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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.

  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).

    This book begins by suggesting that the expulsion of Jews from forty-six specified European cities and states was the result of the Jews’ “economic exploitation, monopolizing, or ‘sharp practice,’ ” which “incited the moral indignation of Europe’s Gentile population” (p. 10). As the Jews escaped “with considerable sums of money,” “they would reunite later in an unholy coalition of kidnappers and slave makers” (pp. 12–13). The Atlantic slave system was essentially the creation of these roving refugees and “secret Jews” (Marranos), who “procured Black Africans by the tens of thousands and funnelled them to the plantations of South America and throughout the Caribbean” (p. 19). Displaying 1,275 footnotes, most of them citing respectable works by Jewish historians, The Secret Relationship moves on to the American South and Civil War, to a section on “Jews and the Rape of Black Women,” and to a final lengthy rogues’ gallery of Jews, or “Chosen People,” who participated in “the Black Holocaust.” Any reader who accepts this work as legitimate and accurate history—and the volume has been widely distributed in black communities—would have to conclude that Jews were mainly responsible for New World slavery and its tragic legacy, and have long been the worst enemy of the African race. The deceptive and malicious nature of the Nation of Islam’s volume has been exposed by the booklets Jew-Hatred as History: An Analysis of the Nation of Islam’s “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews” (Anti-Defamation League, 1993), and Harold Brackman, Farrakhan’s Reign of Historical Error: The Truth Behind The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews (The Simon Wiesenthal Center, 1992).

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