The Jews of the Canary Islands – Calendar of calumny

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Lucien Wolf was depicted in the history pages of the Zionist movement as one of those stumbling blocks that Chaim Weizmann had to bypass on his way to reaching the Balfour Declaration. During the early years of the 20th century, Wolf was a leading member of the Conjoint Foreign Committee of British Jews, an organization that served as the main mouthpiece of the Jewish establishment in Britain, and the one that formulated its policies. Wolf insisted that only his committee be allowed to negotiate with the British government on Jewish matters. He was famous for being wary of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, and predicted that such an act would confront the Jewish community in Britain with an embarrassing predicament of double loyalty.

In addition to his political and journalistic activity, Wolf was known as an expert on Jewish history. In 1925, he edited and published an intriguing book called “Jews of the Canary Islands,” which was recently reprinted and published again by the University of Toronto Press. In his lengthy introduction to the book, Wolf described how, some 35 years earlier, he had started investigating the circumstances of the re-settlement of the Jews in England under the protectorate. He was struck then by the curious fact that the chief figure in that movement, Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, and several of his fellow adventurers hailed from a little archipelago in the East Atlantic that had never before figured in Jewish history and was not even mentioned in its records.

Wolf sought to throw further light on the Jews of the Canary Islands, and in the autumn of 1894, planned a visit to Las Palmas, its main port city. Fortuitously, he confided his intentions to a friend, the Marquess of Bute, and was spared a fruitless and tiring journey. Lord Bute, as it turned out, had some years earlier acquired a large part of the original records of the Canariote Inquisition and brought them to England. He placed the documents at Wolf’s disposal and the historian, after examining them carefully, proceeded to translate, explain, edit and publish them.

Quite naturally, Wolf focused his attention on those records that related to the Crypto-Jews [Jews who secretly practiced their religion after being forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition]. The information he uncovered proved to him that a small Jewish community had established itself in the Canary Islands even before 1492, when it absorbed victims of the Jewish expulsion from the Iberian peninsula. A few years after new edicts were handed down by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, the entire Jewish population on the islands was forced to go underground. Its members concealed their true religion, pretending to be “New Christians,” and for a while, managed to conduct an almost normal life despite the Inquisition’s intelligence activities on the mainland.

Some of them even prospered. They found themselves at the hub of the most lucrative marine routes to the New World, and cooperated with the local pirates who turned the archipelago into their main base. Sailing from the islands’ ports, the pirates would attack the Portuguese ships on their way back home, loaded with merchandise from India and China. Most of the local economy relied on these piracy activities and the residents, Jews and non-Jews, had a mutual interest in resisting the policies of the king and queen, and the persecution of the Inquisition.

Excellent intelligence : However, the forces of terror could not be stopped. The Inquisition, a very determined and organized entity, operating through a network of spies and informants, opened an office in Las Palmas in 1504 and manned it with clerks who diligently documented their activities. They aimed to expose Crypto-Jews and other heretics, encouraged friends and neighbors to inform on each other, and recorded testimonies and depositions. They also filed everything with a bizarre meticulousness that was probably their best secret weapon: For hundreds of years, the Inquisitors seem to have had the best intelligence in the world.

The leaders of the Inquisition operated under the assumption that the New Christians, also known as “Conversos” and “Marranos,” were secretly keeping their Jewish customs. Many historians maintain that this suspicion was nurtured and exaggerated as part of the Inquisition’s effort to suppress this population, to perpetuate its low status and to block its social advancement. The entire purpose of the persecution of the Jews during this era, according to these theorists, was social and economic suppression masquerading as religious dogma.

The daily activity of informing appears to be almost a farce, as seen in Lucien Wolf’s now-reissued book. For example, he presents the case of Diego de Mendragon, who appears on May 17, 1499 at the Canary Islands office of the Inquisition and, after taking the usual oaths, gives his deposition:

De Mendragon had heard that Goncalo de Burgos is a heretic, and that a Hebrew book was found in his house. Also, when the deponent and his wife were visiting at the house of the said Burgos, the latter told them he was to have six wives. Upon the deponent inquiring how he knew that, [Burgos] replied that when he had been in Spain, a soothsayer had told him he should live till the age of 80 and have six wives, all honorable women, that he was to suffer great persecution – which he supposed was when he was imprisoned by the Inquisition – and that afterward, he should have much happiness, but that at 80, he would die a terrible death. Whereupon the deponent’s wife replied that she would rather live a short time and die a good death, than live long and come to a bad end. Upon which Burgos replied that after living 80 years, what did good death or bad matter, as power was the only thing worth possessing.

Wolf presents numerous other intriguing testimonies as well, which he translated from the original records as in the following excerpts:

May 18, 1499: Pedro de Bibliosa deposes that Juan Bernal said to Juan Marquez: “Welcome, Jew.” The latter replied, “You honor me by calling me a Jew,” to which the said Bernal exclaimed: “Son of a harlot, you are then a Jew!”

June 14, 1499: Maria de Alcazar appears before the Inquisitors and testifies that a slave of Juan Crespo has told her that his mistress was in the habit of cooking two dishes of stew for herself and her husband. In her husband’s she put pork, but not in her own.

November 5, 1505: Alonso de Vargas deposes that certain Moors and, above all, a certain Jew, have sworn that Goncalo de Burgos said that his father was a Jew, and that he also wished to die as one of the same creed. For this reason, he had made arrangements with the above-mentioned to establish himself in Barbary, and information of this was sent to the Inquisitors at Seville, who summoned the said Burgos to appear before them. But in traveling to Seville in answer to the summons, Burgos was drowned off the coast of Cadiz.

