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Jews and the Slave Trade

February 13, 1994|By DAVID BRION DAVIS

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.

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