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Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion

[Tuberculosis can be a difficult disease to diagnosis. The following is working under the assumption that the diagnosis of “phthisis” for Spinoza’s long-running pulmonary problems is best understood as the disease tuberculosis.]

The Influence of Disease

It is interesting that of all the influential facts we seem to have about Spinoza’s life, his tuberculosis may be neglected only as much as his lens-grinding has been. Very little of how debilitating this disease can be, nor its chronic nature seems to be considered when framing a picture of Spinoza’s motivations for life decisions. At most his tuberculosis, called in biographies “phthisis” (its name derived from Greek) gives us a remote picture of a man made weak and coughing at times. Then there is the oft repeated, unsupported, yet romantically satisfying thought that he died not only of his TB, but also from inhalations of glass dust from his lens-grinding. The facts of the disease seldom seem to enter into the explanations for Spinoza’s decisions and life turns.

Spinoza’s early biographer Colerus tells us that Spinoza had been suffering from tuberculosis for more than 20 years when Spinoza died at the age of 44, in February of 1677:

Spinosa was a Man of a very weak Constitution, unhealthy and lean, and had been troubled with a Pthysick above twenty years, which oblig’d him to keep a strict course of Dyet, and to be extreamly sober in his Meat and Drink. Nevertheless, his Landlord, and the people of the House did not believe that he was so near his end, even a little while before he died, and they had not the least thought of it.

If we track backwards, this would place the first bout with tuberculosis very close to the date of his father’s death (March 28, 1654), and his taking over of the family firm (September 1654). Spinoza’s step mother, Esther, died only five months before his father did (October 14, 1653), after a year of serious illness, itself a year after Spinoza’s own sister Miriam had died. Tuberculosis is a highly contagious disease when symptomatic, (if living 24-hours-a-day exposed for two months it is estimated that you have a 50% chance of being infected).

To more fully picture the condition, the symptoms of active tuberculosis include:

– A cough which may last three or more weeks and may produce discolored or bloody sputum
– Unintended weight loss
– Fatigue
– Slight fever
– Night sweats
– Chills
– Loss of appetite
– Pain with breathing or coughing (pleurisy)

That Spinoza may have contracted tuberculosis from his father (or other family members), and may himself have become symptomatic in the year 1656 or so is not something that many people have considered. (To his credit, Nadler does momentarily bring up the idea that Spinoza may have suffered from the same thing that killed his step-mother (Spinoza: A Life, 155); why he notes the step-mother and not his father I do not know. These are years that we have very little historical record of, and a struggle with the illness may very well be a reason for this (the highest risk for developing of the disease is in the first two years after infection). When Spinoza applied for orphan status in March of ’56 (two years after his father died), and when the cherem is read against him in July of the same year, removing him from the community, having failed to pay the family firm’s imposta tax, he may indeed already have been tubercular, and perhaps even seriously so. This would make his excommunication something of a quarantine, not only of ideas, but also in a vividness of metaphor, of body and illness. A cutting off of an already diseased limb. We really need not go that far, though it should be considered. We have had such a variety of motivations projected onto Spinoza and his situation at this time, from Jonathan Israel’s thought that Spinoza was during this period attempting to be excommunicated by being outrageous simply to climb out from the burden of onerous debts, to Wim Klever’s notion that Spinoza at this point was so invested in his political and spiritual education with Van den Enden, long broken from the community, the excommunication was but a trifle. Either of these may be so, but if Spinoza had by now become symptomatic, his illness certainly would have played into his inability to run the firm to profit, or more significantly, his desire to no longer conduct that kind of vigorous business or to remain in the community 0f his youth. No matter the thesis for his excommunication and his change of attitude towards the values in life, the facts of an onset of a lethal diseased that might have killed many of his family members certainly would play an informing role.

