Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Stolen Lives

Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the independence of the islands of Sao Tome and Principe from Portugal. The islands, which are located off the western coast of Africa, were mostly uninhabited until the Portuguese arrived in the late 1400s. Their tropical climates made them ideal for growing commodity crops such as sugar but also made them unattractive to ordinary settlers (crocodiles and all that). In 1492, as Jews poured across Portugal’s border, driven by the expulsion order from Spain, Portugal’s King Manuel had a creative and horrific solution to his problem –  populate the islands of Sao Tome and Principe with Jews.

Not long after the refugees arrived, King Manuel placed a tax upon them. Many of these Jews had been forced to leave Spain without any assets and could not pay. In lieu of taxes, the king took their most precious possession:--their beloved children. Over 2,000 children between the ages of 2 and 12 were taken from their families, forcibly converted to Christianity and sent to serve as slaves on the remote islands. The sea journey was difficult and life on the island was harsh. A year after transport, only 600 of the Jewish children survived.

Little is known about the individual lives of the kidnapped children but it appears that, although they intermarried, their descendants remained a distinct group among the island’s population. As in many places where the conversos settled, Jewish rituals were subtly integrated into the dominant culture. While most of the descendants are no longer on the island, an international conference on the transported children was held on July 12, 1995, the country’s 20th anniversary.


This act is sometimes attributed to his predecessor, King Joao II.

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