Abraham before Abraham: pursuing the Portuguese roots of the Seixas Family.

Author:Vieira, Carla
Position:Abraham Mendes Seixas

Moses Solomons, a grandson of Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first native-born Jewish minister in the North America, kept an annotation that recovered a distant memory of the adventurous escape of his forefather Abraham Mendes Seixas (grandfather of Gershom Mendes Seixas) from the grip of the Portuguese Inquisition:

The progenitor of this now very numerous family had a faithful servant who was a man of great physical strength and when the minions of the "Holy Office" entered the grounds of his master, he hastened to warn him of the danger and together they hurriedly looked around for a place of concealment. Seeing no safety by remaining on the premises, the loyal servant hid him beneath the clothing that lay in a large pannier (basket) used for conveying the garments to the water-side for the periodical cleansing, and carried him in the basket away from the house on his back to a place of security, concealing him until he could secretly leave the country for England, where his family joined him as soon as they could do so with safety and secure what property they could make portable. (1) Saved by a loyal Hercules, Abraham Seixas fled from Lisbon to London in the early 17ZOS, where he gave rise to a "numerous" and influential family with branches spread across Europe, the Caribbean and North America. We did not have more than some foggy traces about his past, until now. Among them is a name: Miguel Pacheco da Silva, his so-called Christian name, which he allegedly used before his escape. (1)

Abraham Mendes Seixas' offspring would end up playing a remarkable role in the creation and consolidation of the main eighteenth-century North American Jewish communities and, in the process, of American independence. Three of his grandchildren were particularly important. Gershom Mendes Seixas served as minister of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and was an illustrious patriot and philanthropist; Moses Mendes Seixas became the first cashier of the Bank of Rhode Island, a Masonic leader and president of the Jewish congregation of Newport, R.I.; and Benjamin Mendes Seixas, served as a trustee for the congregations Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel (Philadelphia) and Shearith Israel (New York) and was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange. (3) These men were the children of Abraham Mendes Seixas' son Isaac, the first Seixas to come to America, who arrived in 1738.

The history of the Sephardic diaspora is full of stories like that of the Seixas family, who had to reinvent themselves and make a fresh start, motivated by religious persecution in their homelands or simply by the pursuit of new and appealing business opportunities. Some of them did it with outstanding success, improving their economic situation and social status. In most cases, these changes were not conducive to a complete break with their past. Social and economic links established in their places of origin were maintained and expanded in the diaspora, and sustained the families as they travelled and resettled in new lands. (4) Despite the rupture and change common to their diaspora experience, they relied upon social and familial ties along with overlapping economic networks, to assist them in successfully integrating into a new societies. These enduring links between those who stayed and those who left Portugal and, on a wider scope, between New Christians (5) and Sephardim, were supported by kinship ties, commercial connections, cultural affinities and, occasionally, by religious sympathies. According to British historian Jonathan Israel, these relationships were key to giving the Sephardic-Jewish and Crypto-Jewish diasporas "a flexibility and capacity to cross confessional, political, and cultural divides that, in a transatlantic context, seems to have far surpassed that of any other trading diaspora." (6)

Since the Sephardic families' diaspora is a story of continuities more than of ruptures, an understanding of their background is fundamental to comprehending the whole picture. In the case of the Seixas family, there is a gap in their storyline caused by Abraham Mendes Seixas' escape and his adoption of a new identity in London, and that gap obfuscates the family background. The strategy followed by Seixas to hide his past and begin a new life also masked whatever his real intentions may have been, and it still confuses those who try to discover his first identity. Who was Abraham Mendes Seixas before once again becoming Abraham? That is the question we will try to solve in the following pages.

