Frames /sing


Spinoza Doubt? The Sephardim and the Slave Trade


Spinoza Doubt

Working slowly along the edge of a soft hypothesis, one comes upon a curious aporia in history when looking into Brazilian and West Indies sugar, the Sephardim, and the slave trade. It is the movement away from share-cropping and indentured labor to imported, enslaved Africans that really fueled the dramatic rise of sugar plantation production; and the spread of these production techniques seems to fall heavily upon the same webbed, merchantile networks Sephardi Jewry had made in its New Christian, Marrano and Jewish forms, stretching across the Atlantic. Yet despite the thoroughly integrated place Sephardic Jews had in the sugar trade, during this document-rich time there is an absence of historical evidence of their direct role in the slave trade, at least for practicing Jews. New Christians, it seems, held the very lucrative slave licenses, and though a natural line of business would extend to family relations (unconverted), this was not the evidentury case. I look into this under the thought that Spinoza’s repulsion/explusion from both his community and the firm, may have had in some measure something spiritual-political-ethical to do with the firm’s sugar trade connections. This of course is very hard to assess from this distance, but like good 17th century telescopists, we have to make educated guesses at the specks seen through very poor glass, and it is worthwhile to at the least raise the question.

Below I post a lengthy selection from Bernardini and Fiering’s Jews and the Expansion of Europe 1450 to 1800. It sets the context of the question within a historical example. The relatively successful New Christian Slave trader Manuel Dias Henriques, as he returns to Amsterdam and Judiasm, once he arrives in Amsterdam apparently stops trading in slaves despite being well-connected to the sugar trade. 

From these sparse data alone we can glean that New Christians and SepharicJews appear to have played a direct role in developing at least 20 percent of Brazil’s sugar productive capacity. Substantial as that was, their role was greater still when we consider the New Christians’ financial of sugar cultivation through the slave trade. Slaves and slave labor were indispensable to the colony’s economy. Slaves not only cleared the land and planted, harvested, cultivated, and processed the sugar cane, but were also ubiquitous as domestic labor and were even represented in certain positions of skilled labor. In the early seventeenthcentury, Brazil’s merchants and sugar cultivators imported up to four thousand slaves annually. New Christians provided the bulk of these slaves. They contracted withthe Portuguese king to administer the slave licensing regime in Portuguese slave stations in Guinea and Cape Verdeislands, and in Angola. The contractor paid the Portuguese king a flat sum for the right to sell the licenses. Although New Christians certainly were not the only slave traders among the Portuguese, the evidence is conclusive that the contractors reserved the bulk of the licenses – and therefore the bulk of the slave trade – for their relatives and other New Christian associates.

At an average of 70 cruzadosa head delivered in Brazilian ports, the four thousand were worth 280,000 cruzados annually. Most would have been sold to lavradores and mill owers on credit. The parties typically drew up a bill of exchange or other evidence of debt providing for payment of the debt in Brazil at a certain future date when the year’s sugar production would have been available. Such financing enabled planters to expand cultivation and yet maintain the lavish lifestyles many were pursuing in the tropical colony.

It is noteworthy that there is little evidence that the Sephardim(what is, observant Jews) participated in the slave tradeof their New Christian relatives and associates, or did so on their own – at least not prior to the development of Dutch Brazil in the late 1630s and 1640s. This apparent lack of participation in the slave tradeis puzzling, since the New Christian role in the slave trade was so important and the Sephardim’scooperation withNew Christian merchants in trade was so intimate. This is particularly true when we consider that family ties were the only reliable vehicle for extended commercial operations and the only guarentee of reasonable transaction costs.

Take, once again, the example of Miguel Dias de Santiago and his couisn Manuel Dias Henriques. Bothlived for a period in Brazil as New Christians. Miguel resided in Bahia and traded with Portugal and Norther Europe between 1595 and 1615. Miguel’s account books from that period demonstrate his interest in the exchange of all manner of European and Asian commodities for sugar, but there is not one entry recording the exchange of slaves for sugar. When Miguel departed from Brazil, he settled in Antwerp and continguedtrading in association with Manuel Dias Henriques, who was established by the 1620s in Amsterdam and had assumed the name Matathias Aboab after he reverted to Judaism.

