The da Costas A Remarkable Sephardic Family

Fact Paper 41

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

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The da Costas of Castilla y León

Lisbon awoke one sixteenth century morning to find many church doors plastered with placards blaring out a blasphemous message:

"The Messiah has not yet come. Jesus is not the true Messiah."

A Maranno, Manuel da Costa, was accused of the heinous act. He was arrested, tortured cruelly until he confessed his guilt. Then, with the sophisticated methods developed over a century of producing excruciating torture, Manuel was slowly and methodically agonized to death1.

The da Costas were among the Jews who fled from Spain into Portugal, and from both Spain and Portugal into the Diaspora. The provenance of the da Costa family is evident from the addition of "de León" to the surname of Abram da Costa de León. Abram was instrumental in lifting the ban against Jewish residence in Genoa in 1659, and for arranging for a group of Jews from Tuscany to settle in Genoa.2

The kingdom of Castilla y León was a region of early Christian Spain that was densely populated by Jews. These communities continued to grow even through the early years of the Inquisition due to a rather liberal, even benign and protective attitude of the local hierarchy toward the Jews. In the year 1290 an act termed the Carta de Avenencia was created for the formation of a department of justice to deal with civil actions within the Jewish community, for whose establishment and administration the Jews were taxed. The Juderia del Reino de León consisted then of 1328 taxpaying heads of Jewish families, representing a population of from at least 5,000 to as much as 8000 people. They are on record as contributing 218,400 maravedises to the fund. This sizeable fund was only slightly exceeded by those of the Jewish community nearby Burgos and of the much larger community of Toledo.3

Jewish Industry in Northern Spain

León and Burgos were centrally situated along the route of the Jewish traveler-traders that stretched across northern Spain from Portugal to Catalonia. The route passed through Navarra (also spelled "Navarre"), an ancient center of Jewish industrial and agricultural activity. The city of Tudela was the main trading center along that route. It was the native city of the famous world-girdling chronicler,

Benjamin of Tudela. It harbored a Jewish community of 1200 out of a total population of 8000 in the fourteenth century. Albeit Tudela was the demographic center of Navarran Jewish life, important Jewish communities were also rooted in Pamplona, Estella, and other centers of the region.4

The sovereigns of Navarra were extraordinarily tolerant of the Jews during the early period of Spanish/Christian dominance. Navarra even served as a haven for Jews escaping English and French repression. "When the kings of England and the Dukes of Aquitaine and the kings of France expelled the Jews in 1290, 1306, 1324, and 1394, the kings of Novarre... opened the doors to them." While the Talmud was banned from France during the thirteenth century, "both the communities and the individual Jews of Novarre could own all the books they wished."5

The extent of industrial activity of the Jews of Northern Spain of this period is evident from surviving archival records. The procurators of the Navarran Jewish community, the Aljama, were elected by an assembly that gathered regularly in the "Weavers Synagogue."6 The Navarran Jews owned extensive properties, and were proficient in the production of olives, wheat, and grapes. The Sephardic Jews "might have cultivated and irrigated the land since ancient Roman and Visigothic times." The right of Jews to continue to own property was confirmed in the thirteenth century by Alphonse I (dubbed El Ballador, "the Battler").

The Jews were the officially recognized irrigation experts, and being in control of the waterways, they also exercised considerable power over adjoining lands. In neighboring La Ribera the record of Judaic involvement in irrigation extends back into the 12th century. Evidently the association was already well-established at that time. So it was in Navarra in an agreement drawn with the convent of Saint Cristina and the city council of Tudela. In it King Sancho ("The Wise") delegated the powers to his representative, a Jew of Tudela to administer the allocation of water from a suburb of Tudela.

Furthermore, and most importantly, in the thirteenth century the Jews became the proprietors of the wells and canals of the region under lease from the crown. As late as 1377 Rabbi Azach ben Menir, the descendant of the family that had overseen the digging and the disposition of the water of the Aragon canal leading into Tudela, continued to be the spokesman for those who used the canal.7 "The network of irrigation canals which checkered the countryside," as well as the riverbanks were maintained by the Jews. The bridges were fitted out with watermills fixed onto their piles, and the banks of the canals and rivers were "studded with tanneries, dye-works, iron-works, and fulling-mills," all owned or controlled by Jewish entrepreneurs.8

Silver, gold, brass and iron working were trades dominated by and in some cases exclusively practiced by the Sephardim. Thus a Jewish metal-turner of Estella, referred to as Carlos II's master builder in the Merindad of Estella, is also recorded as the provider of armament parts to the sovereign in 1430. Some of the remnants of the Moorish population left within northern Spain appear to have been involved in the pyrotechnical arts, including that of glass-making. The extent of that involvement is not clear, inasmuch as many Jews bore Islamic names carried over from the Islamic period. The prominence of the Jews in these trades, however, is unmistakable. Some of the manual trades, like masons and carpenters, were practiced mainly by Moors, albeit many Jews were also among the masters of those disciplines. The master masons and foremen, Abraham, Solomon, and Yento, for example, were at work at the massive reconstruction of the walls, gates and castle overlooking the city of Tudela, a vast project that began in 1387 and was completed four years later. There were likewise teams of muylleres judios ("Jewish women") who carried the mortar to the masons at work on the walls. Carlos II, the sovereign who ordered this enterprise, obtained the wood, tin, and paint from the heads of the Aljama, Itzhac Benjamin, Samuel Armarillo and Nathan Del Gabay. These Jews were also in charge of urban finances, and provided the loans to pay for worker's wages and materials.

