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Spinoza Sugar…

Sugar and Slavery and Conscience

It occurs to me, perhaps this is obvious, that there is additional evidence that the Spinoza firm conducted a primary investment in Sugar production. This is that Spinoza’s brother, Gabriel, with whom he at one time was a partner in the firm, in October 31 1664 transferred power of attorney for the firm and left Amsterdam to live in Barbados. The economic conditions in Barbados were powerfully organized around sugar plantations and slave importation. The huge influx of African slaves fueled the sugar boom (introduced by Dutch merchants in 1554), so much so that by the year 1682 there were 30 black slaves for every 1 European indentured servant, with indentured Europeans making up approximately 80% of the European population of the Island. After fire and a major hurricane in ’67, a drought in ’68 and flooding rains in ’69, in 1671, after Gabriel moved to Jamaica, he successfully applied to become a naturalized English citizen.

Gabriel Spinoza move to Barbados strikes me as a powerful indicator of the level of sugar investment by the family firm, at least in these later years. Such a move is hypothesized by Gullan-Whur to be part of the Jewish flight from plague-ridden Amsterdam, and this may be so. But it must also have impressed Gabriel that it was more lucrative to be on the production end of sugar under the changing Barbados conditions, rather than to simply to import it – did the British harrying of Dutch ships and the strictures of the lasting English Navigation Act strongly suggest just such a solution? And so he stepped right into the slave-trade sugar boom of the island. Could it not be that there was an element of an awareness of Gabriel’s intention to move to Barbados as Spinoza reported his dream of the suffering Brazilian in July of 1664? Gullan-Whur suggests that Jelles at some point must have heard of it, at least after it was accomplished. (Spinoza’s sister too would emigrate to the West Indies sometime after 1679.)

To provide an example of the social structure that Gabriel was moving into, a highly successful “slave code” was instituted in Barbardos in 1661, (so successful it was exported nearly clause for clause when Thomas Modyford, one of the of the largest plantation owners of the island, moved carrying the code to Jamaica to become its Governer:

The first comprehensive slave code for Barbados was the 1661 “Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes”. This slave law, according to Richard Dunn, “legitimized a state of war between blacks and whites, sanctioned rigid segregation, and institutionalized a rigid early warning system against slave revolt”. It formed the legal basis of slave-planter relations and represented an attempt to legally structure the social order of the plantation world… In the preamble of the 1661 Code, the slaves were described as both “heathenish”, “brutish”, and a “dangerous kind of people”, whose naturally wickid insticts should be at all times suppressed.  It provided that masters should feed, clothe and accommodate the slave within the “customs of the country”, while on the other hand, it found that slaves found guilty of certain crimes, other than those of a public nature, would be punished by being branded, whipped, having their noses slit, or by having a limb removed.  For crimes of a public nature, such as rebellion, slaves were capitally punished (A History of Barbados: From American Indian Settlement to Nation State, 34)

This is about as far from the maxim of Spinoza’s radical teacher Van den Enden’s Liberal Considerations and Considerations of a State (1665), “The People’s prosperity is the highest law, and their Voice is God’s Voice”, as is conceptually possible. How tensioned the directions and political values of the two brothers. A Caliban question indeed.

Addendum to the related posts: The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian”,  Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy and Spinoza and the Caliban Question

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