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Tag Archives: Slavery

The Whiteness of Metaphysics: Colored Readings of the Same

The Murderer of Agamemnon

ἆ ἆ, ἰδοὺ ἰδού: ἄπεχε τῆς βοὸς
τὸν ταῦρον: ἐν πέπλοισι
μελαγκέρῳ λαβοῦσα μηχανήματι

Ah, ah, See, see! Hold off from the cow
the bull!  Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina

Agamemnon (lines 1125-1128)

Ἀργεῖός εἰμι, πατέρα δ᾽ ἱστορεῖς καλῶς,
Ἀγαμέμνον᾽, ἀνδρῶν ναυβατῶν ἁρμόστορα,
ξὺν ᾧ σὺ Τροίαν ἄπολιν Ἰλίου πόλιν
ἔθηκας. ἔφθιθ᾽ οὗτος οὐ καλῶς, μολὼν
εἰς οἶκον: ἀλλά νιν κελαινόφρων ἐμὴ
μήτηρ κατέκτα, ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν
κρύψας᾽, ἃ λουτρῶν ἐξεμαρτύρει φόνον.

Argive I am, my father – you fairly inquire –
Was Agamemon, the nautical Riveter of men,
With him you the Troad uncitied Illion city
Claimed. His end was not so fair come
Home; but he blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled game
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder.

Eumenides (lines 455-461)

[apologies if the Greek fonts don’t come through]

Examples of Greek Otherness

I wish to briefly examine conceptions of othernessas found in the Greek notions of the world, so as to get a grip upon how deviant from these the modern appropriations of the same are in concept, with a particular eye upon Heidegger’s evocation of invisivibility and presence. Above are two descriptions of the method of Clytemnestra’s murder of the returning Agamemnon. The details of which will cue us unto the Greek otherness of “woman,” and relatedly (though she is not Eastern like Medea), the otherness of the East, Persia, Phrygia, and finally perhaps otherness itself: Same vs. Different.

The first from Aeschylus tells us that she smote him with a device, a machine, horned and smothered in a mantel.

Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina

The second is even more interesting, for the wordplay is excelerated:

blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled [poikilois] game [agreumasin]
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder

We must see in these means and their characterizations the very nature of her own representational otherness, her exotic quality and powers. With grammatical ambiguity she cloaks either herself or her husband in ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν, itself an intricate phrasing. The poikilois has multiple meanings all of which point to things varigated and potentially confusing. To quote the Greek lexicon, “”many-coloured, spotted, mottled, pied, dappled, of leopards, fawns; of robes, wrought in various colours, broidered; intricate; metaphorically changeful, various, diversified; intricate, complex; subtle; of persons, subtle, wily” (LSJ); and the agreumasin, can mean both the hunter’s snares used to catch prey, but also the game animal itself. With remarkable economy of words, Clytemestra hid within and struck by means of the very intricacy of her plans, and a garment, as a dangerous, even technological force camoflaged by the powers of its own complexity. Complexity, folded-in-ness was the mark of a power of otherness. For the Greeks intricacy, such as that which typified the craft skills of Asia Minor, bore in its very profound and natural interconnection the magical danger, the trap and the power of animal forces to both hide and kill. It was not so much the lack of transparency, to be understood in a fundamental binary of invisible/colored, but the actual production of confusion on the part of the viewer, a “how did they do that!” born of the very incalculable implications expressed in variegation itself. A tangle, if betwitching knot of things, labyrinth in need of a “poria” a ford in the river of it. The mention of the labyrinth is not accidental. What is forewarned against is the very Daedalus, work-man skill of the foreign hand, the mythological name taken from the verb δαιδάλλω:

[to] work cunningly, embellish, “σάκος . . πάντοσε δαιδάλλων” Il.18.479; “λέχος ἔξεον . . δαιδάλλων χρυσῷ τε καὶ ἀργύρῳ ἠδ᾽ ἐλέφαντι” Od.23.200; of a painter or sculptor, Opp.C.1.335, IG14.967:-Pass., to be spotted, marked, “σφραγῖσι” Opp.C.1.324.

It was the imported capacity to beguile through complexity that made the Greeks wary. And thus it was this very complexity, into which Clytemnestra as a woman folded herself and executed her action. The last line from the Eumenides above, “…the witness of a bath’s murder” leaves us to feel that it was the intricately woven robe (somehow both animate and inanimate) that alone stood as legal witness to the murder which was folded up into it. It is as if the very fibres and twistings make up the eyes of the action. Complexity for the Greek not only revealed itself in surplus of detail, but any hyper-complex manifestion also was read as its complimentary, a kind of fog, an obscuring haze out of which the unpredictably occurs. In a certain sense the Greek mind did see the world itself as dangerously manifest of variegated complexity, obscurely verging on the threat of a cacophony, much as how a coming storm is both richly folded in cloud-effects, but also fogging to human vision. It is for this reason they sought the harmoniously and to some degree unseen wholes behind it.

