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The Slave Trade and the Jews

The ghastly slave trade from Africa to the Atlantic sugar islands such as Madeira and São Tomé and then to the Western Hemisphere began in the mid-1400s and flourished for four centuries. 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. Responsibility, in short, radiated outward to peoples of every sort who had access to the immense profits generated from the world’s first system of multinational production for a mass market—production of sugar, tobacco, coffee, chocolate, rum, dye-stuffs, rice, spices, hemp, and cotton.

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.1 Yet the world’s religions had long given slavery its ultimate sanction. 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. In eighteenth-century Barbados the Church of England acquired possession of hundreds of slaves whose chests were branded with the letters “SOCIETY” to signify ownership by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. As late as the 1750s 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. And while at least one Jewish merchant joined New York’s first antislavery society in the 1790s, Judaism was as resistant as other tradition-oriented religions to such intellectual and moral innovations.

For four centuries the African slave trade was an integral and indispensable part of European expansion and settlement of the New World. Until the 1830s 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 mid-1700s 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. Sharply divided by tribal rivalries, black Africans never looked upon one another as a homogeneous African “race.” Most tribes and kingdoms were accustomed to a variety of forms of servitude, and developed highly sophisticated methods for recruiting captives and bartering slaves for coveted commodities, eventually including firearms, which Arabs or the Portuguese could bring from distant lands. The political power and commercial networks of the Sokoto caliphate, the Asante, and the Yoruba states, to name only three examples, were wholly at odds with the popular picture of “primitive” peoples overawed and dominated by European military might.

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 1290 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 1492. Most of the refugees fled to Turkey and other Muslim lands. The estimated 100,000 Jews who escaped into Portugal were soon compelled to accept Christianity. Large numbers of these “New Christians” intermixed with the “Old Christian” population and lost any Jewish identity, although the Inquisition continued to search for the signs of secret Jewish rituals that could bring arrest, torture, and death:

By the 1570s, during the beginning of Brazil’s sugar boom, which depended on African slave labor, Judaism as a religion had been virtually wiped out in England, France, the Germanies, Spain, Portugal, the Low Countries, and most of Italy; the great mass of Jewish survivors had emigrated to Poland, Lithuania, and Ottoman lands in the Balkans and Turkey. No professing Jews were allowed to contaminate the Spanish or Portuguese colonies of the New World; in the 1680s they were also banned from the French West Indies and restricted in British Barbados. These sustained anti-Semitic measures clearly reduced the opportunity Jews might have had for participating in the Atlantic slave system and certainly precluded any Jewish “initiation,” “domination,” or “control” of the slave trade. Yet the continuing persecution and exclusion, especially of the “New Christians” or Marranos, did lead to a desperate search for new commercial opportunities in the New World, where there was less surveillance by the Inquisition, and in the rebellious Spanish province of the Netherlands, which struggled from 1568 to 1648 to win independence.2

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. Signifying an antithetical Other, individual Jews were homogenized and reified as a “race”—a race responsible for crucifying the Savior, for resisting the dissemination of God’s word, for manipulating kings and world markets, for drinking the blood of Christian children, and, in modern times, for spreading the evils of both capitalism and communistic revolution. Responsibility for the African slave trade (and even for creating and spreading AIDS) has recently been added to this long list of crimes.3

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. It is easy enough to point to a few Jewish slave traders in Amsterdam, Bordeaux, or Newport, Rhode Island. 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, 370 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 mono-graphs on the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese branches of the commerce in slaves. To expose the supposedly “secret relationship” between Jews and slavery, anti-Semites have therefore turned to histories of the Jews in such regions as Amsterdam, Brazil, and Curaçao. These works provide material that can easily be misquoted, distorted, and put in totally misleading contexts.

To give only two examples, The Secret Relationship asserts that “Dr. Wiznitzer claims that Jews ‘dominated the slave trade,’ then the most profitable enterprise in that part of the world.” The footnote refers to a book review by Herbert I. Bloom which in no way supports this statement. The Nation of Islam authors never acknowledge that Arnold Wiznitzer, whose Jews in Colonial Brazil is frequently cited, writes that “[I]t cannot be said that Jews played a dominant role in Dutch Brazil as ‘senhores de engenho,’ ” or sugar planters—he estimates that Jews made up about six percent of the planters—or that he adds that historians have tended to exaggerate the number of Jews in colonial Dutch Brazil from 1630 to 1654.

From Columbus to Jean Lafitte, the slave-dealing New Orleans pirate, the authors pounce on the most farfetched claims of “crypto-Jewish” identity. Florida’s Senator David Yulee renounced his Jewish origins, converted to Christianity, and even claimed he was descended from a Moroccan prince. But since Yulee took a strongly pro-slavery position in the Senate, the Nation of Islam authors count him as a Jew. Such techniques hardly conform to the standards of fairness, justice, and “great sensitivity” set forth at the beginning of the book in a remarkably hypocritical “Editor’s Note.” But more insidious than the misquotations and slipshod documentation is the total lack of historical context. Even if every purported “fact” presented in The Secret Relationship were true, the uninformed reader would never suspect that for every Jew involved in the Atlantic slave system there were scores or even hundreds of Catholics and Protestants.

