History, Lisbon, The Lisbon Massacre: a 16th-century Portuguese pogrom

The Lisbon Massacre: a 16th-century Portuguese pogrom

Memorial to the Victims of the Jewish Massacre of 1506, Largo São Domingos, Lisbon

A small unassuming monument in Largo São Domingos is a memorial to a tragic series of events committed against the Jewish population in Lisbon in the early-sixteenth century. The events are known as the Lisbon Massacre and, what in effect was a pogrom, has its roots in Portugal’s relationship with Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In 1492, during the reign of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain (and during the period of rule of the notorious Dominican friar and Inquisitor General, Tomás de Torquemada), thousands of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity had been expelled from Spain and many had taken refuge in Portugal. By the late 15th-century it is estimated that up to 100,000 Spanish Jews had fled to Portugal. The Portuguese King, João II (who reigned from 1481-95), promised to allow the Jewish refugees to stay in Portugal for eight months in return for a payment and also agreed to provide ships for them to continue their journey to other parts of Europe. Unfortunately João II failed to keep his promise to provide ships within the agreed timeframe and those who were unable to leave the country were forced into slavery, while their children were taken from them and shipped (those who survived the journey) to the island of São Tomé off the West African coast.

Things initially seemed to improve for the Jews during the reign of King Manuel I. He restored their freedom when he came to the throne in 1495 and acknowledged the importance of the Jewish families that worked in the area of finance, medicine and print, offering them protection. Several Jewish areas (Judaria) were already established in Lisbon: in the area around Largo do Carmo, near the Praça do Comércio in the Baixa and, in 1457, a third Jewish quarter was created in the Alfama district. However, when it was arranged that Manuel would marry the extremely anti-Semitic Isabella, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, she only agreed to the marriage if he expelled all the Jews from Portugal. As a result, from December 1496 all Jews in Portugal had to either convert to Christianity and become ‘New Christians’ (known as conversos) or leave the country. It is estimated that 20,000 agreed to convert to Catholicism, although many of the ‘New Christians’ continued to practice Judaism in secret.

The Portuguese Catholics distrusted the ‘New Christians’ and in 1506 things were made worse by the fact that there was a drought in the country and the plague was rife. People wanted someone to blame and the Jews, as so often in history, became the scapegoats. In April 1506 things came to a head. It began in the São Domingos de Lisboa Convent on Easter Sunday when a ‘New Christian’ in the congregation questioned a miracle involving a candle giving the appearance of the face of Jesus. The doubter was taken outside and beaten to death. This paved the way for more acts of anti-Semitic violence led by two Dominican friars who promised absolution of sins for anyone who killed the ‘heretics’. A mob (which included foreign sailors from the ships in the harbour) rounded up any Jews they could find, killed them and burnt their bodies or even burnt them alive, while looting their houses. This massacre continued over the following two days, until the King sent the royal guard to stop it. It is estimated that between 1000 and 4000 converted Jews died over the three days.

São Domingos church and the Memorial to the Victims of the Jewish Massacre of 1506, Largo São Domingos, Lisbon

King Manuel later issued punishments to those involved, including burning the two Dominican friars at the stake. However, the seeds of anti-Semitism had been sown and continued to grow, resulting in the Portuguese Inquisition being set up in 1536 (under King João III). The Inquisition lasted until 1821 (although the last public auto-da-fé took place in 1765) and I would recommend reading the wonderful 1982 novel Memorial do Convento (or to give it its English title, Baltasar and Blimunda) by José Saramago, in which the threat of the Inquisition is ever present. During this time many Jews were forced to flee Portugal going to countries like England, Germany and the Netherlands. The impressive Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam is a testament to the thriving Sephardic Jewish community that lived there, before the horrors that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century that decimated the Jewish population.

Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Memorial to the Victims of the Jewish Massacre of 1506 in front of the São Domingos church was inaugurated in 2008 (around the time of the 500th anniversary of the massacre), marking the spot where the violence began. It is a semi-spherical shape sculpted in stone by Graça Bachmann with a large Star of David in the centre. The inscription on the Star reads:
‘1506-2006
Em memória dos milhares de Judeus vítimas da intolerância e do fanatismo religioso assassinados no massacre iniciado a 19 de Abril de 1506 neste largo.’
(‘In memory of the thousands of Jewish victims of intolerance and religious fanaticism murdered in the massacre which started on 19 April 1506 in this square.’)

Underneath are the Hebrew years (1506-2006): 5266-5766
On the base of the monument is a quotation from the Book of Job 16.18
‘Ó terra, não ocultes o meu sangue e não sufoques o meu clamor!’
(‘O earth, cover not thou my blood and let my cry have no place!’)

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