While still a New Christian, Manuel Dias Henriques had shuttled slaves between Angola and Brazil and had finally delivered slaves to Mexico and Guatemala in the early 1620s. He certainly acquired slaves under licenses obtained through another New Christian cousin, Duarte Dias Henriques, who held the slave contract for Angola from 1607 to 1614. Manuel departed suddenly in 1621, when the Mexican Inquisition initiated a manhunt for him in Guatemala. Manuel arrived in Amsterdam in 1626 (following his late cousin Duarte Fernandes, alias Josua Habilho, another associate in Atlantic sugar trading who had preceded him there by more than a decade). Once established in Amsterdam, it would have been natural for Manuel (now an observant of the “law of Moses”) to continue the slave trade he obviously knew from his earilierdays and to combine it with his cousin Dia’s sugar trading (now from Antwerp).

Why did Manuel cease slave trafficking when he arrived in Amsterdam? A personal moral aversion to slavery and the slave trade, after his experience in Atlantic slave trading, is possible in Manuel’s case. But why did other Sephardic merchants who has similar family commercial connections in Portugal, Spain and Brazil, and the Americas not participate in the slave trade? If the reversion to the Jewish faithwas a factor in the Sephardi avoiding the very profitable trade in human cargo, why did many of the Sephardim become slave owners and some SephardicJews become slave merchants later, beginning withthe development of the sugar industry in Dutch Brazil? Did the licensing regime for the introduction of slaves into Brazil precludeJews from the trade? If New Christians in Portugal and Brazil could includeJewish relatives in shares of sugar cargoes surreptitiously, why not includethem in licenses and cargoes for slave trading? Or did they obscure Jewish participation in the profitable trade so well that today no evidence has survived? We shall probably never have entirely satisfactory answers (476-477).

from Jews and the Expansion of Europe 1450 to 1800, Paulo Bernardini and Norman Fiering

History’s Aporia

For my part, Spinoza’s repulsion from slavery (given in the symptomatic dream-figure of the scabrous Brazilian) and his close proximity to ideal democratic and freedom solutions to the upheavals of the time (the tracts of his teacher Van den Enden are among the most radical in modern history), is suggestive. One cannot count out the idea that Spinoza in his break from his family firm was also from its likely, if only tangential, connection with sugar and the slave trade; his brother and partner Gabriel in a few years would move to trade in sugar in Barbados where he certainly would own slaves. This fit properly into a schism of consciousness within the Amsterdam Sephardic community itself. It was on the backs of human trafficking that wealth in the sugar trade was made possible, and a great number of Amsterdam Sephardim, or their relatives, lived the reality at Recife Brazil. Can one discount entirely that the rabbi that read Spinoza’s cherim(pronouncement of excommunitication), his boyhood school teacher Aboab de Fonseca, in Brazil must have been a slave holder, and the leader of that community which brought slaves? It is very hard to assess the feelings a community might have held regarding something as historically distant as the slave trade. Now, with it rightfully secured as the evil of that age, it is tempting and easy to project backwards and try to separate out the ethical wheat from the self-serving chaff. Sephardic Jews found themselves in a questionable, tenuous historical situation. Recently fled from physical and systematically psychological brutalities of the Inquisition which still actively shadowed them with spies to every corner of the world, their social standing in European communities was nearly entirely guaranteed through their successes in trade. They were a quintessential people of the margin, securing their place at the nexus-points of transit, while their own coherent identity rested upon the reclamation of the past religious, moral heritage. The messianic strain for fulfillment as millenarian Christians joined Kabbalists adventitious hopes, operated at the taut limit of these two factors: a horizontal spread across the globe, and a vertical ascension of the past. As Jews spread forth in an acceleration of the exile and fulfillment, the African followed them like their shadow, reminding them, manifesting their extreme subjection and near extinctionas a People. So as the Sephardim stretched out, so came with them their “Ethiopian” brothers, to whom it was nearly impossible to position themselves, either in embrace or rejection.

The absence of an evidentiary direct hand in the African slave trade by the Sepharidim is quite interesting in this overview. As the authors above suggest. At worse, it could have come from an imagined-to-be uniform, almost insidious, precision in cloaking their connection to slavery through name aliases and company share-holdings; at best it came from a natural aversion to human debasement, born from the Jewish conception of themselves as Jews, and their experiences in history. While Jews established their social efficacy by carrying for centuries the very serious stigma of money-lenders and interest chargers (a stain we cannot now viserally imagine), they would not do so as known slave traders.

