The Easter Massacre

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Pablo Edronkin

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The plague has been ravaging the city of Lisbon since January, it was Easter, 1506 and people blamed the Jews for it; some survived hiding in the homes of people who offered help to them or by fleeing the city, but after two days, more than two thousand men, women and children, and even their pets, have been murdered, including João Rodrigues Mascarenhas, the uncle of Maria Andrea Mascarenhas[1.1], my 13th great grandmother.

"Against stupidity, even God is helpless." - Proverb.

In Portugal, Jews had been living for centuries, long before the actual country of Portugal even existed[75.1]. The Romans persecuted them, and then the Visigoths.

When the Muslims arrived, they proved themselves far more tolerant than the old masters of the land[75.2], so the Jews began prospering, and as Christians slowly began recovering Spain and Portugal, some of those Jews became partners and relatives of the nobles and royals, but for the most part, the Jewish population began suffering again.

The position of Portuguese Jews was relatively good until 1493, despite that Jews were forced to pay exorbitant and abusive taxes[75.3] – a technique used even today by authoritarian regimes that want to persecute a social or ethnic group like, for example, the middle class in the Venezuela of dictator Hugo Chavez. But from then on, Jews were increasingly mistreated.

The term "marrano" appeared in the XIII century to treat despectively Jews and Muslims who were converted but in many cases wouldn't eat pig meat. Marrano is a word with double meaning; it refers to those conversos, and to domestic pigs as well[79.1]. Many Jews converted by force continued to be faithful to their religion privately and in secret. These were called "Judaizantes"[79.2]. This is the case of the Belmote - Schoenberg family; after reaching Holland, some remained being opnely Christians, while others returned to the Jewish faith, and it is worth remembering that in the town of Belmonte, in Portugal, crypto - Jews remained there in secrecy until the XX century.

Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492; many went immediately to Portugal as refugees since it was near and in Portugal itself there was a respectable Jewish community. It is estimated that about 93.000 Jews migrated from Spain to Portugal at that time[76.1]; they had for the most part, no money and no belongings, so they were suddenly poor as most refugees are. The influx of poor people infuriated the Portuguese residents. The king of Portugal began profiting from the situation by demanding that refugees pay a sum of money to stay in the country for eight months.

Since many could not leave on time due to a lack of ships to transport them elsewhere, one day the king ordered that the remaining refugees should be sold as slaves. Children between two and ten years old were forcibly separated from their families, baptized and sent to colonize the islands of São Tomé e Príncipe, where their descendants still live today as Jews[75.4].

King Manuel I and the situation of Jews under his leadership:

As Manuel I became king of Portugal, the situation improved a little bit: Those enslaved were liberated and the disposition of the crown was generally more lenient. However, the marriage of Manuel and Infanta Isabel de Aragón meant a major problem, since the marriage contract stipulated that all Jews and Muslims would have to be expelled from Portugal.

The king did ask the Spanish crown to reconsider their demands, since the Jewish population was generally better educated and had the resources needed for the development of the country, byt it was to no avail. Heretics got until 31 Oct 1397 to convert or leave the country.

Most Jews would not convert and opted to leave Portugal. Seeing this and the fact that the economy of the country would be depleted of some of its major contributors and resources, Manuel closed all harbors except that of Lisbon[75.5]. Naturally, the economy of the country suffered due to the cumbersome requirements imposed on commerce by closing the harbors.

Jews began converging into Lisbon, so they became an easy target. In April 1497, children up to 14 were forcibly removed from their families and sent to Christian families. In October, Jews were forcibly converted by fanatical clerics with the help and complacency of security forces.

Due to the fact that they were baptized against their will, many of these "New Christians", "Conversos" or "Marranos" continued being actually Jews in their private lives. Indeed, this was perceived by the "Old Christians" who deeply mistrusted them and continued to envy their generally superior education and wealth[75.6].

Easter in Lisbon, 1506:

By January 1506, the plague was rampaging the country; in April, mobs began blaming and attacking "New Christians" for it, leaded by fanatical clerics[75.7].

The pogrom started on April 19 at the Convento de São Domingos de Lisboa, as Christian people were on Sunday prayers, asking for the end of the plague. During the service, someone claimed to have seen the face of Christ on the altar, a fact that for many was a miracle, a message of mercy from Heaven.

But – perhaps with a lack of situational awareness – someone who was a "New Christian" tried to explain the event as the result of sunlight passing thorough the windows and shining on the altar, a perfectly natural event. That enraged the people, the party-spoiler was dragged outside and killed.

From then on, a mob of around five hundred people, including sailors from foreign ships docked at the harbor, gathered and began killing anyone suspected of being a Jew, helping Jews or being connected to Jews. Some clerics promised forgiveness for the sins of the last hundred days to anybody who killed at least one heretic[76.2].

The king and the court were not at the city since the plague had begun, so it took them a while to react. He sent magistrates to find out what was happening, but even local authorities who tried to stop the mob had to flee in some cases[76.3].

The people – especially the Jews – who became victims were accused of causing the plague and also the drought that at the time was also affecting Portugal. Then they were thrown into improvised bonfires alive. Men, women and children were murdered in this way, their belongings sacked or destroyed and their houses demolished.

This went on until April 21. That day, the mob killed João Rodrigues Mascarenhas, who was a tax collector and a nobleman; the Mascarenhas family, related to the Sampayo – Belmontes, wasn't just any other family, and so the king reacted against the mob in kind.

Meanwhile, even people were even taken out of churches, to be burnt them as they were, just outside. And since many were outside the city or others were too weak due to the plague, nobody could resist[76.7].

