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The Slave Trade and the Jews

Though historians continue to debate the numbers, it now seems probable that from twelve to fifteen million Africans were forcibly shipped out from their continent by sea.

Millions more perished in African wars or raids for enslavement and in the deadly transport of captives from the interior to slave markets on the coast. The participants in the Atlantic slave system included Arabs, Berbers, scores of African ethnic groups, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, Jews, Germans, Swedes, French, English, Danes, white Americans, Native Americans, and even thousands of New World blacks who had been emancipated or were descended from freed slaves but who then became slaveholding farmers or planters themselves.

Today it is both remarkable and deeply disturbing to discover that this Atlantic slave system evoked little if any meaningful protest until the late eighteenth century. When it did finally appear, the Anglo-American antislavery movement was overwhelmingly religious in character, and drew on developments in sectarian and evangelical Protestantism.

Catholic popes enthusiastically blessed and authorized the first Portuguese slave traders in West Africa.

For centuries Muslim jihads justified the enslavement of untold numbers of sub-Saharan infidels. As late as the s many devout British and American Quakers were actively involved in the slave trade. The small number of Jews who lived in the Atlantic community took black slavery as much for granted as did the Catholics, Muslims, Lutherans, Huguenots, Calvinists, and Anglicans. For four centuries the African slave trade was an integral and indispensable part of European expansion and settlement of the New World.

Until the s the flow of coerced African labor exceeded all the smaller streams of indentured white servants and voluntary white immigrants willing to endure the risks of life in the Western Hemisphere. The demand for labor was especially acute in the tropical and semitropical zones that produced the staples and thus the wealth most desired by Europeans.

In the mids the value of exports to Britain from the British West Indies was more than ten times that of exports from colonies north of the Chesapeake. And the economy of the northern colonies depended in large measure on trade with Caribbean markets, which depended in turn on the continuing importation of African labor to replenish a population that never came close to sustaining itself by natural increase.

Fortunately for the planters, merchants, consumers, and other beneficiaries of this lethal system, West Africa offered a cheap and seemingly unlimited supply of slave labor, and the efforts of African kings to stop the ruinous sale of subjects were few and ineffective. Long before the Portuguese African voyages of the fifteenth century, Arab and Berber merchants had perfected the trans-Saharan slave trade and had delivered hundreds of thousands of black slaves to regions extending from the Persian Gulf via a seaborne trade from East Africa to Egypt, Sicily, Morocco, and Spain.

Though first monopolized by the Portuguese, the Atlantic slave trade attracted ships from the Netherlands, France, Britain, Denmark, Spain, Sweden, and the English mainland colonies. Even the northern German ports sought to cash in on the lucrative traffic. How did Jews fit into this picture? To keep matters in perspective, we should keep in mind that in England expelled its entire Jewish population; only a scattering of migrants began to return in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

In France a series of expulsions and massacres in the fourteenth century virtually demolished the medieval Jewish communities. In Spain, beginning in the mid-fourteenth century, a much larger Jewish population was subjected to periodic massacres, forced conversion, mob attacks, and final expulsion in Most of the refugees fled to Turkey and other Muslim lands.

The estimated , Jews who escaped into Portugal were soon compelled to accept Christianity. No professing Jews were allowed to contaminate the Spanish or Portuguese colonies of the New World; in the s they were also banned from the French West Indies and restricted in British Barbados. At this point one must emphasize that Jews, partly because of their remarkable success in a variety of hostile environments, have long been feared as the power behind otherwise inexplicable evils.

For many centuries they were the only non-Christian minority in nations dedicated to the Christianization and thus the salvation of the world. Responsibility for the African slave trade and even for creating and spreading AIDS has recently been added to this long list of crimes. Such fantasies were long nourished by the achievements of a very small number of Jews who, barred from landholding, the army, and traditional crafts and professions, took advantage of their cosmopolitan knowledge and personal connections that favored access to markets, credit, and such highly desired commodities as diamonds, spices, wool, and sugar.

Much of the historical evidence regarding alleged Jewish or New Christian involvement in the slave system was biased by deliberate Spanish efforts to blame Jewish refugees for fostering Dutch commercial expansion at the expense of Spain.

Given this long history of conspiratorial fantasy and collective scapegoating, a selective search for Jewish slave traders becomes inherently anti-Semitic unless one keeps in view the larger context and the very marginal place of Jews in the history of the overall system. But far from suggesting that Jews constituted a major force behind the exploitation of Africa, closer investigation shows that these were highly exceptional merchants, far outnumbered by thousands of Catholics and Protestants who flocked to share in the great bonanza.