There is something about this which is tremendous. To take an example: one can imagine the Sephardimdeparted across the Atlantic to fortify a tenuous Jewish community in Recife Brazil, built upon the onerous practices of sugar plantations. The numbers of Sephardim there would grow to nearly equal the number in Amsterdam. Their rabbi would be a Kabbalist. Their connections to Old Europe and their conditions of Self-identity must have fluctuated within a sphere of both moral and economic compass, thick with a sense of returning to a lost past and being on a literal cusp of civilization (how different Amsterdam was from remembered Portugal, or even cosmopolitan Amsterdam). There they would find Portuguese Catholics newly free from Spain’s yoke, Jews legitimately converted to Catholism, and practicing Jews. The encounter with the facts of African slavery must have been something of a morass, as realities of a Catholic embrace of slavery surely affixed themselves to the immigrants. But there seems to have been a split between a consciousness of working and living within a sphere of New Christian, Inquisition-fear, where slave-trading was a normative and indeed lucrative practice, and the social Jewish identity which distanced itself from such. As the authors above allow us to imagine, one might very well, even whole-heartedly, engage in such practices as a New Christian or a crypto-Jew, as an outright Jew this was to some degree shunned. As Jews shuttled between these two para-realities, so too their participation in slave trade seemed to.

What I suggest is that the question of slavery and sugar was not one that was unique to Spinoza, but rather part of an emblematic difficulty the entire Amsterdam Sephardic community struggled with, as again and again they had to position themselves between Empires that had every ideological reason to turn upon them. In a sense, the hands-off policy regarding slave trade (whether it be found only in book-keeping records, or in the conscience of the people), expressed the safe distance that needed to be kept from the moral ambiguities of trade itself. As Jews, perhaps, as the ultimate traffickers, it was necessary to keep clean of the ultimate traffic, so as to retain a moral and historical identity, for themselves, though as Brazilian colonists, they indeed bought and sold them at market (the market, I have read, closed on Jewish days of observance).

One wonders if, apart from so many other very significant factors, Spinoza in some way recoiled from the taint of what historical trade involved, both in its political manifestations, and is moral failures. The free exchange of ideas and reason that Spinoza would champion can be seen as abstracted from, and a rebellion to, the harsh actualities of what was traded, and as part of a merchant family, as a merchant himself, he knew this. He was excommunicated in an act said to be carried through the voice of the ex-sugar colonist and kabbalist rabbi Aboab, returned from Brazil. In a sense, it was out from the issue of Brazil that Spinoza’s excommunication came. The point certainly is not to frame Spinoza as a great moralist, or at that young age, as the great ethicist he would become, but rather to suggest that Spinoza’s excommunication from his community reads symptomatically upon it. One should not forget that he was a merchant, the son of a merchant, and that sugar, and thus the problematic of slavery, ran very deeply into the subsistence and psyche of that community, in particular as it came to grips with the ambitions and failures (political, economic, theological) of Recife Brazil.

When Spinoza writes in what is thought to be his earliest work,

I say “I resolved at length,” for at first sight it seemed ill-advised to risk the loss of what was certain in the hope  of something that seemed at that time uncertain. I could well see the advantages that derive from honour and wealth, and that I would be forced to abandon their quest if I were to devote myself to some new and different objective.

he sees his departure both from wealth itself, but also from the public esteem that stems from it. It is a break with the entire apparatus of human measure in which profit becomes symbolized instead of enacted. Spinoza seems to take the messianic and trade expansion in which his people were engaged in to entirely different magnitude of a universalized capacity to act, in which the incipient question of human slavery becomes broadcast large. It must be understood, I believe, not just metaphorically that Spinoza titles the Fourth part of his Ethics, “Of Human Bondage, or the Powers of the Affects”. It is on the question of Slavery and freedom that his entire ethical project turns. His divorce from wealth, for what he perceived to be another kind of wealth, must have in some sense come from a separation from the means of human wealth becoming proliferate at the time, certainly something he understood clearly as a merchant with ties to sugar and Recife. The distructive interventions of the Portuguese against Dutch and Sephardic interests in Brazil 1645 and 1654) were driving the community toward the British and with it, the West Indies, involving both slavery and sugar. His breach likely reflected a breach within the community itself.


2 responses to “Spinoza Doubt? The Sephardim and the Slave Trade

  1. George W. Singleton III March 18, 2014 at 11:42 am

    This is the only discussion of Spinoza’s excommunication out of hundreds the last 300 years that makes any sense.

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