The Fair General

The Just General Francisco Barreto de Menezes and the establishment of the Jewish community of New York

On January, 26 1654, with the victory achieved in the so-called 2nd Battle of Guararapes, the Portuguese troops commanded by General Francisco Barreto de Menezes–who would thereafter be known as “the Restorer of Pernambuco”–reconquered Recife with an attack of epic proportions, ending Dutch rule in that region of Brazil.

The terms of surrender, signed in Taborda, near Recife, the winners are generous to the losers, giving the Dutch a three-month deadline (which would be extended by three more) to withdraw from the newly conquered territory during the period which, on the same terms, “will not be harassed or vexed and will be treated with respect and courtesy.” Surprisingly, General Barreto de Menezes showed a very unusual tolerance in allowing (even helping) the departure of Portuguese Jews, despite these have come under the purview of the Inquisition, which at the outset would have precluded any possibility of mercy. The law required the immediate deportation of the Jews to Portugal.

On February 20, 1654 royal treasury officials took stock of all houses in Recife and Mauritius, noting the following names as “Jewish home and shop owners”: Jacob Valverde, Moses Netto, Moses Zacutto, Jacob Fundão, Moses Navarro David Atias, Benjamin of Pina, Abraham of Azevedo, John of Lafaia; Gil Correa, Gabriel Castanha, Gaspar Francisco da Costa, Fernão Martins, Duarte Saraiva and David Brandão. Others are mentioned in the inventory as a “Jewish house,” but the names of their owners are not on the document.

Due to the scarcity of Dutch vessels that would allow a total evacuation, General Barreto de Menezes offered Portuguese ships to transport the Jews and thus help them escape the Inquisition. This gesture would not be forgotten, and the annals of Portuguese Jewish history still record today the name of “old Christian” Francisco Barreto de Menezes as a man of noble character – a hassid umot ha’olam (a righteous and righteous man of the world).

In all, 16 Portuguese ships were made available to their Jewish compatriots by General Francisco Barreto de Menezes and the overwhelming majority of the 150 or so Jewish families in Dutch Brazil set sail for the Netherlands. Some have opted to stay in the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean where even today the predominance of Portuguese family names (and liturgical language) between the Sephardic Jews of Suriname and Curaçao proves this ancestral connection over the remaining descendants of Portuguese Jews in the Brazilian backwoods).

On September 7, 1654, with 23 Portuguese Jews on board, the Sainte Catherine arrives at Nieuw Amsterdam on the Dutch island of Manhattan, the city that would later become known as New York. It was the first group of Jews to reach North America.

Of these twenty-three people – men, women and children – very little is known today. There are six families, headed by four men and two widows. Only their names are mentioned in the official records. Yet it is easy to guess their provenance: Abraham Israel Days, Moses Bright, David Israel Faro, Asher Levy, Enrica Nunes and Judith Market.In 1664, Nieuw Amsterdam moves to the British Crown and changes its name. From then on it will be New York. By 1695, despite some restrictions, the Jews had their first makeshift synagogue, and on April 8, 1730 was dedicated the first community root synagogue that, upon arrival in 1654, had named Shearith Israel. (Remnant of Israel). By the end of the nineteenth century the prayers were in Hebrew and the documents were written in Portuguese, allowing two “sacred” languages to surface, dictated by blood, faith, and the appeal of memory.