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The life of Moyses and Abraham Pinto
In the Amazon Jungle

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Morocco in the second part of the 19th century

During the reigns of Sultan Mohamed IV (1859-1873) and Moulay Hassan (1873-1894), Morocco went through very political and mainly economic changes which increased greatly its dependence toward the European nations whose markets were exploding.

These changes gave birth to an expansion of the Moslem and Jewish middle classes who were in touch with the European commerce; but it also created an important impoverishment of the popular masses. Constant cycles of drought during these historical circumstances brought hunger to the rural populations, and spread epidemics that lead them from the interior of the country to cities bordering the Atlantic Ocean.

In Tangiers the population had doubled between 1850 and 1890, overloading the poor neighborhoods and creating more competition among small crafts men; the parents of Abraham Pinto belonged to this class (tailors, embroiders of gold thread,) as he explains at the beginning of his story.

The first schools of the Alliance Israelite were established at this time giving these young men an opening toward the rest of the world and an initiation to the world of trade.

It is this climate that made a great number of young men look for openings elsewhere in the world as they hoped to go up socially and make money. So among the Moroccan Jewish population from the North of the country but also from the other cities in the south of Morocco, starts an immigration wave which becomes more and more important until the beginning of the 20th century.

Abraham and Elias Serfaty start this adventure around 1850, opening the way around 1870 to Moyses and Abraham Pinto, their nephews, who will go from Lisbon to the North of Brazil; others will go to Argentina, Venezuela and Chile.

The arrival in Brazil and the beginning of their adventurous life.

They will become the "hebraicos "( the Hebrew's) in the immense Amazonian region, to the astonishment of some European travelers, writers and historians who were also venturing in the region.

In the beginning of their adventure there were poor "regatãos" as hundreds of others; small river peddlers who banter their goods for all kinds of medicinal herbs, dried fruit and different kinds of nuts. They had to pay quite a high price depending on the regions. They had to get permits which allowed them to work, but were forbidden in a very discriminatory way to be owners of those small boats on which they carried their goods (cotton fabrics, cheap jewelry, everyday basic goods that couldn't be found in the forest,) as only Brazilians could own boats. In 1854 these laws relaxed, but the very numerous violations to these rules showed well that they were not strictly enforced in the colonial Brazil.

The Rubber Boom

The most enterprising and courageous of these men did not accept this subordinate status and they enlarged the network of their business on the banks of the many tributaries of the Amazon taking advantage of the Rubber Boom, "aborracha". Around the 1850's the discovery of the vulcanization and of the inner rubber tube and later the automobile industry gave the extraction of rubber an incredible expansion. A new economic reality appears in the Amazonian region, which at the time was the only producer in the world of this commodity, which was very much sought after, as it was becoming more and more expensive.

The "casas aviadoras" were the only enterprises that could provide the very important funds to maintain the triangular activity, necessary to run those millions of acres of the rubber forests.

At the base of this triangle , there were the "seringueiros" , indispensable workforce that went daily through kilometers of forest in the most difficult conditions, for very low wages; every evening they gathered in bowls the precious latex from the rubber trees which poured out from the cuts made to the trees. They would give the content of the bowls in the shape of latex balls to the "seringalista," second level of the triangle, an intermediary who exploits the "seringueiro" shamelessly by buying the product of his work at a very low price, in exchange for basic goods which he needed to live on and which he sold on credit.

In his"barracão", the "seringueiro" is never able to pay him back, and therefore he often lives in hopeless poverty. It was the case of most "cearenses, who came from the North East region often looking to escape the famine that existed in that part of the country.

The "seringalista" then sold the latex to representatives of the great "aviadoras" last level of the triangle. The latter went by regularly in their boats and they would ship the stocks of the merchandise from their warehouses to England, where this precious commodity would be sold in the Commodity Exchanges of Liverpool and London but also New York, Hamburg, Anvers and Lisbon at prices that would reach their top level from 1872 to 1912. The highest level of production was in 1911, reaching 44,296 tons sold. From 1913 on, the competition of the Asian British Colonies became formidable as by 1914, they would provide 50% of the world production.

