Cultural Assimilation of Portuguese Jews in 18th Century London and Portugal

by Aron Sterk, PhD student

For the last two years I have been doing archive research into the career of the 18th century Jewish naturalist and Fellow of the Royal Society Emanuel Mendes da Costa. The research is being undertaken in association with the Royal Society under the supervision of Professor Anna Marie Roos. I recently wrote a blog for the Royal Society on the work to date that can be read here.  Little research has been done on Mendes da Costa despite the twelve volumes of letters he left behind him, and I have, therefore, had to root into his family background to understand how this seeming outsider was able to enter into the privileged, élite circles of European Enlightenment science. This summer I was able to attend a major conference on Portuguese Jews and the Portuguese Jewish Diaspora in Portugal itself. The conference was split between sessions at the University of Lisbon followed by further sessions at the University of Porto, and was organised by Bar Ilan University in Israel. I was able to present my findings there to an international gathering of scholars, and take the opportunity to visit Trancoso the original hometown of the Mendes da Costa family.

Eagle House, Mitcham, Surrey. Built 1705 for the Mendes family.

Mendes da Costa came from a Portuguese Jewish family that had sought refuge in London from the Inquisition that had been instituted in Portugal, on the model of its Spanish counterpart in 1536, forty years after the country’s Jewish population had been forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism in 1497. Very much expecting the Portuguese Inquisition after a family member was taken in for questioning, Emanuel’s great-grandparents had fled to England in the late 17th century, some directly to London, others going via France and Holland. In an England renowned for its religious tolerance they were able to freely take up the practice of the religion they had been denied in Portugal. As they were uniquely able to exploit family, linguistic and commercial ties throughout the Portuguese and Spanish dominions and among Jewish communities in the Mediterranean and the British and Dutch colonies in the New World and the Far East, the family profited from a two-way trade of bullion and red coral (only available in the Mediterranean and prized more than gold in China) to the East in return for Eastern diamonds and gems for the European market, and a similar trade in gold and diamonds from the newly discovered mines in Brazil, investing the resultant wealth on the financial exchanges in London. As a result the annual income of leading members of the Mendes da Costa family equalled that of many British aristocrats and the family soon adopted the manners and style of English gentility. They acquired town houses near the synagogue on Bevis Marks in London, but also country estates in Tooting, Mitcham, Highgate and Totteridge – all then still well away from the hurly-burly (and stench) of the city of London. Like Catherine da Costa, the miniaturist, they took up art, or like James Mendes they collected it playing the gentlemanly role of  virtuoso – connoisseur and collector of fine art. James Mendes’s collection included the famous (and suitably Jewish-themed) full-length portraits of ‘Jacob and his twelve sons‘ by Zurbarán, but also a Murillo painting of the ‘Holy Family.’ They subscribed to the works of Handel, indeed James’ son Moses Mendez, a well-thought-of poet at the time, even penned the libretti of Handel’s oratorios ‘Susannah’ and ‘Solomon.’ And they joined the learned societies like the Royal Society, and the Society of Antiquaries, no less than four members of the extended family becoming FRS and two FSA, almost half of the nine Jewish members of the Royal Society in the 18th century.

That Jews like the da Costas could move easily into the gentile social world of  the English élite is a testament to the openness and tolerance of that élite, but this admission was not so readily available to other Jews, particularly the German Jews who had recently arrived in England. Something the da Costas had acquired through their enforced assimilation in Portugal also helped.

Early modern Iberia was a particularly hierarchical society with a (rather extensive) nobility sharply divided by strict social conventions from the lower classes. Notions of noble correctness (fidalgia) and purity of descent (limpeza de sangue) unsullied by the ‘stain’ of Jewish or Moorish blood, governed the ruling class’s self-image and behaviour. Before the forced conversion, some of the richer Jewish families had participated in this aristocratic and courtly life and whilst their descendants, as New Christians of impure blood, were barred from the upper reaches of the nobility, army and church, wealthy New Christians still moved in the same intellectual and local noble circles. New Christians, unlike their ancestors, were allowed to attend the universities and participate in the full range of Portuguese arts and sciences. This shared Iberian culture, despite their status, became very dear to them in exile in London. Another Portuguese Jew, a contemporary of Emanuel and a fellow FRS, Jacob de Castro Sarmento, even sent a gift of a new-fangled microscope and a plan for botanic gardens to his former university of Coimbra, which he could never, as a Jew, re-visit. Nor were the New Christians passive victims of the Inquisition, they could use their wealth and contacts to influence political affairs in Portugal, even at one point lobbying for and achieving a cessation of the Inquisition’s activities.  It was valuable to hear at the conference other new research on these New Christians and to discuss my own findings in relation to them.

Palacio Ducal, Trancoso

It was also fascinating to visit the Mendes da Costa’s hometown of Trancoso. Trancoso is a small town in the Upper Beira region not far from the Spanish border. It is little changed from the late middle ages with most of its city walls and forbidding castle still standing. And the street layout remains much as it would have been in the 17th-18th century. Trancoso was the location of a major regional market and the Mendes da Costa’s made a considerable fortune on this trade and through rent farming on church lands, a substantial portion of which they must have been able to spirit out of the country through family and communal contacts abroad before they fled. It is not possible to say which house belonged to the family but there are a number of grand buildings here marked with family coats of arms, the houses (solares) of local nobility, the grandest being the solar of the Lopes Tavares da Costa, Viscounts of Trancoso, known today as the Palacio Ducal, whose arms include the da Costa arms (six silver ribs (costas) on a red shield) that the Jewish family adopted and had registered with the Royal College of Heralds in London for their own use.

The da Costa Coat of Arms. From a heraldic china dinner service. This piece belongs to a family descendant of the chemist Sir Martyn Poliakoff FRS

The Portuguese Jews internalised these aristocratic notions and the gentile culture they were accustomed to and reproduced it in an English context in London. Ironically this assimilation to gentile norms even included a quasi-racial disdain for German Jews who were excluded from membership of the Portuguese synagogue. A Portuguese Jewish correspondent of Emanuel’s in The Hague, Isaac de Pinto, wrote a refutation of Voltaire’s perceived anti-Jewish views in 1762. But his ‘defence’ of the Portuguese Jews is rather odd. Conceding that Voltaire was right about the German Jews, he nevertheless protested that, “The vices which may be laid to their [the Portuguese Jews’] charge are not only of a different, but even of an opposite nature to those which M. Voltaire imputes to them: luxury, prodigality, love of women, vanity, … These have been the cause of their decline. A supercilious gravity and a noble haughtiness are the distinguishing characters of this nation.” That is, Pinto was saying, we are just like you in our aristocratic pretentions and affectations. It was this familiarity with the social norms and cultural attitudes of upper-class gentile society, absorbed as New Christians in Portugal, that allowed the Jewish Mendes da Costas to integrate themselves so successfully into 18th century London society despite their religion.

As to their indulging the scandalous 18th century aristocratic womanizing – ‘love of women’ – that may be the subject for another blog …