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Samuel Nunis (1668–1744) was a Portuguese physician and among the earliest Jews to settle in North America.
A few months after their February 1733 arrival from England, an epidemic began claiming the lives of the first 114 colonists of the infant American colony of Georgia. The first to die in April was the colony's only doctor.
Unexpectedly, the William and Sarah, a second ship from London, landed in Savannah on July 11, carrying a middle-aged physician and 40 more Jewish passengers. Dr. Samuel Nunis (1668–1744) was allowed by the colony's founder, General James Edward Oglethorpe, to begin treating the ill. By the time the middle-aged Portuguese physician began his treatments and during the month of his arrival, around two dozen died. However, the death rate dwindled dramatically to only a few with the epidemic ending by the end of that year. Over the protests of the London Trustees who did not want Georgia to become "a Jewish colony," General Oglethorpe allowed the Jewish people to settle in Savannah.
They were the “largest group of Jews to land in North America in Colonial days.” As told by one of his seven children, daughter Zipra, to her great-grandson Mordecai Manuel Noah, Dr. Nunis and his family embarked on a dramatic escape from Lisbon to London in 1726 for religious freedom, fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition.
Background: The Spanish Inquisition and Marrano Jews
Official, bloody persecutions in the year 1391 were the beginning of the destruction of Spanish Jews. Jews were faced with the bitter choice: forced conversion or execution. Many Jews chose to die for their faith; while others became "Christians" in name only, secretly practicing their Jewish faith. The number of those who had embraced Christianity, in order to escape death, was very large. They were called 'Marranos' (pigs) by the Christians and Crypto-Jews by historians. As the persecutions against the Jews increased, the number of Marranos grew.
The persecution was followed by the [Inquisition] which, ninety years later, was introduced as a means of finding and killing the converted Jews who still remained loyal to Judaism. The heads of the Catholic Church established a religious court, the Inquisition, where suspected Marranos were tortured to force them to confess their loyalty to their Jewish faith. All of their wealth would be confiscated, with a large reward to whoever had denounced them; and they would be burned alive publicly.
Nevertheless, the secret Jews showed wonderful tenacity and courage and continued to practice their faith in the cellars of their homes. They married only among themselves and remained faithful to the religion of their ancestors. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain united all Christians under their rule in 1492, they were persuaded by the Inquisition to drive the Jews out of their land. In 1492, the remaining Jews of Spain were driven out of the country and many of them went to Portugal where they were heavily taxed and generally treated abysmally. A few years later, they were driven out of Portugal or forcibly converted to Christianity.
The Marranos continued to lead their lives as before, and the Inquisition had its hands full for hundreds of years afterwards.
The Nunis Family Caught by the Inquisition
Such a family was the Nunez family. For many generations, this family kept up its Jewish faith in secret, and some family members met a violent death at the hands of the Inquisition. (A Clara Nunis was burned in Seville, Spain, in 1632; and in the same year, Isabel and Helen Nunis also were condemned to death for loyalty to their Jewish faith.)
One branch of the family, living in Portugal, was among the most distinguished of noble families. Although it was a little more than 200 years after the Expulsion from Spain, this family secretly still observed the Jewish religion. Born in Portugal, Diogo Nunes Ribeiro (later known as Samuel Nunis) was the head of this family who became a great physician. He was appointed Court Physician to the King of Portugal and even served as the physician to the Grand Inquisitor, also a member of the Royal Family. In addition to his services to the Royal Family, all of the nobility considered it a privilege if he attended them.
Dr. Nunis was still quite a young man when he reached attained success in professional and social circles. His prominence naturally created jealousy among his competitors, and the Inquisition gave them an excellent opportunity of trying to get him into trouble.
Although on the surface, Dr. Nunis was as good a Catholic as any churchgoing Christian, the leaders of the Portuguese Inquisition took note of the warnings given to them by the doctor's enemies. They managed to smuggle an "agent" into the household of the Nunez family in the guise of a servant, so they would be informed of what went on within the family circle.