Chekhov’s Example

Tuberculosis does not always head in a straight line, by my understanding. It can be recurrent. Chekov, for instance, who like Spinoza also suffered from the disease over a twenty-year period. A first onset expressed itself in an initial bout of fevers in December of 1883, and then three days of coughing up blood a year later in December of 1884. It was not until six years after these, from the strain of trans-Siberian travel, that again the disease seemed to surface, much more forcefully. Chekhov, like Spinoza, died in his 44th year, at the peak of his intellectual and creative powers. [Citing “Chekhov’s Chronic Tuberculosis” (1963), by Brian R. Clarke]. This is how one medical information website describes the nature of the disease’s chronic mechanism:

In addition, TB can spread to other parts of the body. The body’s immune (defense) system, however, can fight off the infection and stop the bacteria from spreading. The immune system does so ultimately by forming scar tissue around the TB bacteria and isolating it from the rest of the body. Tuberculosis that occurs after initial exposure to the bacteria is often referred to as primary TB. If the body is able to form scar tissue (fibrosis) around the TB bacteria, then the infection is contained in an inactive state. Such an individual typically has no symptoms and cannot spread TB to other people. The scar tissue and lymph nodes may eventually harden, like stone, due to the process of calcification of the scars (deposition of calcium from the bloodstream in the scar tissue). These scars often appear on x-rays and imaging studies like round marbles and are referred to as a granuloma. If these scars do not show any evidence of calcium on x-ray, they can be difficult to distinguish from cancer.

Sometimes, however, the body’s immune system becomes weakened, and the TB bacteria break through the scar tissue and can cause active disease, referred to as reactivation tuberculosis or secondary TB. For example, the immune system can be weakened by old age, the development of another infection or a cancer, or certain medications such as cortisone, anticancer drugs, or certain medications used to treat arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease. The breakthrough of bacteria can result in a recurrence of the pneumonia and a spread of TB to other locations in the body. The kidneys, bone, and lining of the brain and spinal cord (meninges) are the most common sites affected by the spread of TB beyond the lungs.

“experience had taught me”

At the very least, if Spinoza was showing symptoms of the disease as early as 1656, as Colerus’ very rough estimate would place them, Spinoza’s life decisions to not pursue wealth, but rather a life of philosophy, must be cast in a slightly different psychological light. Spinoza writes of his change of mind in The Emendation of the Intellect:

After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else; whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.

I say “I finally resolved,” for at first sight it seemed unwise willingly to lose hold on what was sure for the sake of something then uncertain. I could see the benefits which are acquired through fame and riches, and that I should be obliged to abandon the quest of such objects, if I seriously devoted myself to the search for something different and new. I perceived that if true happiness chanced to be placed in the former I should necessarily miss it; while if, on the other hand, it were not so placed, and I gave them my whole attention, I should equally fail (Elwes translation).

This is thought to have been Spinoza’s earliest philosophical text, before the Short Treatise, Shirley placing its composition between the years 1657 and 1660. What, we may ask, was this “experience” that has taught Spinoza the futility of social life, the uncertainty of “fame and riches”. Are these generic experiences that all of us would have, or perhaps the particularities of watching his father die in tubercular fashion, after a life of substantial monetary and honorific gain? Or, more jarringly, was it the onset of the same disease, the same coughing up of blood, that he had seen his father and his step-mother succumb to? This would certainly have a life-turning effect. Spinoza continues in the opening of the Emendation, actually referencing the analogy of fatal illness and remedy as the very mode of his decision making:

For I saw that my situation was one of great peril and I was obliged to seek a remedy with all my might, however uncertain it might be, like a sick man suffering from a fatal malady, who, foreseeing certain death unless a remedy is forthcoming, is forced to seek it, for therein lies all his hope (Shirley translation).

Is this just a proximate reference, or is Spinoza speaking literally of his own onset of illness?

