Hugh Thomas on Jewish Involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade

In my last post I put up the descriptions on Amazon of a couple of books of orthodox, respected historical scholarship on Jewish participation in the slave trade to America and the Caribbean. These, by Saul Friedman and Eli Faber, were written to refute the anti-Semitic claims of the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, that Jews were chiefly responsible for the infamous trade. These books show that Jews formed a vanishingly small percentage of those involved in the slave trade.

Jewish involvement in the slave trade became part of the anti-Semitism smears against Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour party when it was used to smear Jackie Walker, Momentum’s vice-chair. Walker herself is Jewish and a woman of colour, whose parents met on a Civil Rights demonstration in America. She is far from being an anti-Semite or, indeed, any kind of racist. But she was smeared as such after someone from the badly misnamed Campaign Against Anti-Semitism hacked into a Facebook conversation she had with two others about Jewish involvement in the slave trade. What she said was based very firmly on entirely orthodox, respectable historical research. But because she left out a single word, which she expected the other two in the conversation to understand, her comments were left open to deliberate misrepresentation. They were then leaked to the Jewish Chronicle, which then smeared her. Walker herself has made it clear that while there were some Jews active in the trade, as brokers, financiers and sugar merchants, they did so as junior partners. The real responsibility for the trade lay with the monarchs of Christian Europe. As for Walker herself, her father was a Russian Jew, her partner is Jewish and her daughter attends a Jewish school. There should be no question of her commitment to her faith, her community and to combating racism and prejudice, including anti-Semitism.

Hugh Thomas also discusses the Jewish involvement in the slave trade in his massive, and exhaustively researched The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870 (London: Picador 1997). He writes

For a time, in both Spain and Portugal, the slave trade was dominated by Jewish conversos: for example, Diego Caballero, of Sanlucar de Barrameda, benefactor of the Cathedral of Seville; the Jorge family, also in Seville, Fernao Noronha, a Lisbon monopolist in the early days in the delta of the Niger, and his descendants; and the numerous merchants of Lisbon, who held the asiento for sending slaves to the Spanish empire between 1580 and 1640. The most remarkable of these men was Antonio Fernandes Elvas, asentista from 1614 to 1622, connected by blood with nearly all the major slave dealers of the Spanish-Portuguese empire during the heady days when it was one polity.

Yet these men had formally become Christians. The Inquisition may have argued, and even believed, that many of them secretly practiced Judaism, tried some of them in consequence, and left a few of them to be punished by ‘the secular arm’. Some no doubt were indeed secret Jews, but it would be imprudent to accept the evidence of the Holy Office as to their ‘guilt’. That body, after all, was said to have ‘fabricated Jews as the Mint coined money’, as one inquisitor himself remarked.

Later, Jews of Portuguese origin played a minor part in the slave trade in Amsterdam (Diogo Dias Querido), in Curacao, in Newport (Lopez Rodrigues Laureno). In the late seventeenth century Jewish merchants, such as Moses Joshua Henriques, were prominent in the minor Danish slave trade of Gluckstadt. But more important there is no sign of Jewish merchants in the biggest European slave-trade capitals when the traffic was at its height, during the eighteenth century – that is, in Liverpool, Bristol, Nantes, and Middelburg – and examination of a list of 400 traders known to have sold slaves at one time or another in Charleston, South Carolina, North America’s biggest market, in the 1750s and 1760s suggests just one active Jewish merchant, the unimportant Philip Hart. In Jamaica, the latter’s equivalent ws Alexander Lindo, who later ruined himself providing for the French army in its effort to recapture Saint-Domingue. (p. 297). (My emphasis).

This seems to bear out Friedman’s and Faber’s research, that Jews played only a very small role in the slave trade, as well as Walker’s statement that the overall responsibility lay with the Christian monarchs who initiated and supported the infamous trade.

I really don’t have anywhere near the knowledge of Walker, Friedlander and Faber about this aspect of the slave trade. But I hope this helps people make sense of this issue, and refute the claims of genuine anti-Semites that the Jews were solely responsible, or the dominant force, behind the enslavement of Africans to the Caribbean and Americas. And it is utterly repugnant and disgusting that Walker herself has so vilely been libeled for her informed discussion of an entirely legitimate topic of historical research.


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