Eventually, the agent reported that the Nunis family definitely was practicing the Jewish religion in secret. Every Saturday, they all retreated to a synagogue in an underground part of their mansion on the Tagus River in Lisbon. There they threw off their pretense of being Christians and worshiped in true Jewish fashion.
Dr. Nunez, his mother Zipporah, his wife Gracia (later known as Rebecca); their three sons Joseph, Daniel and Moses; their three daughters Rachel, Esther and Zipra; and servant Shem Noah were apprehended by the "Familiars of the Inquisition" during a Passover Service, "while seeking the Lord according to their prohibited faith."
Thrown into jail, they were tortured repeatedly and soon would have perished except for the intervention of the Grand Inquisitor. The Catholic Ecclesiastical Council reluctantly agreed to release Dr. Nunez so that he could treat the Grand Inquisitor who was afflicted with a prostate obstruction of the bladder.
There was one condition, however, which marred the happiness of the Nunez family in their release from prison. Two officials of the Inquisition were to take up residence with the Nunez family to make sure they would not practice their Jewish faith. This imposition led Dr. Nunez to contrive a daring escape plan for himself and his family.
Escape to London
Dr. Nunez hit upon a brilliant, bold idea. He arranged a Banquet and Ball to which he invited all of the important people of the city. His guests included many high-ranking officials.
One evening he was host to the captain of a British brigantine anchored in the Tagus River. When the party was in full swing, the captain invited the guests and the Nunez family (accompanied by their unsuspecting Inquisitor keepers) to visit his ship.
What the guests did not know was that a surprise awaited them. About an hour or so after they had boarded the ship, they suddenly became aware that they were moving! Yes, they were, in fact, sailing away from the shores of Portugal at full speed, heading for the friendlier shores of England. Dr. Nunez had every detail arranged with the help of his relatives, the Mendez family, one of whom married Zipra, one of the lovely daughters of Samuel and Rebecca Nunez. Dr. Nunez secretly had succeeded in selling part of his estates and possessions and had transferred the money to England through secret couriers. Thus, he had been able to enlist a British captain to bring his brigantine to the Tagus River on the night of the banquet for the surprise voyage to London in August 1726.
Once in London, Samuel and his sons underwent circumcision to identify themselves as Jewish. Diogo and Gracia remarried in a Jewish ceremony and changed their names to Samuel and Rebecca. Early in 1727, Rebecca gave birth to their seventh and last child, a son who died as an infant.
A few years later in 1733, the Nunez family was among several mainly Sephardic Jewish families from Portugal who left London for the colony of Georgia. Also joining them on the William and Sarah was a small group of Ashkenazi Jews with German origins.
London Jews had been contributing liberally to the Oglethorpe scheme, providing new homes for impoverished Christians in the new colony of Georgia. In 1732 there were 6,000 Sephardic Jews living in London having lived as Crypto-Jews, publicly practicing Roman Catholicism and secretly preserving their Jewish heritage, prior to their departure from Portugal. The Bevis Marks Synagogue, still a Sephardic Jewish congregation in London today, helped finance the trip of their congregants.
All but eight of the original 42 Jewish colonists to Georgia were among these Spanish/Portuguese Jews who had arrived in London seven years earlier. They chartered two boats and sent a total of 90 Jews to Savannah in one year. Sailing on the first of these boats was Dr. Nunez and some of his family. On their voyage, an infant died and the ship nearly wrecked off the North Carolina coast. They arrived in Savannah on July 11, 1733 - five months after General James Oglethorpe and his first 114 colonists. The other boat arrived on November 12, 1733, according to the Sheftall Diaries, a primary source document with entries from Mordecai Sheftall, a German Jewish passenger on the William and Sarah.
