Sephardi Literati in Colonial Brazil:
A Bitter Taste in the Sugar Plantations

By Regina Igel1

One of the most imposing natural scenarios in Rio de Janeiro is the mountain called Sugar Loaf (in Portuguese,“Pão de Açúcar”). A strangely-shaped mountain of a non-descript color hardly reminds anyone of table sugar, as we know it today. At the entrance of the Guanabara Bay, it is a gigantic rock 395 meters tall (1,296 feet)2, in the shape of a cone, almost entirely devoid of vegetation, gradually narrowing to its protuberant top, like an ogive. About the origin of its name, there are at least two most quoted explanations: the first one suggests that it is derived from the Tupi language, spoken by the Tamoyo Indians, who lived in the area when the Portuguese first arrived (1500); the other explanation proposed is that it was so named by the Portuguese because the mountain’s shape reminded them of the cone-shaped clay containers that transported sugar to Europe. The conical vessels, one yard tall, enclosed the transformed canes, after their compression and their juices were boiled, cooled, refined, hardened and made into blocks.3 Whatever the origin of the name ‘sugar loaf’ it seems to be well applied, for the granite mountain does indeed have the shape of the conical cask that carried from the Brazilian coast to Europe the ‘white gold’, as they nicknamed the yet unrefined sugar.

In the earlier period of Portuguese colonization in Brazil–basically covering the 16th and 17th centuries--the northeastern region was the main attraction to the Lusitanian colonizers, in view of the successful sugar plantations. Officially, or historically, their seeds were brought in by the Portuguese, but in reality, it was the Jews forcibly turned into Christians, then called 'New Christians’ and also ‘conversos', who initiated the plantations.

First, it was in the archipelago off the northeastern region that Fernando de Noronha, a New Christian of Portuguese origin, was given a piece of land by the king, in order to exploit brazilwood. It was in that group of twenty or some islands that Noronha started a sugar plantation, around 1503, though his main mission was to start the exploitation and export of the dyewood. Of the long Brazilian coastal line, the northeastern region was privileged to have a kind of soil, known as ‘massape’, that was very favorable for the planting of sugar cane. The fertile dark terrain and the labor of African slaves, brought in by the Portuguese, returned tons of the ‘white gold’. As is known, many Sephardim who survived the Inquisition took advantage of the window of opportunity opened up by the transatlantic crossing of the Portuguese in search of the wealth provided by the commerce in sugar. Historian Wim Klooster observes that “the conversos who traded and traveled in the Portugal-Brazil-Amsterdam triangle helped create the premier Dutch commercial circuit in the Atlantic world.”4

This happened in the 1600s, but much earlier than that the Jews had already set foot in what today is Brazil, as Winitzer comments: “It is an historical fact, supported by documentary evidence, that a consortium of Jews, headed by Fernão de Noronha, had obtained in 1502 a three year lease from the Portuguese Crown for the exploration and settlement of the newly-discovered Brazil.… It is obvious that the Noronha group brought sugar cane to Brazil from Madeira and São Thomé, where their ships landed en route. It is equally clear that it made successful attempts at planting sugar in Brazil, so that by 1516 the construction of a sugar mill had become necessary. By that time, the Portuguese Crown had become aware that the colonization of Brazil was a profitable venture.” 5

Edward Kritzler, in his well-documented book, observes that “Fernando de Noronha, a sixteenth-century converso … headed the first capitalist venture in the New World. …With the likelihood of finding valuable spices and other marketable commodities, Noronha recruited other prominent conversos to join his consortium in partnership with the king. Beyond a good business opportunity, however, their interest in the far off land was to find a refuge to live free from persecution.” 6 (Today, the archipelago is a tourist magnet because of its extraordinary natural beauty, and carries Noronha’s name.)

The northeastern coastal region of Brazil was the right area for those fleeing the Inquisition to settle and initiate a new life.  Sugar plantations were successfully growing there, mainly in the strip of land named Pernambuco. Historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals summarized the Cuban soil properties in relation to its sugar plantations, and the same can be applied to the region in and surrounding Pernambuco, which had all the qualities needed for a prosperous investment in sugar growing. First, the land was fertile, of easy exploitation, bathed by the ocean, making it feasible for boats to approach small ports; then, the surrounding forests offered an abundance of wood, necessary for the construction of warehouses, carts, firewood and all other elements for the functioning of a sugar mill. The third ideal element found in the northeastern Brazilian region was the possibility of cattle breeding, because oxen were indispensable in rotating the machinery used for the preparation of sugar, while beef and pork provided the necessary food to sustain the slaves.7 These three conditions were met in the sugar region (‘região açucareira’) in Brazil, attracting the Portuguese and, later on, the Dutch and others.