Translating “true”: from Greek ἀλήθεια (un-forgotten, un-escaped), to Heidegger’s Alêtheia (un-concealed)

Why do I bring these details of the description of Clytemnestra’s murdering under examination? Recently I have been weighing against the metaphysical inheritance of a fundamental white/colored, colonialist conception that has been passed down to Graham Harman through his continuation of a Heideggerian dichotomy: ready-at-hand  invisibility and present-at-hand  cloakedness. (I have promised to leave off this critique so I will only stay at its specific surface here.) Under Harman’s interpretation of Heidegger the invisibility of working tool-beings carries the purity of object essences, their very whiteness (what he terms as “retreat”), while the colored cloak of “presence” necessarily occludes by virtue of its very shaded deception that invisible white. It is enough to point out that the projections of magical powers of inter-connectivity upon the East did not begin with German Idealism, but as is well known, but in the rough cut of Western culture with the Greeks. Phrygia and the surrounding areas passing all the way to Persia embodied the feminizing dangers of excessive wealth, sensuality and deceptively intricate skill (and it is not without coincidence that the entire Amazonian inversion of Athenian society was projected to the shores of the Black Sea). This is not to lessen the idealizations of wisdom and wealth to the South, Egypt and Africa. Eastern projections, orientalizations, are as old as Western civilization as it is classically conceived.

So as metaphysics proper, as a certain kind of study of the the idea of the Same and the Different, Unitary and Multiple, takes its main root from Greek Society, upon which there can only be a partial mapping of a Anglo-Germanic notions of purity of essence, there is the duty of the tracking of the concept. When taking European metaphysics in hand, one has to ask the cultural question, in tracing the dichotomy of Greek Same-Harmonious/Variegated-Dangerous onto a largely invisible/visible, How White is Metaphysics itself? Can one currently metaphysize upon primary binaries of same/different within a primary optical metaphor of invisible/colored and not be caught up in the historical contrast between white/colored?

From Intrication to Shaded Color

The question otherness as variegation or coloredness is complex for Greek society, for their divisions of Same and Different did not meet the same racial and necessarily optical categories that have been privleged in modern European thought since the 17th century. As I have mentioned, for the Greek there is an emphasis on manifestation, but it is not so much as optical manifestation as a kind of textiled conception of plexity. The world is in a way woven together of elements, forces, powers, and even the Platonic notion of forms is misunderstood if it is only conceived of optically as invisible or hiddenly white. Those modern Europeans for instance were the recievers of a image of the Greek which did not realize that the Parthenon was painted. The plain Greek marble forms were not the full expression of their art. The painted Greek was something that the 19th century wonderful and brilliant Gottfried Semper finally told only to dulled ears.


So when German Idealists pursued the white invisibles of pure Greek perception, they were handicapped in a sense. Not only did they have a historically incorrect view of Ancient Greek concepts of whiteness and form (so prevalent and enchanting are those stripped-away statues and columns, weathered of their colored “accidents” which a Classicists imagined were never there), but the pure, white receding essence of things had to be also discerned within a cultural context imbued with valuations of color which were much more over-determined than any in the Greek city state. The confusions of color, variegation and pattern now had become more shaded. There was the Asian, the Moor, the Jew, the New World Indian; and each of these skins themselves were reconstructed by European poltical and economic dealings. This being admitted, the question remains. Are our own metaphysics spun from the categories of European metaphysics not caught in the very white/colored ethnic projections which include those euphanic eroticizing ones of Eastern idealization (their sensuality, interconnectivity, wisdom, attachments, transgressive gender forms, connection to the world); and are not these concepts additionally polarized by the often suppressed animalizing real of the concept “black”? Did not the 17th century’s rise of black slavery in historical terms re-mark what foreign and mediating color meant in severe economic and ideological terms such that mediations on opticality necessarily carry with them include mediations on race and color?

I am interested in this because I do see how Heidegger’s metaphysics (and its attachments to the East) embody a possibly virulent white/colored dichotomy, [ The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman) ];  and thus I weigh criticism against all philosophies derived from Heidegger’s essential optical terms (including Graham Harman’s as I have outlined here and here). But still, I am an appreciator of metaphysics, and in particular that of the philosophy of Spinoza, and so I am curious as to how closely we can press this criticism to others of the modern metaphysics family.

I have said in the past the I find strong correlates between Heidegger and Spinoza, and that Substance in the latter speaks to Being in the former. Is Spinoza’s unity of Substance, its very invisibility like Heidegger’s, an invisibility of whiteness, an essential whiteness which lies behind colored deception?

The question of white and colored is an interesting one for Spinoza. As someone like Graham Harman would like to make the sensuous, interconnecting, enwealthed kinds, to be kinds of mediation, the 17th century Sephardim Jew serves as quite a likely fantasy space for just such a projection. The Jew, newly freed from really centuries of Inquisitional brutality at the hands of the Spanish, families having hidden within the Christian world as converted merchants, now became the ultimate vicarious mediators of European economics. And Spinoza’s family was part of an epicenter of growing Jewish commercial wealth, his father for a time a very prominent merchant of some standing in the community of Sephardim, who bore their Spanish/Moorish stain in the shade of their skin. It was the un-Christian Jew as the licentious, greedy other, the dirty human oil that helped the rising capitalist machine work. Long had they performed the marginal act of interest-charging usary, the unsaintly making of money on money, something out of nothing but relations. Come from such a mediating people and a merchant family, does Spinoza’s metaphysics also work with bias against the mediation of the colored and varigated? 

