Frames /sing


The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian”



Issues of Translation: Æthiopis

Did Spinoza Consciously or Unconsciously mean something more than “Black man” or “Negro” when he referred to the scabrous Brazilian which haunted him in his waking dream? Prolific rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, who was intimate to Spinoza and his family, in 1650 published The Hope of Israel in both English and Latin, in response to increasing ferver over the report that the Portuguese New Christian Antonio Montezinos, during his travels to South America, had discovered those of the Lost Tribe of Rueben. This was a significant factor considering the widespread belief that the Lost Tribes of Israel must be thoroughly dispersed across the Earth before the Messiah could appear to rejoin them to the Holy Land, in a time of everlasting peace. This formed a hope not only for Jews but for millennial Christians who contemplated the last days, and Menasseh would partake of its reasoning in his later petition of Cromwell to re-admit Jews to England, from which they had been banned since the year 1260. The book thus likely was for Menasseh a prelude to his 1651 pamphlet appeal to Cromwell, and then his 1655 visit to London. It should be noted, Menasseh was a merchant of Brazilian trade, and no doubt had investment of various sorts in the answer to these sorts of questions.

I bring Menasseh’s book up though to draw aid in interpreting Spinoza’s description of the waking dream he had of a scabrous Brazilian, taken by some to be a conscience-ridden dream which helped drive, or trigger Spinoza to greater attention to the political situations of his day. What is interesting about his words is that he characterizes the figure, first as Brazilian, and then seamlessly as Ethiopian:

“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.

Some have translated the Latin term generically, as a racial epithet – Elwes “negro”; Curley “Black man”, and even the modern Dutch translator F. Akkerman translates it interestingly as “blacamoor” or “the moor”- a tendency for which I am sure there is great precedence. But because words are polyvalent, I would like to consider an alternate influence upon Spinoza’s choice of word. Menasseh in his “Hope of Israel”, as he investigates where the Lost Tribes are, mentions the likely widely held belief that the Lost Tribes had reached Ethopia, where a large number of Israelites live. I quote at length:

S E C T. 18.

Part of the ten Tribes also live in Ethiopia, in the Habyssin Kingdome; as divers Habyssins reported at Rome. Boterus in his relations speakes the same thing, that two potent Nations doe live neare Nilus, and that one of them is that of the Israelites, who are governed by a mighty King. A Cosmographer who hath added notes to Ptolomyestables, saith thus in his table of New Africa; that part of New Africk was unknowne of old, the head of Nilus not being knowne, which is in the Mountaines of the Moone, as the Ancients call them; where there dwels a great number of Israelites, paying tribute to Prester John. Rabbi Abraham Frisolin the Book already quoted, saith, that in his time some who had been in those Countries, reported the same to Hercules the Duke of Ferraria. And without question from hence the Habyssinslearned Circumcision, the observation of the Sabbath, and many more Jewish rites. Of these Isaiah seemes to speake, in Isa. 18. 1, 2, Woe to the Land which under the shadow of sails doth sailebeyond the rivers of Ethiopia, by whom (the Prophet saith) are sent Ambassadors in ships of Bul-rushes, (such as the Aethiopians use, commonly called Almadiae.) Bring back a people driven out of their Country, and torn, and more miserable then any among us. Gifts shal be brought to the Lord of Sebaoth, in the place where the name of the Lord of Sebaoth is worshipped, in the mount Sion. The Prophet Zephany saith the same, in Zeph. 3. 9, 10, Then will I give to the people that they speaking a pure language, may all call upon the name of God, whom they shall serve with reverence; from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia they shall bring to me for a gift, Hatray the daughter of my dispersed ones, (that is, the Nations of Aethiopia.) Which agrees with that of Isa. And your Brethren, (which are the ten Tribes) shall bring gifts to the Lord.

When Spinoza calls the leperous Brazlian an Ethiopian, because of a social context which is looking for messianic signs, as the Lost Tribes are being found among the Indians of the Americas, a context which spurred Menasseh’s well-circulated text and petitions to Cromwell, it seems at odds with sense to translate the term generically. What is more, if not consciously, Spinoza is making some equation with the imagined inhabitants of Ethiopia and Brazilian slaves, one that cannot simply be collapsed into a broad description. In fact it is tempting to read this Brazilian figure as somehow eschatological, either to European history, or Spinoza’s own sense of a distant gathering under affects imagined to be the same (E3p27), the root of sociability. One might say that it is the Ethiopian component of the figure which persists and cannot be rubbed away. If one follows the examples of violence and illness in the letter that immediately Spinoza uses to indicate the bodily source of his image (an interesting twist of his parallel postulate), not born of love or “mental causes”, perhaps one can trace out, anachronistically, something of the repressed.

I conclude with a last except from Menasseh’s text, as he focuses on the issue of the Israelite standing of South American Indians:

S E C T. 18.

…I doe like of, in part, the opinion of the Spaniards who dwell in the Indies, who by common consent doe affirme that the Indians come of the ten Tribes. And truly they are not altogether mistaken, because in my opinion, they were the first planters of the Indies; as also other people of the East-Indies came by that Streight which is between India, and the Kingdome of Anian. But that people, according to our Montezinus, made warre upon those Inhabitants the Israelites, whom they forced up unto the mountaines, and the in-land Countries.

The Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew and Yiddish editions of The Hope of Israel, here

The English Edition here

Postings connected to this issue:Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy, and  Spinoza and the Caliban Question




2 responses to “The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian”

  1. Akis Gavriilidis October 4, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Hi! I read the above text with some delay, but with great interest. I have one question: at some point, you state that “Spinoza’s description of the waking dream he had of a scabrous Brazilian [was] taken by some to be a conscience-ridden dream which helped drive, or trigger Spinoza to greater attention to the political situations of his day”.

    I would like, who exactly were these “some”? Can you provide any references?
    Thanks in advance.

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