Portugal, though, was the country that sent most settlers to that far-away province in ships carrying Old and New Christians. Of the latter, once on land, some would retain their Judaic roots in hiding, practicing some of the rituals, while others would assimilate with the general Catholic population. The ‘sertão’ [backlands] of Brazil is rich in stories about certain Jewish habits still preserved today, although present-day followers of some customs  have lost their links to the religion. Recent research on some communities in the area reveals that many people, who had started small synagogues with their own resources, believe themselves to be descendants of New Christians..8 Some ‘bnei anusim', as they prefer to be identified, participated in a filmed documentary that was screened all over Brazil.9

However, although they landed far away from the continental persecution, the New Christians did not find the safe haven they envisioned.  Luís da Câmara Cascudo observes that "the Holy Office visited Brazil in 1591-1593 in Bahia, 1593-1595 in Pernambuco, 1618-1619 in the city of Salvador, through the officers Heitor Furtado de Mendonça and Marcos Teixeira …”10 The Inquisition followed conversos into the New World, and the cristãos-novos (in Portuguese) were incessantly harassed, when not imprisoned or sent back to Portugal. As a matter of fact, the terms ‘cristão-novo’, ‘converso’ and similar cognomens were rather imposed by the non-Jews. The persons of Jewish origin preferred to identify themselves as ‘men of the nation' (homens da nação), ‘merchants of the Portuguese nation’ (mercadores da nação portuguesa), which were terms used first by the municipality of Antwerp, in 1511, applying to the multitude of Portuguese merchants of Jewish origin who settled in that city.11 About these names, Miriam Bodian observes: “The émigrés, among themselves, used a category of self-definition that appears at first glance to resemble that used by the Dutch authorities. They, too, used the term ‘nation’ to refer to themselves, but did so in a way that was by no means generic: they called themselves ‘those of the Nation.’ It was the term ‘nation’ that carried the affect. Especially in its Portuguese form – os da nação -  the term evoked an aura, drama, and historical experiences which outsiders could not grasp”.12

In the middle of the fast-paced, demanding and exhausting activities dedicated to the harvesting of sugar cane, and its subsequent transformation by water-propelled mills into juices, followed by the preparation of molasses in huge cauldrons, until sugar blocks were made, the New Christians as well as the crypto-Jews were prospering.  The latter, though, were also panic-stricken. It was the year 1591 when the first ‘visit’ of the representative of the Portuguese inquisitorial organization arrived in Brazil. Every one of the New Christians was suspected of being a possible ‘crypto-Jew’ and, in order to unmask these, the inquisitor would gain the trust of and compensate the servants, slaves, relatives and neighbors of their targets. Independent scholar Elias Lipiner describes the astounding number of informers and accusers who, having gained the confidence of their bosses, relatives or neighbors, were compelled to tell what they saw in the interior of the homes they served or visited.  The Saturday rest was one of the most visible signs that the bosses were indeed hidden Jews, or Judaizers, because, according to the accusers’ observations, the lady or the gentleman of the house would spend the day in a hammock, reading or sleeping, while the following day (Sunday) would be a normal day of working in the fields. What is paradoxical is that, according to Lipiner, quoting from Pedro Calmon, "the Saturday as a day of rest was so disseminated in the Colony, by influence of the Judaizers, that it was established as the so-called ‘Brazilian system’ or ‘the right to the Saturday’, the day when the slaves could be free from labor."13 Another influence of the Jews, or as so recognized in the words of Gilberto Freyre, was thus: “Another Sephardic trait may be seen in the mania for eyeglasses and pince-nez – employed as an outward mark of learning or of intellectual and scientific attainment.”14

