The expulsion of the Jews in 1496

expulsion feature

Dora Guennes explores the first brain drain from Portugal.

Expulsion of the Jews in 1497, in a 1917 watercolour by Alfredo Roque Gameiro. Photo: Wikipedia

On December 5, 1496, King Manuel I signed the decree that expelled most of the Jews from Portugal. The resulting legal act – The Expulsion of the Jews and Moors from the Kingdom of Portugal – marked the diaspora of the Sephardi Jews, a community of more than 300,000 people who lived and prospered in the Iberian Peninsula since at least Roman times (some think there were Jews there in the biblical era). The well-known immediate result of this measure was the Inquisition, one of the darkest elements in an otherwise luminous time in Europe.

Painting of king Manuel I of Portugal. Photo: Wikipedia

The Expulsion of the Jews and Moors from the Kingdom of Portugal was announced by Manuel I as a precondition for the realization of his marriage with Princess Isabel, a union that would fulfil his desire for the Iberian crown. The king wished to maintain friendly ties with the Jewish community but, allegedly, the Princess said she ‘would only enter the country after it’s clean from infidels’.

The Portuguese decision followed an identical legal act, the Alhambre Decree, from 1492, signed by the Catholic kings of Castile and Aragon. Although the relations between Jews and Catholics had been tense since the Middle Ages, the Castilian measure broke a long tradition of religious tolerance in the Iberian Peninsula.

First steps to a Portuguese decision

A signed copy of the Alhambra Decree. Photo: Wikipedia

After the Alhambre Decree, the Jews of Castile and Aragon were forced to convert to Christianity or to flee from Spain within four months. As a result, thousands of citizens crossed the border to Portuguese lands after paying a toll from which they gained an entry permit valid for 8 months. After that period, they had to leave the country although the king only allowed them to travel to Tânger and Arzila, from which they usually returned.

Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, an 1892 painting by Moshe Maimon. Photo: Wikipedia

Those in a profession enjoyed a discount since they were considered useful labour for the national economy; blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, weavers and others were needed.

Those Spanish Jews then settled in Olivença, Arronches, Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, Bragança, Melgaço, Pinhel, Vila Nova de Foz Côa, Meda, Marialva, Numão, Trancoso, Guarda e Sabugal – all of them border villages, chosen in the hope that the expulsion would eventually be revoked. Most, however, preferred the main cities of Lisbon, Oporto and Évora.

King John II of Portugal. Photo: Wikipedia

At that time, the King of Portugal was John II, the predecessor of Manuel I, who took a very pragmatic approach. The royal policy was to take advantage of the Jewish by populating distant colonies and, at the same time, preventing the organization of Jewish community life in the different urban centres of the country.

The fate of the Jewish exiles was not decided by themselves but by the Crown. One of those destinies was the Island of São Tomé, in the Gulf of Guinea, where the insertion of the Spanish Portuguese Jews created new markets in the international trade.

São Tomé and Príncipe as drawn by Dutch Johannes Vingboons in 1665. Photo: Wikipedia

The economic life of the island flourished as the exiles from 1492-1497 brought the cultivation of sugar cane, employing 150 to 300 slaves per sugar mill. Thanks to this industrial activity, the island has become one of the largest sugar-producing centres in the world.

When King John II died, in 1495, Manuel I inherited the crown and allowed the Jewish community to live in peace. The king had even chosen the Jewish Abraham Zacuto for his private physician (Zacuto was also a mathematician and astronomer, having been consulted before the king sent Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India).

Portrait of Abraão ben Samuel Zacuto. Photo: Wikipedia

Although the new king needed the financial resources, internal and external commercial activities, as well as the technical and scientific knowledge of the Jews for his project to develop Portugal, he also wished for the union of the Iberian Peninsula. So, when he proposed marriage to Isabel, the eldest daughter of the Catholic king, the Castilian monarchs were happy to consent but only if the Jews were expelled from the kingdom.

