The history of the conversos, those Spanish and Portuguese Jews who hid their identities by publicly behaving as observant Catholics, is tragic not only for the horrible auto-de-fes (mass executions at which those convicted of heresy were burned at the stake), but also for the fear and instability with which these hidden Jews lived. Conversos who managed to leave Spain or Portugal, often had to flee the next country of residence in fear of the Inquisition that often followed recent Spanish conquests. The same story was played out in Europe, India, South America and even in colonial Georgia.

When the first Jews arrived in Savannah, Georgia, in 1733, they were welcomed by the British founding governor, James Oglethorpe. Of three dozen or so new immigrants, most of them were Jews of Sephardic origin who had traveled the difficult path of so many other conversos. For example, Samuel Nunes was born Diogo Riberio in 1668. He was a physician in Lisbon (Portugal) until he was arrested for supporting Judaism. When he was released from the Inquisitors’ jail, he was mandated to remain in Lisbon. Instead, Nunes fled to England (the way having been opened up by Menashe ben Israel in 1656) and from there to the New World.

In 1739, however, England and Spain entered the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Hostilities were fought on both sides of the Atlantic as the British had newly settled in Georgia, while the Spanish controlled Florida.

On July 5, 1742, much to the horror of the Sephardic Jews of Savannah, Spanish governor Don Manuel de Montiano led 5,000 troops to occupy Fort St. Simons on St. Simons Island, about 80 miles south of Savannah. While Oglethorpe and his troops routed the Spanish, the Sephardim had their scare. Most fled north to South Carolina, although some went to other colonies. Only the Minis and Sheftall families, both Ashkenazim, remained in Georgia.

This Treat was originally posted on July 5, 2012.

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