For a long time the Canary Islands were inhabited by its native population known as the Guanches. They are said to originate from other North African peoples such as the Amazigh and the Tuareg. But it was not until the early 15th century that the Spanish began its conquest of the islands. During the interim periods of colonization the archipelago saw waves of refugees that fled to the islands when religious persecution increased in Spain and Portugal. The largest and most notable group are commonly known to history as the Crypto-Jews.
Essentially, they were a demographic of the Spanish population who were formerly practicing Jews but were forcibly converted to Catholicism and continued their Judaic practices in hiding at the risk of death. These Crypto-Jews saw a safe haven in the Canary Islands which at the time was a place that was still not yet consolidated under the authority of the Spanish Crown and the Inquisition. But it was not too long before their presence was noted and their solace was abruptly interrupted from then they were forced to continue their former Catholic pseudo-identities.
The Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands occurred throughout different periods of the 15th century and ended with the final stage of the conquest in 1496 with the defeat of the Guanche king Bencomo in Santa Cruz De Tenerife.
Although most of the other islands of the archipelago were conquered by the late 15th century, the Inquisition really began it’s activities in the early 16th century when they began to get word of certain heretical elements in the archipelago that were deviating from the way of the Church. Some of the first victims of the Inquisition in the Canary Islands were infact Crypto-Jews. They were known to the Church as “Judaizantes”, meaning ‘those who profess the Jewish faith’. An excellent source of Inquisitorial cases of the Canary Islands comes from a reputed book written by Lucien Wolf named “Jews in the Canary Islands”. This work was compiled from a record of calendar cases that the Marquess of Bute conserved. In this work a vast amount of cases were brought to the attention of the Inquisition between the 16th century and as late as the 18th century. Many of the earlier cases consisted of denunciations of Judaizers and the record later featured many cases of witchcraft. In this article, we will discuss some of the most significant cases of Judaizers in the Canary Islands.
One of the most notable cases of overt practices of Judaism in the archipelago was that of Alvaro Goncales and his wife Mencia Vaez. Alvaro Goncales was born in Castelo Branco, Portugal and immigrated to Santa Cruz De La Palma where he spent the rest of life. Alvaro fled Portugal because of religious persecution and spent some time in Gibraltar and the Azores from whence he also fled due to allegations of him committing heretical acts against the Church. Eventually, he installed his family in the archipelago and became a notorious figure in the island of La Palma. There he was a shoemaker, along with his son Silvestre Goncalez. Alvaro Goncalez was not an ordinary resident of the island. He had many enemies and was involved in various lawsuits with neighboring residents. He was hated by many and was denounced to the Inquisition by over 20 different people including his own son-in-law, his personal household slaves and even his own son. Alvaro Goncalez was a brazen practitioner of the law of Moses. He was openly known in Santa Cruz to have been a convert to Christianity from Judaism and his home was thought to be a synagogue by many of his Christian neighbors. On various occasions visitors have been observed leaving and entering his home during peculiar hours and often in very suspicious manners. It is said that Alvaro fled from Madeira in the Azores because he made a ‘contemptuous’ gesture towards the priest that was performing the Elevation of the Host procession. It is reported that Alvaro was jailed in Madeira and along with other suspected Judaizers was successful in breaking out of jail and fleeing the island. In La Palma, Alvaro Goncalez was considered to be a Rabbi for the enclave of secret Jews who lived there.
It is said that he compelled his slaves not to convert to Christianity so that he may continue to eat meat on Fridays. Friday night is the commencement of the Jewish Sabbath upon which it’s observation and fulfillment requires the consumption of meat on the eve of Sabbath. This was a strict prohibition by the Catholic Church since it was considered a Jewish custom and anyone who was seen performing it provided sufficient grounds for the suspicion of observing the Jewish religion. This constituted a huge sin in the eyes of the Inquisition. Along with this allegation, Alvaro Goncalez was known to be contemptuous towards Christians, to which he frequently referred to as dogs. He told one witness, Jorge Perez, a Portuguese man who lived in his house that he was involved in many lawsuits because the whole aim of his life and schemes was to ruin Christians. It seemed very probable that Alvaro Goncalez indeed had a deep seated hatred for Christians understandably so. In a conversation with Juan Fernandez outside the doors of a mass procession he confessed that he had come from Portugal and said that it is a land of dogs who held the crucified as their god while pointing to the crucifix that can be seen above the altar through the open doors of the church. It is reported various times that Alvaro Goncalez, thrashed crucifixes on the ground, spat on them and openly told many people that it is only a piece of wood as to ascertain that it had no spiritual value.