Every detail of the daily lives of the people focused on by the Inquisition was exposed by their accusers. Once called to special ‘sessions', the victims usually denied the accusations, but would never be credited by the inquisitors. The atmosphere of intimidation and terror in Brazil prevailed during all the centuries of activities by the Holy Office, though it worked somehow differently from the Spanish Inquisition. The Portuguese did allocate ‘tribunals’ in Brazil, but instead of implementing the auto-da-fé in Brazilian territory (as was customary in the Spanish-dominated areas), the Portuguese used to remove their subjects from Brazil, transferring them from the tropical dungeons to the ones in Portugal, where the victims would wait for the fate imposed on them by the Catholic Church in Portugal proper. Nevertheless, the methods of extracting ‘confessions’ were similar in both Iberian countries: threats, starvation, torture, suspension of all rights as the Crown’s subjects, dispossession, endless Christian indoctrination, finally the auto-da-fé if the victim did not ‘repent’ – it could be a public spectacle of abjuring the Judaic faith, or it could be death by a bonfire lit under the victim's feet . Information so far gathered and exposed by scholars of many backgrounds dispenses more of a descriptive narrative of these scenarios. It is enough to state that many activities were prohibited to the Portuguese subjects in Brazil, but even more so to the New Christians.

Therefore, it is not expected that any of the Sephardim, bespectacled or not, would publicly emerge as a writer, a poet, or in any other category of expressive or artistic writing. Nevertheless, three brave writers breached the boundaries of the Inquisition’s prohibitions, dedicating themselves to three different literary trends. They were: the poet Bento Teixeira, the chronicler Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, and the playwright Antonio José da Silva, nicknamed ‘The Jew’ [o judeu].  Their writings, however, with the exception of the last, were not published during their lifetimes.

About the poet Bento Teixeira, critic Helena Costigan summarized very well in the first sentence of one her essays: “In the Colonial context of the end of the 16th century, Bento Teixeira (1561-1600) is the prototype of the intellectual twice unfit: first as a converso or a New Christian, then as a man of letters.”15

He is the author of Prosopopéia, a long poem written in the style and rhythm of The Lusiads, by the Portuguese Luís de Camões (1524?-1580). This ‘emulation’ would earn him the classification of ‘minor poet’ by critics in general.  Thus, it must not be this poem that propelled Teixeira into the literature manuals in the Brazilian schools. It was rather the fact that he is considered to be the first poet to write about Brazil, describing parts of its natural landscape (mainly Recife), narrating the courage of certain nobles (the governor of Pernambuco and his brother), in convoluted and iridescent wording, as was appropriate in the Baroque style. Indeed, he was a martyr of the Inquisition, which pursued him all through his life.

Bento Teixeira was born in Oporto, in Portugal, into a family of New Christians who had to run from the Inquisition’s terrible grasp for their practices as ‘Judaizers’. Arriving in Brazil at an early age, he received a good education due to his highly developed cognitive abilities, soon perceived by the Jesuits in the seminary he started to attend in Bahia. His intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and his fast accumulation of knowledge (of religion, classical languages, versification and other matters important for the times) were part of his profile as described in the many pages that the Inquisition had on him. The recognition of his talents by his former professors, mostly priests and clerics, did not spare him from constant interrogations about some of his practices and most of his ideas, until he confessed that he was a ‘Judaizer’, following accusations by his wife, the Old Christian Filipa Raposo, and others.  They had an unhappy marriage, with her constantly betraying Teixeira. Because of her extreme misconduct outside their union, he suffered humiliation and was the target of people’s mockeries. In order to curb his wife’s sexual adventures and separate her from her lovers (among them, priests, sailors, married and unmarried men), they moved several times during their married life. Their public quarrels and demonstrations of mutual resentments climbed into a desperate act on Teixeira’s part: he ended up by killing her. Incarcerated and taken to Lisbon, he died in 1600, some stating that he was still in prison, others believing that he was already free and his death resulted from the accumulation of life’s blows, spiritual and physical, on him. The poem Prosopopéia was published one year after his death, and remained forgotten until the 19th century, when a Brazilian diplomat found a copy of it in a Lisbon library, while at the same time, a second copy was found in the National Library of Rio de Janeiro.16

Bento Teixeira had a multi-facetted character – he had a temper, at the same time that he was recognized as a respectful and dignified teacher in Pernambuco, where he taught privately and as a school master; he knew, admired and quoted by heart the classics and passages of the Bible, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, loved reading and writing poetry, while at the same time he would not hesitate to publicly speak his critical mind on a variety of subjects, ranging from God, religion, rituals, to Christian dogmas. He probably knew that his ideas on most of these topics would provoke people’s ill-will against him. Nevertheless, besides Arithmetic, Portuguese, Latin, Geography and History, he taught Christian doctrine, as he was required to, in the many schools where he was hired and also in the little schools he formed in several towns in the northeast.  According to historian José Antonio Gonsalves de Mello, among the many accusations Filipa Raposo made against him, the father of her two sons, the most incriminating was of his being a Judaizer.17 Persecuted both for his allegiance to the Judaic rituals and for the ‘profanities’ he openly uttered, he was finally caught for those and for the homicide he committed.