These Jewish colonists were the largest group of Jews ever to sail on one vessel for North America in colonial times, wrote Jacob R. Marcus in his study of The Colonial American Jew. They brought with them "a sefer Torah, with two cloaks, and a circumcision box, which were given to them by Mr. Lindo, a merchant in London, for the use of the congregation they intended to establish." Their first order of business was to establish Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, the third oldest Jewish congregation in America. They also established a Jewish cemetery on Bull Street on the northern end of downtown Savannah.
When Dr. Samuel Nunez arrived in Savannah, Georgia, there was an outbreak of yellow fever and many people were dying. After this ship landed, Captain Thomas Corain, one of General Oglethorpe's aides, wrote, "Georgia will soon become a Jewish colony." Captain Corain feared that if this news leaked out, rich Christians would not support the colony and poor Christians would not settle there. The London Trustees urged Oglethorpe to remove them. They had no legal basis for this request as Georgia's charter permitted all persons “liberty of conscience in the worship of God” except Catholics.
General Oglethorpe almost did not allow the Jewish immigrants to land. Dr. Nunez assured Oglethorpe that he was a doctor of infectious diseases and could help the colony. The Georgia colony had lost their doctor in April of that year, William Cox, and were much in need of a physician. Oglethorpe realized here was an opportunity for good help during this epidemic in Savannah, and he let the Jewish families remain. He also knew some of these Jews had a knowledge of agriculture acquired in Mediterranean lands. He wanted to use them as tools to create in Georgia a "Mediterranean colony of wine, olive oil, silk and indigo."
Dr. Nunez's arrival was very timely as there was an uncontrolled epidemic of "bloody flux" and "malignant fever" raging. Of the original 114 settlers, three more had died in June after their doctor's passing in April followed by four more in early July prior to Dr. Nunez's arrival. Although ten more died during July, those numbers rapidly diminished to two in August, four in September and one each during the last three months of that year.
The formal remedies at his disposal were limited and soon exhausted, but Dr. Nunez's training in botany helped him make use of indigenous plants and with great success. He used laudanum (opium) to control the "bloody flux" and lemon extract to treat the scurvy which appeared in debilitated patients. He employed ipecacuanha (emetine) empirically without knowing that it had a specific action on the amoeba histolytica. With infusions of cinchona bark (quinine), Dr. Nunez treated the "malignant fevers" considered in the medical texts of the period to originate from the evil night miasmas of the marshes (malaria =mal aria= bad air). When his supply of chinchona bark was exhausted, Dr. Nunez used as substitutes the bark of white oak, red oak and dogwood. He used tartar emetic to produce vomiting in patients with food poisoning, jimson weed smoked in a pipe for asthma and sassafras root tea as a "purifier of blood."
The epidemic subsided, the colonists returned to their work, and Dr. Nunez at 65 built his home and settled his family. General Oglethorpe sent to the Trustees of the Colony a report of the help rendered by the first active practitioner of medicine in Georgia who also formed Georgia's first pharmacy. The Trustees instructed him not to give the Jews land grants, but Oglethorpe ignored them. One of Dr. Nunez's sons-in-law, Abraham De Lyon who was married to his daughter Esther, was experienced in "cultivating vines and making wine." Also a farmer who grew peas, grain and rice, De Lyon used his training as a viniculturist to raise "beautiful, almost transparent grapes" in Savannah from choice cuttings he brought with him from Portugal. He and the other colonists helped develop a 10-acre (40,000 m2) tract as a Botanical Garden (Trustees Garden) near the southern end of Broad at Bay Streets near the Savannah River. They introduced to the colonists foreign plants with valuable medicinal properties and developed herbs which were native to Georgia.
Most of the Jewish able-bodied young men, needed in the militia. Oglethorpe appointed one, Benjamin Sheftall, a lieutenant in the militia.
Dr. Nunez and Rev. John Wesley
Two years later, Dr. Nunez met John Wesley who arrived in Savannah with a commission from the Trustees, appointing him to the office of "priest of the Church Of England" to the Savannah mission. Rev. Wesley courted the society of this Sephardic Jew but had no illusions about the ease with which he could be converted to Christianity. Pastor Bolzius, the leader of the Salzburg Germans, and George Whitefield, another pioneer Methodist, had offered the Jews conversionist literature, which had been vigorously rejected.
