The Jews in the Canary Islands: a Re-evaluation

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When Lucien Wolf published in 1926 his book The Jews in the Canary Islands a new world of Jewish life came to light.

The Canary Islands were taken over by Spain a few years after the Expulsion of 1492. Consequently in the Canary Islands no open Jews, only conversos,x could settle; they were accessible either to the descendants of those Jews who were converted during the riots of 1391 or later during the fifteenth century; or to Jews who were converted shortly before and after the Expulsion from Spain of 1492 and the forced conversion of 1497 in Portugal. These latter conversos, owing to their immediate and recent personal connection with Judaism, possessed much more Jewish knowledge than their brethren, the descendants of the earlier conversions, such as those of the fourteenth century. Both kinds of conversos arrived in the Canary Islands with the first wave of settlers, before the Spanish National Inquisition, which was an integral part of the system of the Spanish Government, became established in the Islands. The first such converso settlers there were artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants, who brought with them their families and kindred, many of them moving along to the pattern of traditional Jewish immigration. These Judeo-converso settlers left their impression on the image of colonisation in the Canary Islands. We may ask: What had these islands to offer to these new settlers in general and to conversos in particular? In these volcanic islands the autochthonous inhabitants, of African Berber origin, were few, and the advent of Christianity to the Islands did not encounter any opposition. When the Islands were first settled by people of European descent, most of them were conversos from Southern Spain. They included many persons who ventured to those places where the administrative offices of the kingdom were still in the first stages of organisation and lacked the necessary power to supervise all aspects of life.2 It was of course the normal sequence of events that in all the Spanish settlements overseas settlement by conversos preceded the establishment of the Inquisition; so it was in Mexico and Peru. Even in the Iberian Peninsula itself conversos migrated to faraway places where the Inquisi? tion was only later to arrive. The Inquisition started to function in the Canary Islands only in 1504,3 and twenty-two more years were to pass till the first auto-de-fe was held on 24 February 1526. That such a long delay should elapse in a State where the Inquisition was headed by such zealots as Diego Deza and Cardinal Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros tells

This paper was delivered as the Lucien Wolf Memorial Lecture to the Society on 9 January 1974. My deepest gratitude goes to Dr. Richard D. Barnett for the help and encouragement he gave me during my stay in London and while working on this material.

Part of it has been published in Hebrew under the title mirrn rnn1? bw mwvn in studies in the Cultural Life of the Jews in England, pre? sented to Avraham Harman (Folklore Research

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