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How Large of a Role Did Jews Play in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade?
The role of the Jews in the slave trade—and in the civil war—has garnered a great amount of scholarly attention. Over the past few years since the rise of the alt-right, claims have been levied that Jews were disproportionately slave owners AND slave transporters. Of course, it would be ridiculous to claim that they had no role in the trade, just as Christians, Muslims, and other African tribes had their own role to play. The claim of a large, disproportionate role of Jews in the slave trade came from the discredited book The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, published by the Nation of Islam (NoI). The book is nothing more than a masterclass in quote-mining. Nevertheless, the role of Jews—overall—in the slave trade other than in the Second Phase is extremely minuscule, as I will show.
Jews and the slave trade
Slave labor from Africa has been occurring since the 14th century starting with the Portuguese—Europeans justified it by stating that they were going to convert them to Christianity—while it was officially barred by the British 1808. The practice of slavery by and on Africans was done long before Europeans arrived on the continent, but the European need for slaves was so great that they searched inland for slaves. Estimates widely vary, but it is said that between 12 and 28 million Africans were enslaved during this time period. Though between 1450 and 1850, 12 million Africans rode the Middle Passage, which was the forced voyage of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1619, the first twenty slaves arrived at Jamestown (being taken from a Portuguese slave ship), signifying the beginning of slavery in what would soon become America. In 1654, one African indentured servant took what would become the first legal slave in America, John Casor. But what would become America got comparatively fewer slaves than other places—some 427,000 slaves came to America while some 4 million slaves went to Brazil.
Nevertheless, what was the role of Jews in this system? How much of a hand did they have to play in it and which parts?
It was claimed by an Afrocentrist that “Everyone knows rich Jews helped finance the slave trade.” Sephardic Jews in Spain and Portugal had decent numbers, but they were soon forced to either convert to Christianity or flee the country. Those who did not flee Portugal became known as New Christians once they were baptized, though they apparently still practiced Judaism in secret. They are also known as marranos. It is this group of Jews that had the largest role in the slave trade, and it is in the 2nd phase that they had the most influence; only in Brazil and the Caribbean could the Jews be said to have had more than a miniscule role in the trade. (Drescher, 2010). Jews also has a presence as slavers in Jamaica (Mirvis, 2020).
The economic, social, legal, and racial pattern of the Atlantic Slave trade was in place before Jews made their way back to the Atlantic ports of northwestern Europe, to the coasts and islands of Africa, or to European colonies in the Americas. They were marginal collective actors in most places and during most periods of the Atlantic system: its political and legal foundations; its capital formation; its maritime organization; and its distribution of coerced migrants from Europe and Africa. Only in the Americas—momentarily in Brazil, more durably in the Caribbean—can the role of Jewish traders be described as significant. If we consider the whole complex of major class actors in the transatlantic slave trade, the share of Jews in this vast network is extremely modest. (Drescher, 2010)
Jews had helped the Dutch as a middleman in Brazil controlling about 17 percent of the trade for the Dutch, during the 1640s when the Dutch had become the largest suppliers of slaves to the New World. Indeed, Drescher (1993) notes that when it comes to the Dutch slave trade “Jews can be said to have had tangible significance, but even here their involvement was relatively marginal” and that “little direct involvement can be identified.”
It was at the first western margin of the Dutch transatlantic trade that Jews played their largest role. Around 1640, the Dutch briefly became Europe’s principal slave traders. They welcomed Jews as colonizers and as onshore middlemen in newly conquered Brazil. During the eight years between 1637 and 1644, Jewish merchants accounted for between 8 and 63 percent of first onshore purchasers of the twenty-five thousand slaves landed by the West India Company in Dutch-held Brazil. Perhaps a third of these captives must have reached planters through Jewish traders. (Drescher, 2010)
While it’s not an anti-Semitic attitude to talk about the (marginal) role of Jews in the slave trade, when one begins to talk about a mythical disproportionate role by the Jews in the slave trade, that’s when it does become anti-Semitic, as noted by Davis in the NYRB:
Much of the historical evidence regarding alleged Jewish or New Christian involvement in the slave system was biased by deliberate Spanish efforts to blame Jewish refugees for fostering Dutch commercial expansion at the expense of Spain. Given this long history of conspiratorial fantasy and collective scapegoating, a selective search for Jewish slave traders becomes inherently anti-Semitic unless one keeps in view the larger context and the very marginal place of Jews in the history of the overall system. It is easy enough to point to a few Jewish slave traders in Amsterdam, Bordeaux, or Newport, Rhode Island. But far from suggesting that Jews constituted a major force behind the exploitation of Africa, closer investigation shows that these were highly exceptional merchants, far outnumbered by thousands of Catholics and Protestants who flocked to share in the great bonanza.
In the first phase of the Middle Passage (1500-1640), about 800,000 Africans took the voyage. In the second phase of the Middle Passage (1640-1700) (the phase where it could be said that Jews had more than a miniscule involvement), about 817,000 Africans took the voyage. And in the third and final phase (1700 to 1807, when Britain passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, barring the sale of slaves in Britain), 6,686,000 slaves took the voyage (Drescher, 2010). Nevertheless, even a 1975 article by historian Virginia Platt states that out of over 200 trade voyages between 1760 and 1776, merchant Aaron Lopez only sent a mere 14 ships to Africa for the procurement of slaves (Platt, 1975). (Note that it is claimed in the media that blacks have higher rates of hypertension than whites today because the slaves that were on the ships had genes that made salt retention possible, which then cause higher rates of hypertension today. But it’s a mere just-so story.)
It is clear that Jews played no more than a small, miniscule role—they were never dominant in the slave trade. Historians do wonder, though, why they played such a small role in the trade when they played large roles in other trades. While we don’t know the answer, we do definitively know that they did not play a large part in the trade:
Considering the number of African captives who passed into and through the hands of captors and dealers from capture in Africa until sale in America, it is unlikely that more than a fraction of 1 percent of the twelve million enslaved and relayed Africans were purchased or sold by Jewish merchants even once. If one expands the classes of participants to include all those in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas who produced goods for the trade or who processed goods produced by the slaves, and all those who ultimately produced goods with slave labor and consumed slave-produced commodities, the conclusion remains the same. At no point along the continuum of the slave trade were Jews numerous enough, rich enough, and powerful enough to affect significantly the structure and flow of the slave trade or to diminish the suffering of its African victims. (Drescher, 2010)
Such exhaustive research puts to bed anti-Semitic claims from people like the NoI’s Louis Farrakhan (who was involved in the publication of The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, and neo-Nazis like David Duke and Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving. Jews did own slaves in America, like in North Carolina. About 99.9 percent of the “big plantation owners” in the South were non-Jews.
Such fantastic claims of a disproportionate role in the slave trade by Jews, I think—at least for the NoI and similar parties—has to do with the claim that “Blacks are the real Jews” and that the Jews—in particular Ashkenazi Jews—are “fake Jews” and “Khazar” by a group that calls themselves “black Hebrew Israelites.” They claim that the real 12 Tribes of Israel are blacks, and that the white Jews are imposters, merely masquerading as Jews and this is one of the reasons why Jews played their disproportionate role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (I’ve had a few run-in with them before in Manhattan.)
Nevertheless, the claims pushed by these anti-Semitic groups are clearly false. Jews had a miniscule role in the slave trade.