Moroccan Jews in the Brazilian Amazon -Maria Liberman  



Maria Liberman

Jews have lived in the Amazon region of Brazil since colonial times. They arrived later on as part of a flow of immigrants to all parts of Brazil in the nineteenth century. Important factors in increas­ing this immigrant flow were the opening of Brazi­lian harbors to foreign trade in 1808 and Brazil’s independence from Portugal in 1822.

The settling of Brazil territory was linked to waves of immigration and of internal migration, which were in turn linked to cycles of Brazil’s economic history. These cycles were:

  1. the Brazilwood cycle, including other timber exploitation, in the 16th century;
  2. the sugarcane cycle, which enjoyed its golden age in the 17th century;
  3. the mining cycle, in the 18th century; and
  4. the coffee cycle, and cattle raising, in the 19th century.

In the last economic stage, a stream of foreign immigrants was attracted to the Amazon because of an important new product — rubber.

Brazil’s long-standing labor shortage, an eco­nomic problem since the discovery of the country in 1500, accentuated the need for immigrant labor in the 19th century, and was exacerbated by the abolition of slavery in 1888.

Beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese King Dom Joao in Brazil in 1808, the government instituted, over the years, a series of measures that fostered immigration and settlement. These included religious freedom, granted in 1824, not long after Brazilian independence. Article five of the first constitution stated that “the Roman Catholic religion is the religion of the Empire, but all other religions will, however, be permitted as long as their worship remains domestic or private and is held in houses intended for that purpose with no external form of a temple”. According to Article 179 of the Constitution “no one can be persecuted for religious reasons as long as he respects the State and does not offend public morals”.

Religious freedom was followed by commercial freedom which attracted an immigrant influx representing all creeds and economic roles: artists, capitalists, businessmen, artisans, all in search of the wealth that Brazil offered.

Moroccan Jews were among the immigrants arriving in the nineteenth century and settling in the Brazilian Amazon. We cannot precisely iden­tify the dates when these Jews immigrated. How­ever, studies of colonial Brazil show that some Moroccan Jews were already there in that period.

A significant event in the economic develop­ment of this group was the Decree No. 12 of the State of Amazonas (12 May 1838), which stipu­lated that “foreigners whose countries of origin do not have a treaty with Brazil, cannot have houses or business stores, nor can they peddle, without a license from the City Council”. This license, according to the law, “should be guaranteed by an accomodation by the petitioner”.

Two months after the law was passed, Moroc­can Jews began to apply for licenses to engage in trade. Licenses were promptly granted by the President of the Province. Among the aspiring Jewish merchants were Simao Benjo, Fortunato Bendelack, Anna Fortunata, Salomao Levy & Brothers, Fortunato Cardozo, Duarte Aflalo, Judah Arrobas, Marcos Dias Cohen, Fortunato Abocaxis, Fortunato Benchetrit, Leao Serfaty, Moyses Benzimram, Fortunato Assemonth, Isaac Benchetrit.

However, a larger influx of immigrants from Morocco only occurred in the latter part of the nineteenth century when the Amazon River and its tributaries were opened to foreign shipping as a result of national and international pressure. This led to the arrival of a number of shipping lines which plied the Amazon waterways. In addition to Portuguese firms, which were the first to begin operation, there was the Booth Line, the Red Cross Line, Hamburg-Amerika Line, Hamburg Süd-Amerikanische Dampfschiffahrt, and the Ligure Brasiliana line run by Italian interests. These lines linked Belem and Manaus, the capi­tals of northern Brazil, and Santarem and Obidos in the Amazonian hinterland, with Lisbon, the Azores, Barcelona, Marseilles, Genoa, and Tangier.

In that period, Brazilians began to see the need to populate the Amazon and exploit rubber, its most important product. Many advocated bring­ing in foreign labor. A whole apparatus was estab­lished for making immigration propaganda. One argument used was that “the North (of Brazil) would offer the abundance that your homeland denies”. The foreigners who landed in Brazil were bound by government labor contracts. In return, they were offered benefits such as free transporta­tion and room and board until they were brought to settlements where they would begin to work. Many of the immigrants were also offered free land.

The advertising aimed at prospective immi­grants made simple, attractive promises. It claimed:

Men of good habits who wish to improve their present life and ensure their future should immigrate with their families, relatives, and friends to Brazil, and in Brazil to Para, where fellow countrymen will welcome them and offer them work and all kinds of opportuni­ties to become wealthy. Life in Brazil represents the life of the free man, an easy present and a comfortable future.

Independent Brazil set out to respect individual rights through its constitution, after extinction of the Inquisition in the first quarter of the nine­teenth century, and to protect the immigrants. They could now travel throughout the Empire of Brazil, benefit from habeas corpus, engage in commerce and freely practice any trade. They could own real estate, make full use of their prop­erty, and enjoy freedom of conscience with no fear of religious persecution. Their children born in Brazil would receive citizens’ rights upon coming of age. Naturalization was easily obtained when­ever desired.

The hebraicos, as the Moroccan Jews are known to this day in northern Brazil, arrived in the country not as Marranos nor as crypto-Jews. They came from places like Tangier, Tetuan, Fez, Rabat, Casablanca, Spain, Algiers, Gibraltar, and Lisbon, probably taking advantage of the special conditions granted to those who arrived under contract. They not only settled in Belem and Manaus, the capitals, but spread throughout the hinterland of the Amazon in regions like Afua, Alemquer, Almeirim, Aveiros, Baiao, Cameta, Gurupa, Itaituba, Macapa, Mazagao, Mocajuba, Monte Alegre, Obidos, Santarem, and Curvalinho in the interior of Para State, and in Parintins, Itacoatiara, Maue, Manacapuru, Teffe, Manicore, Humaita, and Codajaz, in the interior of Amazonas State, among other places. They not only kept their Jewish traditions as far as possible, but also played a significant role in the economic development of the region and later in foreign trade.

Although Jews had been in the Amazon since the beginning of the 19th century, it was the boom in rubber, Black Gold, that gave the big impetus to bringing Jewish immigrants into the region.

However, even before the boom in Hevea Brasi- liensis, Jewish immigrants worked as regatoes, an economic role typical of the Amazon since colon­ial times. A regatao nagivated the rivers by boat or canoe, stopping here and there, buying whole­sale and selling retail. He was, in short, a river peddler.

Within the economy of the Amazon region, the Moroccan Jew navigated the streams in all direc­tions, entering the igarapes (narrow waterways) and lakes, mastering the currents, and penetrating deep into the virgin forests. This waterborne peddler, an original product of the Amazon, was strong-willed with a great urge to succeed and become rich. He was, undoubtedly, a shrewd adventurer, aware of the wealth, profits, and advantages he could gain through peddling his wares throughout the developing area. He was considered a daring explorer of the unsettled region, for while engaging in his business, he was enlarging Brazil’s economic and geographic boundaries



Maria Liberman

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