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Reviews of Underground World of Secret Jews and Africans

“In this concise volume, Jonathan Schorsch focuses on two cases covered in his much longer work, Swimming the Christian Atlantic: Judeoconversos, Afroiberians and Amerindians in the Seventeenth Century (2009). Here the emphasis is on four individuals caught up in two different persecutions done by the Holy Office in its Novohispanic and neogranadino tribunals. Schorsch examines the extremely complex topic of the connections and conflicts that these case studies reveal as existing between judeoconversos and African-descended subjects within the Spanish empire. In the preface, the author acknowledges that a study of the tensions that simmered between these groups will resonate with current and highly polemical debates.
This book has a different structure and analytical style than a conventional academic work of history, which allows Schorsch’s text to range broadly and creatively in terms of both sources and the interpretations that he applies to his provoking topic. After an introduction providing brief background information on the two groups and the setting, there are really only two long chapters in the book, which are further divided into short sections.
The first case study delves into the well-documented witch crazes of the 1620s and 1630s in Cartagena de Indias. Of course, these particular Holy Office trials have been studied since the nineteenth century. Several excellent historians working out of Colombia revived the topic in the 1990s. Since then a number of scholars writing in English have entered the discussion, to the point that the focal figure of the trials, Paula de Eguiluz, probably has now joined Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz among the most famous women from the era of the Spanish viceroyalties. Eguiluz’s investigation alone numbers over 800 pages. When combined with the prosecution of Diego López, the main focus of Schorsch’s analysis, there are endless possibilities for interpreting this material.
Schorsch examines the relationship between López; one of his mistresses, an enslaved woman named Rufina; and the Portuguese surgeon and alleged judiazante Blas de Paz Pinto. Along with an excellent medical education, a specialty in local herbs, and hardworking, detail-oriented leadership of Catholic brotherhoods, Pinto also made an incredible fortune as a slave trader. Over the course of years of interrogations and statements made by witnesses on trial themselves, Pinto gradually developed a persona as a ringleader, even a rabbi, for a significant Jewish community. López and Rufina provided damning evidence through their strange hobby of spying on Pinto, which led them to testify bizarre and stereotypical tales of his desecration of Christian images and symbols as well disturbing reports of his hemorrhaging as a kind of twisted menstruation. Schorsch speculates on why Rufina and López would choose to destroy Pinto’s reputation as a leader in Cartagena’s Catholic society. Is it a form of race-based rebellion? A facet of magic practitioners who thrived on gossip and persuasive talk? A desire to feminize converso men? Simply an attempt to bring down a professional rival, because of course López was also a surgeon practicing in Cartagena? There is certainly a range of interpretations of these testimonies. Ultimately however the end remains tragic—Pinto died an agonizing death 11 days after a horrific torture session and only participated in the later auto de fé in effigy.
If possible, Schorsch’s second case study is even more complex, involving an enslaved Spaniard with a New Christian father, Esperanza Rodríguez, who married a German and resided in Mexico City when she came before the Holy Office in the viceregal court city. Rodríguez seems to have belonged to a circle of practicing Jews, and she supplemented her meager resources by performing some form of religiously framed fasts to spiritually assist others in her extensive circle. While Rodríguez and her three daughters endured autos de fé, lashes, and incarceration, unlike Pinto they survived the ordeals. Although fitting into a community seems to have motivated the Rodríguez family, Schorsch also speculates on the potential rebelliousness of Esperanza’s actions.
The book ends with a provocative conclusion regarding the lack of unity between these two oppressed groups under Spanish rule. In his final pages, Schorsch argues that any Judaism practiced among them was not as coherent as some scholars assume. He also observes that many of the testimonies, similar to those made by Rufina and López, more resemble Catholic fantasies than any actions that so-called crypto-Jews actually did. Overall, Schorsch seeks to both appreciate the sophisticated survival skills of his subjects and complicate the responses of two dominated groups within the Spanish empire. This unique book should be read by scholars and students interested in the historical complexities of religious and racial identity and power. It will certainly provoke a debate, which one can only hope will be more fruitful and lack the bitterness and violence of the cases presented in this book.”—Hispanic American Historical Review, August 2022
Nicole von Germeten, Oregon State University



“Jonathan Schorsch, The Underground World of Secret Jews and Africans: Two Tales of Sex, Magic, and Survival in Colonial Cartagena and Mexico City. Princeton NJ: Markus Weiner, 2021. xii + 188 pp. (Paper US$ 24.95)
In his classic study, Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies (1908), Henry C. Lea noted that “in the colonies we see the Inquisition at its worst, [demonstrating a] capacity for evil even greater than in the Peninsula.” Lea’s approach to these tribunals—one in Peru, the others in Mexico City and the port city of Cartagena de Indias—was primarily institutional; he was especially interested in their procedures, the number and kinds of cases they prosecuted, and their impact—negative in his view—on the economic and intellectual development of Spanish America.
