This Day in Jewish History |

1659: The 'First English Jew' Dies

Antonio Carvajal was so successful as a merchant that the English not only overlooked his religion: they let him bring back the Jews.

David Green
David B. Green
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The Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, built by Jews freshly allowed to return to England.
The Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, built by Jews freshly allowed to return to England.Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Avi Deror
David Green
David B. Green

On November 10, 1659, Antonio Fernandez Carvajal – called by some “the first English Jew” – died.

Carvajal was one of those extraordinary figures whose financial, political and personal skills and acumen allowed him to become one of the most important merchants of his era. He also shared major responsibility for England reopening its gates to the Jews, 366 years after their expulsion by King Edward I, in the year 1290.

Carvajal, whose Hebrew name was Abraham Israel Fernandez Carvajal, was born around 1590, probably in the Portuguese town of Fundao. From there, possibly in reaction to the Portuguese Inquisition, he moved to the Canary Islands, which for a time offered Iberian Jews refuge from persecution, as well as ample business opportunities. There is evidence that he lived for a period in Rouen, France, too, before settling in London around 1632.

A time of war

The time was one of frequent wars -- over both trade and religion -- between Spain, England and Holland. Jews like Carvajal, with contacts in all three countries and in their colonies, and despite their uncertain civil status in all, were able to exploit their situations to make huge profits in commerce.

In Caravajal's case, his wide network of commercial partners and employees also put him in the position of being able to offer the English government, led by Oliver Cromwell, valuable military and political intelligence gleaned from both Spain and Holland.

Officially, Jews were still not permitted to live in England in the first half of the 17th century, but by the 1650s, there were some 20 families living in London. Ostensibly, they were Roman Catholics, but their crypto-Jewish status was an open secret.

Antonio Fernandez Carvajal was the recognized leader of the community, due in part to his success in business. He owned his own fleet of ships, and traded with both the East and West Indies (India and South Asia, and the Caribbean islands, respectively), with the Levant, at different times trading in gunpowder and arms, silver bullion, wine and corn.

Jews are allowed back, albeit informally

At the start of the Anglo-Spanish War, in 1655, England seized all property belonging to Spaniards living in its territory. Carvajal had by then been “endenizened” – gained effective citizenship – but when another Jew, Antonio Rodriguez Robles, found himself denounced and threatened with loss of all his property, Carvajal led the entire Sephardi community in appealing to Cromwell and the Council of State to recognize them as Jewish refugees, rather than as Catholic Spaniards.

Britain's Prince Charles at a ceremony in a modern synagogue in London.Credit: Reuters

At the same time, Menasseh ben Israel arrived in England from Amsterdam to press his request for the Jews to be allowed to return. In response, the Whitehall Conference ruled that “there was no law which forbade the Jews’ return to England.”

On May 16, 1656, the Council of State ruled that Robles should have his property restored to him. Cromwell intimated to the crypto-Jewish families of London that they were welcome to remain, even if no more formal declaration was forthcoming.

That December, the group began to rent a house in Cree Church Lane for religious services, nearby what later became the location of the Bevis-Marks synagogue. A few months later, Carvajal and another Sephardi Jew leased a site on Mile End Road, in the East End, to serve as the country’s first Jewish cemetery.

Carvajal died in London on November 10, 1659, while undergoing surgery for gallstones, and was buried in the Mile End cemetery. The St. Katherine Cree Church next door rang its bells in his memory and a month later, Samuel Pepys, a member of parliament and a Christian, who noted in his diary that he had been operated on successfully by the same surgeon as Carvajal, was moved to attend a memorial service for him at the Cree Church synagogue.

A copy of Carvajal’s gravestone is in the collection of the Ratsbibliothek in Leipzig, Germany. Part of the epitaph describes him as being, “generous to the needy and the poor. / His doings and his dealings with men were truth, / Truth was familiar in his mouth, his words ever pure.”

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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