Janin-Thivos M. (2007) Foreign merchants conversion in 16th and 17th-century Portugal

Janin-Thivos Michelle (2007) “Entre développement des affaires et convictions personnelles: la conversion ds marchands étrangers devant l’Inquisition portugaise a l’époque moderne”, in Burkardt Albreht ed., Commerce , voyage et expérience religieuse XVIe-XVIIIe siecles, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 275-286.


Merchant traveled less often with their merchandize during the 17th and 18th century then before. But their business still required them to move regularly within a network of partners and parents. Despite the rise of an intolerant catholicism in Portugal in the second half of the 17th, foreign merchants kept moving in the kingdom, chiefly looking for colonial products. In 1647, the English had obtained the right to practice freely their religion in Portugal (275).

Who converted?

As long as there was no proselytism, the German, Dutch and English merchants could practice their protestant religion in Portugal. A taxation system favourable to the natives, made taking the Portuguese nationality appealing, but as it required also to adopt the customs of the land (i.e. convert to Catholicism) few took the opportunity. Those who did had to be interviewed by the tribunals of the Inquisition (the author uses their archives for this article) (276).

Converting opened the way to Brazil, a good way to jump start a trading career, which explains why adventurers (soldiers and sailors) did so more often then the established merchants. Most of those who did were English (39%) and German (26%) (278).

Why converting?

Some apprentices sent by their parents to learn the trade were as young as 13 years old. They were easily influenced by their environment (279). Elder merchants who converted after 15 years spent in Portugal did so for more religious reasons. For instance, a British consul converted on his death bed, considering that Catholicism gave him a better chance to save his soul. This was often seen as a treason by the new convert’s family. On the other hand, those who changed religion for more opportunistic purposes often remained in contact with their parents.

One would often delay his conversion fearing that the rupture it would imply would be detrimental to his business. It would also mean being casted out his nation’s community in Portugal and lose access to its dynamic commercial network and to its credit facilities (280). Other reasons were sometimes mentioned to exlain a conversion: a divine intervention saved one from danger, or the wish to marry a Portuguese woman (an important issue since the trading communities were overwhelmingly composed of males) (282).


The integration into the Portuguese society was often difficult as ultimately one would always remain a stranger and somewhat branded by his former religion (283). But it also happened that powerful foreign merchants (and moreover their sons) integrate the Portuguese gentry and the ecclesiastical elite (285).

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