Teixeira was known for attending an ‘esnoga’, a prayer house well hidden in the  Camaragibe sugar mill that belonged to a couple of New Christians and crypto-Jews: Branca Dias and Diogo Fernandes. It was attended by many New Christians from the neighboring areas, mainly during Yom Kippur and Sukkot.18 It is said that, in order to secretly remind the New Christians that there would be a gathering in the ‘esnoga’, a designated New Christian would walk through the streets of the city of Olinda with a bandage on one of his feet; he and others who used similar secret signs were known as the ‘campainha’ [the call-bell].19 Among those attending the prayer house was also Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, who wrote in hiding the Dialogues of the Greatness of Brazil, a major work descriptive of Colonial Brazil.20

Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, a contemporary of Bento Teixeira, may be one of the most mysterious of the literati of Sephardic origin to have lived in Brazil. His biography is interspersed by possibilities, as in:  “probably of Portuguese origin, New Christian, living in Brazil in 1583,  as foreman or tax collector, in the sugar mills of Pernambuco.…”201  Being a crypto-Jew, Ambrósio Brandão took care not to be discovered, having already attracted unpleasant attention for his position of tax collector in the northeastern area.

His major work, Dialogues of the Great Things of Brazil, was possibly written while he was in the midst of the sugar plantations, in 1618, according to Gonsalves de Mello.22 The work consists of six dialogues developed along six days between two Portuguese subjects located in northeastern Brazil: Alviano, recently arrived from Portugal, and Brandônio, who had been in the region time enough to feel himself adapted and enjoying his surroundings.   

Their exchanges cover several topics, among them the discovery and settlement by the Portuguese, the land’s fauna and flora, the habits of the colonizers and of the indigenous population. The dialogues focused on the Europeans’ attitude of enriching themselves and leaving the country without compensating the land for its bounty, and on the indigenous population that seemed to be alien to hard work or any form of discipline. Usually it is Alviano who criticizes the system of work found in Brazil among the natives, while Brandônio tries to explain that there were a series of generations that brought them to this kind of behavior, which could change in contact with foreigners or with the passing of time. It is the latter who explains that the indigenous people maintain some customs that remind him of social behavior allegedly typical of  the ‘Israelites’, such as their knowledge of celestial laws,  and the insertion of some words in the vocabulary that are reminiscent of Hebrew words.  It is obvious that the inclusion of such comments would not go unperceived by the Inquisition: hence, the hiding of the Dialogues for almost three hundred years after it was written, until the chance discoveries of a copy in a library in Holland, and another copy, in Rio de Janeiro. It was partially published in 1848 but it was only in 1930 that the Dialogues were published in their entirety, as a book.23

According to Rodolfo Garcia, the author attended the ‘esnoga’ concealed in a sugar mill located on the banks of the Camaragibe river, close to where Recife is today. Because of this, he was questioned by the Holy Office’s visitor, in Bahia, in 1591, but probably was able to liberate himself from its clutches; with time, he became the owner of two sugar mills; the date of his death is unknown, but it is of general knowledge that he was no longer alive when the Dutch invaded the area of Paraíba, north of Pernambuco (1635).24

The  Dialogues are important for Brazilian social studies and literature because they set forth issues related to colonial Brazil, within a casual conversation between two Portuguese, each one taking a different side in the discussion. Brandão’s explicitly stating the problem of the Portuguese and the Spanish exploring the lands of Brazil and going back to Iberia after enriching themselves, indifferent to the country’s economic problems, might also be a reason (if they needed one) for the Inquisition to hold him. At the time of Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão's living in Brazil, Portugal was under Spain (1580-1640). Fortunately, the Dialogues were discovered; but unfortunately, their author did not know how interesting and useful they would become for the Brazilians over many generations down to the present. Though he was not incarcerated – or at least not for long – the Inquisition nevertheless imposed on him fear and silence.

