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Overseas intrigue

This project highlights the importance of the prophetic idea of “hope” in the relations between Portugal, the Netherlands and England in the 17th century

Allegories and symbols of hope have left their mark on iconography. The engraving on paper entitled Esperança (Hope) (c. 1559-1562), by Philips Galle, based on a drawing by Brueghel, is one of the first in which the anchor and the sea are associated with the virtue of hope in turbulent times (225 mm × 293 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

reproductionAllegories and symbols of hope have left their mark on iconography. The engraving on paper entitled Esperança (Hope) (c. 1559-1562), by Philips Galle, based on a drawing by Brueghel, is one of the first in which the anchor and the sea are associated with the virtue of hope in turbulent times (225 mm × 293 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)reproduction

It was about waking up after a dream.  It was a dream expounded by Portuguese priest Antônio Vieira in the 17th century: the prophetic hope of a “Fifth Empire,” inspired by the Book of Daniel in the Bible, considered apocalyptic in that it deals with events linked to the end of the world.  Vieira believed that, after the dominions of the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, the time had come for the last kingdom on Earth: the Portuguese Empire.  Historian Luís Filipe Silvério Lima has dedicated his work to this overseas intrigue.  Lima has been a professor of modern history at the Guarulhos campus of the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) since 2007.  “In 17th century western civilization, mainly in Europe, dreams were a very powerful idea for explaining the world itself.  Dreams were a metaphor for life.  Many authors, as well as playwrights, philosophers, politicians, priests, painters and poets, used dreams to give meaning to reality,” Lima says.

During his investigations, Lima observed connections between the notion of the Fifth Empire proposed by Portugal and the Fifth Monarchy conceived in England, and he initiated a new study project on interpretations and readings of prophecies in the 17th century.  “At the time the project was being developed, the methodological limits of comparative history were being discussed quite a bit.  Other approaches were proposed that made it possible to think beyond national borders, such as connected histories and overlapping and tangled histories.  Thus, based on these perspectives, my intent was to identify possibilities for links between Portugal and England during this period surrounding prophetic expectations and studies of the Fifth Monarchy which, almost simultaneously, emerged during the Portuguese Restoration and the English Revolution,” according to Lima, author of Padre Vieira: Sonhos proféticos, profecias oníricas.  O tempo do Quinto Império nos sermões de Xavier Dormindo (Father Vieira: Prophetic Dreams, Oneiric Prophecies.  The Time of the Fifth Empire in the Sermons of Xavier Dormindo) (Humanitas, 2004) and O império dos sonhos: Narrativas proféticas, sebastianismo e messianismo brigantino (The Empire of Dreams: Prophetic Narratives, Sebastianism and Brigantine Messianism.  (Alameda, 2010) were developed, respectively, from his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation under the advisorship of José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy, and Lima defended both at the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo.

A facsimile of Hope of Israel

reproductionA facsimile of Hope of Israelreproduction

The rabbi and the priest
Within this context, Lima identified the Netherlands as the ideal country for linking Portugal and England.  “This is significant, for example, because of the role played by Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, a Jew of Portuguese origin who lived in the first half of the 17th century,” he notes.  Menasseh came from a Portuguese New Christian family.  They were Christians of Jewish origin who were forced to convert to Catholicism.  Many Jews living in Catholic countries such as Portugal and Spain migrated to France and then to the Netherlands to convert back to Judaism, and Menasseh did so as well.  There he assisted in founding Talmud Torah, also known as the Portuguese Synagogue.  During those times dominated by Catholicism, Amsterdam was one of the cities where it was possible to live “openly” as a Jew.  “It was a relatively safe haven for anyone who wished to practice the Jewish faith.  Many Portuguese New Christians went to Amsterdam, regardless of whether or not they were fleeing the Inquisition.”

Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, recognized for his knowledge of the Bible, became a leading figure for Catholics and Protestants alike.  He engaged in dialogue with other exponents of the era, including Jesuit Antônio Vieira, with whom at one point he had an encounter and a long conversation about the end of the world, a topic that dominated discussions at the time.  Menasseh also kindled the interest of important political circles, such as those of Vasco Luís da Gama, the Count of Vidigueira, and later the Marquis of Nisa, a direct descendent of the Portuguese admiral who discovered the ocean route to India in the 15th century.  These circles were interested in a number of issues, including the role Jews could play in restoring the independence of Portugal in 1640, with the new dynasty of Dom João IV de Bragança.  They pointed out the negative impact of the tribunals of the Holy Office against New Christians, some of whom were important merchants.  “The issue had a religious and theological dimension, as well as a political one,” Lima notes.

