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Dealings In London, Evidence for Spinoza Sugar Trade Relations

Brazil Revisited

To begin, I must make this clear that I am not a historian. It is only that I have combed the historical record looking for facets others may not have considered in the making sense of Spinoza’s historical context and life decisions. Among the things that have been curious for me has been Spinoza’s dream of the scabby Brazilian, recounted for both solace and explanation in the letter to his friend Peter Balling (Letter 17, July 20th 1664). I have written about some hypothetical, let it be said, imaginative considerations already here:  Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy. In recently composing a historical time-line (Spinoza Sugar Time Table ) to gain at the least a perspective on the issue of possible Spinoza family relations to the sugar trade, several additional features have come to stand forth, and it is these I would like to string together for the reconsideration of the influences that trade have have had on Spinoza’s experiences and ideas.

Antonio Fernandes Carvajal

Among the various seemingly mundane details of Michael Spinoza’s merchant dealings unearthed by Vas Dias are the traces of a substantial trade relationship with Antonio Fernandes Carvajal. Carvajal most notably is a Jew living and doing business in London, under the “cover” of being technically regarded as a Spanish subject, at a time when Jews are barred from the land (expelled in 1290, not be loosely readmitted until 1655-56). Carvajal is a covert but central figure of a small Sephardim community there, yet a man of notable power. 

We know him to have come the Canary Islands where there had been an enclave of refugee Sephardim families dating back before even 1492. There, these Jews lived the life a New Christians, for the most part outward Catholic practitioners, keeping for a time beyond the investigative grasp of the mainland’s brutal Inquisition. These small islands off the coast of North Africa proved to be an unexpected source of great wealth and opportunity. As the site of the first owned Spanish sugar plantations, they had suddenly been dominated by the sugar trade at the end of the 15th century, something which would eventually fatigue the land and nearly exterminate the native Gauche;but then as the price of sugar crashed due to the successes in the New World, the island exported its sugar plantation techniques, and turned to the production of sweet wine for the English; and all the while the European Canarians would benefit from the island’s stepping-stone place upon the transAtlantic sea-lanes, becoming not only an intermediary provision stop and intelligence exchange, but also a hub for pirate activities as they lucratively harassed Portuguese ships on their return from trade. The Canary Islands were of all things..connected.

This how Edgar Samuel describes Carvajal:

In 1635, Antonio Fernandes Carvajal (or Carvalhal) settled in London. He was born in Fundão in Portugal, lived for a long time in the Canary Islands and then settled in Rouen, until he was obliged to leave. He lived in London as a Catholic and built up a considerable business as the London agent of Jorge de Paz, Baron de Silveiraof Madrid, who was the largest contractor for shipping bullion to the Spanish army in the Netherlands. He was also a major importer of Canary Wine. In 1654, when war was declared with Spain, Carvajal renounced his Spanish nationality. He and his sons took English nationality and at the same time converted openly to Judaism. He was to be the founder of the first post-expulsion London Synagogue in 1656. – The Portuguese Jewish Community in London (1656 – 1830)

Cecil Roth in his book A History of the Jews in England (1949) reveals much more of Carvajal’sextensive trade practices and political heft. He is not just a wine importer, and agent, but a significant trader withthe East and West Indies, owning ships, conducting heavy arms dealings, bullion trade and having connections which make possessions immune to confiscation, despite his pseudo-standing as a Spanish agent.

 An impetus was given to the process in 1632, when in consequence of internal dissension; the crypto-Jewish congregation, which had sprung up, at Rouen was denounced to the authorities and temporarily broken up. One of its principal members had been Antonio Ferdinando Carvajal, a native of Fundão in Portugal, but long resident in the Canary Islands. He, with perhaps one or two others, had settled in London. Notwithstanding at least one prosecution for recusancy owing to his failure to attend Church, it did not take him long to establish his position in his new home. Before many years had passed, he was amongst the most prominent merchants in the City. He possessed his own ships, trading withthe East and West Indies, as well as the Levant, in a large variety of commodities. He imported gunpowder and munitions on an extensive scale, brought large quantities of bullion from abroad, and during the Civil War was grain contractor for Parliament. When in 1650 informal hostilities began with Spain his goods were expressly exempted from seizure by the Council of State, and he was given facilities for continuing his commercial operations.

These details drawn from this internet source.

So letus return to Michael Spinoza. There are multiple points of interesting contact between Michael and the powerful Carvajal. Firstly, it is reported by Vas Dias that in 1644 Michael with his wife’s cousin, the significant Amsterdam figure, Abraham Farar, forms a contract with Carvajal:

1644 April 25 Michael makes a contract concerning “various trading matters” with the cousin of his wife Esther, Abraham Farar, concerning the contact Antonio Fernandes Carvajal, an illicit Jewish merchant of London.