Because of one of the author’s occupations as tax collector among the sugar mill owners, he visited the Camaragibe sugar mill that belonged to a married couple, Portuguese nationals and new-Christians: Diogo Fernandes and Branca Dias, already mentioned above. Both were victims of the Inquisition, but mostly the woman was the target of constant harassment on the part of the agents of the Holy Office in Brazil.  She was born in 1518, in the city known today as Viana do Castelo, Portugal.  Her mother and sister were incarcerated under the accusation of being Judaizers. Probably under stress, they accused Branca of also being a Judaizer, while she was still living in Portugal. According to Gonsalves de Mello’s findings among the Inquisition documentation, Branca Dias said in her defense that her mother hated her because she married a man whom the mother despised, and that her sister suffered from a mental illness, so she was not responsible for her words.  She stated that she, Branca, was a good Christian, that it was not true that she observed the Saturday, since she would place herself on the outside of her house to sew, and the sewn pieces would be eventually sold; that her changes of clothes for cleaner dresses were done on Saturday night in order to honor the holy day that was Sunday; and that she raised pork around her house, having eaten of its meat along with her maids, who were Old Christians. However, this did not spare Branca from severe public abuses, until she decided to ‘confess’ her practices as a Judaizer. She was sentenced to two years of incarceration (later reduced to one year and three months) in the dungeons of the Palace Estaús, in Lisbon, forced to abjure her Judaizing habits and to wear a sanbenito garment, among other punishments.25 Having her sentence reduced for the sake of her children, one of them born without arms, she was also excused from wearing the sanbenito vest, but was forbidden to leave Lisbon. However, she was able to flee to Brazil, where her husband was, taking with her their seven children.26 Diogo Fernandes used to be a merchant of textiles while in Portugal, having become a ‘senhor de engenho’ (sugar mill owner) soon after arriving in Pernambuco, sometime before or in 1542, where he was given a tract of land by the Portuguese Crown.27 He was supposed to start a sugar mill in a large area that became known as “Engenho Camaragibe (Camaragibe Sugar Mill).”28 She joined him in 1545, but it is unknown how she did it.  Nevertheless, upon her arrival in the plantation, she learned that her husband had fathered a girl with a Portuguese servant, an Old Christian, who lived in the house. Branca raised the girl among her own.

‘Esnogas’ or houses of prayer were hidden in many sugar mills owned or rented by New  Christians, and the one in Camaragibe, tended by Branca’s family, was the best known in the northeastern region of Brazil. Not only were she and her husband the focus of many persecutions by the Inquisition agents, but so were the attendees at the Jewish services . For many years the plantation was also threatened and alternatively attacked by the indigenous people who lived in the surroundings, until the day when they burned the plantation down to the ground and part of the house.  Branca and Diogo’s family had to move to the nearby city of Olinda, where she opened a small school for girls to help the family’s subsistence, and where she taught girls how to sew and to make lacework.  It seems that the little school was active from 1550 to 156029 and, ironically, the accusers of Branca Dias in Pernambuco were some of her former pupils. Among the statements to the agents of the Inquisition in Brazil, they said that their tutor did not teach on Saturdays, and used to wear some fancy dress that day. Still according to the denouncers, on Saturdays Branca and her family used to eat food that was different from what was consumed during the week, food which was baked in an oven from Friday afternoon until the following day.30

After her husband’s death, which took place between 1563 and 1567, 31 Branca kept the reconstructed sugar mill. The story of Branca Dias did not stop with her death, which occurred in Brazil, between 1579 and 1591.32 According to inquisitorial records examined by Gonsalves de Mello, a handicapped daughter of hers was incarcerated in Pernambuco and sent to Portugal, in spite of her visible mental retardation. She was tortured until she accused her sisters of Judaizing, even though the inquisitors probably knew that some of the accused women were already dead as well. Not having satisfied the torturers with these accusations, she was further tormented in the dungeons of the Palace of Estaús. She then accused some of her relatives, living in Brazil and in Portugal, of the same ‘delict’. Sentenced to prison, she met with Bento Teixeira when both were forced to figure in an auto-da-fé where publicly they had to abjure their secretive Jewish activities. Moreover, after all the torments she suffered, the inquisitors decided to verify if she was really mentally limited. For that, they sent a member of their society to Olinda, Pernambuco, where the woman had lived. There, after gathering some five or six witnesses who knew her and who confirmed her mental state as being infirm, the conclusion was that Brites Fernandes, daughter of Branca Dias and Diogo Fernandes, was indeed mentally retarded. Nevertheless, she continued to suffer the sessions of questions in the Palace of Estaús, the headquarters of the Inquisition, located in Lisbon. Finally liberated, she was prohibited from leaving the city, and her life ended most probably in misery and abandon.33 The couple – her mother and father--left twenty-two grandchildren. Diogo’s daughter, born outside his marriage to Branca, married an Old Christian, and had two children. Therefore, he was the grandfather of twenty-four people.34 Branca’s other living children and many of her grandchildren, even after her death, were incarcerated by the Inquisition.35