Spinoza’s metaphysics certainly keeps to a notion of the Imaginary which is marked by its confusing conflations of images and traces. The colored world of pictures for Spinoza certainly was a beguiling one, one that tricks you into not seeing the true causes of things. But we should temper; it was not so much for Spinoza that very the concrete complexity of the modal world was deceptive or dangerous, but rather that the profusion of inner imaginary associations that defrauded the “eyes of the mind” of greater power and self-determination.

Spinoza and Slavery

The question of color for Spinoza and his time is historically not that simple. In the 17th century not yet has “black” come to embody and polarize “white” such that all deviations from White became aspects of Blackness. Black was still “African” or “Ethiopian” and not yet a pure category, which does not mean that there was not an active white/colored binary informing social and economic structures. This complexity of color can be seen in the question of the role of Jews in the black slave trade, especially as it began to rise almost exponentially in the sugar trade, something the Jews of Amsterdam were thoroughly invested in. There is a notable historical absence of evidence of the direct involvement of Sephardim Jews in the Slave trade, but they were intimately involved the entire economic processes which relied upon it [ Spinoza Doubt? The Sephardim and the Slave Trade; Evidence for connection of the Spinoza family to the Sugar TradeSpinoza Sugar Time Table; The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian” ]. Was this relative abstention of contact with black and indigenous slave trade the respect the otherwise persecuted Jews had for people of color, or is it a sign of their careful buffering through New Christians. It seems history does not know. So there is no clear way to position the 17th century Amsterdam Jew within the white/colored dichotomy that was developing [Spinoza and the Caliban Question ]. In any case the question of clarity and invisibleness had not yet reached a polarizing limit, one in which black and white formed an entire spectrum of opacity and color.

So when investigating Spinoza’s metaphysics in terms of social color we are left without a solid place to stand. His family was likely involved in the sugar trade (a central investment of the Amsterdam Sephardim community), and it may have even been that trade that drove him to the pursuit of metaphysics and lenses (see, the collapse of the Recife colony). Both his brother and sister both later in life moved to Caribbean locals dominated by slave production. But, Spinoza was an excommunicate of his own Amsterdam Jewery; they were forbidden to even stand under the same roof as him. So he was twice removed from the “white” of Same.

Yet, this does not make him immune to the critique that metaphysics of invisible essence embody white/colored social dichotomies. In fact his ostricization may have further propelled him towards the dichotomy’s perfection, as he sought in letters to make himself a citizen of the world, quietly championing a radical democracy of freedoms. His ultimate appeal to the Same of Substance is difficult to assess. But it is notable that he very seldom appeals to metaphors of optical clarity or even to light itself, despite the naturalness of such an appeal. Not only was he a lens grinder and an telescope maker, but the Spiritual Collegiants with whom he had connections regularly used the trope of the light of God to forward their unitarian views. For some reason Spinoza found optical metaphors (in fact all metaphors) misleading. He wanted to speak of how things were, not what they were like, and even the notion of “hiddenness” was unhelpful. He even moved from Descartes’ optically inspired “clear and distinct” rather quickly, wanting to focus on bodily experiences of power and Joy, and the concrete connections between things and ideas. It was all of the body that had to be pulled into view, and not just its eyes. For this reason Spinoza’s is a philosophy of proximity I believe. Nothing is distant.

It is really this reluctance of Spinoza to engage in optical metaphors as the primary means for getting to the radical non-human truth of things that I believe keeps him from falling into the problematic of Same = White. Because most things in the world (objects) do not possess a visual cortex, while optical might make a good rhetorical/conceptual base for a metaphysics of purely a human realm like Heidegger’s, it is hopelessly distorting when trying to describe the dyanamic realities of things that cannot see. Once the colored veil is fully employed, historical notions of color find their anchor point. For the Greeks the notions of freedom and of color were not so determinatively overcoded, even for the Romans, and one might argue even for the 17th century (though I cannot help but see something quite “White” in Leibniz’s foundational reflective monads and his vision of universal rationality in response to the threats of democracy: Leibniz’ “optical” Response to the Theologico-Political Treatise ).

Further, insofar as Spinoza does accept a colored veil of confused “imaginary knowledge” he explicitly does not privilege this of foreign peoples, but sees it as explicitly constructive of the Jewish Nation, not to mention modern European society. The layering of the colored is a question of degree and isn’t one of mediation really. The colored complications of concrete manifestation and our imaginary states are the full-figured expression of God and Substance. Totality expressing itself to its limit. In this way Spinoza is much more in the “distaff tradition” (if I recall the Deleuzian term correctly), the tradition of weaving rather than of appearance.

Indeed it is the entire “veil of ideas” tradition that Idealism took up – carried on through Malebranche’s interpretation of Descartes, and then Reid’s of the same, that came to treat the opticality of ideas (or their phenomenal apperception) as object mediations between the self and the world. This approach to mental objects makes of actions of our minds an intermediary thing which might or might not pass us through to the world.