I should add that in trying to determine who was or was not a covert Jew, the historian comes perilously close to acting like the Inquisition. In the early eighteenth century a large number of Brazilian planters, said to be Marranos, were arrested by the Inquisition, extradited, and taken to Lisbon for trial.

By any modern definition, excluding the racial definition of the Nazis, these planters were not Jews. Yet various historians have counted such Marranos as Jews and have assumed that an earlier Brazilian planter, Jorge Homen Pinto, who owned six sugar mills, slaves, and a thousand oxen, was a Jew.

More careful investigation, however, reveals that Pinto passed the most stringent racial tests as an Old Christian. Jews and Jewish names are virtually absent from the texts and indexes of all the scholarly works on the Atlantic slave trade and from recent monographs on the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese branches of the commerce in slaves.

These works provide material that can easily be misquoted, distorted, and put in totally misleading contexts. Bloom which in no way supports this statement. But since Yulee took a strongly pro-slavery position in the Senate, the Nation of Islam authors count him as a Jew. In actuality, Jews had no important role in the British Royal African Company or in the British slave trade of the eighteenth century, which transported by far the largest share of Africans to the New World.

According to the Dutch historians Pieter C. Their investment share amounted to only 0. If we expand the issue beyond the slave trade itself, small numbers of Sephardi Jews and Marranos were crucial to the process of refining and marketing sugar and then in shifting transatlantic commerce, including the slave trade, from Portugal to Northern Europe. Throughout the Mediterranean, Jews had acquired expertise in refining and marketing sugar, which until the eighteenth century was a much-desired luxury only the well-to-do could afford.

Marranos and Italians were prominent in the international sugar trade of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Most of these Marrano children died, but some survived to become sugar planters, an occupation that was hardly a matter of choice. The Marranos who moved to Brazil took with them the technical skills of artisans, foremen, and merchants, and took a leading part in developing the sugar export industry.

Other Marranos, who sailed with Portuguese expeditions to the Kongo Kingdom and Angola, became expert at contracting for cargoes of slave labor. Fears of Jewish power were greatly stimulated by the leadership Marranos and professing Jews took in marketing Portuguese East Indian spices and then sugar throughout northern Europe, especially after they became allied with the rebellious Dutch and heretical Protestants.

Although the Dutch barred professing Jews from many trades and occupations—it was apparently not until that two Jewish merchants received permission from the Amsterdam government to establish a sugar refinery—the Netherlands presented a climate of relative religious toleration that encouraged the founding of synagogues and the revival of a small Jewish religious community.

Their knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, as well as the intricacies of international finance, gave them a particular advantage in procuring and marketing sugar. This involvement with sugar was largely the result of the Dutch conquest of northeastern Brazil in the early s. By some 1, Jews made up about one-half of the white civilian population of Dutch Brazil and owned about 6 percent of its sugar mills.

Jewish merchants bought a large share of the slaves transported by the Dutch West India Company and then retailed them to Portuguese planters on credit, arousing complaints of high prices and interest rates. But the Jewish presence in Brazil was short-lived. In the early s, with the collapse of the Dutch occupation and the impending return of the Portuguese, Jews faced the choice of emigration or death.

There were a number of reasons for the upsurge of interest in the Caribbean. By the s the British island of Barbados had made a decisive conversion from tobacco to sugar, as African slaves and a new class of large planters replaced a population of white indentured servants. In Spain awarded an asiento monopoly contract to the Dutch West Indian Company, seeking a non-Portuguese source of African slaves for the Spanish Caribbean colonies. The main asientista , or monopoly contractor, was the Protestant banker Balthazar Coymans, and Jews had little to do with the WIC shipments of slaves from Africa.

Still, in the king of Spain appointed don Manuel de Belmonte, a Jew of Spanish origin, his Agent-General in Amsterdam for the procurement of slaves. The mainland Spanish colonies never developed true plantation systems; their demand for slaves declined abruptly in the eighteenth century, since they could not begin to compete with colonies like Jamaica, St. Domingue, and Brazil, which constituted the heart of the Atlantic slave system and which imported their labor directly from Africa.

The one colony where a significant number of Jews took up plantation agriculture was Suriname, or what later became Dutch Guiana. The religious freedom of the Dutch colonies allowed Jews to establish their own self-governing town, Joden Savanne Jewish Savannah , in the interior jungle. There in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the Sephardim lived the life of sugar planters, extracting labor from African slaves in one of the most deadly and oppressive environments in the New World.

Suriname, however, never became a major sugar-producing region. The significant point is not that a few Jewish slave dealers changed the course of history, which would have been the same without Jewish slave traders and planters.