The Expulsion

In November 1496, King Manuel I married Isabel and in the following month, he ordered the expulsion of the Jews (and the Moors), who were forced to leave the country by the end of October of the following year. If they did not do so, they would be sentenced to death and all their property would be confiscated by the crown. Most fled the country.

However, the decision did not meet with the consensus of the Council of State, which warned of the flight of capital from the country. Intending to keep the Jews in Portugal, the king then ordered that those who converted to Christianity could remain in the country. And he set a deadline for baptism: Easter of 1497.

Palácio dos Estaus, where Teatro Nacional D.Maria II sits in the present day. Photo: Wikipedia

The monarch also restricted the number of ships for those who wanted to leave the kingdom, forcing them to concentrate in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital: about 20,000 people from various areas were sent to the Palace of the Estaus, the future headquarters of the Inquisition (found where the D. Maria II National Theatre is today) remaining there, without eating or drinking, until the moment of boarding.

Those who, not having been baptized, stayed in the country, already as slaves of the king, presented him a proposal: they accepted the conversion but wanted the assurance that the king would not order any inquiry into their religious practices over a period of 20 years. King Manuel I agreed and on May 30, 1497, the prohibition of inquiries into the beliefs of new converts to Christianity was published.

Burning of Jews in Portugal in 1497. Photo: Wikipedia

In other words, he unofficially consented to Judaism (hence crypto Judaism, the clandestine practice of religion). The decree also had other clauses: after 20 years, if the New-Christian was accused of being Jewish, they would have the right to know their accusers so that they could defend themselves; if the crime of heresy was proved, they would be condemned to the loss of property, later bequeathed to the Christian heirs.

On paper, this would be liberating for the recently converted Christians, but real life proved otherwise: in 1506, the Lisbon Pogrom led to the death of 4,000 citizens (including New Christians, sailors and random people accused of being crypto-Jews) by mobs, fired up by friars who blamed the Jews for the plague, drought and hunger that scourged the kingdom in those days.

The Lisbon massacre of 1506. The legend is written in medieval old German: von dem christelichen streyt geschehe im AD 1506 Jar zu Lißbona, ein haubtstat in Portigal zwischen den christen und newen christen oder jüden von wegen des geckreutzigisten got (about the christian dispute happened in the year of the lord 1506 in Lisbon, a capital of Portugal, between the christians and the new christians or jews because of the crucified God).
Photo: Wikpedia

Where did they go?

In the wake of the Alhambra decree, Sephardic Jews from Spain then migrated to North Africa (Maghreb), Christian Europe (Netherlands, Britain, France and Poland), throughout the Ottoman Empire and even the newly discovered Latin America.

For the Portuguese Jews it also begun a new diaspora: they went to Livorno (in the north of Italy), to Hamburg and Amsterdam. From here, many years later, some would adventure themselves into Brazil, Pernambuco, where in the seventeenth century, Kahal ur Israel, the first Brazilian synagogue, was built under the direction of the Hakham Isaac Aboab da Fonseca.

Expulsion of European Jewish communities between 1100 and 1600. The main routes that the Spanish Jews followed are marked in light brown. Photo: Wikipedia

A small number of Sephardic refugees who fled to the Netherlands as ‘Marranos’ (the Portuguese word for anusim) settled in Hamburg and even appropriating Ashkenazic Jewish rituals into their religious practice. Others moved to the United States, setting up the country’s first organized community of Jews and erecting the United States’ first synagogue.

Original text of the decree:

The Expulsion of the Jews and Moors from the the Kingdom of Portugal

May Jews and Moors leave these Realms, and not live, nor to be in it.

