Since its foundation Catholics, Jews, and Muslims lived peacefully. For a short time Portugal dominated the world, with the first global empire. In 1492 over 100,000 expelled Spanish Jews immigrated from Spain. Entry was given to 630 wealthy Jewish families who paid for permanent residence and some skilled craftsmen. Others, paying less, were allowed to stay for eight months when ships would arrive to take them away. To avoid losing them no ships arrived and the King declared them slaves.
Manuel, who became the King in 1495, wanted to marry the daughter of the Spanish monarchs. They agreed but only if Portugal became totally Catholic. To achieve this, n 1497 Jews were forcibly made Catholic but given a long period to adapt to their new religion, during which they would not be investigated if thought to be a secret Jew. This gave the Jews the opportunity to organise themselves as secret Jews. It was the main reason why so many Jewish customs were kept over the next five hundred years. Usually, the person keeping them didn’t know why only that they were kept by their mother.
In 1506, Lisbon suffered a plague and drought. Those who could, including the court, left leaving a hysterical atmosphere with citizens praying daily for water and compassion. Violent anti-Jewish preaching led to the three-day massacre and burning an estimated two to four thousand converted Jews.
With the growing rift between New and Old Christians, the King sought permission from Rome to introduce the Inquisition. However bribes paid to high ranking Church officials in Rome, including Cardinals and possibly the Pope himself, saw its introduction delayed until 1535. Then, for almost 300 years, the secret Jews of Portugal were terrorized by the state and Church, imprisoned, tortured, and burned alive.
The unification of Spain and Portugal (1580-1640) saw about 20,000 New Christians returning to Spain.
The Marquis of Pombal (the equivalent of the prime minister) in the 18th century weakened the grip of the Inquisition which was abolished on March 31, 1821. The first post-Inquisition synagogue was built in Lisbon in 1902.
After the end of WW1 Portugal had an authoritarian, right-wing government
In the 1920’s Captain Barros Basto started his campaign to return New Christians to Judaism. In the 1930’s he was accused of a crime he did not commit and was cashiered from the army. This was overtuned by the National Assembly/ He is known as ‘The Dreyfus of Portugal’ (see News)
Portugal had a fascist government while remaining neutral in World War 2. Early in the war Aristides de Sousa Mendes , the Portuguese Bordeaux consul saw the refugees terrible plight and disobeyed his entry visa instructions by promising visas to everyone in need and making them free to anyone unable to pay. He saved about 30,000 people, 10,000 of whom were Jewish.
Rumors about his actions reached Lisbon who ordered him to return immediately. In Lisbon, he was brought before a disciplinary panel and dismissed from the Foreign Ministry leaving him destitute and unable to support his 13 children. He died penniless in 1954. In 1988 he was officially restored to the diplomatic corps by the unanimous vote of the Portuguese National Assembly with damages to be paid to his family. (see News)
The Carnation revolution of 1974 marked greater equality, freedom, and education when autocracy was replaced by democracy.
In 2008 a memorial was erected in the Rossio square in memory of the New Christians massacred in 1506 in Lisbon at the behest of Dominican friars who were later publicly executed on the King’s orders.
On April 12, 2013, the Portuguese parliament unanimously approved an amendment to its nationality laws to permit the descendants of expelled Jews to become Portuguese citizens. See Portugal Today
On February 29, 2012 CAPTAIN BARROS BASTOwas cleared of all charges that had led to his dismissal from the Portuguese army by the National Assembly of Portugal. which voted unanimously upon the recommendation of Carlos Abreu Amorim and Fernando Negrão, members of the Civil Rights Committee of the National Assembly. They found the accusations of 1937 (and confirmed in 1975) against the Captain to be baseless and motivated by antisemitism. He was reinstated into the Portuguese army in March 2012 with the rank of Colonel.
The Captain's granddaughter, Isabel Ferreira Lopes, who like her grandmother and mother have campaigned relentlessly for the rehabilitation of her grandfather, called the 1937 decision immoral, not her grandfather. She gratefully acknowledged the courage of the Civil Rights committee and the National Assembly in righting a historic wrong. She called it a victory for her grandfather, a victory for Portuguese Marranos, a victory for all Portuguese people,and a victory for all people fighting injustice. Abraham H. Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League congratulated Portugal's National Assembly and said,
“The vote was not only in favor of reinstating him, but was also in favor of Portugal’s honor. Just as this act of discrimination reflected a larger societal problem at the time, the long overdue rehabilitation of Captain Barros Basto reflects Portugal’s commitment to human rights today.”
10,000 Jews who he saved while acting as the Portuguese Bordeaux Portuguese consul by giving them a Portuguese visa.
When Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, the Portuguese Government prohibited further crossings especially of Jewish refugees. Only British citizens recommended by the British consul could get visas.
Instructed to return to Lisbon he was dismissed for what he had done. He died in poverty.
In 1966, Yad Vashem recognized him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In 1987, the Portuguese Republic awarded him a posthumous Order of Liberty medal, one of that country's highest honors.
In 1988 the Portuguese parliament officially dismissed all charges, restoring him to the diplomatic corps by unanimous vote and honoring him with a standing ovation. He was promoted to the rank of Ambassador and issued the Cross of Merit for his actions in Bordeaux.
In 1994 former President Soares dedicated his bust and a commemorative plaque where the consulate at Bordeaux had been housed.