Tourists who now view these monumental works are unaware of the fact that the blood, sweat, and tears of Jewish artisans were mixed with the mortar.

The textile trades, and all the crafts attendant to it were even more saturated with Jews. The degree of involvement can be seen from the records of the courts, which supported "a microcosm of furriers, haberdashers, silk embroiderers, tailors, and jewelers in Pamplona, Tudela, and often in smaller localities." Typical among ten pages of citations by Beatrice Leroy, the historian of Navarra, are, for example, those of the year 1385 of Carlos II. The king "had some pieces of cloth trimmed by 'Moise,' 'Solomon,' and 'Samuel...' In that same year, a "Jacob of Estrella" was paid for making nine cloaks, Samuel for eighteen dresses, Mosse Chico for five dresses, 'Torreo' of Estrella for twenty-four dresses, and Jacobin of Pamplona for four skirts (or vests?). The same records go on to record the involvement of other Jews active in supplying articles of dress; such as "Moros the Jew, Familla the Jewess, and especially Jento Cayat."9

Some Jews derived privileged positions as a consequence of more exotic aptitudes. King Carlos was so enamored with the antics of his favorite juggler, Bonafass, that he granted houses in Pamplona to the Jew. The keeper of the king's lion [!] was another such Jewish favorite. Other services were likewise rendered by Jews at the court. Samuel de Rabbidavvit, for example, bound the books of the chancellery and of the records of the Fuero General.10

The region, especially the town of Burgos, was the third important glassmaking center of Spain, after Catalonia and the area around Toledo.11 Branches of at least three of the prominent families of Castilla y León, the da Costas, Rodriguez,' Silvas and Pereiras were involved in the vitric arts.

Castilla y León, from which the da Costas originated, was equally a bustling center of Jewish commercial and industrial activity. The da Costa family was among the most active and wealthy Jewish families of León. These families were well established in the seacoast towns of Galicia as well as in the industrial centers of the Castilla y León heartland. Many of these families achieved considerable fame and success in the Diaspora. In addition to the da Costas, the Rodriguez, Silva, Cordoso, Pereira, Rodriguez, Aguilar, and Pardo families likewise became renowned in international circles as jurists, financiers, government councilors, and entrepreneurs.12

Some members of the da Costa family remained in Spain after 1492 by ostensibly converting to Christianity. These "New Christians" were subjected over many generations to continuous suspicion and periodic recrimination. Such was the case of Alexandro de Acosta, born about 1612, the son of Francisco Gomez Ome and Maria de Acosta. He was a wealthy merchant, dealing with both linen fabrics and livestock on a large scale. His frequent trips and contact with da Costa emigres abroad brought him under investigation as a Judaizer, for which he was formally denounced. He managed to clear himself, however, mainly on the grounds that two of his sisters were nuns, and that he himself was a member of a Christian Society, the Cofradia de Nuestra Senora del Rosario y San Idlefonso.13 It was at Idlefonso that a Catalan glassmaker, Ventura Sit, established glassmaking furnaces close by the palace at La Granja. Sit's work so impressed the queen, Isabel Farnese, that she built facilities for him within the royal estate. It evolved into the most famous and prestigious of Spain's glassmaking establishments, the "Royal Factory of La Granja de San Idlefonso."14

A remnant of the Marrano branch of the da Costa family returned from Portugal to Castilla y León after the worst of the tribulations caused by the Inquisition appeared to have passed. Cristoval Acosta, known as "The African," was a descendant of these "New Christians." He was a distinguished "Portuguese" surgeon, physician, botanist and traveler whose treatise, Tractado de los Drogas (a Treatise on the drugs and medicines of India) was first published in Burgos, the regional center of glassmaking.

Cristoval Acosta followed in the footsteps of Garcia d'Orta, one of the most important figures "in materiam medica and pharmacognosy." D'Orta's work, Coloquios das simples e drogas (Goa 1563), "was the first scientific work published in Portuguese and the greatest monument of the Portuguese Renaissance. D'Orta's forbears had been victims of the Forced Conversion in Portugal in 1497; some of his closest relatives had been persecuted by the Inquisition as secret Judaizers; one of his sisters was burned alive." D'Orta was condemned posthumously and his bones were exhumed and burned.15

The da Costas of the Universitá d'Altare

The glassmaking community of Altare, in Piedmont, Italy, came into existence after the crusader, the Marquise Monferrato, settled glassmakers from the Holy Land on his fief. After three centuries as the primary competitors of the Venetian glassmakers, statutes instituted in 1505 placed the community under church regulations. A special patron saint was assigned to the glassmaking community and it was obliged to conform to Christian rites and holidays as provided by the statutes.