From the early 1880's, Moyses and Abraham Pinto increased their business network by separating themselves from their uncles, and therefore leaving for good the association with the "regatoes".

They will never be "seringalistas". They went from being small merchants to becoming big merchants,"aviadoras", and later on becoming the owners of a small river fleet on the Amazone and its tributaries.

We know that their business prospered because they were the first ones to establish a convenient drop off which they chose very well: Iquitos near the border between Brazil and Peru at the center of the network, and the place where the crops of rubber were gathered. Iquitos more over was Spanish speaking which they spoke rather than Portuguese.

Their business success did not stop increasing until their final return to Tangiers in 1892/93, indeed until the end of the rubber boom. It is their younger brother Samuel who then took over the business around 1895.

The rubber boom made other people rich as well; the city of Manaos, which grew from 5,000 inhabitants in 1879 to 50,000 in 1890 as well as Belen which population increased from 1,500 in1848 to 100,000 by 1890. Incredible display of wealth, like the Opera House in Manaus built by a great Italian architect and where Caruso sang and Sarah Bernhard acted.

Brazil from the Monarchy to the Republic .

When the first Moroccan Jews arrived in Brazil, there still was a monarchy lead by Emperor Dom Pedro II from the House of Braganza. He was the son of Pedro I and the grandson of King Juan VI. The latter had fled Portugal, during the Napoleonian invasion and went to Brazil which had become the seat of the Portuguese Colonial Empire. Don Juan VI had gone back to Portugal once the country had been liberated, leaving his son Dom Pedro I as regent of Brazil. But after having fought against Portugal he had declared the Independence of Brazil and had given himself the title of Emperor of Brazil. Dom Pedro II in the 1880's, towards the end of his life had been delegating his power to his daughter, Princess Isabel, married to the Count of Eu, grandson of King Louis Philippe.

Abraham Pinto tells us that the population hated them.

Brazil was the last Western nation where slavery was still allowed. All the Economic power was in the hands of the "fazendeiros", owners of huge properties whose fortunes came mainly from sugar cane, coffee and cacao, thanks to the the work of millions of slaves.

In 1888, Princess Isabel promulgates the Law Aurea, which will end slavery in Brazil.

This grand gesture will be fatal to the monarchy, because it went against the interests of the landowners who managed to establish a Republic in 1889. But something incredible had happened in the state of the Amazonian region: slavery had been abolished in 1881, under the influence of the Free Masons Lodges to which many of the Moroccan Jews belonged. Anyhow there was always a very small black presence in the north of Brazil. And the new slaves were Indians and people of mixed races, people who came from the state of Ceara, a region in the interior of the country, one of the poorest regions of Brazil. For centuries there had suffered terrible droughts.

The Establishment of a network of Jewish Institutions

With the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil in 1889 secular life was established. Judaism was acknowledged and the "Hebraicos" could officially build synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, after having celebrated their traditions for so many years in private houses, particularly in the home of the wealthy Isaac Elias Israel, of the great "Casa Aviadora Israel y CIA" whose family came from England. Two synagogues were built in Belem, Shaa Hashamaim financed by Isaac Levy, and, in 1899, Essex Abraham with funds coming from successful Moroccan.

The Santa Isabel cemetery in Belem was the first cemetery open to everyone: from the disadvantaged to the slaves, even to non-Catholic victims of epidemics. Protestants and Jews were finally accepted into a Brazilian cemetery, whereas up to that time, they were hastily buried in parcels of land offered reluctantly.

Jewish charitable organizations started appearing, such as the Hebra Guemilat Hassidim, the first one to help Moroccan Jews in need so they could be buried with the proper Jewish rituals. However not all of these organizations succeeded financially.

They had their own democratic statutes, and voted to elect their officials to the different available positions. Their endowments were set up with donations in cash or gifts in kind, such as jewelry. Some of the Moroccan Jews even made monthly contributions. Since its inception, the Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue offered the services of a physician and of a nurse for emergency care, after which those services were sub contracted through agreements with the hospitals. Help was given to the less fortunate as well as to families of the deceased in need. They paid for return tickets to Morocco for those widows who could not afford to do so, and all families were given the proper Jewish burial rituals.