Because every faithful Christian on all things I forced him to do those things which Our Lord’s Servant Sam, Accrecent of his Sancta Fee Catholic, and to these only gave pospoer to all the windfalls and losses of this world, but still the lives themselves, which the Kings much more entirely gave, and Sam obliged, because for Jesu Christo our Lord Sam, and govern, and from them receive in this world greater goods, than any other person, so being We very sure, that the Jews and Moors obstinate in the hatred of Our Catholic Holy Faith of Christ our Lord, who by his death redeems us, has committed, and continually against him commit great evils, and blasphemies in these Our Reynos, The only thing they can do is to curse their children, in the hardness of their hearts, they are the cause of more condemnation, but many Christians are still doing away with the true career that Catholic Holy Faith has had; For these, and other very great and necessary reasons, which are dear to Us, that all Christian are notorious and manifest, mature life deliberate with those of Our Council, and Letters, We determine, and We command, that of the edition of this Our Law, and Determine till October of the year of Our Lord’s Birth of one thousand four hundred and ninety seven, all the Jews, and Moorish liners, that in Our Realms live, go out from there, under penalty of natural death, and lose the farms, for whoever accuses them.

And any person who after the said time of yours hid a Jew, or Moorish liner, for this very deed We want him to lose all his farm, and goods, for who accuse him, and We pray, and Order, and Send for our blessing, and under penalty of cursing Our Helpers King, who never in time let to live, nor to be in these Our Kingdom, and Lords of them, none Jewish, nor Moorish liner, for no reason, nor reason that it be, the Jews, and Moors (…) and we will send him any debt, that in Our Kingdom be given to him, and though for his life We will give him all the guide, and order that he buy.

And for as much as all the revenues, and rights of the Judariah, and Mourariah We have given, We send to the people who have those of Us, who come to ask of Us about them, because We are pleased to send them to give as much as the so-called Judariah, and Mourariah surrenders […].

“[…] being We very sure, that the Jews and Moors obstinate in the hatred of Our Holy Catholic Faith of Christ Our Lord, who by His death has redeemed us, have committed, and continually against Him commit great evils, and blasphemies in these Our Kingdoms, which not only to them, who are children of curse, while in the hardness of their hearts, are the cause of more condemnation, even more to many Christians do depart from the true career, which is the Holy Catholic Faith; For these, and other very great and necessary reasons, that move Us to this, that to every Christian are notorious and manifest, having mature deliberation with those of Our Council, and Letters, We Determine, and Command, that of the publication of this Our Law, and Determination until the whole month of October of the year of Our Lord’s Birth of one thousand four hundred and ninety-seven, all Jews, and Moorish liners, that in Our Kingdoms there be, go out from them, under penalty of natural death, and lose the farms, for those who accuse them.

Plaque commemorating the 1506 pogrom in Lisbon. Photo: Wikipedia


Dora Guennes lives in Lisbon, has two cats and two daughters. Studied Literature, Library Science and other things. Did many different jobs.Loves words. Loves stories and History. Doesn't like pop music that much. Writes during her work hours, but don't tell that to anyone.
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Shane Thomas
Shane Thomas
3 years ago

Sorry to be that guy, but the last line of the first paragraph which says, “…one of the darkest elements in an otherwise luminous time in Europe.” Isn’t this during a time when European nations were taking part in colonialism and the slave trade? This isn’t to put one group of people’s suffering above another, or to excoriate the author. Just that “luminous” seemed a curious word choice, given what was happening. I otherwise found this piece very informative, but I did find the aforementioned line somewhat troubling.

Dora Guennes
Dora Guennes
Reply to  Shane Thomas
3 years ago

Hello Shane, you are right. Colonialism and slave trade were also very dark times, but Europe was flourishing within the Renaissance by then. I chose the word luminous for that reason.

Theresa Trego
Theresa Trego
1 year ago

I recently read the history you wrote for us. Thank you for doing this. My husband and I both, have lineage to the Iberian Penninsula. I think we were meant to be 😍, he agrees lol. I really enjoyed reading about this, even though it is horrible that it happened that way. And History repeats.

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