Nonetheless, the Universitá d'Altare, as the community continued to be called into modern times,16 ostensibly Christian, continued to serve for the next century as a refuge and as an "underground railroad"for Sephardic glassmakers seeking a place for themselves in the Diaspora. Among these immigrants were members of the da Costa family, and they grew to prominence in the community's council. In the mid-sixteenth century, three out of the five consoli of the commune were da Costas. The other two were likewise Sephardim: a Ponti and a Raccheti.

The extraordinary proportion of da Costas in the executive body of the Altare glassmaking community is remarkable in that the family was a latecomer to the community, members of the family were rarely listed among the masters and were never listed among the patroni, the owners of a padella, a fixed place at the furnaces. At least, the family does not appear as such on surviving Altare records. Their disproportionate influence at Altare was probably due to the powerful international connections of the da Costas and to the efforts of the community to establish safe havens for their compatriots. The English financier and philanthropist Fernando Mendes da Costa was well known for his plan to settle Marranos into Italy and England.17 He may well have been the one who supplied the funds to bring Sephardic glassmakers to Altare. He may also have assisted in bringing Jews up from Tuscany to Genoa after another da Costa, Abram da Costa de León induced Genoa to lift its century-old ban against Jewish residence in the Republic.

In neighboring Genoa, the aforementioned Abram da Costa de León was similarly accorded respectful recognition for his status and efforts in the body of statutes regarding the rules governing Jewish presence drawn up by the Minor Consiglio, the Genovese governing body attendant to such affairs. Abram was designated one of the two immediate consoli in the formation of the Jewish community in the preamble to the document. In addition, in a separate, specially emphasized capitolo of the statutes, it was noted that in recognition of the "considerable expense and trouble" he had expended to procure for his "nation" the right to live and work in Genoa, he was accorded the lifelong privilege of selecting one of the consoli of the community. This extraordinary privilege was further extended to his son or heirs or to whomever he designated as his successor!18

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Among the artisans and tradesmen who fled from areas under Spanish control to Pisa was Duarte Nunes da Costa, who was born in Lisbon in 1587. He emigrated to Pisa, and after a stay in Florence went to Amsterdam.19 The itinerary suggests the circuitous route by which the three da Costa consulates of the Universitá d'Altare may have reached the Marquisate of Montferrato and that Abram da Costa de León may have reached the Republic of Genoa. The manipulation of the English financier, Fernando Mendes da Costa, is likewise indicated.

Duarte Nunes da Costa was a remarkable man with a remarkable history. He was a "New Christian" who belonged to a notable Portuguese house. He was the nephew of Fray Francisco de Vittoria, Archbishop of Mexico. The name of the churchman recalls the relationship between James Lopez da Costa, the founder of the first Amsterdam synagogue, and Felipe Dias Vitoria, the partnership of 1607 referred to above.

It leads to speculation on the ramifications of this curious coincidence of family names and relationships. The ethnicity of the archbishop of Mexico is thus brought into focus.

Duarte first fled to Pisa, moved to Florence, and in 1618 to Amsterdam. "He had proved himself highly useful to Dom Duarte de Braganza, the brother of the king of Portugal. In consequence, about 1640, when the latter established diplomatic relations with Hamburg, Duarte Nunes da Costa and other members of the family continued to occupy it until its extinction in 1795. Duarte's elder son, Geronimo Nunes da Costa, alias Moses Curiel, filled a similar role in Holland." The descendants of Duarte reverted to the Jewish faith, unlike many others who were caught up in the maelstroms of a Christian environment.

Among the glassmakers of the áUniversitá d'Altare who brought the art of glassmaking to England was Giacomo da Costa. He brought the ancient Judaic formula for lead glass with him, and his English employer, George Ravenscroft, patented the process.

Da Costas in the Diaspora

The flourishing ports of Amsterdam and Antwerp were focal points of Jewish activity during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many Sephardic artisans and merchants were drawn to those bustling trade centers. Master glassmakers of Venice and Altare made their way to the twin Netherlands cities, from which they migrated further into the Christian world. The art of glassmaking was but one among many activities in which the da Costas were engaged.

The records of the city reveal a number of da Costas among the vigorous international traders, among whom James Lopes da Costa appears as a prominent member of the Amsterdam Judaic community. In 1607 James, (also referred to as Jacon Tirado) won wide acclaim as the founder of the first Amsterdam synagogue, the Bet Ya'akov. In that same year James, in partnership with another Sephardic Jew, Felipe Dias Vitoria, chartered a vessel to transport wheat, rye, and beans to Corfu and Venice (Malamocco). This particular contract was canceled, but the freight-contracts of the period show an active involvement thereafter of these and other Sephardim with trade to the Veneto. Since the Venetians were striving to eliminate or at least mitigate Jewish competition, these activities were often clandestinely conducted. They were often financed together with non-Jewish partners or supplied with papers listing deceiving destinations. Thus, in 1608, James Lopez da Costa, together with one of the most active of the Sephardic traders of Amsterdam, Manoel Carvalho, each chartered a vessel to ship grain to Coro, one of which falsely specified Venice as its destination. The stratagems employed by the Amsterdam Sephardim were exposed in June of 1608 with the wreck off Venice of the vessel Balbo, in which crisis Carvalho and his non-Jewish insurers authorized the Venetian Jews, Isaac Israel and Peter Bauwer, to sell of merchandise salvaged from the vessel.19

