Becoming "Jewish": The Development of an Anti-Portuguese Stereotype in Colonial Spanish America

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM
Salon 1 (Palmer House Hilton)
Brian Hamm, University of Central Florida
It has become a commonplace of early modern history that the Portuguese were frequently derided by Spaniards and other Europeans as being “Jews.” This stereotype is so well attested that few scholars have ever delved deeply into the historical development of this pejorative association. For instance, some historians have asserted that the stereotype was born in 1497, when the Jews of Portugal were forcibly baptized. Others have argued for a beginning date of the 1530s, when the Portuguese Inquisition came into being. Still other dates have been suggested, including 1580, when Portugal came under Habsburg rule. This basic chronological confusion is indicative of the reality that much scholarly interrogation remains to be done on the ideological linkage of “Portuguese” and “Jew.”

This paper argues that in colonial Spanish America, connotations of Jewishness became strongly associated with Portuguese nationality only in the last decade of the sixteenth century. This was due to multiple factors, including the emergence of openly Jewish communities of Portuguese émigrés in western Europe and the rapid political rise of Portuguese New Christian merchant-bankers at the royal court in Madrid. Additionally, as the Inquisition was the prime institution that demarcated what was (or was not) “Jewish,” this paper uses inquisitorial correspondence and trial records to demonstrate how suspicions against the Portuguese were increasingly inflected over time by the anti-Jewish prejudices of the day. Nonetheless, these changes were far from absolute. Portuguese nationality still retained a wide array of both positive and negative associations for Castilians, and most Portuguese did not face sustained difficulty in integrating into Spanish colonial society. Thus, this paper concludes by underscoring the limited impact that the stereotyped linkage of “Portuguese” and “Jew” had on Spanish-Portuguese relations at the local level in Spanish America during the first half of the seventeenth century.

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