The Mendes Seixas from Celorico

The first clue we will follow will not be Seixas' alleged Christian name, Miguel Pacheco da Silva. Records from the Portuguese Inquisition contain no evidence of someone with that name imprisoned in the early eighteenth century or even in the late seventeenth century, and this contradicts the memory held by Seixas' descendants that their "progenitor" had fled from Lisbon to avoid "the minions of the 'Holy Office.'" On the other hand, the surname Seixas, or even Mendes Seixas, is frequently repeated in many Inquisition trials. (7)

The roots of this New Christian family were in Celorico da Beira, a village in the interior of Portugal, close to the Serra da Estrela mountain range and with a population of about 950 inhabitants in the middle of the eighteenth century. (8) The surnames Mendes and Seixas appeared together for the first time in the person of Matias Mendes Seixas, who was born in Celorico da Beira around 1634 and who was a resident of Guarda in 1664, when the Inquisition of Lisbon arrested him. (9) Seixas was the surname of his grandfather, Antonio Seixas, who had married a woman from Celorico, Beatriz Mendes. Matias Mendes Seixas' brothers used different pairs of surnames: Belchior Mendes Correia, who inherited the family name of their father, Bernardo Mendes Correia, a merchant from Madrid; and Rafael Mendes da Silva, whose reasons for the adoption of the surname Silva are unknown, though the name survived among his offspring. (10) The surname Mendes Seixas continued being used by the following generations and by another branch of the Seixas family--the children of Isabel Seixas (Matias Mendes Seixas' second cousin) and Diogo Mendes--who also adopted it. (11)

Matias Mendes Seixas and Belchior Mendes Correia were physicians, and their brother, Rafael Mendes da Silva, was a lawyer; all of them had graduated from the University of Coimbra. Although medicine and law filled the professional lives of many members of the Seixas family, others earned their living from trading. In the seventeenth century, the commercial activities of the Seixas family became regional. They traded goods, especially fabrics, in neighboring cities and villages such as Guarda, Covilha, Trancoso and Pinhel. However, it is likely that their trade network had already crossed the Portuguese borders in the first half of the seventeenth century. Some members of the family were then living in Toledo, Spain, and there is also information about other family members who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to reach Peru. (12)

The geographic mobility of the Seixas family was deeply influenced by the Inquisition's persecution. It is possible to identify four moments of high Inquisition activity against them from the time of the mid-seventeenth century. The first one was in the second half of the 1660s. As we have seen, the Inquisition of Lisbon had tried Matias Mendes Seixas and his brothers. After being reconciled, (13) Matias Mendes Seixas moved to Covilha, where his daughters, Mariana da Silva and Clara Maria Seixas, were born. Both would follow their father's destiny some decades later. Actually, in the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Inquisition returned to attack the Seixas family with increased vigor. Afterward, throughout the first half of the next century, the pressure on the family was incessant, especially in the 17ZOS and 1740s. As a consequence, many members of the family migrated outside of the Celorico-Guarda-Covilha axis and even outside of Portugal. This situation is particularly evident in the Inquisition trials of the 1740s, when the defendants testified that most of their relatives were absent from the country. However, the exact locations of their whereabouts were usually omitted, sometimes because the defendants really did not know, and sometimes because they wanted to protect their relatives and even themselves from the inquisitors' enquiry. (14)

From the beginning of the eighteenth century, a wave of imprisonments profoundly affected several branches of the Seixas family. Some of the children and grandchildren of Rafael Mendes da Silva and Matias Mendes Seixas were tried, as well as almost all of the offspring of Isabel de Seixas. By then, both branches were already linked through the marriage of Beatriz Mendes da Silva, Rafael Mendes da Silva's daughter, to Antonio Mendes Seixas, Isabel de Seixas' son, in Celorico on April 23 1706.15 By then, the couple were the parents of a baby, Ana, who had been born in February. (16) Therefore, it was late in her pregnancy when Beatriz da Silva presented herself before the Inquisition of Coimbra on November 27' 1705 and confessed to being guilty of adopting Jewish customs and beliefs. (17)

After her reconciliation in July of 1706, Beatriz da Silva and her husband moved to Lisbon. However, this did not occur immediately. On November 27, 1707, Antonio Mendes Seixas was still in Celorico, where he became the godfather of a little girl (18) and, in 1708, his name was not yet mentioned in the Rol de Confessados (list of confessed people) of the parish of Santa Justa, where he would establish his residence. (19) However, according to inquisitorial documentation, his son, Rafael, would have been born in Lisbon in 1708 or 1709. (20) Therefore, Antonio Mendes Seixas would have arrived in the city around 1709.

Yet, Lisbon was far from being a safe haven. The first three decades of...

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