But this may not have been the first substantial contact between Michael and Carvajal. As Samuel tells us, the gunpowder and munitions importer Carvajal established his buisness primarily as the “London agent of Jorge de Paz, Baron de Silveira of Madrid, who was the largest contractor for shipping bullion to the Spanish army in the Netherlands: (citing James C Boyajian, “Portuguese Bankers at the Court of Spain 1620-1650”). As I have pointed out elsewhere the credit records of Michael’s firm in the year of 1641possess as debtor the name of a prominent arms dealer LopoRamirez (for a sum of 1108 guilders), who had in that concluded an enormous deal for arms with the new Portugues King, John IV. On this same list is the name Jan de Pas (for a sum of 1,271 guilders), which bears close resemblance to Carvajal’s main buillioncontact, Jorge de Paz (aliases and spelling variations proliferate in merchant records). Perhaps this is a coincidence, but three years before his contract with the arms dealer Carvajal, MIchael Spinoza’s firm holds a credit bond with another substantial dealer of arms, and possibly Cavajal’s main Spanish contact in court.  

The Canary Island Connection

Michael Spinoza’s contacts with Cavajal proved lasting. Seven years after they have been officially recognized, we see Carvajal being given power of attorney twice in 1651 to reclaim goods seized by the English on Michael’s behalf:

1651 July 20, Michael grants power of attorney to two men in London. Both Jacob Boeve and Antonio Fernandes Carvejal are to recover the merchandise of pipes and small casks of Algerian oil seized by English Admiralty from a ship come from Portugal.

1651 November 27, Michael seeks to recover from Julian Lanson, an Amsterdam merchant, some expense of the reclamation of goods from the ship Prince come from the Canary Islands. These expenses had been advanced by the same illicit London Jew, Antonio Fernandes Carvejal.

Notably, in the second these the ship has come from Carvajal’s home territory, the Canary Islands. Whatever trade that Michael is conducting, whether it be from Lisbon solely, or the burgeoning sugar trade of the New World, his relationship to Carvajal seems more braided than it might appear at first glance. I believe that in the Canary Island connection, and the person of Carvajal, we have a firm touching point to the sugar of the New World. (I will leave the associations with arms dealing for others to uncover.)

In order to understand the value that a covert London agent would I will cite at length Jonathan Israel’s description of the state of Amsterdam Sephardi commerce in the years following the 1651 Navigation Act barring Dutch trade with English Colonies. Dutch Sephardim traders had to negotiate the ever-shifting alliances and wars that endangered the precious cargos come from the New World, and they did so through a cameleon strategy of national identites:

Before 1658, as far as the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam was concerned, much the most important plantation colony in the Caribbean, owing to its pre-eminence at that stage in the production and exporting to Europe of sugar, was Barbados. And Barbados was English. Jewish settlement on Barbados had inevitably been a question of veiled direction from Amsterdam, and to a lesser extent Hamburg, seemingly initiated from London. This was essential if the cooperation of Cromwell’s government was to be won while avoiding adverse reproductions in the Republic itself. The Barbados Sephardic colony, as we have seen, originated in the late 1640s; it was much expanded by the influx of refugees from Brazil, in 1654, and then by further waves of immigration of refugees from Holland [of which Gabriel Spinoza was one]. Thus, the great bulk of the Barbados Sephardic community in this early period consisted of Dutch Jews, their economic as well as their social and cultural ties being withAmsterdam and not London. Nevertheless, in order to circumvent the English Navigation Act of 1651, one of the main purposes of which was to eliminate trade between Holland and the English colonies, the existence of a Sephardic community in London, however small and precarious, was indispensible to the Barbados-Amsterdam connection which had to be dressed up as “English”. Officially, the Barbados Sephardim, after 1651, were agents of London Marranos and (after 1655) Jews, though their basic function was to sell Dutch goods on Barbados and export sugar and tobacco to Holland. In 1657, an Irish privateer in Spanish service – Spain and England were at war in the years 1655-1660 – brought in to San Sebastian what purported to be an English vessel, The Pearl, carrying twenty-seven Dutch Jewish emigrants on their way to settle in Barbados, taking with them merchandise which was valued at 120,000 pounds, an immense sum for the time. The Spanish admiralty authorities were utterly baffled as to whether the ship and its contents were English or Dutch, finding that the Jews had official papers and passes from both London and Amsterdam. This incident forced the Mahamad in Amsterdam to come into the open as the true guardian and protector of the Barbadian community, assuring the Spanish crown, through the States General, that everything on board the Pearl was in reality Dutch. It was this intervention by the Sephardic Jewish leadership in Amsterdam which lead to the States General’s famous resolution of 17 July 1657, to the effect that “those of the Jewish nation who live in these provinces [i.e. the United Provinces] are true subjects and inhabitants of these provinces and must enjoy the conditions, rights, and privileges of the treaties of peace and commerce. 