Other da Costas suffered severely at the hands of the inquisitors due to stubborn intransigence in refusing to accept even the facade of Christianity or for persisting in their tradition under such a facade. Many of those who abandoned Iberia attained high positions in business and government councils where they often earned the enmity of envious Christians. In England, Moses da Costa became so powerful a financier that he was (falsely) accredited with being a governor of the Bank of England. His close relative, Emmanuel Mendes da Costa, was the eminent conchologist and Secretary of the Royal Society. Solomon da Costa Athias founded the Hebrew collection of the British Museum.21

Members of the distinguished da Costa family were to be found in the highest professional, academic, medical, and banking circles. Despite the contumely with which Jews were officially regarded, the nobility, and even the church, made use of Judaic talents and expertise, and often employed them as commercial and diplomatic agents. The da Costa family became well represented at the apex of European governments where they attained positions as counselors to European nobility. One such was Joao d'Acosta, who served as "Court Jester" under Czar Peter the Great. He was a man of great foresight and ability, having formerly been a business broker in Hamburg before his retention as "Court Jester." This title justified his retention at the court as a Jew, but his services focused on advice on diplomatic and economic matters.

Empress Anna owed the life of her daughter, the future Catherine the Great, to the Jewish court physician, Ribiero Sanchez. This did not prevent the court from dismissing Sanchez when his Jewish extraction was brought to their attention. Joao d'Acosta, however, was allowed to stay on as advisor. His services were evidently considered too valuable to forego despite his ethnicity and the heated arguments he was allowed to carry on with the Czar on theological subjects.

Tristan da Costa and the Inquisition

The connection of one of the da Costas with Venice was made a century earlier before the appearance of a branch of the family in Genoa. It took place through Antwerp, where a Tristan da Costa crossed paths with Geremia Pisano, also a Venetian of Tuscan origin who figures in glassmaking annals. Geremia was one of eight glassmakers who had abandoned Murano and fled to join the growing community of Jewish glassmakers in the Netherlands. Taking advantage of the avid desire of the English to acquire Venetian glassmaking expertise, the eight obtained an advantageous contract. Their emigration to England marked the first time that Venetian masters established an Industry in England.22 It was from the same Antwerp that Tristan came to Venice in the year 1546, just two years before Geremia Pisano et al went to England. Tristan was a member of another group that traveled in the opposite direction. He was part of the entourage of one of the most remarkable and heroic women in Jewish history, Beatrice Mendes, nee Beatrice De Luna. Beatrice was the daughter of the Jewish doctor to the king. Beatrice married Francesco Mendes, who died young and left Beatrice a sizable fortune. Beatrice then moved to Antwerp, where her husband's brother, Diego Mendes had established himself and had invested her funds in his business. Her younger sister, Brianda, subsequently married Diego. The initiation of the Inquisition in Portugal in 1536 drove many conversi to Antwerp, and Diego was instrumental in assisting them through his contacts in Italy, for which he was subjected to a series of harassments both in Italy and in Antwerp during the period in which Antwerp was under the repressive rule of Maria, queen of Hungary and the sister of Carl V. Diego was finally arrested, but the disastrous repercussions that befell Antwerp's credit forced his liberation. Diego and his Milanese agents were again subjected to an inquest in Milan in 1540 for his fervent efforts in rescuing the "New Christians" and assisting in their resettlement. Diego decided to emigrate to Venice but died before he could transfer his assets to the branches of his banks at Venice and Ancona. Beatrice fled to Venice with an entourage of some 30 persons headed by Tristan da Costa, leaving half of her fortune behind to her cousin. The transfer of funds was impeded at every turn of her clandestine moves. The first was to a spa under the pretext of poor health. Then she tried her luck in Lyon. Finally she went to Venice, where this canny and capable woman achieved considerable success trading in wool, pepper, grain and textiles.23

Beatrice and her younger sister, Dame Brianda Mendes, chose Venice to take advantage of the freedom granted to the Jews by the Republic of Venice under the newly liberalized Salvocondotto statutes of 1544, in which the Mendes sisters and their party would be "safe, free and secure in person and in property" for the entire time of their sojourn.24 The Mendes (or Mendez) family was undoubtedly associated with the da Costa family from earlier times, for it also originated from Castilla y León.25 The association of the da Costas with the Mendes family is paralleled by the association of the Mendes and the Rodriguez and Robles families of the Jewish glassmaking community in the Spanish town of Cadalso de los Vidrios. (literally, "Cadalso of the glassmakers").26 A Tuscan branch of the Mendes family later joined the da Costas in the ghetto of Genoa, established a century later through the efforts of the previously-cited Abram da Costa de León. No less than four Mendes families were neighbors of the da Costas in the Genovese ghetto.27