Distinct from this object-orientation, it is said that the very form of the Parthenon, its high lintel above subtly weightless columns, was readily understood by any Greek in the city to be of the form of the woman’s loom that dominated each and every hearth of the home. Perhaps it with this conception we should consider the internal play of colors and light, understanding that our mental actions not only knot and unknot things in the world, but also are cross-knottings themselves, expressions of the loom we find ourselves in.


Spinoza Sugar Time Table

A Time Table of Events Juxtaposing Personal, Commerical and Colonial Interests Surrounding the Spinoza Family 

1524 Canary Island Jewish merchants as New Christians are trading with the West Indies, Castille, France, Flanders and London. In evidence of a moment in the islands, at least one family immigrated to Palestine to live again as Jews.

1593 Brazil. After the New Christian Diego Fernandez, the greatest expert in sugar plantations, was accused by the Inquisition of being a “judaizer.” The Inquisition dispatched an official inspector (visitator) for the purpose of seizing and confiscating the suspects’ possessions, and an inquisitional commission was established in 1593 in Olinda, the port of Recife.

1604 Mennaseh born on Madeira, an island once devoted to sugar, now to sweet wine. The wine will be a substantial export to Brazilian sugar colonies. 

1604 Peace between England and Spain gave stimulus to Canary archipelago crypto-Jewish sugar and wine trading.

1612 – 1630 Jewish immigration to the Canary Islands increases due to 47 Inquisition Autos de Fé  brought forth in Portugual’s major cities; these are distinctly marranos.

1614Lopo Ramiresmoves with his two sisters to Amsterdam.

1620 The number of Sephardi Jewish accounts at the Amsterdam Exchange bank number 144 (9.5%), risen from just 24 in 1609.

1621The Dutch are barred from trading withSpain, Portugal and their colonies. A tremendous number of Dutch Jews emigrate to Norther Germany. (Shipments will continue through Portugal, with Hamberg and other cities becoming a false point of origin or destination.)

1622 A council is called between the three synagogues to deal with excessive poor relief expenditures due to the renewed Spanish embargo against the Dutch. An imposta  (tax) is established on all commercial and financial transactions by all members. (Duarte Nunes de Costa may have been influential in this solution.)

1622/3 Michael marries his cousin Rachel. He has settled in Amsterdam.

1623 December 3 A child of Michael and Rachel dies.

1624 April 24 A prematurely born child buried in the Portuguese-Israelite cemetary at Ouderkerk aan de Amstel.

1625 Michael’s uncle and father-in-law Abraham, taken ill, grants him power of attorney at the Amsterdam Exchange Bank.

1625 Michael (alias Manuel Rodrigues Spinosa) agrees to tradeinalmonds with Antonio Martines Viega.

1625 The Inquistion is renewed in the Canary Islands, after 30 years of dormancy.

1627 Feburary 17 British ship carrying 10 African slaves and 80 British colonists, lands on the Western side of Barbados.

1627 Feburary 21 Rachel, Michael Spinoza’s first wife, dies with no surviving children.

1628 Michael marries Hanna Debra Senior, daughter of the merchant Henrique Garces.

1628 Jews fleeing the Portuguese at Recife Brazil, bring the first sugar and coffee to Barbados and set up trade just as the British are colonizing the island.

1629 Fifty slaves are reported on Barbados.

1629 Inquisition records that La Laguana of the Canary Islands is “full of Jews and [English and Dutch Protestant] heretics”.

1630 Febuary and March Hendrick Corneliszoon Loncq arrives at Pernambuco (Recife) with a fleet of 67 ships, 1170 guns and 7000 men. The Dutch take control of Recife, the best sugar colony in Brazil.

1630 By this year African slaves had replaced the native Tupani as the largest contingent of labor on Brazilian sugar plantations.

1631 July 15 Michael Spinoza and another holds the keys to a warehouse holding primarily Brazilian products.

1631 Michael pays only 20 guilders in the States of Holland 200th Penny Tax, showing his wealth in that year to be a rather moderate 4,000 guilders.

1632 The Crypto-Jewish congregation of about 30 families in Rouen France was denounced to the authorities and broken up by a Priest newly arrived. It is thought that this lead to the eventual immigration of Anthonio Fernandes Carvajal to London.

1632 November 24 Spinoza born.

1633 Michael trading in contraband raisins from Malaga Spain. The order does not arrive in good condition. (This may have been conducted through a German or Scottish vessel: Israel, Empires and Entrepots, 430)

1634 June 29 Michael and the merchants Woltrincx receive the full transfer of the ship Coningh David  come from Salle of Barbary, and all its goods, in a reduction of David Palache’s debts.

1635 Carvajal is already in London (testified to by his 1655 Patent of Denization which states that he had been in England “twentie yeares and upwards”).

1636 Kahal Zur Israel  “Rock of Israel” the first Synagogue of the New World is consecrated at Recife Brazil.

1636 The Barbados council addressing the length of a slave’s servitude declared, “Negros and Indians, that came here to be sold, should serve for Life, unless a contract was before made to the contrary”

1636-1645 23,000 African slaves shipped to Brazil.

1630s Despite a prominence of Jewish mercantile vocations in Brazil, evidence that New Christians develop, own and operate 59 sugar mills in Brazil, an estimated 20% of total production (Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West, 475).

