Jews and the Slave Trade

The recent controversy surrounding Louis Farrakhan has included discussion of the role of Jews in the slave trade. This article is excerpted, with permission, from the fall 1992 issue of Culturefront, a publication of the New York Council for the Humanities. David Brion Davis is professor of history at Yale. His books include "The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture" and "Slavery and Human Progress."

To blame Jews for participating in the Atlantic slave trade is a bit like blaming Native Americans for contributing to the oil industry that now threatens the earth with atmospheric pollution and global warming. After eastern Indian tribes were expelled westward to Oklahoma, some members of the small Osage group profited from the immense reserves of oil discovered beneath their barren land.


In somewhat similar fashion, a few of the Sephardic Jews and their descendants who were expelled from Spain and Portugal found a refuge in Antwerp and then the Netherlands, where, thanks to geopolitical circumstances far beyond their control, trade in sugar and slaves became as tempting an enterprise as modern oil.

Like the oil and petrochemical industry, the slave system of Brazil and the Caribbean revolutionized the world economy, attracting investments from all quarters, creating thousands of new jobs, amassing capital, and benefiting consumers throughout the Western world, including West Africa, with a new array of cheap products. In addition, as Joseph C. Miller has written, this merchant capitalism had the effect in Africa of converting human beings "into cold metal . . . the Midas touch that rendered southern Atlantic slaving the Africans' 'way of death.' "


Yet just as the mass of North American Indians remained enclosed in reservations, far removed from the profits of drilling and refining oil, so the great mass of Europe's Jews were confined for centuries in separate, isolated communities well beyond the margins of the Atlantic slave system.

Although Jews and Native Americans have both suffered from centuries of persecution, caricature, and even mass killings, one profound difference qualifies any analogy. Even the radical environmentalists who see any participation in the oil industry as immoral or as verging on criminality would never dream of interpreting Indian oil profits as part of a larger Native American conspiracy. Yet partly because of their remarkable success in a variety of hostile environments, Jews 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 have been homogenized and reified as a "race" -- a race responsible for crucifying the Savior, for resisting God's word, for manipulating kings and world markets, and 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.

Such fantasies were long nourished by the achievements of a 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. Indeed, much of the historical evidence regarding Jewish involvement in the slave system is based on deliberate Spanish efforts to encourage anti-Semitism in Holland and 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 Jewish slave-trading firms in Amsterdam (the Belmontes), in Bordeaux (the Gradis and Mendez), and in Newport, R.I. (Aaron Lopez and Jacob Rivera). But far from suggesting that Jews constituted a major force behind the exploitation of Africa, closer investigation shows that these were exceptional merchants, far outnumbered by the thousands of Catholics and Protestants who flocked to share in the great bonanza.

Long before the Portuguese African voyages of the 15th century, Arab merchants had perfected the trans-Saharan slave trade and had delivered hundreds of thousands of black slaves from regions extending from the Persian Gulf (via seaborne trade from East Africa) to Sicily, Morocco and Spain.

Sharply divided by tribal disputes and rivalries, Africans never looked upon one another as a homogeneous "race;" accustomed to a variety of forms of servitude, many tribes or kingdoms developed highly sophisticated methods for recruiting captives and bartering slaves for coveted commodities which Arabs or 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 inconsistent with the popular picture of "primitive" people 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 this lucrative traffic.


How did Jews fit into this picture? To keep matters in perspective, one 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 17th century. In France a series of expulsions and massacres in the 14th century virtually demolished the medieval Jewish communities. In Spain, beginning in the mid-14th century, a much larger Jewish population was subjected to periodic massacres, forced conversion, mob attacks and final expulsion in 1492. Many of the refugees fled to Muslim lands; the estimated 100,000 Jews who escaped to Portugal were compelled to accept Christianity. No professing Jews were allowed to contaminate the Spanish or Portuguese colonies of the New World.

