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A Sum on Spinoza Sugar

Spinoza at Sea

I’m waiting for Wolf’s book on the Canary Island Inquistion, so for now that should probably be all on the possible connections between the Spinozas and sugar production in Brazil and Barbados. It is my instinct that there is something there, that the bonds between the Amsterdam community and Recife, and also the wide-spread opportunity for short-term turn around would surely place some of Michael Spinoza’s investments in Brazil. It strikes me that the collapse of the Spinoza buisness upon Michael’s death is too immediate to not be due to either an erosion brought on by a decade of English harassment (as Jonathan Israel seems to suggest), or by Baruch’s incompetence. Rather, it would seem that as English naval attacks on Dutch shipping began in ’51, Michael had already secured himself a fall-back within London in the person of Antonio Carvajal who petitioned many times on his behalf. The confiscated Brazilian sugar seized by the English ship George, already consigned by the Spinozas to de Morais in Rouen, suggests a substantial connection to Brazilian sugar, London and Rouen. Remember, Carvajal had strong connections to the Rouen community. When the Portgugeuse would retake Recife and send the Amsterdam community into a chaos of exiled immigrants, Michael Spinoza died. Significant would be his debt to the same Rouen merchant de Morais, to whom he had consigned sugar shipments. It would seem that the collapse of Recife, Sephardic sugar signaled the collapse of the Spinoza firm, and that Michael had leveraged himself too far. Baruch’s charitable donation of 5 guilders to the Brazilian poor in Brazil, at a time of personal financial difficulty, suggests a family connection to that community which may very well have been an economic one. 

The relevance of this for anyone looking into the motivations and principles going through Spinoza’s mind at the time of his break with the community, and his subsequent stand in politics and arguments for freedom, is that there may have been a substantial experience of colonial collapse, with an attendant association of messianic Judaism (in the roles of the Kabbalist Aboab da Fonseca and the political envoy Menasseh ben Israel), which sprang Spinoza forwards. Sugar, with its highly problematic ethical question of slave labor, perhaps lies on a fault line in the fortunes of the Spinoza family, not to mention his community. It is interesting that Spinoza would continue this Jewish connection to the English in his correspondence with Oldenburg the Royal Society Secretary, a philosophical and scientific continuation of the economic and cultural advantages his father and Menasseh were carrying out at the time of his expulsion. As his brother Gabriel seems to have followed firm connections to London and trade in his immigration to Barbados, Spinoza was seeking another kind of sugar.

Some general thoughts on the matter.

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