The close relationship between the Da Costa, Mendes and Rodriguez families are made amply evident by the record of a number of members of the families who remained behind in Spain as Marrano and were subsequently condemned as Judaizers. An auto da fe held on the 30th of June, 1680, included Maria Mendez, the "daughter of Antonio Mendes," Captain Ferrara and his wife, also named Maria Mendez, and Juana Lopez, "widow of Francisco de Acosta, and two members of the Rodriguez family!"28

Tristan (or, as he was registered in the tribunal records, Licentiato) da Costa was "A man dressed in foreign style with a long grey beard about 60 years of age." In 1555 "Licentiato" da Costa was denounced by the tribunal of the Inquisition. He declared that he was "Tristan da Costa from Viana in Portugal, the son of Isaac Odoardo Costa, and that his family had come originally from Spain.

"What was your mother's name?" The inquisitors. demanded Tristan said he did not know, for when he was very young his father converted, as all Jews were forced to do. His mother remained a Hebrew, and he was torn from his mother's bed and baptized. So his brothers, who were all thrown into prison and violently baptized, had told him.

"Have you lived as a Christian?" Persisted the tribunal.

"Externally yes, but internally no!" Tristan declaimed, and recounted his tribulations as, fleeing Salamonica to Viana, where he married "one of the same nation as my own." His wife bore him five children, and he was forced to have them baptized, but only because he was in deadly fear of the Inquisition. He traveled to Lisbon, and then made his way to Flanders and Antwerp, and, as repressive measures were instituted there, came to Venice with the Mendes sisters.

"Why did you come to Venice?"

"To be on free soil where there is no Inquisition, Tristan defiantly replied. It was only because Venice had extended protection to the Jews at that time against ecclesiastic persecution that Tristan escaped punishment for his audacity.29 "I demand that I be allowed to be called by my true name," Tristan continued, unabashed, "Tristan da Costa, the name my father gave me."

"Have you participated in Jewish rites?" The tribunal insisted. The accused answered that he had neither participated in Christian affairs nor prayed in the Hebrew manner.

"Were you circumcised?"

"I don't remember." Tristan was frank. "But if so, I would have been too young to remember."

The trial went on for several days, in which time the inquisitors relentlessly attempted to trap Tristan into some admission of having accepted or acted as a Christian at some point in his life, either of which admissions would have subjected him to the charge of judaizing. Finally, being protected as a Jew under the terms of the Salvocondotto established by the Venetian "Council of Ten," Tristan was released.

The Inquisition, however, had a long memory. In 1608 an attempt was made to incriminate two Jews, Mose and

Josef Massaod of being the New Christians Antonio Rodriguez and Manuel da Costa. The latter was evidently a descendant of the daring Tristan da Costa.. The Doge himself intervened, declaring that Jews who were forced into baptism were not to be considered Catholic and therefore were innocent of heresy.30

In 1658, the year prior to the granting of residence to the Jews in Genoa, a Giuseppe (Joseph) Costa was listed among the unemployed of the Universitá d'Altare. His name appears among the large number of lesser skilled glassworkers and not among the 33 maestri then separately listed as being out of work.31 In contrast with the unskilled Giuseppe Costa, all the highly skilled Costas left Altare during that economically depressed time. They show up at several European locations. A "gaffer called da Costa is known to have worked at Henley (1675) [who\ belonged to an Altarist family.32 Altare was likewise represented at Nimwegen by Battista da Costa (c. 1660-70).33 Still another da Costa returned to Portugal to erect a factory in Lisbon in the latter quarter of the seventeenth century.34

No less important to glassmaking history was Giacomo da Costa, who brought the formula for lead (flint) glass to England.35

Coral and the da Costas

The Ligurian (western) coast of Italy off Genoa is notable for its coral. The processing of coral mined along the coast became a major industry of Genoa at the time. The Jews had long been a major factor in the international distribution of this highly prized commodity. The precious material was highly prized in the Far East. A group of Jewish fishermen for and traders in coral were active on the Adriatic shores near Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) in the late 14th century.36 The warm Tyrrhenian coastlines were equally conducive to the mining of this handsome, ruddy substance. The coral industry provides yet another link in the intricate familial chain that bound the Sephardic families of the Genovese ghetto to each other throughout the Diaspora.

The plight of Jews in Christendom was of great concern to Fernando Mendes da Costa, the progeny of a Mendes and a da Costa. This Philanthropist and financier, previously mentioned for his efforts to assist Jews in settling in Italy and England,. was deeply involved in the coral trade.37 The right to ship coral beads to India was conceded to Fernando by the East India Company in 1668. It was a window of opportunity that may well have been opened by the establishment of the Genovese community through the combined efforts of Fernando Mendes da Costa and Abram da Costa de León.

Another of the foremost coral merchants of London was Benjamin Mendes da Costa. Benjamin was born in Provence in 1697, and followed the same itinerary as his glassmaking compatriots. He passed some time in the Netherlands with his family, and then settled into London.