1636 June 3 Michael through negotiation received the insurance for the goods of a shipwrecked delivery from Jacob Codde, a member of a prominent and liberal Dutch family.

1637 January 10 Michael, among several other merchants, serve notice upon the skipper of the ship Fonteyn, for goods come from Barbary’s Salle.

1637 January Disputes between Michael and his brother-in-law/cousin Jacob over a share in Barbary trading with Michael’s father-in-law/uncle Abraham.

1637 September 8 Michael and the merchant Abraham de Fonseca stand surety for the medical doctor Abraham de Mercado, upon his release from prison.

1638 November 5 Spinoza’s mother, Hannah Deborah, dies.

1640 December Portugal cedes from Spain, throwing open its ports to Dutch traffic.

1641 April 11 Michael announces marriage to his third wife Esther (confirmed April 28), on the same day that her sister Margrieta marries into the de Tovar family, the elders of which are living in Brazil. Abraham Farar, the cousin of the sisters is involved. Esther signs with an X.

1641 June 14 Duarte Nunes de Costa (Jacob Curiel) of Hamburg, brother of Lopo Ramires (below), made a knight and nobleman to the king of Portugual’s house.

1641 July In Amsterdam Lopo Ramires, Portuguesmerchant, signs an enormous order worth 100,000 cruzados with the Portuguese ambassador, for muskets, powder, shot, siege equipment and ship’s rigging, destined for the new King of Portugal John IV. In this year the name the then pro-Protuguese arms dealer, Lopo Ramires, also appears as a debtor on Michael’s credit ledger for 1,100 guilders. 

1641 Michael’s ledger at the Amsterdam Bank of Exchange reads him as a creditor of 28,052.88 guilders.

1641 Feburary 26 Articles of Impeachment brought against Archbishop Laud, beginning changes that would open opportunities for crypto-Jewish London merchants. 

1641 August 26 The Dutch take Luanda Angola from the Portuguese in an attempt to corner the slave market for Brazil.

1641 December 1 The Grand Remonstrance, a list of grievances presented to Charles I of England.

1642 The first rabbi of the New World sent: Amsterdamer and kabbalist Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. He had been Spinoza’s boyhood teacher of Hebrew and Gemara, a fellow chacham  with Menasseh Ben Israel.

1642 Feburary 1 Michael holds a credit balance of 1,323.11.

1642 August Michael with Isaak Montalto sends to Tetouan Morocco an Amsterdam ship full of silver bullion, and other goods meant to continue on to Livorno. 

1642 Dutch merchants (Sephardim?), introduce sugarcane as a cash crop to Barbados. This is accomplished through an extention of credit to the “most sober inhabitants” for slaves and planting necessities, in exchange for crop (the same system that was established in Brazil). This would expand heavily after the Portuguese planter revolt in Brazil.

1643 6,000 African slaves make up 14% of the population of Barbados, this will rise to 46,500 and 66% by 1684.

1643 January Old Christian Francisco Fernandes Furna (a pronounced shipper of Madeira wine to Brazil) and Gaspar Pacheo seek a license to send a ship to Mozambique to secure a slave source for Brazil counter to that of, now Dutch-held, Angola.

1643 May 9 All of Archbishop Laud’s good at Lambenth Palace seized.

1644 1,400 Jews in the Netherlands Brazil.

1644 Antonio de Montesinos meets Menasseh, testifies that he had conversed with over 300 members of the lost tribe of Rueben in the Quinto Provence of Ecuador, fueling messianic hopes.

1644 March 12 Archbishop Laud brought to trial before the House of Lords.

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 Carvejal, an illicit Jewish merchant of London.

1645 -1654  A decade of migration of the most aristocratic (New Christian) Jewish families to Amsterdam, many of which ennobled by European monarchs, bringing investment wealth and an air of oppulence the Amsterdam community had not seen before: De Pinto, Pereia, Lopes Souso, Teixeria, Nunes Henriques, Bueno de Mezquita, Cortizos, Nunes de Costa and Montezino.

1645 January 10 Archibishop Laud beheaded.

1645 May Jerome Nunes de Costa (Moses Curiel) was appointed agent of the Portugues Crown for all of Holland (nephew of Michael’s 1641investment connection, Lopo Ramires). 

1645 August 3 At the battle of Tabocasthere was a costly revolt of the Portuguese planters against Dutch rule in Brazil. Successive battles through Semptemberleft the Dutch only with Recife, giving series losses to rabbi Menasseh and other important Amsterdam Sephardim investors in sugar, as they pulled their investments out (Martinez Dormido, claims to have lost 150,000 guilders.) This produced a first wave of departing Dutch Jewry, bringing cashcrop sugar to, among other places, Barbados.

1646 April 20 Jesuit Portugues preacher Antonio Vieira writes from The Hague to New Christians in Rouen France (where the Antonio Carvajal is most connected), that he is attempting to pursuade the king of Portugual to restrain the Inquistion in Portugal and its colonies to harness Jewish capital in the fight for Brazil and Africa. His central plan is for a joint-stock Brazil Company (1649) which will have is products immune from confiscation.

1646 Jerome Nunes de Costa reports heavily, from Amsterdam, in direct dispatches to Portugual ministers in Lisbon on political and colonial matters, no doubt much to do with the effect of events in Brazil. Made a knight and nobleman of the house of Portugal, like his father.

