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Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy

Spinoza as Merchant: New Reflections on Old Biographical Material

Below I exerpt significant passages from the very valuable translation of “Mercator et Autodictus” written by A. M. Vas Dias and W. G. van der Tak in 1932, filled with primary source material ubiquitously used. These selections are as to the kind of trade that Spinoza’s family business might have engaged in. Nadler follows this text for instance in concluding that the Spinoza name traded in dried fruits, but in looking at the evidence there does seem room for additional inferences, including the trade of Algerian oils and pipes, and the possibility of Canary Island or Brazilian sugar.

Mercator et Autodictus

Found in the notarial archives of Amsterdam:

A deed dated July 15th, 1631, passed before notary Daniel Brendan (register 941) containing the statement of two porters that on May 27th and June 18th of that year, they, acting upon the request of couriers of Amsterdam and sheriff Hendrik Hudde respectively, carried goods to the Weighing-house from a certain warehouse on the Prinsengracht in which miscellaneous merchandise as stored, such as sugar, brazil-wood and candied ginger, of which warehouse Philips Pelt and Michael d’Espinosa kept the keys.

 To nr.2a (Notary archives of Amsterdam register 942):

To this deed we are told that a shipment of fifty small casks of raisins which Michael should have recieved from Malaga [Spain] according the the bill of charge, did not arrive in good order. Besides learning that Michael must have traded in dried citrus, we also hear that he was living on Vloolenburg in 1633. 

Now we give two other deeds in French, passed before the notary Benedict Baddel:

in the first, passed on July 20th, 1651(register 967 folio 304), Michael D’Espinosa grants a power of attorney to Jacob Boeve, merchant in London, to institute legal proceedings to regain possession of goods, belonging to him, that had been seized by the English Admiralty as coming from Portugal. The goods consisted of pipes as small casks of Algerian oil.

The registries of the notary Baddel mention two more deeds in Dutch (registers 964 and 970):

…the first, passed on November 27, 1651, contains a statement by Simon Rodrigues Nunes at the request of Michael D’Espinosa, that at the house of Julian Lanson, also merchant in Amsterdam, he requested payment of the latter’s share in the expenses made in the reclamation of the ship “Prince” that was seized by the English on its way from the Canary Islandsto Amsterdam; the expenses referred to had been advanced by Antonio Fernandes Carvejal in London.

Febuary 15 1655:

…the honourable William van Erpecum, about forty years old, and Jarich Jelles, thiry-five years old, both merchants within this said city, well known to me, said the notary. And the request of Simon Rodrigues Nunes, also a merchant within the same city, they attested…they made the following purchases and received from the requisitionist, namely the said Van Erpecum, five casks of long raisins at twenty-eight guilders a hundred, and the said Jarich Jelles twenty-seven casks also of long raisins at twenty-seven guilders a hundred.

“Jelles dealt in spices and according the the deed [NAA 975] he did buisness with Portuguese Jews from whom he bought raisins. Michael De Spinoza also traded in dried fruits.”

The evidence points toward an interesting matrix of potential trade practices. The record of 1633 does indicate that Michael Spinoza traded in raisins, and in 1655 we have the suggestive record that Jarich Jelles did as well, keeping some continuity across two decades of business. Yethere we have as well a record of trade in Algerian oil and pipes, and an interesting piece of evidence that Michael held the keys to a warehouse that was filled with Brazilian trade items, notably the cash crops sugar and brazil-wood. The authors take this to be proof of Michael’s trustworthiness, but there would seem to be more than this. There is additional evidence that Michael Spinoza traded in sugar, as he attempted to re-acquire the goods of the ship “Prince” seized by the English. This ship came from the Canary Islands which had for the last century or so been dominated by the effective and mostly brutal economies of sugar production. By the 17th century though, sugar production dramatically had dropped due to Brazilian sugar expansion, and its primary export had been replaced by the sweet dessert wine, Malvasia, meant for both American and British consumption. Yet, the Canary Islands were on the trade route to the Americas, so a ship coming from there destined for Amsterdam likely and predominantly carried the Brazilian sugar (or brazil-wood), or even still Canary sugar. Evidence for additional Canary Islands, sugar-trade relations are found in Spanish Inquisitional records:

Gullan-Whur, citing Israel Revah’s “Spinoza et le Dr. Juan de Prado” (1959), writes of this:

An echoing description was given to the Inquisition by Captain Miguel Pérez de Maltranilla, a day after Fray Tomás’s. The captain, visiting a Canary Islands physician convalescing from leprosy in Amsterdam, stumbled upon a discussion group at the sick physician’s home, where he distinguished two men “who had abandoned the Jewish religion” from two other, allegedly practicing, Jews (who should not, of course, have been “under the same roof or come within four cubits”) of Benedictus or De Prado (90).