Alvaro Goncalez owned various slaves, most of which were of African or Moors. He pressured his slaves not to mention any thing they saw or heard in his home to anyone. But to his misfortune, his slaves, Ynes, Fernando, John, Peter, Paquala all testified to the Inquisition that he ate meat on Fridays, called his wife and children by Hebrew names, spent time in a hut in the courtyard of his home with strangers, consulted with a negro magician to know if whether the Inquisition will be established in the archipelago, had intercourse with his Moorish slave girls and compelled them to adopt his family’s customs.
Once, Alvaro Goncalez went missing and was found late at night laying under a tree battered and bruised. His son-in-law, Pedro Hernandez, went looking for him with other neighbors and concluded that the Devil must had gotten a hold of him and had dragged him out of his home. It is very unlikely that this actually occurred rather it is more likely that he was beaten in a fight with one of his several enemies. It is reported that he was once suffered from knife wounds from a fight in the town’s marketplace and that his son-in-law Pedro nearly beat him to death once. Alvaro Goncalez despised his son-in-law Pedro Hernandez because he was an “Old Christian” that married his daughter Ana Goncalez. He obviously did not approve of their marriage since Pedro was not a Jew. Alvaro frequently called Pedro a dog and said that he treated his daughter badly. Moreover, he added that no one should marry their daughter off to an Old Christian. The Church used the terms “Old Christian” to mean someone who was not a recent convert to Christianity and the term “New Christian” to mean anyone of Jewish or Moorish background who converted to Christianity. Alvaro was seen on occasions removing the sinew of meat. This practice was a known Jewish custom by the Inquisition and it was not performed by a good and conscious Christian since it carried the same severity that eating meat on Friday did. It provided sufficient grounds for suspecting the accused to be observing the Jewish religion. It was taboo.
Alvaro Goncalez, exercised very little precaution in hiding his identity or his beliefs. It was only until the Inquisition officially became more active that he began to carry out his activities relatively more discreet. But his slight change of attitude couldn’t cover up or explain his overt convictions that ran contrary to the Catholic doctrine. In 1524, Alvaro was imprisoned for the incessant allegations that have been brought against him for the past decade or so. But while he was imprisoned his faith remained strong. According to his fellow inmates, Alvaro spoke continuously about Jewish rituals and said that he had no fear of facing his trial because he said his mother came to him in a dream and told him that he will be acquitted from his charges. On November 9th 1524, the Inquisition examined his case and found him to be guilty of Judaizing. While in court, Alvaro contested most of the accusations brought against him but he did confess to having taken the sinew out of meat and of having quarrels with other residents of the city. Albeit, his reasoning was no where near as incriminating as were the depositions that were brought against him. This was not enough to save him.
At Alvaro’s own request, he was brought back into court again on the 10th of January, 1525, he confessed to having been guilty of committing the sin of consulting with a negro magician as to whether if the Inquisition was going to be established in Canary Islands. He states that he has received absolution and have done penance for such sin.
Once condemned, he was ordered to be “relaxado” and his property and all of his possessions were to be confiscated. His male descendants to the second degree and female descendants to the first degree are declared incapable of holding any positions of public office or ecclesiastical positions. Moreover, they are not allowed to wear any clothing that has precious stones or any luxurious item.
At 70 years of age, Alvaro Goncalez was dressed in a sambenito with a coroza on his head and was released to the civil authority in a procession that occurred in the city’s marketplace elevated on a scaffold frame where the accused and the officiators were easily visible to the great multitude whom witness the event. Shortly after Alvaro Goncalez along with his son Silvestre Goncalez were burnt in an Auto De Fe for the crime of practicing the Jewish faith. The following year on the 17th of March of 1526, Alvaro’s wife, Mencia Vaez was found guilty of reverting back to the Jewish faith. After a declaration of her crimes during a procession similar to Alvaro’s in the city’s marketplace she was withdrawn from the crowd and released to the civil authorities to be burnt in a location near a Dominican monastery.
This was the end of Alvaro’s story. He was largely unapologetic and brazen about his view. He mocked the church and practiced Judaism with other notable residents of La Palma. His story is one of the most documented cases in the early settlement of the Inquisition in the Canary islands. However, his story is only one out of the many other depositions that were brought to the feet of the Inquisition in the Island.
Eros Samec Gonzalez is a second-generation immigrant to the United States. His family fled political persecution in Cuba and established themselves in Miami, Fl in the early 90’s. From a young age, Eros has exhibited extraordinary interests in studies of social sciences, political structures, theology, and complementary scientific studies. His keen interest in understanding human nature has led him to pursue a BA in Anthropology. And to participate in the American Anthropological Association and also in several archaeological excavations with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Eros is an avid researcher in Latin-American Studies, Jewish History, Near Eastern history, and Biblical criticism. He has also published academic articles in the Journal of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian Crypto-Jews. Eros is also a delegate member of FESELA (Latin American Sephardic Federation) and CFO of Friends of Bene Anousim.
You can find more by Eros here: https://erossgonzalez1.wixsite.com/mysite/post/crypto-jews-of-the-canary-islands