1647 Sousa Coutinho accuses Jerome Nunes de Costa of overstating the Dutch forces in Brazil to discourage military action against now Dutch Recife.

1647 A section of the Sephardic cemetary at Recife is reserved for “all Jewish blacks and mulattos”, i.e., only those of blacks and mulattos who were either born in Judaism, their parents having been married with quedosim (by Jewish law), or who married a white with quedosim.

1648 The bylaws of the Recife and Mauricia Jewish congregations stipulate an imposta (tax) of 5 soldos for each Negro sold, and that slave auctions be postponed on Jewish holidays, evidencing Jewish involvment in the trade.

1648 August 24 The Portuguese take Luanda Angola back from the Dutch (lost in ’41), resecuring the dominant slave source for Brazil. 

1649 September 24 Spinoza’s older brother Isaac dies.

1649 March 10 The Brazil Company established a month after the Portuguese John IV king grants protection from the Inquisition to Jewish goods, goods neither to be inventoried or confiscated upon an arrest.

1649 Jerome Nunes de Costa and his uncle Lopo Ramires, purchase the friate Fortuna from Amsterdam merchant Jerimiah van Collen, on behalf of the Jesuit Vieira and the king of Portuagal. Many other ships purchased by Lopos Ramires’ brother Duarte in Hamberg and Lubeck. 

1649 Duarte Nunes de Costa becomes the Brazil Company’s factor for Germany, and his son Jerome the factor for the United Provinces. Very lucrative rewards for the family’s service to Portugal.

1649/1650 The year of Michael’s greatest imposta community tax payment, 75 guilders. For a full list see below.

1650 June 2 Michael consents in the marriage of his daughter Marian to the 22 year old rabbinical student, Samuel de Casseres.

1650 December 2 Michael appointed the administer of the “Misvah do Espretino” the Synagogue pawn-shop. A note in the record, “That it may be to his benefit!”

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

1651 August 21 to 1652 January 28 Michael did business with 48 firms, a total account running to 61,883.18 guilders.

1651 Early Summer “A Dutch ship sailing from Lisbon [the Enkhuizen ship Nachtegael ], loaded with Brazilian sugar, including ten chests consigned by the Spinozas to Michael’s correspondent in Rouen, Antonio Rodrigues de Morais, was seized by the George of London, and taken to England.” (Israel, Dutch Jewry, 133)

1651 September Michael loses a cargo worth an estimated 3,000 guilders from the ship ‘t Witte Valck, which is attacked by Barbary corsairs off Cape St. Vincent.

1651 October, The First Navigation Act passed by the Purged Parlament, barring Dutch trade with England or her colonies.

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

1651 Spinoza’s sister Miriam, the year after her marriage to Samuel de Casseres, dies, having given birth to Daniel de Caseres (Vas Dias).

1651 Several times the Dutch States General discuss going to war with Portugal and blockading Lisbon.

1652 Jewish refugees from Brazil begin to arrive at the British South American colony of Surinam.

1652 George Ayscue captures 27 Dutch trading ships for the English at Barbados. 100 Dutch ships otherwise captured Oct ’51 to July ’52, when war was declared on the tenth.

1652 April 27 States General in response to the Van der Donck mission issued a letter installing a  “municipal government” within the city of New Amsterdam, and for the present Director Peter Stuyvesant to return home, abridging the West India Company’s control of the colony; the latter part rescinded with the declaration of war upon against England in July, the First Anglo-Dutch War.

1652 June Michael loses “olive oil, figs and almonds” from the ship ‘t Vat, as it is marauded by Moroccan corsairs in view of the Portuguese harbor of Faro from which it had just received its load.

1652 August 3 Michael and Joseph Villa Real outfit the ship Estrella, borrowing of 600 guilders from his son-in-law Samuel de Casseres under the conditions of bottomry.

1652 November On the issue of a Jewish admittance to England, a negotiated safe passage to London is granted, but the trip is too politically dangerous for Menasseh to take. The same in the Fall of ’53.

1653 January London crypto-Jew Diego Rodrigues Arias, shipowner, landed in Santa Cruz of the Canary Islands. In the port, there to pick up a cargo of wine, he was denounced by a Cuban negro who had served him in London. After two months in secret Inquistion cells he was released on parole, only to escape to London.

1653 February 2 The municipal charter for the city of New Amsterdam is signed.

1653 October 14 Michael’s third wife Esther dies.

1653 December 20  Seventy-seven Portuguese ships appear off Recife to take it. When Recife falls this has dramatic impact upon the Jewish community in Amsterdam, and possibly directly upon the Spinoza family firm.

1653 After marrying Lelia Henriqes in the Amsterdam Synagogue, on visit, and returning to liquidate his property, the Canary Island local Treasurer Duarte HenriquesAlvares settles in London with his new wife, as a crypto-Jew.

1654 January 26, Dutch Capitulation at Recife signed, a sugar colony loss that sends waves of financial crisis through the Sephardic Amsterdam community.

1654 March 28 Spinoza’s father Michael dies.

1654 May The Treaty of Westminster ends the First Anglo-Dutch War.

1654 July 8 Jacob Barsimson leaves Amsterdam on the ship the Pear Tree for New Amsterdam, to assess the possibility of a Jewish migration from Brazil. He arrives August 22.