We see no evidence for debilitation in April of ’55 in the record of Spinoza’s subpoena and physical confrontation with the Alvares brothers. He is struck so hard his hat comes off, something which might afford a reference to physical weakness, but none is mentioned. In fact, from the vague description it seems that only the hat seems worse for wear, leaving the impression of a firm man. And in ’58, from Fra Tomás’ 1659 report to the Spanish Inquisition, we find Spinoza to have a handsome face “de buena cara” with light, clear, but perhaps pale skin, blanco. This would seem to put him in good health. The only thing I would mention is that in this report there is great contrast given between his very dark hair and eyes, and the paleness of his skin. Prado, in whose company Spinoza is in, has a “brownish” complexion on the other hand. While he may have been in good health at the time, the paleness of his skin may have been due to some convalescence. In 1659 he is described by another informant for the Inquisition as having a “well-formed body, thin, long black hair, a small moustache of the same color, a beautiful face”.

Yet as we have seen from the example of Chekhov, an attack of tuberculosis does not necessarily leave one debilitated for life. The body’s immune system can indeed isolate the infection, and return one to health, even robust health, only to be susceptible to the disease later, at times of great stress or weakness. Assuming that his disease was that of tuberculosis, one cannot conclude that Spinoza’s health was never robust, as some have thought.

The Beginnings of “Isolation” and a Conserve of Roses

A great deal of investigative imagination and analysis has gone into the question as to why Spinoza left Amsterdam for the much more quiet Rijnsburg in 1661. Gullan-Whur suspects that something had frightened Spinoza in a way that the excommunication had not, perhaps something to do with the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps an increasing pressure from Dutch authorities and Jewish reaction made it unsafe for Spinoza to continue his Amsterdam life, some feel. And there is the account of a knife attack outside the theatre, if it is to be believed. Alternately, some think that he went to Rijnsburg to be closer to the Collegiant movement. Spinoza’s very good, generous friend Jarig Jelles bought a large new house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam in 1660, but Spinoza did not move in. First he moved to near  “near ” Ouderkerk, and then to Rijnsburg near Leiden’s university. Why? It is mentioned that his move towards isolation was so that he could be away from distractions from friends, so that he could concentrate on his work, and this is no doubt true. But is it too much to notice that his withdrawal from friends and the air of the city may have been really a question of health? Was it not that tuberculosis struck him again, and it is was in full view of his mortality, and even questions of contagiousness, a theoretical need for fresh air, that brought him to concentrated isolation?

By September 1661 he writes to Oldenburg that his Short Treatise, (one may say his most overtly spiritual work) is still a work in progress. There is no hint of his illness in their correspondence. In the winter of ’62/’63 he has the company of Johannes Caesarius, who is living with him, helping him in a none-too-satisfactory fashion with the geometrical treatment of Descartes’ philosophy. Gullan-Whur reads Caesarius to be Jan Casier, a student of Van den Enden’s school, now a young, Dutch Reformed ordinand (1642-77). As a collaborative biographical note of perhaps significant correspondence during this period, Adriaan Koerbagh, Spinoza’s friend and comrade in spirit of the same age, had received his doctor of medicine from nearby Leiden University in 1659, with a dissertation on the causes of Tuberculosis, Disputio medica unauguralis de Phthisi. In 1661, the year that Spinoza moved to Rijnsburg, Koerbagh became a Doctor of Law, again at nearby Leiden, and in Koerbagh’s later political trial he admits that he had discussed philosophical matters with Spinoza numerous times in the years 1661-63. Having conducted a study of the causes of tuberculosis, one wonders if Koerbagh had ever seen Spinoza as a patient. Or if Adriaan himself had tuberculosis which weakened him (as he would died only within a few months of being sentenced to prison and hard labor in 1669). Along this thin line of argument, is it a coincidence that a conserve of roses is the only conserve mentioned in Koerbagh’s Bloemhof  (1668). The suppressed Bloemhof  was a 672 page dictionary of terms written by Adriaan and his brother, meant to demystify the use of foreign phrases and technical jargon, putting into the vernacular the verbal obfuscations by which eclesiastical, medical and legal “experts” carried out much of its authority over the common man. In June 1665 it is for a conserve of roses that Spinoza says he is waiting (Letter 28), writing to the physician Johan Bouwmeester who was an intimate of Adriaan Koerbagh. Spinoza had visited his friends in Amsterdam earlier in the year, and during his visit to the city he seems to have suffered a recurrence of his tuberculosis:

At the same time I also expected some of the conserve of roses which you promised, although now for a long time felt better. On leaving there, I opened a vein once, but the fever did not abate (although I was somewhat more active even before the bloodletting because of the change of air, I think). But I suffered two or three times with tertian fever, though by good diet I have at last rid myself of it and sent it packing. Where it went I know not, but I don’t want it back.

At this time Spinoza has just moved from Rijnsburg to Voorborg near the Hague. Likely having finished first drafts of parts I and II of a then tripart Ethica, he makes a break and begins his work on the Politico-Theological Treatise. Spinoza distinctly associates the “air” of Amsterdam with the onset of his illness. It would appear likely that this causal belief was consistent in his life, and thus part of his reason for moving out of Amsterdam in the first place. One can also ask, something I’ve not seen considered, was the renewed attack of his disease in some way linked to the much discussed break from the Ethics, and his turn to political issues of the day?

Voorburg, Not So Quiet

At this point I would like to take up some of the psychological criticism aimed at Spinoza by his biographer Gullan-Whur. In making her assessment of a certain flaw in Spinoza’s self-perception she provides us with a rather telling description of the house Spinoza moved into in Voorburg. She points out that although Spinoza, in her opinion, plays the role of the isolated sage, being crankily troubled by intrusions, he moved into one of the most bustling, connected locations in all of Voorburg:

Voorburg was a rural village, but Benedictus had not chosen to live in a peaceful part of it, for the Kerkstraat houses, huddled on a terrace and generally having only a gable loft above their ground floors, were flanked by the market place and a boat-servicing harbour beside the Vliet. Yet, whole this lodging was feverishly cacophonous compared with sleepy Katwijkerlaan, he never complained…nothing was easier that getting to any Dutch city from Voorburg. The philosopher could leave home almost at the ringing of the horse-boy’s bell to catch the trekschuit. Voorburg being on the way to everywhere (the canal system joined the River Schie at Delft, and continued south to Rotterdam and Dordrecht), he should have foreseen a continuous flow of callers (154-155)

She goes onto conclude that Spinoza himself does not own up to his own emotional needs for company, caught up in the production of his own image. I might suggest that Gullan-Whur has severely misread Spinoza’s contradictory needs for isolation and for contact. This essentially is the mindset of the chronically, if sporatically, ill. Rather than this being a profound conflict of conscience, or the inability for Spinoza to understand his own needs, Spinoza’s tuberculosis and his philosophical/scientific endeavours required both isolation and contact. Indeed I would suggest that it was likely the disease that forced Spinoza to reconsider his life, and it was this ever-present relationship to his own body and mortality that made his rationalist philosophy most concerned with the freedoms of the body. Gullan-Whur’s example of reading the man is actually instructive for all interpretations which ignore his physical histories. In fact Iwould think that all of Spinoza’s metaphysical positions on the body should benefit from being seen in the light of  a possible continual threat and experience of tuberculosis. 

Summation

It is persuasive to infer, and least as persuasive as any other reasoning I have encountered, that Spinoza’s father and step-mother indeed died of tuberculosis, and that Spinoza had contracted the illness from them. On average, people have a 50 % chance of becoming infected with tuberculosis if they are in close contact eight hours a day for six months. If Colerus’s estimate is right that Spinoza had struggled with the disease for more than twenty years, this would put his first attack right at the decisive years of the late 50s, as Spinoza was forming his new political and theological relationships with Van den Enden and Prado, leaving behind the family business. (By stating this length as more than 20 years, Colerus at the very least seems to want to place the illness before Spinoza’s milestone move from Amsterdam.) This encounter with a disease that may have killed his father and step-mother surely would have shaped the decisions Spinoza was making. And the resultant dedication to philosophy, science and selective isolation should not be considered outside of this persistent awareness of both his disease and the effects it may have had on others. All the complexities of influence that we can convincingly conjure up may very well pale to the experience of the fatal fever and cough a year after you watched your father and step-mother, and perhaps even sister, pass under similar conditions. It is agreed that this is a time of plagues, and the death of family members and close friends, certainly by 1664 was not uncommon. This does not mitigate the personal effect the disease would have had upon Spinoza in the determinative years of 1655-1658, not to mention the consequences of managing the disease over a lifetime.

