Academic journal article History In Africa

Two Early Seventeenth-Century Sephardic Communities on Senegal's Petite Cote

Academic journal article History In Africa

Two Early Seventeenth-Century Sephardic Communities on Senegal's Petite Cote

Article excerpt

I

Portuguese archives contain a wealth of documents that are insufficiently utilized by, and often unknown to, historians of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century west Africa. Lusophone sources are crucial for the period of earliest contact between Europeans and West Africans. While the publications of Avelino Teixeira da Mota are widely known, the work of contemporary Portuguese scholars such as Maria Emilia Madeira Santos, Maria Manuel Torrão, and Maria João Soares does not have the same visibility except among lusophone scholars.1 Relatively few Africanists have recognized the potential significance of the Portuguese archives for Senegambia, a region generally considered within the orbit of francophone or anglophone west Africa.2 The Portuguese archives remain a rich source of hitherto unknown documents, some of which will lead to fundamental transformations in our historical knowledge of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Upper Guinea coast.

The two of us have worked extensively on the history of the LusoAfricans in Senegambia and the Guinea of Cape Verde.3 Mark has investigated the construction and evolution of their identity. Horta, in particular, has for many years focused on their representation in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Portuguese sources. Both writers have argued elsewhere-following Boulègue and Moraes-that among these Luso-Africans-or "Portuguese" as they were known in contemporary sources-there were New Christians, some of whom were probably practicing Jews. Evidence of the Jewish presence in west Africa remained scanty, however, and we argued'that if some "Christian" Portuguese were in fact practicing Jews, they were Jews primarily in the privacy of their own communities.4

A corpus of manuscript sources from Lisbon archives, either discovered or reassessed by Horta, now occasion a fundamental rethinking of the history of Portuguese New Christians and Jews in Senegambia. The main documents in this group are pieces of a codex of the National Archives, Torre do Tombo; two in the Biblioteca da Ajuda in Lisbon (one of the latter also in the Real Academia de la Historia de Espana); and another one from the Arquivo Historico Ultramarino. Together, they demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt the presence of practicing Jews who publicly affirmed their Jewish identity, on the Petite Côte in the period from 1606 to 1612. These sources radically transform our knowledge of the early Jewish presence in west Africa. At the moment that an important Portuguese Jewish community was being established in Amsterdam, two communities of Portuguese Jews, closely affiliated with their counterparts in Holland, were growing in Senegal.

II

En este puerto dali5 ay una aldea de cien vecinos6 portuguesses y negros. A este puerto vinieron de Flandes gente que professa la ley de Moyssen y acen all[i]7 y guardan sus ritos y cerimonias como los de Judea y los portuguesses quiriendo matarlos y echarlos de alli corieron mucho riesgo porque acudio el Rey y les dijo que su tiera era feria donde podia auitar todo genero de jente y que nadie se descompassiese en ella queles mandaria cortar las cabeças; que la guera si la querian la hiciessen en la mar y no en su tiera que ya dicho que era feria8

In this puerto dali [i.e. port of Ali, present-day Sali Portudal] there is a community with 100 families of Portuguese and Blacks. To this port came people from Flanders who profess the law of Moses and here they do and maintain their rituals and ceremonies like the ones of Judea-[ i.e. the land of the Jews in Palestine]-And the Portuguese seeking to kill them and expel them from that place ran a serious risk. Because the King took the side of the former and he told the latter that his land was a market [feria] where all kinds of people had a right to live. And that no one would cause disorder in his land; otherwise he would order that their [those who seek to persecute the Jews] heads be cut off. If they wanted to make war they should make it in the sea, not in his land which he had already said was a market. …

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