1654 September The 23 Jews (four couples, two widows, and thirteen children), on the French ship Sainte Catherine arrive from Recife Brazil in New Amsterdam to settle. The Dutch India Company allows them to remain, despite Stuyvesant’s petition.

1654 September Spinoza takes over payments for his family and firm.

1654 Upon another influx of Brazilian Sephardim, the first Synagogue Nidhei Israel, “The Dispersed of Israel”, is founded by Recife emigrant Luis Dias (Joseph Jesurun Mendes) in Bridgetown Barbados.

1654 Jewish refugees from Brazil being to arrive at French Martinique.

1654 Canary Island Inquisitors send a Memorial to the Spanish King, protesting restrictions on Canary exports of wine, as it is from the ground rents of vineyards that the Inquisition received their operational income. At this point crypto-Jewish Canariotes are not only made up of Portuguese immigrants, but now also those from France, England and the Low Country communities.

1654 November 20 Colony-founder David Nassi writes to Martinez Dormido, who is attempting in conjunction with Menasseh to persuade Cromwell on the question of Jewish rights, that he has contacted  the parnas Abraham Farar (the cousin of Spinoza’s step-mother Rachel, and former business partner of Michael Spinoza), who assures that the Amsterdam parnasim is behind the efforts in England, but could not take a public stand on the matter.

1655 War breaks out between England and Spain.

1655 Dr. Miguel Reinoso (a fellow associate of Spinoza’s) denounced by Baltazar Orobio de Castro, as a Jew in absentia, to the Spanish Inquistion.

1655-1657 The influx of both Portuguese Brazilian sugar, and newly that of the West Indies, crashes the Eurporean sugar market.

1655 March Spinoza, perhaps representing his firm or his father’s memorial gift, offers five guilders to a fund for Brazilian poor in Brazil. Perhaps a sensitivity to Brazil is indicated. 

1655 April 20 Spinoza subpoenas Antonij Alvares regarding an overdue debt taken on from the Jewelry dealer Duarte.

1655 April 20 The Council of State in Lisbon discuss Jerome Nunes de Costa’s March 30th dispatch which suggusts that the Dutch are more prone to negotiate a peace, than go to war over the seizure of Recife Brazil.

1655 September 2 Menasseh departs, without the official support of the Amsterdam Mahamad, but likely with tacit agreement from some of its members, to petition Cromwell for the admittance of Jewish “rights” in England, and in December Cromwell calls for a Council on the matter, no formal agreement being reached. No charter, no public practice of religion, no guarantee of trade.

1655 November Spinoza, acting as partner in the firm, “conveys a bill of exchange for 876 crusados to Joseph Francis, also a merchant of the Portuguese nation in Amsterdam” (Vas Dias).

1655 Carvajal submits his Patent for Denization, receiving protection of his goods and trade. 

1655 The British conquer Jamaica, Jewish refugees begin to arrive.

1656 March 23 Spinoza’s guardian (under a law that made Spinoza technically a “minor”), Louis Crayer, filed a brief declaring Spinoza an orphan, in an attempt to evade the inheritance of his father’s debts.

1656 July 27 The cherem read against Spinoza; Colerus says read by Spinoza’s former teacher of Hebrew and then Recife rabbi (13 years), Aboab de Fonseca, as he was presiding over the Beth Din.

1656 In London the price of insurance on trade is at 2.5% to Lisbon and 3.5% to Barbados. 

1657 Autumn David Nassi on behalf of Brazilian exiles negotiates a lucrative charter for Essequibo, Guyana, North of Recife, colonized for the production of sugar. Ravaged by British forces sent from Barbados in 1665.

1657 The purportedly English vessel The Pearl, a ship bound for Barbados filled with goods valued at the enormous sum of £120, 000, and 27 Dutch Jewish immigrants, was seized by an Irish privateer working for the Spanish. The Muhamad in Amsterdam had to come into the open as the rightful guardian of the Barbados community.

1657 February Solomon Dormido, son of David Abarbanel Dormido, and nephew of Menasseh ben Israel admitted to the Royal exchange as a licensed London broker. A first.

1657 July 17 The States General declares those of the Jewish Nation residing in the United Provences to be full subjects, accorded all the rights by treaty.

1657 September, 10 months after the death of John IV, Baron van Obdentakes a fleet to Lisbon to demand recompense for the Dutch loss of Recife territories of Brazil. With recompense denied, naval conflicts ensue until ’61. Johan de Witt has Jerome Nunes de Costa put under surveillance.

1658 The Amsterdam Mahamad decides that mulatto boys shall no longer be admitted for study at the yeshiva of the Sephardim. 

1658 April 8 Francisco Medina applies to the Dutch State Archives for settling Nova Zeelandia (Essequibo), “for passports for various persons of the Hebrew nation who wished to go to Essequibo”.

1658 May 29 London crypto-Jew and merchant Duarte Henriquez Alvarez was burned in effigy in the Canary Islands by the Spanish Inquisition. 