Rev. Wesley exhibited a great interest in Dr. Nunez's medical practice and discussed with him the conduct and care of his patients. John Wesley, who became the founder of Methodism, wrote in his journal on April 4, 1737, "I began learning Spanish in order to converse with my Jewish parishioners, some of whom seem nearer the mind that was in Christ than many of those who call him Lord."
The London Trustees eventually showed their appreciation for Dr. Nunez by sending him "casks of wine and packets of drugs" to be used in treating the colonists. With "two barrels containing twenty-three deer skins, weight of Bears oil" and several parcels of "sea pod, make root, sassafras, china root, sumac, and contra-yerba," Dr. Nunez opened the first pharmacy in Georgia to compound his medications from imported and native-grown herbs.
When Spanish forces moved up the Georgia coast from Florida in 1740, Dr. Nunez and other Jewish-Portuguese settlers fled Savannah, fearing the Spanish Catholics would burn them at the stake for apostasy. Some of the refugees moved inland to Georgia's wild interior, while others went to Charleston, South Carolina. Dr. Nunez and Zipra were among those who left for Charleston.
They soon moved to New York City where Zipra's husband, Rev. David Mendes Machado, was the religious leader of Shearith Israel Synagogue. Samuel Nunez died in New York City in 1744 at the age of 76.
Dr. Nunez's Descendants of Distinction
His son Moses became a man of wealth and distinction and a member of Oglethorpe's Masonic Lodge. Moses served as an Indian interpreter and an agent for the Georgia Revolutionary forces. In his will of October 14, 1785, Moses divided his property equally among his children born to his first wife Rebecca Abraham (a son Samuel) and to his second wife Mulatto Rose (sons James, Robert and Alexander and daughter Frances Galphin).
Through Zipra, Dr. Nunez's second great-grandson, Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, was one of the highest ranking naval officers of the Civil War. He is credited with abolishing the practice of flogging in the U.S. Navy. Commodore Levy purchased Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello when it was a disgraceful eyesore, restored it and, through his heirs, transferred it to the U.S. Government. He is known to be the first private citizen to restore an historic American residence. The Jewish chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis is named in Commodore Levy's honor.
Other distinguished descendants of Dr. Nunez include two more great-grandsons through his daughter Zipra. Considered the best known Jewish man in America during the first half of the nineteenth century, Mordecai Manuel Noah was a jurist, journalist, public servant, playwright and one of the founders of New York University. Major Raphael Jacob Moses, a highly regarded Confederate officer, later became chairman of the Georgia House Judiciary Committee. An attorney from Columbus, Georgia, he is credited with establishing Georgia's world-renowned peach industry.
- *Samuel Nunez – Ribiero, The Life of a Marrano
- * "Georgia Journeys, Being an Account of the Lives of Georgia's Original Settlers and Many Other Early Settlers from the Founding of the Colony in 1732 until the Institution of Royal Government in 1754" by Sarah B. Glover Temple and Kenneth Coleman, The University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1961, Appendix, pages 295-9.
- *Dr. Samuel Nunez and family by Dr. Alfred A. Weinstein, article published in the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin*http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/112041/jewish/Samuel-Nunez-Ribiero.htm Samuel Nunez – Ribiero, The Life of a Marrano
- *Excerpt from Savannah in the Old South by Walter J. Fraser. P 13
- Video on YouTube
- Dr. Samuel Nunez and family By Dr. Alfred A. Weinstein, Article published in the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin
- Samuel Nunez – Ribiero, The Life of A Marrano
- Excerpt from Savannah in the Old South by Walter J. Fraser. P 13
- A Sephardic Story Robert Altamont Moses
- Leepson, Marc, Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built, University of Virginia Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8139-2219-4