Along with the establishment of the Republic of Brazil, one could obtain more easily and was actually encouraged to get the Brazilian citizenship. Numerous Moroccan Jews petitioned for citizenship, even from some of the most remote areas. Moyses Pinto made his request from Teffe in the 1870s.

In 1885 in Belem, the Sociedad Paraense d'Emigracão published a guide to encourage immigration to Para and Amazonia. This guide might even have been distributed in Tangiers and in the Mellahs of other Moroccan cities.

Openings of Peruvian and Brazilian markets

Brazil opened its frontiers and its ports, closed until then, to new arrivals and to the trading of merchandise. Moyses and Abraham Pinto greatly contributed to these advancements, even from Iquitos which was just an outpost on the Peruvian border of Brazil, despite the fact that Peru tried to protect its territory from its powerful Brazilian neighbor.

The Booth Line, the first foreign line of ships to settle on the Amazon, was inaugurated in 1866. It went from Belem to Lisbon-Vigo-Le Havre-Hamburg-London-Liverpool, carrying both passengers and merchandise. The most sought after merchandise was rubber which market exploded during that time.

This same company soon created another line from Manaos to Iquitos, proving the tight connection between Iquitos and Brazil, where Belem was the only maritime outlet. A little anecdote: we believe that this line must have been used by the Pinto brothers after they made their fortune, so that Samuel could send his laundry regularly to London to be washed and starched and then shipped back to him!

Morocco and Tangiers after returning from Amazonia

Moyses and Abraham Pinto returned to Tangiers between 1892 and 1893 once they had secured a well-established business, and had made sufficient amounts of money. Their younger brother Samuel took over the business in Iquitos, as well as the route from Belem to London, where the seat of their company was located, and where he himself travelled regularly.

Back in their country, they would finally be able to enjoy the benefits of their labor, as well as the social status that they had acquired amidst their relatives with whom they had remained closely in touch during all the years that they were away. Neither of them ever considered staying in Amazonia despite some of the concerns they may have had in returning to Morocco to rejoin their families.

Representatives of the Foreign Legions which were then settled in Tangiers, welcomed them like Gentlemen of the City whose wives played the piano and with whom they sang opera during the parties which they hosted. The Moslem authorities as well as the representative of the young Sultan Moulay Hafid respected their new statutes as foreigners but under the protection of an occidental power house.

They had earned the right to ride horses (until that time, Jews as Dhimmis (non-Islamic) could only ride donkeys or mules) within the Marshan area where they all chose to live, outside of the walls of the Socco, an overpopulated and unsanitary part of the old town. Here as well, they were looked upon as pioneers, while many other wealthy Tangerian Jews followed in their footsteps and also developed new residential neighborhoods outside of the old town.

With time Morocco changed and succumbed to the pressure of those occidental powers which were looking to make their imprint and colonize the country. On January 16, 1906, during the Algeciras Conference, the 12 European powers and the United States placed the indebted Moorish Empire under a sort of international protectorate with a French influence, signaling the end of the independence of this kingdom who had never known the shackles of a foreign power, not even that one of the Ottoman Empire. This marked the beginning of the Protectorate System that France and Spain established in 1912, dividing Morocco into two areas, much to the dismay of Germany who had invested money and power with the hope of implanting itself there as well.

In 1923 Tangiers was given the exceptional statute of an International Zone, defined by a Franco-Spanish Treaty which gave the city its own economy, its cosmopolitan flavor, and its unique aura envied by the whole world. This newly found life style was enjoyed by the Pinto families, alongside of the trafficking and spying activities which also became the trademark of Tangiers.

This period ended in 1956 with the full independence of Morocco following the struggle of the young nationalists and the return from exile of Kind Mohamed V. It was unavoidable, France and Spain understood it fully. Tangiers, however, was able to enjoy a few more years of respite until 1960.