– Jonathan Israel, “Menasseh Ben Israel and the Dutch Sephardic Colonization Movement of the Mid-Seventeeth Century (1645-1657)”, 150-151

Israel tells us that the first significant sugar trade with Barbados developed not in the 1650s, as is often assumed, but a decade earlier with the disasters of Jewish Brazilian investment come from the revolt of 1645, and the Barbados arrival of plantation-minded Sephardim. From this point forward, English Barbados sugar would become a tantalizing source for closer, easier to produce wealth. If we can assume that Michael’s1644 contracts with Carvajal may have been embroiled in a variety of investments, with his contacts with the Canary Islands and the English, and the substantial Amsterdam investment in Brazil’s Recife community (Baruch’s childhood teacher of Hebrew, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, since ’42 was its rabbi), it is hard to imagine that Michael did not evolve to participate in this trade.

The value of a strong English agent was that one could freely move in English trade circles, immune from the restrictions otherwise placed upon the Dutch, and the rise of Barbados sugar certainly would recommend this; this especially would be the case for the brothers Gabriel and Baruch when within a few months after word was recievedin 1654 that the Portuguese had retaken Recife, ending all Dutch investment there, and sending thousands of Sephardi refugees back across the Atlantic, their father Michael died. Of the wide hypotheses on the sudden decline of the once quite well-off firm, a too-generous Michael Spinoza being the most common, nowhere have I seen it pointed out that the collapse of the Recife community and the Dutch sugar marketmay be the simplest and most believable of answers. The firm that Baruch took over, I suspect, like many other merchant firms, was crippled by the 1654 Portuguese action.

There are suggestions that the Spinoza firm continued on with its sugar and Carvajal connection. Firstly, we have Spinoza presence in the home of a Canary Island physician, recovering from leprosy:

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).

– Israel Revah “Spinoza et le Dr. Juan de Prado” (1959),

This Inquistion report occurs in 1659, long after Spinoza had left the family firm. Yetit does suggest that Spinoza may have established, through his dealings with the Canary Island “native” Carvajal, and his associates, personal contacts that carried through to his Colligiant circle.

The second piece of evidence that points in the direction of sugar is that in 1664, a few months after Spinoza related to Balling his dream of the scabrous Brazilian, his brother Gabriel signed off power of attorney, and immigrated to Barbados, no doubt to begin a life related to the sugar trade. I don’t believe that this decision can be considered apart from Michael Spinoza’s long time connections with Carvajal, nor the community’s lasting closeness to the Recife community, and its diasporatic spread.

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5 responses to “Dealings In London, Evidence for Spinoza Sugar Trade Relations

  1. Sebastian Pineda April 26, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Excellent article. I´m very interested in this topic. It makes me wonder about Spinoza´s relations both commercial and intellectuals with Hispanics. As you surely know, the Colombian Tomas Solano was the man who accused Spinoza in the Inquisicion of Madrid. Fray Tomas was a priest, but deep inside he was a secret jew who traded sugar and jewels from the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. His ship was seized by british and he was leaded to London, where finally he was released and carried to Amsterdam. Once there he met Spinoza. Well, I´m looking information about this aspect, and I would be pleased to share my information with you.

  2. kvond April 26, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Sabastian,

    As I perhaps noted, these offerings are largely spun from associate thoughts that came out of my study of Spinoza as a lensgrinder and instrument maker, so what I present are really running notes as they came to me in the research. I don’t really have information beyond what I have posted in several of these related posts, but I’d be glad to post here any addition information you have, to be added to the record.

    What you mention here certainly does support the idea that the Spinoza family dealings with sugar and/or jewels was likely more than is often biographically assumed. Jewish London at the time was a very interesting political situation.

  3. Sebastian Pineda July 26, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    Hi. I´m sorry for my delay. Thank you for your answer. So far, I´ve read a couple of books about Spinoza and his relations with the Hispanic intelectualls. Have you already read an amazing book titled “Spinoza and other hieritics: The marrano of reason”? It sheds light on this aspect. But I am afraid what I´ve found are not still enough to write the essay that I want to: “B. Spinoza and Ibero America”.

    However, I´m looking for Espinosa(with a magnifying glass)in several spanish volumes: “Los judíos en la España moderna y contemporánea”, by Caro Baroja; and “Historia de los judíos en la España cristiana”. Also in “Historia de los heterodoxos españoles”, which is available on line: cervantes.es

    As regard Jewish London political situation I´ve found something in Milton´s biographies.

    By the way, as I din´t find any clear yet, I´ve dared to write a fiction story about Jewish pirates in the Caribbean, and Spinoza sugar trade relations.

    Regards,

    Sebastian

  4. Nick July 22, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Hi, I’m currently in the process of doing some research on James Boevey (or Jacob Boeve). I found your article’s reference to him quite interesting and unique. May I ask where you got the information that he was one of the two men granted ‘power of attorney’ to recover the aforementioned goods? Also, is 1651 the only time his name appears in relation to your case? Your thoughts on this matter would be highly appreciated. Thanks

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