There were also cases of revenge, in which locals told the seamen who were participating on the pogrom where to get fresh victims, and since these could not, in turn communicate with the sailors due to language barriers, they were killed as well. Children were smashed against walls or cut into pieces[76.7]; my uncle saw similar acts committed by the Nazi SA in the Nowy Dwór ghetto, in Poland[1.49].

Historians state that the killing of Mascarenhas was based on the assumption that he was a Jew because he was a "New Christian", but that, in fact, he wasn't a Jew[76.4]. This, however, is an excuse and a typical historical lie, probably created in order to punish his murderers without giving in to the fact that the king of Portugal was actually his Jewish family.

Indeed, the Mascarenhas family was related to the royal family of Portugal and Mascarenhas was a converso. So, he must have converted from some other faith, and those would be either Islam or Judaism. He couldn't have been a converso not having converted from anything, right?

One of the links between the Portuguese royal family and the Mascarenhas is established thorough the Sampayo – Belmonte and Lancastre family names: Dom Iago de Sampayo y Belmonte married Maria Andrea Mascarenhas. The Sampayos were "Marranos" – I should know, being Maria Andrea[1.1] and Dom Iago[1.2] my direct ancestors. Then, Bartholomew[1.60], one of their sons and also my direct ancestor, married Ana de Lancastre[1.6], who was a direct descendant of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster[1.86]. In this particular case, the Sampayo – Belmonte family – Jewish – the House of Avis and the Mascarenhas appear related, and there were more connections, according to existing documentations and Gottheil's research:

"...another female scion of this same Lancaster family, Dona Magdalena de Lancastre (expressly stated to have been 'of royal blood'), was married to a Marano, Francisco de Brito Coutinho, son of Heitor (Hector) Mendes de Brito, called De Elvas, a knight of the royal house. Such eminent connections as these need not fill us with any wonder. The Jews, and especially the Maranos, occupied such a position for several centuries that they were able to aspire to the highest."[24.39]

So, João Rodrigues Mascarenhas was in fact, related to the Jews and being a converso, he must have been Jewish. Even his job as a "faktor" – for they also collected taxes – gives his real origin away.

Soon, the soldiers of the king entered the city and began restoring order; it wasn't very difficult, since their opponents were civilians gathered in a furious but irrational and uncoordinated mob.

Aftermath and consequences for Portugal, the perpetrators and the survivors:

Dom Manuel I, punished the perpetrators by having the assets of all participants in the pogrom confiscated; the instigators, including the clerics, were executed, the convent was seemingly closed for eight years and the city of Lisbon lost many of its privileges[76.5].

Many of the sailors that took part on the massacre could literally get away as their ships quickly departed for their own home ports. At least 2.500 people were killed in the Easter pogrom.

Nevertheless, the situation in the country did not improve: Conversos were still treated with suspicion and many surviving families left the country, often abandoning all their belongings, selling their things for nothing and paying ransom to local authorities, like the normal practice of authoritarian regimes in the XX century.

A good part of the Sampayo – Belmonte family left the country too. Despite that they were of royal blood, the murder of João Rodrigues Mascarenhas and the events of Easter, 1506, were seen as their fate written on the wall. Part of the family left for Madeira, and part, to Amsterdam. There, Bartholomew changed his family name and title from Sampayo – Belmonte to van Schoenenberg, but for them as well as some of their also-wealthy relatives like the Abrabanel family, the Teixeiras and others, things were a little bit better due to their position.

Finally, in 1540 the Inquisition began its work persecuting conversos; Dom Manuel's successor in the throne believed that it would put some degree of order. Instead, the Inquisition killed thousands of people and robbed the assets and honor of scores more, until the Portuguese people finally had enough, in 1821.

Anti - semitism proved ruinous both for Spain and Portugal, since it eliminated a good portion of the better educated elites, giving way to the less - educated populace and fanatical leaders that ultimately proved to be no match for the Jews and Muslims that were expelled. Both countries, once they lost the lustre of their empires, remained in poverty and authoritarian regimes until the second half of the XX century.

In the town of Belmonte, in Portugal, some Jews decided to cut their links with the outside world and remained in their faith in complete secrecy until the XX century[80.1], meanwhile, the descendants of families like de Sampayo - Belmonte, Curiel, de Castro and others that migrated, prospered in Holland and acquired even larger fortunes by developing their banks and marrying into other rich families, such as Rothschild and Montefiore, as their former countrymen fell into poverty and remained so until Portugal and Spain joined the EU as the XX century was reaching its end. Despite other pogroms and the appearance and deeds of regimes such as Stalinism and Nazism, the descendants of the Marranos and in general, the jewish banking families around the world continue to increase their wealth.

The Easter massacre remained barely noticed in history books. Only a handful of historians ever mentioned the event, like in his book "Chronica do Felicissimo Rey D. Emanuel da Gloriosa Memória"[76.7].

The conversion policy applied in Spain and Portugal failed completely; not only it didn't actually change people, but caused a disaster in the economy of both countries and left a very dark stain in their history. The Inquisition also served as a model of political repression for other authoritarian regimes around the world. People like the Jews of Belmonte stubbornly survived all their enemies, while the families of the Jewish noble families, like that of the Senhores, or Lords of Belmonte, survived as well.

The first monument in memory of the victims of the Easter pogrom was constructed in Lisbon in 2008; having a sense of humor, life had the Inquisition disappear in shame, while the Marranos lived on to tell their story.


The massacre of Lisbon, Easter, 1506.
Engraving depicting the massacre of Lisbon, Easter, 1506.
From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, public domain[77].



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