A Crypto-Jewish Community in early modern Malta (1602-1612)
Sarah Azzopardi-Ljubibratic, Swiss-born, married to a Maltese, was the speaker at a recent conference held jointly by the Malta Historical Society, the Malta University Historical Society and Palazzo Falson at Palazzo Santa Sofia in Mdina.
It was, as a speaker said, a commemorative homage to Godfrey Wettinger, the late foremost scholar on Medieval Malta. It was a double-level homage for its conclusion, if I understood right, showed there was a discontinuity not just between pre-Muslim Maltese Catholics or Christians and post-Norman invasion but also one in the history of the Jews in Malta.
The speaker herself, married to an Azzopardi, at the end rather played down the tradition that the Azzopardis in Malta derive from the Sephardi Jews who came to Malta after they were kicked out of Spain in 1492.
The speaker carried out her still unfinished research on Wettinger’s book and also on the research by Prof. Frans Ciappara and on foreign sources.
The Jews were expelled from Malta in 1492 but some tarried in Malta till 1495, because of economic factors, while others converted to Christianity or made believe so.
Nevertheless, in Malta in the 17th Century, we find the phenomenon known as Marranism, also found in Spain and Portugal after the Reconquista.
It means Jews who pretended to be Christians and were even baptised yet kept their Jewish religious practices in secret. It shows a society which had a sort of religious plurality, following the rites of the official religion in public but then keeping the religious observance of their former religion in private.
17th Century Malta was a mix of peoples, especially in the harbour area, with foreign sailors, galley slaves, traders, soldiers of fortune, etc. They spoke in various languages and dialects but understood each other. It was thus easy to change one’s identity according to circumstances.
There were Jews in Malta in that time, but they were mainly slaves kept in a special prison in what is now the dockyard, having even a synagogue there. There were three prisons in Malta at that time – one in Valletta near MCC, one in Senglea and one as said in what later became the dockyard.
But outside the prison there were people who officially were baptised Catholics but secretly were Jews. Everybody was watching these Marranos so they were careful not to leave traces they were anything less than Catholics.
In many reports of the Inquisition in Malta, the speaker found cases of people who were accused of being secret Jews.
Being a Marrano meant being always suspected.
They had been baptised but no force was used, at least physical force, but it was quite clear that if they were baptised, they would get a whole lot of advantages, from the work they were made to do, the wage they were given and the things they could do.
It is clear there was a cryptoJewish community between 1602 and 1612.
The Marranos were especially watched with regards to what were held to be Jewish items in their possession, such as icons, bells, scrolls, etc. They were also watched to see if they kept the Jewish holidays such as the Shabbat, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth and Passover.
The speaker mentioned cases regarding Simone Spilletto who seems to have been quite active in keeping contacts with Jewish slaves. Cases regarding him occur in 1611 and 1612.
After 1624 such cases seem to disappear, but that may be because of an exemplary case where an individual was given life imprisonment.
Years later, in 1749, Joseph Cohen, a Jew, who kept a bar, informed Grand Master Pinto of a plot he overheard between an African and Tomas de Nicola, a plot later known as the Rebellion of the Slaves.