August 11, 1635, was the day on which Spanish authorities in Lima, Peru, conducted a wave of arrests of supposed Judaizers involved in what was called termed the “Gran Complicidad” – the “great conspiracy.”
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Spain introduced the laws of the Inquisition to Peru (which at the time comprised all its colonies in South America) in 1569. New Christians – Jews who had converted to Christianity, a group constantly under suspicion because its members were viewed as prone to backsliding – up until the fourth generation were forbidden from immigrating to Spain’s colonies in the New World. Yet many of them did so nonetheless.
This was especially true after the royal and papal pardons of crypto-Jews of 1601 and 1604, respectively. The merging of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in 1580 also led to thousands of Jewish refugees from Portugal arriving in Peru, where the financial opportunities were great.
As historian Henry C. Lea wrote about these Portuguese New Christians in his 1908 book on the Inquisition in Peru: “They became masters of the commerce of the kingdom; from brocade to sack-cloth, from diamonds to cumin seed, everything passed through their hands; the Castilian who had not a Portuguese partner could look for no success in trade.”
During the early decades of the 17th century, minimal attention was paid to New Christians in greater Peru, with only several instances of autos-da-fe (“acts of faith,” as the public punishments of heretics, including burning at the stake of the most notorious cases, were called). The events of what came to be called the Gran Complicidad began with the arrest of one Antonio de Cordero, a new Christian in Lima who aroused suspicion because of his unwillingness to work on Saturday or to eat bacon.
When taken in secretly for questioning and subjected to torture, Cordero revealed the names of a wide circle of other crypto-Jews – converts who continued to secretly remain true to the Jewish faith.
On August 11, 1635, between 12:30 and 2 P.M., authorities undertook a quiet and simultaneous roundup of 17 additional suspected crypto-Jews. As word began to spread of the arrests, and a sense of panic filled the immigrant community, the crown forbade anyone from departing the colony for a year. And since anyone suspected of heresy was subject to having his or her wealth “sequestered,” the authorities also introduced a law threatening with arrest any citizen who did not report any information he or she had about New Jews attempting to hide their property.
So many arrests took place – more than 80 – that the prisons in Lima did not have enough cells to house the suspects. Trade came to a standstill, both because of the confiscation of property and because most of the colony’s leading businessmen were under lock and key, with their capital effectively frozen.
Impenitent to the end
The investigations and legal proceedings went on for several years, and it was only on January 23, 1639 that the great auto-da-fe took place, in which 63 convicted heretics were punished publicly in one way or another.
One of the most notable of these was Manuel Bautista Perez, known to be the wealthiest man in Lima – a slave trader and an owner of silver mines and plantations – and the leader of the crypto-Jewish community there. Outwardly, Perez was a devout Christian, who had his children educated by priests, but he was accused of conducting meetings of Jews in his home. He remained “pertinacious and impenitent” to the end, and so was burned at the stake alive.
The other most remembered victim of the 1639 ceremony was Francisco Maldonado da Silva. He had actually been arrested long before the 1635 roundup, in 1627. Maldonado was a surgeon who as an adult had begun to have doubts about the Christianity in which he was raised, and had his father reveal to him that he was actually a secret Jew. It was his sister, to whom he confessed his renewed Jewish faith, who informed the Church about his activities. When arrested, he freely admitted that he was a Jew. During 12 years in prison, Maldonado circumcised himself, rejected numerous efforts to get him to recant his faith as a Jew, and even converted two other prisoners. His obstinacy led to his also being burned alive.
The January 23 auto-da-fe saw 11 convicted heretics “relaxed” – the term used to refer to prisoners turned over to secular authorities by the Church for burning – seven of them while alive, the ultimate punishment. A twelfth, who had committed suicide while in custody, was burned in effigy. Twenty-nine received the punishment of scourging – the suffering of lashes while walking through the city’s streets.