The significant point is that Jews found the threshold of liberation from second-class status or worse, in a region dependent on black slavery. In Barbados, to be sure, there were fifty-four Jewish households in But these were not great slave traders or planters; they were mostly the managers of retail shops and moneylending firms who owned fewer slaves per household three than the non-Jewish residents of Bridgetown.

To keep matters in perspective, we should note that in the American South, in , there were only Jews among the 45, slaveholders owning twenty or more slaves and only twenty Jews among the 12, slaveholders owning fifty or more slaves.

Even if each member of this Jewish slaveholding elite had owned slaves—a ridiculously high figure in the American South—the total number would only equal the , slaves owned by black and colored planters in St. Domingue in , on the eve of the Haitian Revolution. In actuality, so far as ownership of slaves is concerned, the free people of color in the Caribbean greatly surpassed the much smaller number of Jews.

Even in Charleston, South Carolina, the percentage of free African Americans who owned slaves increased from one half to three quarters as one moved up the socio-economic scale as indicated by the ownership of real estate. The thousands of Southern black slave owners included freedpeople who had simply purchased family members or relatives.

But there were also colored planters, especially in Louisiana, who owned more than fifty or even one hundred slaves. The allure of profits and power transcended all distinctions of race, ethnicity, and religion.

No one should defend the small number of Jews who bought and sold slaves, or who forced slaves to cut cane on the estates of Joden Savanne. No one should defend the infinitely larger number of Catholics and Protestants who built the Atlantic slave system, or defend the Muslims who initiated the process of shipping black African slaves to distant markets, or defend the Africans who captured and enslaved perhaps twenty million other Africans in order to sell them to European traders for valuable and empowering goods.

But while posterity has the right and even duty to judge the past, we must emphatically renounce the dangerous though often seductive belief in a collective guilt that descends through time to every present and future generation. It has even been said that the more enlightened rulers of eighteenth-century Europe were much swayed by the early achievements of enfranchised Jews in Dutch Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America.

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Should You Have Been an Abolitionist? Letters: David Brion Davis. See offers Already a subscriber?

Revisiting Blackness, Slavery, and Jewishness in the Early Modern Sephardic Atlantic

Philip D. Morgan, D avid B rion D avis. Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Delivered in as the Nathan I. As the title suggests, David Brion Davis aims to make his reader rethink context, particularly of space and time.

The massive tome encompassed pages—it was a time when university presses were not as inclined to urge junior faculty to slash manuscripts as they are today—and earned its young author, David Brion Davis, the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, Professor Davis, now the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, has written or co-authored more than a dozen works on slavery and freedom, most of them as imposing as his first. Although there is every reason to suspect that the indefatigable Davis will continue to publish, Inhuman Bondage reads like a conclusion of sorts, a summing up of all that its author has learned over nearly a half century of study and reflection. The s in particular witnessed an explosion of monographs and anthologies on every imaginable aspect of slavery, both ancient and modern. But a truly comprehensive synthesis that reached beyond North America remained unavailable, largely because few single authors enjoyed the breadth of knowledge to craft one. Davis, it appears, is one of the few who does.

Though historians continue to debate the numbers, it now seems probable that from twelve to fifteen million Africans were forcibly shipped out from their continent by sea. Millions more perished in African wars or raids for enslavement and in the deadly transport of captives from the interior to slave markets on the coast. The participants in the Atlantic slave system included Arabs, Berbers, scores of African ethnic groups, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, Jews, Germans, Swedes, French, English, Danes, white Americans, Native Americans, and even thousands of New World blacks who had been emancipated or were descended from freed slaves but who then became slaveholding farmers or planters themselves. Today it is both remarkable and deeply disturbing to discover that this Atlantic slave system evoked little if any meaningful protest until the late eighteenth century. When it did finally appear, the Anglo-American antislavery movement was overwhelmingly religious in character, and drew on developments in sectarian and evangelical Protestantism. Catholic popes enthusiastically blessed and authorized the first Portuguese slave traders in West Africa. For centuries Muslim jihads justified the enslavement of untold numbers of sub-Saharan infidels.


[1] Leading historians of slavery such as David Brion Davis and Seymour allegations, and they were joined by the American Historical Association, Jonathan Schorsch's Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World revisits.


Jewish views on slavery

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Leonard Dinnerstein, Saul S. Jews and the American Slave Trade. New Brunswick, N. Most users should sign in with their email address.

Essential Reading If you want to know the history of chattel slavery, and its eventual destruction in the Caribbean and the US, Inhuman Bondage is the book for you.

COMMENT 4

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