Based on his research of archives in Amsterdam, Lisbon, London and Washington, DC, Lima traced connections that allow us to understand the religious and political concerns of the 17th century, dominated by one main idea: hope.  From 1649 to 1650, Menasseh Ben Israel wrote a short treatise entitled Miqveh Israel ou esperança de Israel (Micvah Israel or Hope of Israel).  He wrote it because of the interest English millennialists had expressed in the supposed “discovery,” recounted by New Christian Antonio de Montesinos, of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel in Spanish America, and more specifically, in the Amazon region.  In interpreting the pages of the Bible, he noted the coming of the Messiah, the establishment of the Fifth Empire, and hence, the imminent end of the world.  It seems that the “news” had little impact on the Portuguese Jewish community in the Netherlands, but it did mobilize the Protestants in England.  The rabbi’s book was translated into Latin (Spes Israelis) and English (Hope of Israel).  “America was the new world, a yet-unknown land that neatly ‘fit into’ the prophecy.  Who were these Americans? Were or were they not descendants of the Jews? If the Bible had all the answers but did not mention America, the researcher then asked who these people were, as he echoed the questions that intrigued the prominent figures of the time. “This drew the attention of Protestant circles, since some English millennialists thought it could also be possible that the Indians of North America were descendants of the Jewish tribes, in addition to those that were purportedly found in the Amazon. It was partly because of these discussions that readmitting the Jews to England was reconsidered.”

L’Espérance (Hope), engraving on paper by Abraham Bosse (1636), published by Hernan Weyen (7.3 x 4.6 cm, Metropolitan).

ReproductionL’Espérance (Hope), engraving on paper by Abraham Bosse (1636), published by Hernan Weyen (7.3 x 4.6 cm, Metropolitan)Reproduction

In addition to the treatise Hope of Israel, printed in the Netherlands, other writings of the time discussed prophetic hope, and they were translated into various political blueprints. In Portugal, the letter entitled Esperanças de Portugal (Hopes of Portugal), written by Father Antônio Vieira in 1659, consoled the queen after the death of King Dom João IV and announced his resurrection and the beginning of the Kingdom of Christ on Earth with the Fifth Portuguese Empire. In England, the manifesto entitled Door of Hope, author unknown, published in 1661, announced the kingdom of the saints to dethrone King Charles II, who had just been restored as King of England and supported the overthrow of the Fifth Monarchy led by a cooper, Thomas Venner.

One point these writings had in common is that the source was the Bible: the visions and dreams in the Book of Daniel about the five kingdoms. According to Lima, however, there were various interpretations used as different proposals and theoretical/ideological justifications for political interventions. “The theological discussion had far-reaching political reverberations. In the end, the question was: What is the scope of human action in the Divine Plan? What is the possible political calculation? To paraphrase a Vieira narrative:  the captain lost track of time and did not reach the port in time so the ship was slow to arrive and the fleet was delayed. Therefore the ships did not arrive in India in time and were unable to rescue a fort. So the dominion there vanished, money was wasted, and in the end, the empire was lost. In other words, an empire was the Divine Plan, but human action was important in order to make it a reality,” Lima explained.

In these three cases (Portugal, England and the Netherlands), hope was the watchword. In iconographic research, Lima also discovered allegories, emblems and symbols for hope, intrinsically linked to the sea tamed by the voyages. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, hope was portrayed as a woman and an anchor, symbolizing safe haven as well as a compass for crossing the stormy seas. “In the end, hope was a virtue that implied an ‘expectation’ of something. For Christians, Catholics and Protestants, it was the expectation of the second coming of Christ through salvation or Judgment Day. For the Jews, it was the coming of the Messiah,” Lima says. “In the bibliography, in many instances the terms ‘Messianism’ and ‘Millennialism’ are used interchangeably. But there are differences,” Lima says. “Messianism” is understood as the return of the Messiah. “Millennialism” refers to the coming of Jesus Christ to a thousand-year kingdom on Earth, the millennium. In the 17th century, the movements of the Fifth Portuguese Empire and the Fifth English Monarchy were based on these prophetic thoughts. The differences between Messianism and Millennialism, Lima notes, are therefore not as important or functional for research.

Based on this research study completed in 2014, Luís Filipe Silvério Lima forged ahead with other initiatives. He plans to write a new book about the ideas that have already been developed. In addition, he has also joined the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) Research Group entitled Power and Politics in the Modern Era at Unifesp. The goal is to stimulate further studies and strengthen the field of modern history at the campus of the federal university. Moreover, this project was the source of a 2012 colloquium on Messianism in the Iberian world, which is expected to result in a book to be published abroad, edited together with Professor Ana Paula Megiani of the University of São Paulo (USP).

Interpretations and readings in the prophecies of the five kingdoms in the 17th century (No. 09/53257-3); Grant mechanism: Young Investigator; Principal Investigator Luís Filipe Silvério Lima (School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences of the Federal University of São Paulo-Unifesp); Investment R$93,023.00 (FAPESP).