The obscure citation is usually used to draw out the fact that Spinoza may have been still connected to issue of Hebraic religiosity after his ban from the community, and important possibility. But here I want to add it to his possible Canary Islands and sugar associations. In 1659 Spinoza was in the house of a Canary Island physician [Nadler reports elsewise, that the man is merely visiting a physician, perhaps Dr. Reinoso, and not a physician himself, and Klever simply identifies him a “chevalier”; Gullan-Whur reads the man himself as a physician, noting that the Leper’s hospital was by the city wall on Vloyenburg; the argument could procede either way]. Whether Spinoza knew him through his past trade practices, or through the nature of the “discussion group” (or both), or simply through the house owned by a name of the same name, Guerra, is of course undecided.

Apart from general knowledge of Spinoza’s doings and concerns, the reason for looking closely into this is that Spinoza’s personal connection to colonial exploitation may have had a bearing upon either his renunciation of mercantile wealth, or on his personal politics later to be voiced in two treatises. Sugar embodies in many ways the pitfalls of affective indulgence and the systematic, brutal control of others.

The Waking Nightmare of Sugar, “Physician Heal Thyself”

This may be no more than a fancy, but we have a curious record 5 years later in Spinoza’s life of the possible impress of the leperous-physician event. The notable merchant and collegiant Peter Balling’s son has died (whether the death was recent is in question), Spinoza writes to comfort him as to how a father may have somehow presaged his son’s death, in an auditory hallucination. Spinoza tells of a waking dream he had in the Winter of Rijnsburg, where a “scabby Brazilian” stared him hauntingly in the face:

I think I can both illustrate and confirm what I say by another occurrence, which befell me at Rhijnsburg last winter. When one morning, after the day had dawned, I woke up from a very unpleasant dream, the images, which had presented themselves to me in sleep, remained before my eyes just as vividly as though the things had been real, especially the image of a certain black and scabrous Brazilian whom I had never seen before. This image disappeared for the most part when, in order to divert my thoughts, I cast my eyes on a boot, or something else. But, as soon as I lifted my eyes again without fixing my attention on any particular object, the same image of this same Ethiopian appeared with the same vividness again and again, until the head of it gradually vanished (translation modified), – Letter 17, July 20th 1664.

Politically sensitive readers such as Antonio Negri have taken this dream to represent a extraordinary fracture in Spinoza’s System, one that will break off his writing of the Ethics, and a turn toward the requirement of a Theological-Political Treatise. While I will refrain from such a grand, but perhaps attractive interpretation, I will suggest that there are certain correspondences between Spinoza’s dream, his no doubt powerful sympathies for a mourning friend, and our record of the likely spiritual-tinged meetings at the house of a physician from the Canary Islands.

For one, the visiting man [a physician or otherwise] is leprous, as would seem the Brazilian figure is. Sugarcane historically had dominated the slave economies of both Brazil and the Canary Islands, so conflating the two seeming fitting. In addition, more symbolically, the disease of leprosy is the New Testament disease par excellence, symbolizing man’s fallen state. If the man himself was a physician, the image of a physician that cannot heal himself certain recalls the proverb from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus begins his public ministry. It worth quoting in full, since one wonders if the passage was on the minds or on the lips of any of those Christians who may have been in attendance. (Spinoza is in the company of Dr. Reinoso who may be an attending physician):

14 And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all. 16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,


20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. 22 And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” 23 And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.'”

24 And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. 25 But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; 26 and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; 29 and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff.

Let me diverge from my main point for a moment, as the writing seems to be heading this way. This passage from Luke contains several elements consonant with Spinoza’s situation, which in what may only be a marvelous coincidence flow together in figuative ways. Here is marked out the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the violent rejection of him by his own home town. Clearly, this too is the place where Spinoza found himself in 1659, upon reflection. We also have the healing of lepers, and for Spinoza, a physician who is struck with leprosy. And lastly, there is the “Old” Testament imperative to release the captives, a command that Jesus saw himself fulfilling. To return to our main point, is it too much to assume that Spinoza’s relating of this dream is something more than simply comforting and interpreting the apparition experience of a bereaved father (I long have accepted this general reading)? Is it beyond likelihood to expect that Balling and even Jelles were at this or other meetings at the house of this diseased man [physician]? What stories of disease, both in politic and in body, were being told about the Spanish owned island? Was the Canary Inquisitional burning of a London Crypto-Jew in effigy the year before talked of? The subject of slavery? The recent seizure of Dutch Brazil?