Benjamin sold coral products from Italy to the Portuguese, who trans-shipped them to the Far East, where they were highly prized. The Portuguese often paid for the shipments with gold from Brazil. A consignment of gold from Brazil to Benjamin Mendes da Costa was impounded by the Portuguese on the grounds that he had abandoned Portugal without permission. In fact, Benjamin was not in Portugal but in France at the time during which the Portuguese claimed that he had fled from their clutches! The Portuguese mistook him for Jose da Costa Villereal, who served the king of Portugal as comptroller to his armies until he was charged with Judaizing. Jose escaped to London with the assistance of his English correspondent under cover of the confusion engendered by a great fire that providentially broke out in Lisbon just as he and his family were about to be incarcerated. In London the male da Costas, including the 74-year-old patriarch, immediately underwent circumcision. The present Villereal school for Jewish girls was founded by Jose da Costa Villereal.38

The census's of the Genovese ghetto show that a Villereal family had been a neighbor of the da Costas. The descendants of the Sephardic families, members of which were prominently associated with the art of glassmaking, continued the tradition of intermarriage for many generations after dispersion into the Diaspora. Two other families of Sephardic origin, who were not present in the Genovese ghetto but were likewise associated with the glassmaking, ended up in the Netherlands and England: the de Medinas, originating from the above-cited Burgos, and the Robles', originating from Cadalso de Los Vidrios (Literally "Cadalso the town of the glassmakers").39 Both towns were major glassmaking centers of Spain in which Jewish glassmakers dominated the industry. The Inquisition records of Toledo record that no less that eight glassmaking families of Cadalso de los Vidrios were hauled before the tribunal for Judaizing.

The interlocking family relationships among the glassworking and coral-dealing Sephardim, erstwhile residents of Castilla y León and of the Genovese ghetto are legion. In 1678 the East India company confirmed the right to ship coral products to India to Alphonse Rodriquez and Alvaro d'Acosta Among the merchants of London and Amsterdam who placed orders for Brazilian gold from Portugal to finance this type of operation were: Jacob Mendes da Costa, John Mendes da Costa, Joseph de Medina, and Isaac de Medina. The state papers of Portugal list 56 London merchants who empowered a captain to purchase gold on their behalf including: Fernando da Costa and Son, Jacob da Costa, Anthony Mendes, Jacob Mendes da Acosta, M[oses] de Medina, and Jo[seph] Mendes da Costa Jr.40

These same families made a substantial impact upon the New World. They were instrumental in the development of industries and trade, and they played a decisive role in the success of the American Revolution!

The da Costas in the New world

Branches of the families linked to glassmaking also emigrated from Holland to the Americas where the same pattern of intermarriage and a common involvement in the economic development of the New World ensued. The register of the Dutch-Portuguese Jewish marriages in Surinam between 1642-1750 lists a multitude of linkages between the families with branches formerly involved in glassmaking.41 The islands, however, were not conducive to the vitric industry inasmuch as the vast amount of fuel needed was unavailable. The former glassmakers joined their compatriots in the development of products and industries suitable for the islands.

The Da Costas figured prominently in that development. The sugar industry was established in 1655 in Martinique by Benjamin da Costa. He had been expelled from Brazil by the Portuguese along with all other Jews. Benjamin subsequently suffered the same fate under the French, who instituted the infamous code noir in 1685, and expelled the Jews from French territory. Jeronimus Nunes da Costa was among the investors in the West India Company, and was given the power of attorney for the deputies of the Portuguese Brazilian Company in August 1659. A Jasper Fernandus da Costa was among the nine petitioners to the Dutch goverment for freedom of trade to the Americas. Three da Costas are listed among the creditors of the West India Company at the time the Portuguese assumed control of Brazil. Later, no less than nine da Costas are listed as creditors of that company.

Da Costas were prominent among the heroes who helped the Dutch in their war with the Spaniards. The West India Company was designated in the "General Archives of Simancas Council of the Inquisition, book 49, Folio 45" as "a Brazilian company and composed of pirates, governed entirely by Jews of Amsterdam." The Inquisition council proceeds to decry the role of two Jewish "spies" of Bahia who assisted the Dutch in resisting Portuguese aggression. They were Lope de Acosta Suarez and David de Acosta," who were "responsible for the capture of many ships & other things."42

After leaving behind the sugar industry that had been established in Brazil before they were expelled, a representative of the Mendes family sought to establish a sugar industry in Louisiana.43 A branch of the da Costa family was among the Jews who settled in the southern United States at an early date. In 1753, Isaac da Costa of South Carolina was listed as a freemason, among many Jews who participated in the rituals of that secret society.44

It can be well imagined under what circumstances Gabriel de Granada, all of 13 years old at the time of his trial in 1643, was induced to testify in Mexico against his mother, his uncles and aunts, his grandparents, and against a teacher of the Law of Moses, Manuel de Acosta.45

Da Costas were among the Sephardim of St. Eustatius (now known as "Statia"), the Caribbean island that supplied the American revolutionaries with the means to win independence from the British. In 1757 St Eustatius became the first of a series of free ports set up by the Dutch in the Caribbean. The island is placed strategically at the confluence of the Caribbean and the Atlantic. The island measured only four by eight kilometers, but this speck in the sea became famous in every European and American household for the goods that were exported to and imported from the 200 warehouses clustered on the shore of Oranjestad [Port Orange], its main city

The island earned a unique place in the annals of the history of the United States and in the hearts of Americans. The first shots in recognition of the United States as a sovereign power were fired in a congratulatory exchange between the island's Fort Orange and the American Brigantine Andria Doria.