Lea’s institutional approach to the history of the Inquisition is long out of date. Most recent scholars, acting like historical anthropologists, comb through inquisitorial trial records, looking for details about the lives, religious beliefs, and social connections of individuals the Holy Office had arrested—all to learn more about the complex, ever changing character of colonial society. With respect to the Spanish Caribbean, no one has contributed more along this line of research than Jonathan Schorsch, a historian at the Universität Potsdam whose publications include Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World (2006) and its richly-documented sequel, Swimming the Christian Atlantic: Judeoconversos, Afroiberians, and Amerindians in the Seventeenth-Century (2008).
The current volume, focused on two mid-seventeenth-century clusters of inquisitorial trials—one in Cartagena, the other in Mexico City—offer new and valuable insights into the interactions of two subaltern groups: Portuguese New Christians (or judeoconversos), and Africans, both enslaved and free. The first centers on Blas de Paz Pinto, a judeoconverso surgeon who helped to cure ailments of the thousands of enslaved Blacks then arriving in Cartagena from Angola. Pinto maintained close relations with Cartagena’s Black and Mulatto population, among them, Diego López, a surgeon himself but who also practiced African folk medicine together with his lover, the Mulata Rufina, selling love potions, amulets, and miracle cures to Pinto, his judeoconverso friends, and other members of the city’s dominant White population. Arrested by the Holy Office on charges of witchcraft (they were not alone, as many Africans were arrested on charges of brujería), in the course of their trials, both provided inquisitors with information that led to Pinto’s arrest on charges of being an “observer of the Law of Moses,” who ran the equivalent of a “synagogue” in his home and defiled an image of St. Francis by using it as a cover for his chamber pot. In keeping with long-standing tropes about Jewish men regularly bleeding from the anus as a result of their denial of the sanctity of Christ, López also suggested that Pinto menstruated on a regular basis.
The book’s second set of trials explores the complex spiritual life of a mulatta, Esperanza Rodríguez, a former slave in a New Christian household in Seville who later moved to Mexico City where, working as a dressmaker, she maintained close relations with that city’s large and relatively prosperous New Christian population. Arrested by the Inquisition in 1642, Esperanza’s testimony suggests that she, her three daughters, and other New Christians she helped the Inquisition to identify practiced a flexible, somewhat hybrid spiritual routine that combined confession and attendance at mass, prayers, fasts, and other practices that were identifiably Jewish, as well as certain folk rituals associated with the city’s large and growing population of Africans, both enslaved and free.
Schorsch is to be congratulated for the manner in which he allows Esperanza, and his other protagonists, to speak for themselves, and his analysis of the hybrid “in-between” character of their religious practices, enriched by his extensive knowledge of Jewish belief, which is original and fresh. The real payoff comes in the volume’s concluding chapters, on the malleable manner in which Esperanza, together with Pinto and López, drifted between Catholic, Jewish, and African folk beliefs, where he challenges long-standing ideas about the fixed, supposedly indelible and invariably Jewish character of marrano-cum-judeconverso religious identity. He also suggests that the acts of sacrilege committed by both Africans and judeoconversos were the equivalent of “ weapons of the weak,” their manner of challenging the religion and values of the Spanish Catholic ruling elite.
This book constitutes a valuable addition to judeoconverso literature in the early modern Atlantic, and its discussion of African folk practices complements recent studies by Matthew Restall, Jane Lander, and David Wheat on the African presence in the Caribbean basin. My sole complaint is the bibliography’s failure to list many of the books discussed in the text and included in the notes. This glitch, while annoying, does little to detract from the study’s originality and importance.–New West Indian GuideNWIG 96-34 (2022)
Richard L. Kagan