These sustained anti-Semitic crusades clearly reduced the opportunity Jews might have had for participating in the Atlantic slave system and certainly precluded any Jewish "dominance" or "control." 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 rebellious Spanish province of the Netherlands (the Dutch struggle for independence continued from 1568 to 1648.)

The most convincing estimate of the total volume of the Atlantic slave trade, by Paul E. Lovejoy, comes to 11,656,000 slaves exported from Africa between 1450 and 1900. Over half the grand total, 6,133,000 slaves, were exported in the 18th century, and 28.5 percent in the 19th century. The 17th century, when for about 28 years the Dutch took the lead over the Portuguese and the small proportion of Jewish slave traders undoubtedly reached its peak, accounted for only 16 percent of the total. During the crucial 18th century, British ships transported nearly 42 percent of the slaves who left Africa; the Dutch share amounted to only 5.7 percent. In view of the absence of more conclusive data, and keeping in mind the fact that even Dutch slave trading was overwhelmingly in Protestant hands, these figures at least help to indicate the small parameters of any "Jewish contribution" to the total slave trade.

Jews and Jewish names are virtually absent from the texts and indexes of scholarly works on the Atlantic slave trade and from recent monographs on the French, Dutch, Portuguese and British branches of the commerce. Yet if we expand the issue beyond the slave trade itself, small numbers of Sephardic Jews and Marranos did play a crucial role in refining and marketing sugar and then in shifting trans-Atlantic commerce, including the slave trade, from Portugal to northern Europe.

The Marranos who moved to Brazil took with them the technical skills of artisans, foremen and merchants, and played a leading role in the development of the sugar 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 played an important part in transforming Portugal into Europe's master supplier of slave-grown sugar.

The question then arises: To what extent were the Marranos Jews? This matter has been hotly debated, especially since a few of them were able to recover their religious heritage in Holland or in Dutch Brazil. 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.


Even though Jewish merchants suffered from resumption of the Dutch war with Spain and from the expansion across Europe of the Thirty Years' War, they retained control of sugar and its distribution. This was largely a result of the Dutch conquest of northeastern Brazil in the early 1630s.

By 1639 Jews constituted a substantial portion of the white civilian population of Recife and owned about 6 percent of the sugar mills in Dutch Brazil. 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 high interest rates. A few Amsterdam Jews such as Diego Dias Querido, a native of Portugal, challenged the India Company's 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. Most flocked back to Holland, bringing with them capital and new knowledge of sugar cultivation, sugar refining and slave trading. The next quarter-century would mark the high point of Dutch Sephardic commercial success and involvement with the slave system.

Some of the emigres from Brazil moved northwestward to the Caribbean, where they were soon joined by Jewish and Marrano entrepreneurs from Holland, some of whom had lived in Dutch Brazil. And it was in Curacao, which Marranos had helped found in 1651, that Jews found their main outlet for selling slaves and Dutch manufactured goods along the Spanish Main.

In the 18th century Jews made up about half the population of Curacao and seem to have been involved mainly in the transshipment of commodities other than slaves to the Spanish colonies. 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, in the interior jungle. There in the late 17th and early 18th 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.


"The significant point," as I've written in another place, "is not that a few Jewish slave dealers changed the course of history but that Jews found the threshold of liberation in a region dependant on black slavery." Before turning to the sobering and depressing part of this message, it should be stressed that even with regard to the Dutch Sephardic sugar trade, we are 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 54 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.

No one should defend or apologize for the Jews who bought and sold slaves to cut cane on the estates of Joden Savanne. Yet Jews as a group are obviously no more responsible for the crimes of the slave trade than are Catholics or Protestants -- or Muslims, some of whom actually initiated the process of shipping black African slaves to distant markets.

It is an extremely disturbing thought, nevertheless, that many Sephardic Jews, including those who established the first synagogue in Curacao and the first Jewish settlements in North America, 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 18th-century Europe were much swayed by the early achievements of enfranchised Jews in Dutch Brazil, the Caribbean and North America. This is one aspect of the dismal truth that the 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 extermination of indigenous populations and by the dehumanizing subjugation the African race.