Why the timing and substance of the disease has not been well considered by biographers and interpreters of Spinoza’s life, I do not quite understand, except for the recognizable need to comprehend the man in terms of much vaster, more abstract historical and intellectual factors.

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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.

Anti-Trinitarian Politics at the Time of Spinoza’s Collegiants

For those interested in a summation of the political difficulties facing Spinoza’s group of Collegiants, here is an excerpt from Jonathan Israel’s The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall (1477 – 1806). In all likelihood Spinoza’s circle organized itself around the political protestor, Latin instructor, physician and playwright Van den Enden, and the bookshop of Rieuwertsz, who would publish, among other things, Spinoza’s study of Descartes’ Principles of Phllosophy and his Theological-Political Treatise.

 

Menno Simon (1496 -1561)

Fausto Sozzini (1539 – 1604)

Israel writes:

“But it [the centrality of the Socinian issue] was also due to the spread of the Collegiant movement, especially in the 1640s, to Amsterdam, and mounting evidence that some Dutchmen were being influenced by Socinian doctrines. Zeeland had already acted by the time the North and South Holland Synods petitioned the States of Holland, in 1653, to combat this ‘sickness’, which they called the most dangerous, and most ‘Jewish’, of all Christian heresies, alleging that it was spreading rapidly, especially in Holland, Friesland, and Groningen, and indication that Mennonites were regarded as particularly susceptable to Socinian arguments.

“In September 1653, the States of Holland duly prohibited Socinian and other anti-Trinitarian ‘conventricles’, warning participants they would be charged with blasphemy and as ‘disturbers of the peace’. Booksellers found stocking anti-Trinitarian books were to be fined 1000 guilders [a day laborer made about a guilder a day], printers of anti-Trinitarian literature 3000 guilders. The edict was aimed at Collegiants, and others who were susceptible to anti-Trinitarian influences, as well as avowed Scocinians, meeting in groups. There was a crackdown on anti-Trinitarianism throughout Holland, as well as in neighboring Utrecht, which continued through the 1650s and undoubtably had a considerable effect….At Amsterdam, too, the Collegiants were for some years forced to meet in smaller groups, than before, private homes, and be more circumspect….The crackdown on anti-Trinitarianism extended also to the countryside. The baljuw of Alkmaar wrote to De Witt, in March 1655, reporting his enquiries in the villages around the city, with the help of the ‘regents of the principal villages’, as to whether there were any Scocinians, or anti-Trinitarian books, in the vinciity, concluding that there were not…

…At Amsterdam, it proved impossible to halt the flow of Socinian publications for long…Collegiant meetings in large groups, or ‘colleges’, revived in the early 1660s [Spinoza moved to Rijnsburg in mid 1661]. In 1661, the Amsterdam Reformed consistory complained to the vroedschap of the ‘exorbitance of the Socinian gatherings, in which Quakers and Boreelists mingled, such that one hundred, one hundred fify, and sometimes even greater numbers attended them’. What was at issue here was not the existence of the Collegiant groups, as such, but that there was no longer sufficient pressure to compel them to meet only in small groups, in private homes” (911 – 912) [without footnotes].

Professor Israel does not take into immediate account that the consistory’s claim is likely an exaggeration, so as to make the complaint more forceful, but it is notable that by the time of Spinoza’s move to Collegiant center Rijnsburg, College gatherings in Amsterdam appeared to have bloomed to rather large numbers.