Almost two hundred years after these troubling circumstances were forced on Branca Dias, her family, generation and descendants, in 1705 was born Antonio José da Silva, in Rio de Janeiro. He became the next prominent victim of the Inquisition, which burned him at the stake, in Lisbon, in 1739.  By the time of his demise, the Inquisition had worked its way in humiliating, mutilating and killing a great number of people, mostly crypto-Jews. According to R. Po-Chia Hsia: “Between 1540 and 1732, the Inquisition passed sentence on 23,000 persons, of whom 1,454 were relaxed to the secular arm and burned (some in effigies). The vast majority of cases investigated (c. 40,000) by the Holy Office dealt with accusations of ‘Judaizing’.”36

A descendant of a family of New Christians, Antonio José da Silva’s mother, was accused of being a secret Jew, and because of that the family was transported to Portugal, where she faced trial. At the time, he was seven years old. Earlier, while in Rio de Janeiro, the Da Silva family had experienced a more privileged period of colonial Brazil. They lived in an urban environment where his father, João Mendes da Silva, also born in that city, was a respected lawyer. Lourença Coutinho, his mother, became the target of the Inquisition several times. After arriving in Lisbon, in spite of all the unfortunate contingencies, Antonio José da Silva went to good schools as a young boy, and later on attended the universities of Lisbon and Coimbra.37 His life was filled with successful parentheses as a playwright amid a terrifying string of incarceration, torture, and finally death, by the Inquisition. 

Following the track initiated by his father, Da Silva graduated as lawyer, but his fame was due to the satiric plays and poems that he began composing while still at the university. His public comprised mostly humble people who would laugh out loud at the irreverent exchanges among the characters, puppets dressed as devils, priests, prostitutes, noblemen, among other elements familiar to the masses. His plays delivered harsh criticism of the society of his time, not sparing anybody with whom the public would be acquainted. His successes as playwright and operetta author called the attention of envious colleagues in the theater world, who made it easy for the Inquisition to spy on him. The accusations of his being a secret Jew were continuous and abundant. Informers were planted in the prison where he was sent several times under the accusation of being a Judaizer. Newly married, his wife was also accused of the same, was incarcerated and tortured. All their possessions were confiscated. She died a few months after his death, both leaving behind an infant daughter.

Ironically, while he was in prison, Da Silva’s plays were being staged in theaters, taverns and elsewhere; puppeteers were able to hold and move the 'bonecos' [dolls], and imitate the voices of a judge, a drunkard, a member of the nobility or of the clergy, and of other members of society.38 The following excerpt summarizes the impact he had on Portuguese and Brazilian letters:  “Da Silva, who has been frequently styled ‘the Portuguese Plautus', was a very prolific and versatile poet; and his comedies were popularly called ‘operas do Judeu’. They were performed at the Bairro Alto between 1733 and 1738, and met with marked success. . . . Until the end of the eighteenth century all of his compositions were published anonymously for fear of the Inquisition; and it was long before he was credited with the authorship of his many poems, dramas, and comedies. Many of his dramas give his name acrostically, after the fashion of the Jewish liturgical poets; but Varnhagen (Florilegio da Poesia Brazileira, pp. 201-236, Lisbon, 1850) has pointed out that numerous spurious compositions also are attributed to him.”39

His attributes as a man of theater are further examined: “Da Silva´s audiences at the Teatro do Bairro Alto are mostly the common people, but judging from his texts, intertwined with phrases in Latin and pseudo-Latin, or Latin macarrónico, plus frequent quotations from codes of law, he was also catering to a certain intellectual, almost free thinking, elite.”40 Several fictional and biographical works, besides movies and plays, have emerged about his life, in Brazil, Portugal and other countries as well.                                                                

All three literary personalities discussed in this essay – Bento Teixeira, Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, and Antonio José da Silva--besides Branca Dias, contemporary of the first two and a martyr of the Inquisition like the first and the last of them, became topics of several plays, poems, novels, essays, and movies, by Brazilian and Portuguese authors, playwrights, poets, scholars since the 19th century and, most recently, by movie and stage directors.  The lives of the three writers and of Branca, the Camaragibe sugar mill lady, became symbols of the endurance of Judaism under the most excruciating of circumstances.