Departure from Morocco

The Pinto and the Serfaty families were almost all in Tangiers, and in Casablanca, which had become a wealthy and economically dynamic capital of Morocco under its Protectorate. However, starting in 1956, almost all the new generations of Pintos and Serfatys left Morocco where they no longer felt at home, even though some did remain and faced other challenges. The biggest majority left at the time of the Independence of Morocco, or shortly thereafter. Those who went to study abroad did not come back, unlike their elders who had returned to a country where they still wanted to live.

This put the end to an over 500 years' period for the Megorashim who came from Spain, and 2000 years' period for the Toshavim, Jews often of Berber origin who had preceded the Moslems in a country which really was their own. The Moroccan Jews spread themselves around the world, in France, in the United States, in Spain, Switzerland, Canada and in Israel, and they continued to build new and successful ventures with the intelligence and ambition inherited from their elders.

Brazil had been part of their lives until 1940. When feeling threatened by the Vichy regime under Petain, those who were able to, claimed the Brazilian nationality to protect themselves from being deported, and they even considered taking refuge in that country.

The last act would take place in reverse: in 1992, King Hassan II after 17 years of imprisonment, chased out of Morocco his oldest political opponent Abraham Serfaty, son of Moses-Haim and grandson of Abraham Serfaty (whose daughter Esther was born in Belem in Brazil), the patriarch who had opened the roads to the Amazonian adventures for his nephews the Pintos and for many other young Moroccan Jews. Following the advice of his attorneys, Hassan II got rid of Abraham Serfaty sending him off to France, under the pretense that he was not Moroccan but Brazilian, born from a Brazilian father. He could have added and a "Brazilian grandfather.."

One branch of the Serfaty family settled permanently in Belem (then known as Para) at the end of the 19th century. This family became totally assimilated in this large country, in Belem, Rio and São Paulo, as much as their cousins who came from elsewhere, but they never forgot their Moroccan Jewish roots and for the older generation, still conversing in Haquetia, a Ladino dialect which was spoken in Northern Morocco.

Brazilians discover their Jewish roots

Some of these Moroccan Jews, having lived in Amazonia for many years had children, frequently with Indian woman. When they returned to Morocco, they left them behind, but these children kept their names, the memories and some of the Jewish rituals of their fathers and grandfathers. One century later, some of them asked to be recognized as Jews, converted and even wanted to emigrate to Israel. Despite many searches, it seems that the Pintos did not have any descendants in Amazonia.

To finish this long story, we need to mention that Brazil in fact is connected in many ways to the Sephardic Jewish roots. Many fazendeiros from the Northeastern part of Brazil were descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who escaped Spain and Portugal at the time of the Inquisition.

On another hand, the Jews from the Moslem countries were able to remain as Jews during those 400 years while their ancestors, after the departure of the Dutch from Pernambuco, went into the Sertãos of the Northeast and lived in hiding as Marranos Jews.

Nowadays, there is a large movement to rediscover one's hidden origins and to reclaim openly the Judaism of our ancestors whose voices while somewhat weakened, had remained in many ways loud enough to make an imprint on their childhood: many died facing Jerusalem and were able, until the beginning of the 20th century to be buried without coffins, wrapped in a simple sheet as per the Jewish tradition.

This extraordinary loyalty, despite and against all odds, reminds us of those reunions for Yom Kippur on the borders of the Amazon River, where though surrounded by danger, Abraham Pinto describes in the simplest of words as if they were the most normal thing in the world. Quite amazing was the courage that they displayed if only to remain loyal to their Jewish roots and to their ancestors.

Diane Dray-Mimran
Translated by Marina Pinto Kaufman and Jennifer Pinto Safian

If you wish to learn more about this period of the Jewish emigration in Amazonia, and particularly in Iquitos, and about the lives of the descendants of these emigrants within the local Indian population, I recommend that you read the book by the historian Ariel Segal, beautifully documented and entitled "Jews of the Amazon - Self-Exile in Earthly Paradise"

published in 1999 by "The Jewish Publication Society" in Philadelphia. A second edition in Spanish this time, is scheduled for 2017-2018.