One of only four vessels in the Revolutionary navy, the small but swift brigantine Andrea Doria was dispatched on October 23rd, 1776 on a diplomatic mission to deliver a copy of the Declaration of Independence to the governor of St. Eustatius and to return with a cargo of armaments. The ship proceeded to load munitions for delivery to the American rebels. That shipment and the hundreds of shipments that followed it from St. Eustatius were major factors in the successful outcome of the American Revolution.

Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese Jews were among the first settlers of St. Eustatius. Many of the Jewish settlers came as early as 1655. The physical evidence of their arrival can still be found in the sands of its beaches. In the seventeenth century Jewish glassmakers in Amsterdam were producing a particular kind of blue beads,46 most valuable for trading abroad. Travel brochures now note that "A big deal on the beaches is searching for Statia's fabled blue-glass beads... found only on Statia."

The Sephardim became ship owners, planters of sugar cane, and producers of rum and molasses. They arrived from Recife (Brazil), Suriname, Barbados, Holland, and France. Jewish emigration to St. Eustatius burgeoned in the period 1757-1813, when the Dutch authorities, in order to bolster its holdings abroad, issued grants in Dutch guilders to Portuguese Sephardim for leaving Amsterdam to Dutch possessions abroad against the guarantee that they were not to return in less than 20 years. Most grant recipients went to the Caribbean, and many ended up in St. Eustatius. Holland was wise in dispatching these Sephardim to open new avenues for trade, for they were no ordinary emigres, but hard-working, knowledgeable entrepreneurs who had helped make Spain and Portugal great powers. They came bolstered with commercial expertise and world-wide contacts, and they made Statia into the western world's emporium.

The Sephardim were joined on Statia by enterprising Ashkenazim from the American continent. The Statia community was ".. a bubbling kettle of Sephardic Jews - Spanish and Portuguese refugees from the murderous Inquisition - and Ashkenazim, those Jews of German and East European descent... For trade or social purposes both groups could offer a range of European languages but among themselves the Sephardim spoke Ladino, the admixture of old Castilian and Hebrew, while the Ashkenazim made use of Yiddish."

"...It is estimated that this community consisted of 101 [adult, male] men and their families. With the material and moral assistance of their brethren of Caraçao and Amsterdam, the Jews of Eustatius built a synagogue to which they gave the title Honen Dalim... The One who is merciful to the poor."47

Obtaining, and then maintaining a flow of military equipment and supplies was crucial to the conduct of the American Revolution. Time and time again, the victorious conclusion of a battle or of a phase of the Revolutionary War hung precariously upon the availability of munitions and ordnance. From the very outset of American resistance to British rule, the Sephardim on this speck of an island played a pivotal role in providing the means by which a ragged assembly of American patriots ultimately won victory over a well-established and well-equipped army. The success of the Revolution can be attributed in large measure to the activity of the traders of the tiny island of St. Eustatius.48

Dispersion and Assimilation

The da Costas spread out into other continents, as did the above-mentioned Cristoval Acosta of North Africa, author of Tractado de los Drogas, a scientific work that is still, after four centuries, regarded as authoritative. Some da Costas returned from the ends of the earth to join the Jewish communities in Pisa and Leghorn under the liberalized Ballottazione statutes. Records dating from 1743 forward delineate the movement of influential Jews from the Diaspora back into Tuscany, completing a cycle that had begun in the 13th century. Thus Abram Mendes da Costa, alias Giorgio Costa returned from Amsterdam to Tuscany in 1761, as did Isache David da Costa in 1781. Isach di Abram Costa and David di Abram Costa came back to Tuscany from Tunisia in 1781, and a Jacob and Moise d'Isache Costa thereafter returned from Tunisia in 1793.49 Three of the four signatories to a surviving letter in those files dated 11 December, 1796 directed to the Massari, the administrative body of the Jewish community of the "Gran Ducato di Toscana" are Jacob d'ab.m Da Costa, Isac Vais Villareal, and David de Medina.

The paths of the Sephardim twine tortuously through the Diaspora. The trail of accomplishment blazed by the progenitors of the da Costas, and by their compatriots, has dissolved into the maelstrom of oppression and assimilation.

Most of the heirs to the rich history of the da Costa family are, regretfully, now assimilated and ignorant of their glorious heritage.