The inquisitorial period in Brazil included persecutions of all kinds of Portuguese subjects and Brazilian natives, from sinful priests to deviant women, from adulteresses to thieves.41 But the lion’s share of persecution fell to the crypto-Jews. They were immolated on the altar of ignorance, intolerance and blind greed. The Holy Office, that had started its cynical and lethal operations in Brazil in 1591, halted them only in 1821, when it was abolished in all Portuguese territories. One year later, in 1822, Brazil proclaimed its independence from Portugal.


1 Regina Igel is Brazilian, from São Paulo. She arrived in the United States as a graduate student, where she earned the titles of Master of Arts in Hispanic Literatures, and a Ph.D. in Literatures in the Portuguese Language. Since 1973 she has taught at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she is also the Coordinator and Advisor of the Portuguese Program. Her career is divided into two trends: Brazilian Contemporary Literature and Jewish-Brazilian Fiction.  Professor Igel is the author of two books, Osman Lins: a Literary Biography, and Jewish Immigrants, Brazilian Authors (The Jewish Component in Brazilian Literature) – both in Portuguese. Besides her many articles, essays and chapters in books, she is  a Contributing Editor for the section ‘Brazilian Novels,’  in the Handbook of Latin American Studies, a publication of the Library of Congress.

2 Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed., p.1-1.

3An  interesting description of the varied process used along the centuries and in several countries (including pre-state Israel) of extracting sugar from the canes is described in “The Origin of the Sugarcane Roller Mill,”  by John Daniels and Christian Daniels, in Technology and Culture. (29: 3) 1988,  498-500.

4 Wim Klooster, "Communities of Port Jews and Their Contacts in the Dutch Atlantic World," in Jewish History  20:2, Port Jews of the Atlantic (2006), 129-145, p. 133. Published by: Springer. Stable URL:  

5 Arnold Wiznitzer, “The Jews in the Sugar Industry of Colonial Brazil,” in Jewish Social Studies,  18:3 (July, 1956), 189-198. Article Stable URL:

6 Edward Kritzler, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews carved out an Empire in the New World in their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom – and Revenge. New York: Anchor Publisher, 2009, p. 37.

7 Manuel Moreno Fraginals, O Engenho, Vol. I. Translated from the Spanish to Portuguese by Sonia Rangel and Rosemary Abilio. São Paulo: Editora Hucitec, 1988, p. 46.

8 Some of the members of these newly founded communities and synagogues are in contact and get orientation and other help from Kulanu: “… an organization which reflects the community of interests of individuals of varied backgrounds and religious practices dedicated to finding and assisting lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people”. [Information gathered on the site:]

9 A estrela oculta do Sertão, documentário sobre a vida de comunidades de origem judaica no sertão nordestino [The hidden star of the backlands, documentary about the life of communities of Jewish origin in the northeastern backland]. Directed by Elaine Eiger and Louise Valente, 2005.  [All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted.]

10 Luís da Câmara Cascudo, Mouros, Franceses e Judeus – Três presenças no Brasil.  São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1984, p. 96.

11 Data collected from João Henrique dos Santos, “’Gente da nação’- os judaizantes e a preservação do judaísmo no Brasil,” in Identidade e Cidadania, como se expressa o judaísmo brasileiro, ed.  Helena Lewin. Rio de Janeiro: Programa de Estudos Judaicos, 2005, p. 60.

12 Miriam Bodian, “Iberian Origins and Vicissitudes of ‘the Nation,’ in Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam (The Modern Jewish Experience).  Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999, p. 6.

13 Elias Lipiner, Os judaizantes na Capitanias de Cima (Estudos sobre os Cristãos-novos do Brasil nos séculos XVI e XVII). São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1969, p. 71.

14  Gilberto Freyre,  “Chapter III:  The Portuguese Colonizer: Antecedents and Predispositions,” in The Masters and the Slaves. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971, p.233.

15  Lúcia Helena Costigan, “A experiência do converso letrado Bento Teixeira: Um 'Missing Link' na história intelectual e literária do Brasil-Colônia,” in Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana. Año 20, No. 40 (1994), pp. 77-92 . Published by: Centro de Estudios Literarios "Antonio Cornejo Polar"- CELACP. Article Stable URL: The article is incorporated in her book Through Cracks in the Wall: Modern Inquisitions and New Christian Letrados in the Iberian Atlantic World, as Chapter 2:  “Bento Teixeira: A New Christian Caught by the First Visit of the Inquisition to Brazil - I. From Poet and School Teacher to Prisoner of the Holy Office; II. In the Cells of the Lisbon Inquisition;III. Bento Teixeira’s Prosopopéia: Text and Context."

