Antonio Jose da Silva

(1705-1739)


Antonio Jose da Silva was an example of just how long the Inquisition actively continued against Secret Jews, the Conversos.

Jose Antonio da Silva was born in 1705 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Da Silva's family were successful Conversos; his family secretly remained loyal to Judaism. His father was a prominent poet and lawyer who, until his death, managed to maintain the appearance of a faithful Catholic.

His mother, Lourenca Coutinho, was less compromising and it was as a result of her deportation to Portugal, when she was imprisoned on a Judaizing charge in 1713 (217 years after Portugal called in the Inquistion!), that Da Silva and his father moved to Lisbon.

While a law student at the University of Coimbra, he wrote a satire which provided the authorities with a pretext for arresting him, and he too was charged with Judaizing. Partly crippled by torture, Da Silva was eventually penanced and released. He practiced law, but turned increasingly to writing and swiftly built up a reputation as the outstanding Portuguese dramatist of the era.

A prolific and versatile writer, Jose Antonio da Silva created a series of stage satires criticizing the evils of contemporary society. These "comedies," which ranged from burlesque and parody to puppet show and comic opera, and mingled prose dialogue with song, were popularly known as the works of "The Jew" and were performed frequently during and after the 1730s.

Da Silva's collected works were published anonymously until the end of the 18th century under the title Theatro comico portuguez.

In 1737 the playwright, together with his mother and newly married wife, was again arrested by the Inquisition. The women were released, but Judaizing charges were pressed against Da Silva, whose plays had made him many enemies. It turned out during the investigation, that he had undergone circumcision (a truly stupid thing for a Converso to do!), later joining Franciscan order to divert suspicion from his heretical activities.

Evidence of Sabbath observance and unorthodox fasting was provided by a colored slave girl. Prolonged torture failed to break his will and, when a secret court finally condemned him, not even the king himself could secure a reprieve.

In October 1739 Da Silva was garroted and burnt at a Lisbon auto-da-fe. His wife, who witnessed his death, did not long survive him. Da Silva's tragic story has inspired several modern writers, including the Portuguese Camilo Castelo Branco (author of the novel O Judeu), who was himself of Converso origin.


Source: Gates to Jewish Heritage by David E. Lipman