary relief to the Jewish community in Portugal. Manuel, his successor, freed the enslaved Jews but decided, upon his marriage to Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter, to expel the Jews in 1496. Manuel ordered that the Jews could only depart from the port at Lisbon, on a certain day in 1497. When the Jews arrived in Lisbon on the appointed day, they were met not with boats but with priests who baptized the Jews en masse.]  

Perhaps as many as 20,000 Andalusian Jews flocked to the port of Cadiz en route to North Africa, but there is no way of knowing how many actually succeeded in crossing the Mediterranean safely. This route was especially hazardous, according to testimonies from North African communities, because of the piracy endemic to the area. Further risks included a new outbreak of the plague, along with the closing of Muslim coastal cities to the infected wanderers.

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Jane S. Gerber

Jane S. Gerber is a Professor of History at City University of New York. Her book, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, won the 1993 National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Studies.