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. Emmer and Johanes Menne Postma, Jews had a very limited and subordinate role even at the height of the Dutch slave trade in the seventeenth century: “They did not serve on the Heren X, the directorate of the Dutch West India Company. Their investment share amounted to only 0.5 (or one two-hundredth) of the company’s capital.”4 I should add that between 1658 and 1674 the Jewish investment in the slave-trading West India Company seems to have risen to 6 or even 10 percent. Keeping in mind that the Dutch share of the trade accounted for only 16 percent of the total, one sees how small the involvement was, and it is as close as Jews ever came to “dominating” the nefarious Atlantic traffic.

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. Some of them helped to establish sugar plantations in Madeira and São Tomé, in the Gulf of Guinea. Indeed, in 1493, when Portugal was flooded with Jewish refugees from Spain, the government forcibly baptized their children, large numbers of whom were separated from their parents, and shipped off to São Tomé as colonists. 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. There can be no doubt that these New Christians contributed much to transform Portugal into Europe’s first major supplier of slave grown sugar. Yet given the extent of intermarriage and loss of Jewish identity, most Marranos were “Jewish” only in their vulnerability to suspicion, persecution, and anti-Semitic fantasies of conspiracy. Ironically, the Inquisition’s anti-Semitic crusade, which “fabricated Jews like the mint coined money,” as one cynical Inquisitor observed, convinced other Europeans that “Portugal was a nation of crypto-Jews, as exemplified by the coarse Castilian proverb: ‘A Portuguese was born of a Jew’s fart.’ “5

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 1655 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. The Twelve Years’ Truce with the then united Spain and Portugal, from 1608 to 1621, helped the Dutch Sephardi merchants expand various branches of trade with the Iberian Peninsula, Brazil, and Africa. Their knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, as well as the intricacies of international finance, gave them a particular advantage in procuring and marketing sugar.

Even though Jewish merchants suffered from the resumption of the war with Spain and from Europe’s Thirty Years’ War, they retained temporary control of sugar and its distribution, which should not be confused with control of the Dutch slave trade. This involvement with sugar was largely the result of the Dutch conquest of northeastern Brazil in the early 1630s. By 1645 some 1,450 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. A few Amsterdam Jews, such as Diego Dias Querido, originally a native of Portugal, challenged the WIC monopoly and chartered their own ships to transport slaves from Africa to Brazil or the Spanish Caribbean. But the Jewish presence in Brazil was short-lived. In the early 1650s, with the collapse of the Dutch occupation and the impending return of the Portuguese, Jews faced the choice of emigration or death.

Some of the émigrés from Brazil moved northwestward to the Caribbean, where they were soon joined by Jewish and Marrano entrepreneurs from Holland. There were a number of reasons for the upsurge of interest in the Caribbean. By the 1650s 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 1662 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 1664 the king of Spain appointed don Manuel de Belmonte, a Jew of Spanish origin, his Agent-General in Amsterdam for the procurement of slaves. And it was in Curaçao, which Marranos had helped to establish in 1651, that Jews found their main outlet for selling slaves and Dutch manufactured goods along the Spanish Main.

For a time Curaçao became the great entrepôt of the Caribbean, trading legally and illegally with Barbados and other rising British and French colonies as well as with the Spanish mainland. In the eighteenth century Jews made up about half the population of Curaçao—as opposed to one percent of the population of New York City—and seem to have been involved mainly in the transshipment of commodities other than slaves to the Spanish colonies. 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. Before turning to the sobering and depressing part of this message, I should stress that even with regard to the Dutch Sephardi sugar trade, we’re dealing with a few hundred families. By the 1670s the Dutch sugar boom had ended and Britain would soon emerge as the world’s greatest sugar importer and slave-trading nation. In Barbados, to be sure, there were fifty-four Jewish households in 1680. 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 1830, there were only 120 Jews among the 45,000 slaveholders owning twenty or more slaves and only twenty Jews among the 12,000 slaveholders owning fifty or more slaves. Even if each member of this Jewish slaveholding elite had owned 714 slaves—a ridiculously high figure in the American South—the total number would only equal the 100,000 slaves owned by black and colored planters in St. Domingue in 1789, 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.

While insisting that no group is responsible for the sins of its ancestors, I find it deeply disturbing that many Jews, including those who established the first synagogue in Curaçao, found a path to their own liberation and affluence by participating in a system of commerce that subjected another people to contempt, dishonor, coerced labor, and degradation. 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.6 This is one side or aspect of the dismal truth that our New World—conceived as a land of limitless opportunity, breaking the crust of old restraints, traditions, and prejudices—was made possible only by the near extinction of indigenous populations and by the dehumanizing subjugation of the so-called African race.


Slavery & the Jews March 2, 1995

  1. 1

    I have analyzed the origins of antislavery thought in two books: The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Oxford University Press, 1988) and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Cornell University Press, 1975). 

  2. 2

    For some of this information I am much indebted to Seymour Drescher, “The Role of Jews in the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” Immigrants and Minorities, Vol. 12 (July 1993), pp. 113–125. 

  3. 3

    For the extreme example of anti-Semitic accusations masquerading as a documented history of Jewish involvement in the slave trade and American slavery, see The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, Volume One (The Nation of Islam, 1991). 

  4. 4

    Drescher, “The Role of Jews in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.” 

  5. 5

    C. R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–1825 (Knopf, 1969), p. 271. 

  6. 6

    See my Slavery and Human Progress (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 101.