Jews and the Slave Trade

February 13, 1994|By DAVID BRION DAVIS

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.

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