November 7, 1505: Blanca Fernandes, among other things, denounces the wives of Goncalo de Cordova and Diego Marroquy for speaking a language she did not understand, and supposes to have been Hebrew.

November 10, 1505: Goncalo de Segura testifies that it is commonly reported that Luis Alvares, resident of this island [Teneriffe], a convert, is the rabbi of the converts, and that his house is a synagogue. That one Friday, he saw the wife of Juan de Crespo entering the said house, and because of his suspicions, he stopped and watched to see her come out again, which she did in an hour’s time. And on the following Friday, he met her going in the direction of this house, but had no time to see whether she entered.

Also, Goncalo de Burgos had told a Jew that he intended to establish himself in Barbary to live as he wished. Upon the Jew asking if he were not a Christian, he replied: “In name yes, but at heart, a Jew.”

November 15, 1505: Hernandes Martinez, a Portuguese, denounces in his testimony the wife of Juan Fernandes, a dyer, for saying “that by good works, a Jew would save his soul in his religion as well as a Christian in his.”

November 22, 1505: Juan Fernandes appears before the Inquisitors and confesses that about 18 months previously, when in La Palma and wishing to write to Gramel Ferran, but not knowing how, he begged a certain Ximenez to write for him, that he signed the letter in Hebrew characters, as he used to do before his conversion to Christianity, not having learned any other kind, but that he had no wish to offend against the Catholic faith or to observe any Jewish custom, but merely because he knows no other writing.

On the same day, Isabel Mendez, wife of Juan Fernandes, appears before the Inquisitors and testifies to having said: “A man will be saved by his works whatever his creed,” that on being reproved, she held her tongue and that she had been a Christian only two or three years.

November 26, 1505: Juan Alonso de Anaya deposes among other things that many persons have told him and, in particular, Gutierres de Ocana, notary public, that in the island of Gomera, or that of Hierro, the said Ocana kept and compelled all to keep, the Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday.” As Ocana is a convert, the deponent supposed that this was a way of observing a Jewish custom. Furthermore, this deponent had heard from many persons that it is commonly believed that Luis Alvares, who is a convert, calls meetings of converts by day and night, and exhorts them with respect to the Jewish creed. Also, it is well-known that all the converts who have lived, or are living, on this island obey him and are under his authority. And that they meet secretly at his house, no “old” Christian being allowed to take part in these meetings.

November 27, 1505: Diego de San Martines deposes among other things that the wife of Pedro de Balvas bakes her bread in the house of another woman, who says that it appears to be unleavened bread. That Gutierres de Ocana is alleged to have said: “Those who are burned are martyrs.” Deponent gives further evidence as to the numbers of converts seen entering the house of Luis Alvares, where it is commonly supposed Jewish ceremonies are held, that deponent’s house overlooks the said house, and he has seen many converts entering there at night, among others Martin Aliman and his brother, Francisco and Diego de Carmona, Alonso Gutierres, Fernando Desoria, etc. The house of Luis de Niebla is called “The little synagogue.”

October 8, 1505: Antonio de Valladolid gives evidence against Juan de Herrera. The deponent saw a lamp burning on a Saturday in a house belonging to the said Herrera, though it was apparently unoccupied. The lamp stood in a corner and was not burning before any statue. Questioned as to the character of the said Herrera, whether any of his relatives have been condemned by the Inquisition, the deponent replies that Herrera, whom he suspects of being a Jew, fled from Toledo for fear of the Inquisition.

December 5, 1505: Anton Garcia, son of the late Diego Diaz, a relaxado [a heretic given over to the civil authorities to be burned at the stake], confesses to having said, when some men were discussing the Jewish faith, that he believed in it, but that it must have been the Devil speaking in him as he has always believed firmly in the faith of Jesus Christ.

Too much to bear

The tragedy of the Inquisition and its intelligence operations did not always play out as a farce of ignorance and superstition. Lucien Wolf tells about “a marked man in the archipelago” named Alvaro Goncales who was born at Castil Blanco, in Portugal, and who was arrested at the age of 70. As a Jew, he had acted as a rabbi and cantor. In 1496, when the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal was decreed, Goncales joined the Roman Catholic Church together with all his family. The deception of Crypto-Judaism was, however, difficult for him to bear and he soon found himself compelled to flee the country.

For three years, he lived in Gibraltar and then emigrated to Miguel in the Azores, where he was arrested. Together with other New Christians, he managed to break out of prison and to escape. In 1504, he arrived in the Canary Islands. He settled in La Palma, where he worked as a cobbler and acquired some vineyard property.

According to the evidence gathered by Inquisition intelligence, he and his family lived as Orthodox Jews. He prepared his meat in the Jewish fashion, observed the fasts and festivals, and opened his house to other New Christians in La Palma on Friday evenings, when he welcomed the Jewish Sabbath in Orthodox fashion. He refused to allow his slaves to be baptized and he did not hesitate to speak his mind on the subject of Christianity. When one of his “old Christian” neighbors taunted him for being a Jew, he replied that it was “better to be a good Jew than a bad Christian.”

After a trial that lasted from October, 1524 until January, 1526, Goncales was convicted of heresy and perjury. He was handed over to the civil powers and all his property was confiscated. Although he had denied the charges alleged against him, he made no secret of his devotion to Judaism when he was led to the stake, on February 24, 1526.


Acerca de Central de Noticias Diario Judío

Noticias, Reportajes, Cobertura de Eventos por nuestro staff editorial, así como artículos recibidos por la redacción para ser republicados en este medio.

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