1659 December 12 The Dutch States General meet with the new Portuguese ambassidor Miranda, and in negotiations demand the right to sail directly to and from Brazil, Angola and Saint Thomas, by passing the Royal customs house in Lisbon.

1659 August 9 Spinoza is reported to the Inquistion, by the sea captain Miguel Pérez de Maltranilla, to have been frequently at the house of a Joseph Guerra. There Don Guerra, a weatlthy non-Jewish [?] Canary Island merchant was likely attended to by Dr. Reinoso as he was recovering from leprosy. He is in the company of de Prado, as well as the tobacco merchant Pacheco [sugar and tobacco are New World trade].

1660 March The Portuguese ambassador notes that most of the Dutch Jews, especially those expelled from Recife in ’54, support the West India Company, and oppose the drafted treaty.

1661 The Barbados Slave Code established, denying basic rights to slaves. The code will become the model for future colonial codes.

1662 May Portugal, putting an end to over 60 years of colonial conflict, radifies the 1661 Dutch-Portuguese Peace Treaty, providing the same trade rights as granted by the English. Published in The Hague and Lisbon in April and March of ’63.

1664 August 27 Four British frigates take New Amsterdam from the Dutch, which would help initiate the Second Anglo-Dutch War (March ’65).

1664 October 31 Gabriel Spinoza grants power of attorney so to leave Amsterdam and moves to British Barbados.

1671 Gabriel Spinoza, after the Spanish cede the island to the English by treaty in 1670, moves to Jamaica, another sugar and slave economy.

1679 (-1685) Spinoza’s half-sister Rebecca moves withher two sons to the island of Curaçao, an island withno plantation trade itself, but served predominantly as a depot and “seasoning” stop for African slaves destined for English and Spanish colonies. Nearly 1,000 arrivals a week by one estimate.


From Jonathan Israel’s article “Philosophy, Commerce and the Synagogue” in Dutch Jewry:


[All dates and descriptions of the above need to be checked, the list serves as an informal listing of research notes for the benefit of others who may have need of such comparisons]

Spinoza Sugar…

Sugar and Slavery and Conscience

It occurs to me, perhaps this is obvious, that there is additional evidence that the Spinoza firm conducted a primary investment in Sugar production. This is that Spinoza’s brother, Gabriel, with whom he at one time was a partner in the firm, in October 31 1664 transferred power of attorney for the firm and left Amsterdam to live in Barbados. The economic conditions in Barbados were powerfully organized around sugar plantations and slave importation. The huge influx of African slaves fueled the sugar boom (introduced by Dutch merchants in 1554), so much so that by the year 1682 there were 30 black slaves for every 1 European indentured servant, with indentured Europeans making up approximately 80% of the European population of the Island. After fire and a major hurricane in ’67, a drought in ’68 and flooding rains in ’69, in 1671, after Gabriel moved to Jamaica, he successfully applied to become a naturalized English citizen.

Gabriel Spinoza move to Barbados strikes me as a powerful indicator of the level of sugar investment by the family firm, at least in these later years. Such a move is hypothesized by Gullan-Whur to be part of the Jewish flight from plague-ridden Amsterdam, and this may be so. But it must also have impressed Gabriel that it was more lucrative to be on the production end of sugar under the changing Barbados conditions, rather than to simply to import it – did the British harrying of Dutch ships and the strictures of the lasting English Navigation Act strongly suggest just such a solution? And so he stepped right into the slave-trade sugar boom of the island. Could it not be that there was an element of an awareness of Gabriel’s intention to move to Barbados as Spinoza reported his dream of the suffering Brazilian in July of 1664? Gullan-Whur suggests that Jelles at some point must have heard of it, at least after it was accomplished. (Spinoza’s sister too would emigrate to the West Indies sometime after 1679.)

To provide an example of the social structure that Gabriel was moving into, a highly successful “slave code” was instituted in Barbardos in 1661, (so successful it was exported nearly clause for clause when Thomas Modyford, one of the of the largest plantation owners of the island, moved carrying the code to Jamaica to become its Governer:

The first comprehensive slave code for Barbados was the 1661 “Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes”. This slave law, according to Richard Dunn, “legitimized a state of war between blacks and whites, sanctioned rigid segregation, and institutionalized a rigid early warning system against slave revolt”. It formed the legal basis of slave-planter relations and represented an attempt to legally structure the social order of the plantation world… In the preamble of the 1661 Code, the slaves were described as both “heathenish”, “brutish”, and a “dangerous kind of people”, whose naturally wickid insticts should be at all times suppressed.  It provided that masters should feed, clothe and accommodate the slave within the “customs of the country”, while on the other hand, it found that slaves found guilty of certain crimes, other than those of a public nature, would be punished by being branded, whipped, having their noses slit, or by having a limb removed.  For crimes of a public nature, such as rebellion, slaves were capitally punished (A History of Barbados: From American Indian Settlement to Nation State, 34)

This is about as far from the maxim of Spinoza’s radical teacher Van den Enden’s Liberal Considerations and Considerations of a State (1665), “The People’s prosperity is the highest law, and their Voice is God’s Voice”, as is conceptually possible. How tensioned the directions and political values of the two brothers. A Caliban question indeed.

Addendum to the related posts: The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian”,  Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy and Spinoza and the Caliban Question