16 José Antonio Gonsalves de Mello, Chapter IV: “Um intelectual cristão-novo: Bento Teixeira,” in Gente da Nação: Cristãos-novos e judeus em Pernambuco 1542-1654. Apresentação de José E. Mindlin. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Editora Massangana, Projeto Cultural Banco Safra, 2nd. ed.., 1996, p. 82.

17 José Antonio Gonsalves de Mello,  op.cit., pp. 81-116.

18 J.A. Ribemboim, op. cit., p. 83.

19 Egon and Frieda Wolff, in Judeus, Judaizantes e seus Escravos. Rio de Janeiro: Cemitério Comunal Israelita, 1987, p. 28.

20 Its original title is: Diálogos das Grandezas do Brasil.

21 Pequeno Dicionário de Literatura Brasilera, Biográfico, Crítico e Bibliográfico, org. by Massaud Moisés and José Paulo Paes. São Paulo: Cultrix, 1980, pp. 86-87.

22 J.A. Gonsalves de Mello, Gente da Nação, op. cit., pp.26-27.

23 Massaud Moisés,  História da Literatura Brasileira: Das origens ao Romantismo. Vol I. São Paulo: Editora Pensamento-Cultrix, 6th. ed., pp. 128-.

24 Data gathered in Rodolfo Garcia, ‘Os Judeus no Brasil Colonial,”, in Os Judeus na História do Brasil, ed. by Uri Zwerling. Rio de Janeiro, 1936, pp. 19-21.

25 Idem, op. cit., pp.120 et al.

26 Gonsalves Mello, “Um casal de cristãos-novos judaizantes: Diogo Fernandes e Branca Dias”, op. cit., pp. 117-166. This chapter (V) presents a folding page showing Branca Dias’ genealogical line for four generations.

27 Idem, ibidem, p. 122.

28 José Alexandre Ribemboim, “Branca Dias do Engenho Camaragibe,” in Senhores de Engenho – Judeus em Pernambuco Colonial, 1542-1654. Recife: Comunicação e Editora, 3rd. ed., revised and expanded,  1995,  pp. 80-81.

29 Ibid, p. 81.

30 Ibid, p. 29.

31 Gonsalves Mello, op. cit., p. 131.

32 Ibid, p. 132.

33 Gonsalves Mello, “Brites Fernandes,” op. cit., pp. 136-145.

34 Gonsalves Mello, op. cit., p. 134.

35 There is another ‘Branca Dias,’ equally New Christian and also persecuted by the Inquisition. This woman was born in 1734, and was a resident of Paraíba,  in the northeastern region of Brazil. She lived a ‘normal’ life with her parents, owners of a sugar mill. When engaged to marry her fiancé, a local priest fell in love with her, and being repelled, his vengeance was to denounce her to the Inquisition. She died at the stake, in Lisbon, in 1760. Her fiancé died one year after that, in Brazil, amidst tortures while in prison. (Ribemboim, pp. 85-87).

36 R. Po-Chia Hsia, “The Triumphant Church,” in The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540-1770. England: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 45.

37 Egon and Fried Wolff, Dicionário Biográfico I – Judaizantes e Judeus no Brasil 1500-1808. Rio de Janeiro: 1986.

38 Isidore Singer and George Alexander Kohut, Antonio José da Silva: “Among Da Silva's most noted works are the following: Vida de D. Quijote de la Mancha; Esopaida, ou Vida de Esopo; Os Encantos de Medea; Amphitryão, ou Jupiter e Alcmena; Labyrintho de Creta; As Guerras do Alecrim e Mangerona; Variedades de Protheo; Precipicio de Faetonte; and O Diabinho á Mão Furada.

39 Isidore Singer and George Alexander Kohut, “Antonio José da Silva.”cit. http://www.Jewish

40 Jakobo Kaufmann, “The Plays of Antonio José da Silva (O Judeu).”

41 In the book Trópico dos Pecados – Moral, Sexualidade e Inquisição no Brasil [Tropic of Sins – Morals, Sexuality and Inquisition in Brazil],  Ronaldo Vainfas writes that sodomy, homosexuality, bigamy, concubinage, fornication  and other similar behaviors in the sexual realm were considered high crimes and sins by the Inquisition, that punished their performers with harsh sentences, including death. (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1997).

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