Brian Hamm, who received his Ph.D. in history in August 2017, used his Rothman Doctoral Fellowship during the summer of 2016 to travel to the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain to access archival documents on the Spanish Inquisition for his dissertation, “Between the Foreign and the Familiar: The Portuguese, the Inquisition, and Local Society in Cartagena de Indias, 1550-1700.” In the wake of Columbus’ transformative voyages, the Spanish Crown spread its power throughout the New World in the sixteenth century, especially in the regions of modern-day Mexico and Peru. This imperial expansion was made possible through the efforts not only of Spaniards, but of many other groups as well. Of particular importance were the Portuguese, the richest and most influential of whom settled in the viceregal capitals of Mexico City and Lima. A number of these Portuguese elites would become victims of the Inquisition, accused of secretly practicing Judaism. Because of the wealth of inquisitorial documentation that has survived, combined with the great economic importance of these elites, many scholars have focused their analysis only on the wealthiest sectors of the Portuguese population. Unfortunately, this limited focus has generated broad generalizations about the Portuguese in colonial Spanish America. In order to avoid this conflation, this project examines Portuguese residents in other regions of Spanish America, particularly those in the Spanish Caribbean port cities Cartagena de Indias (in modern-day Colombia), which, during the colonial era, was an economically important but politically marginal locale.
Scholars have tended to see the work of the Spanish Inquisition as reinforcing a widespread belief that the Portuguese were practicing crypto-Jews. When Portuguese pursued occupations stereotypically associated with Jews, such as merchants or physicians, they inadvertently bolstered such suspicions. However, in Cartagena, large numbers of Portuguese occupied a wide variety of jobs, including artisans, sailors, and soldiers. Due to its commercial orientation and geographic position, Cartagena was always in desperate need of people to fill these kinds of occupations, which allowed many Portuguese to become invaluable members of local society and to climb the city’s political and ecclesiastical hierarchies. Furthermore, legal documents from the Cartagena Inquisition also reveal a strong disinclination on the part of inquisitors to act on anti-Portuguese stereotypes. In a wide variety of criminal cases, the fact that someone was Portuguese ultimately had little bearing on the decisions of the Holy Office.
Overall, this project reminds us of the importance of place. Broad generalizations about the Portuguese or the Inquisition too often take elite perspectives from Mexico City and Lima as normative, while more peripheral spaces such as Cartagena become inaccurately absorbed into this standard narrative. But for the Portuguese, Cartagena was a different environment that presented an array of distinctive opportunities. For its part, the Inquisition also functioned differently in Cartagena compared to Lima and Mexico City. This project highlights the role of place in challenging the conventional narratives about the Portuguese. Studying a wider range of locales helps us to achieve a more nuanced historical understanding of such complex groups as inquisitorial officials and foreign immigrants.
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