  1. Abbe Boutelier, La Verrerie e les gentilshommes verriers de Nivers, 1895, 34.
  2. HHF Fact Paper 6-III., Glassmaking, a Jewish Tradition, part III: Flint Glass and the Jews of Genoa.
  3. Jose Ramon Onega, Los Judios en la Reino di Galicia, Madrid, 1981, 274-5.
  4. Beatrice Leroy, "The Jews of Navarra," Hispania Judaica, Magness Press, Jerusalem, 1985, 17.
  5. Leroy, Ibid, 21.
  6. Leroy, Ibid, 24.
  7. Leroy, Ibid, 36
  8. Leroy, Ibid, 35 See also HHF Fact Papers 4-II, Iron-working, A Judaic Tradition, and HHF Fact Paper 21, Dye-making, A Jewish Tradition.
  9. Leroy, Ibid., 44-54, citing a long list from records to the end of the fourteenth century.
  10. Leroy, Ibid., 44-54.
  11. Alice Wilson Frothingham, Spanish Glass, Faber and Faber, London, 1963, 26.
  12. Jose Ramon Onega, Los Judios en la Reino di Galicia, Madrid, 1981, 482.
  13. Onega, Ibid., 570.
  14. Frothingham, Ibid., 72-87.
  15. Cecil Roth, The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, 1956, 163.
  16. The term "Universitá d'-(city) is almost always employed to designate the Jewish community of a city, as, for example, the Universitá d'Roma, refers to the Jewish community of Rome.
  17. Gedalia Yogev, Diamonds and Coral, 1978, 38.
  18. ASG, Hebreorum, Archivio Segreto, Capitoli, 1659, Paragraph 17.
  19. Cecil Roth, Ibid., 303.
  20. Jonathan I. Israel, "The Links with Holland and with Dutch Jewry," Gli Ebrei e Venezia, edited by Gaetano Cozzi, Edizioni di Communitá, Milan, 1987, citing E. M. Koen, Notarial Deeds Pertaining to the Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam up to 1639, "SR," XI (1977) deeds nos. 268.279, 292, and 304.
  21. Cecil Roth, A History of the Marrano, New York, 1959, 268-9.
  22. H. Antone Gasperetto, "Les Relations entre l'Ingleterre et Venise aux XVI et XVII siècles ey leur influence sur les formes verrières anglaises," Bulletin of the 6th Annual Congress [on Glass], 68.
  23. Cecil Roth, Ibid., 303.
  24. Pier Cesare Ioly Zorattini, Leandro Tisanio, un giudaizzante sanvitese del Seicento, Leo S. Olschi, Florence, 1984, 53.
  25. Onega, Ibid., 500-504.
  26. HHF Fact Paper 5, Juan Robles and the Inquisition.
  27. ASG Hebreorum , Census of the ghetto 1659.
  28. Framingham, Spanish Glass, London 1963, 57-8, 61.
  29. Pier Cesare Ioly Zorattini, Leandro Tisanio un giudaizzante Sanvitese del seicento, Leo S Olschi Florence, 1984 , 69.
  30. Zorattini, Ibid., 1.
  31. Guido Malandra, I Vitrai di Altare, Savona, 1983, 131.
  32. W. A. Thorpe, English Glass, 1935, 156.
  33. F. W. Hudig, Das Glas, 1925. 71.
  34. Alice Wison Frothingham, Hispanic Glass, 117.
  35. HHF Fact Paper III, Flint Glass and the Jews of Genoa.
  36. Barisa Krekic, "Gli Ebrei a Ragusa nel Cinquecento," Gli Ebrei e Venezia, edited by Gaetano Cozzi, Edizione del Communitá, Milan, 1987,835.
  37. Gedalia Yogev, Diamonds and Coral, 1978, 38.
  38. Yogev, Ibid., 30-33.
  39. Framingham, Ibid.,57,58,62. Anita Engles, Readings I Glass History, quoting from a paper by Haim Beinart, Isaac Ben Zvi Memorial Vol. I, 1964, 66-76. See also HHF Fact Paper 5, Juan Robles and the Inquisition.
  40. Yogev, Ibid., 30-33.
  41. P. A Hillman, Notes on the History of the Jews in Surinam No.18, 190. Robles-Rodriguez-de Medina marriages predominate in this list.
  42. Cohen, Ibid.; Dr. Cyrus Adler, "A Contemporary Memorial Relating to Damages done to Spanish Interests in America by the Jews of Holland," (1634) VII, 181-4.
  43. Leo Shpall, The Jews in Louisiana, Steeg Printing and Publishing Co., New Orleans, 1936, 7.
  44. Harry Smith and J. Hugo Tatsch, Moses Michael Hayes, Merchant-Citizen-Freemason, 1739-1805, privately printed by Moses Michael Hayes Lodge A.F.& A.M., Boston, 1937.
  45. Cohen, Ibid., citing David Fergusson, The trial of David Granada by the Inquisition in Mexico, 1642-1645, 427.
  46. Lois Rose Rose, Hebrew History Federation Fact Paper 20-I, Ornament and the Jews: Beads.
  47. Ronald Hurst, The Golden Rock, Naval Institute Press, 1996, 6-7.
  48. Samuel Kurinsky, The Jews of St. Eustatius, Rescuers of the American Revolution, Hebrew History Federation Ltd. Fact Paper 37.
  49. Jeane-Pierre Filipini, "La Ballottazione a Livorno nel Settecento, La Rassegna Mensile., Mar, 1867.