We cannot tell if any of these connections were consciously made by Spinoza, either in the reading of his own dream, or in decision to relay it to Peter Balling as a comfort, but there is an outline to be traced between Spinoza’s possible association with the sugar trade, the events in the home of the Canary Islands physician, and the haunting figure of a scabrous Brazilian. To my ear, there is oddity to Spinoza’s insistence that the Brazilian floating before him “he had never seen before”. I would think that there would have been few chances to have seen such a figure. Is this assertion simply to enforce the purely imaginary characteristic of the apparition, whose “cause was quite different”? Perhaps. Or, this was a denial of a sorts, as the story is most curious, too much so to dismiss it as only an example of the kinds of tricks the mind can play upon us. He knows him to be a Brazilian, despite later calling him, perhaps generically, an Ethiopian. Dare we risk a dream-interpretation in the conflation of the diseased sugar slave, and the diseased Canary doctor (and the ostracized Jesus), a participating “in the ideal essence” Despite Spinoza’s disavowal? Perhaps that is all we have left. But I am tempted to imagine that indeed Balling had been at the “group discussion” and at some level Spinoza’s family had participated in the sugar trade either of Brazil or the Canary Islands, two “facts” that worked themselves into Spinoza’s dream and perhaps his sense of personal mission.

Spinoza and Diamonds

A last bit of evidence and conclusion taken from Vaz Dias’ report concerns the diamond and jewel trade, and the possibility that Spinoza had turned his mercantile business to include this source of weath. In the record of Spinoza’s arrest of the brother Alveres, a trader in jewels, and the holding of a bill from the diamond family Duartes, the authors write:

The Alveres brothers, alias Nunes, dealt in jewels and came from Paris around 1641 to settle on Uilenburg in Amsterdam in the house called “de Vergulde Valck”. Their business was of doubtful solidity, also in other respects. Through Gabriel Alveres they were related to the Duartes, to which family also belonged Francisca Duarte, known as French Nightingale, who was aquainted with with Pieter Cornelisz. Hooft and is considered a member of the so-called “Muider-circle”…The circumstance that not only the Alveres brother but also the witnesses Manuel Duarte and Manual Levy traded in jewels, leads us to wonder if Spinoza was also involved in this trade.

There is no doubt that the Duarte family was immensely wealthy due to trade in diamonds, and art, in fact Constantijn Huygens’ Sr. and Christiaan visited their home rather regularly for their mutual love of music. I do not know the precise relationship between the young Manuel Duarte (23) and the famed Diego, but it is perhaps significant that Spinoza’s Latin teacher, the book and art seller Franciscus Van den Enden, had strong art trade relationships to Antwerp through his brother’s shop there, where the Portuguese marano Diego Duartewasone of the most prominent dealers in both art and diamonds. The likely nexus for these two strands is Diego’s son Gaspar Duarte, the high-profileartcollector and diamond merchant of Amsterdam. How Spinoza came to hold a 500 guilder bill from a Duarte jewel-trader, likely as some form of payment, is obsured, but these circles are tighter than one might assume at first glance. At least circumstantially, Van den Enden’s brother must have known Diego Duarte as Franciscus likely knew Gaspar Duarte in Amsterdam, and Van den Enden’s student ends up holding the bill of jewel merchant Manuel Duarte.

Addendum, August 10: There is one final hint that maybe gem-dealing had been in the family business for some time. In December 1650 Michael Spinoza was appointed administrator of the Synagogue Pawnshop-Loan Office (Gullan-Whur adds that there was a note in the Book of Agreements: “That it may be to his benefit!”). Because gems must have formed some substantial part of the deposited, some aspect of gem dealing and associations with other gem dealers, would seem a natural conclusion. The early date of this appointment would place such dealings as lasting to the Spinoza family. 

Addendum, August 27: Spinoza Sr. had a record of dealings with a substanial diamond dealer as early as 1641, Lopo Ramires. As Jonathan Israel describes:

Lopo Ramires (David Curiel), a leading Dutch Sephardi merchant of the first half of the century, regularly remitted sugar, diamonds, dye-woods and spices from Portugal to his brother who lived during the Truce years at Florence and who shipped Italian silks and red coral to Lisbon. The red coral was for re-export on the Portuguese East India galleons to Goa where it was exchanged for diamonds, both Lopo and his brother being major diamond dealers as well as general merchants (Empires and Entrepots, 423).

Addendum, September 3: Spinoza’s possible sugar relations are slightly made more likely in that in 1659 that he was noted to be frequently in the company of the tobacco merchant Pacheco. Tobacco and sugar as commodities went hand and hand.

[Additional discussion of related ideas on Spinoza’s dream here: Spinoza and the Caliban Question ]

[Speculation as to the diamond trade and Spinoza’s lens polishing: Spinoza and the Caliban Question ; A Possible Influence of Diamond Polishing on Assited Lens-grinding ]

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