Nation of Islam Research Group

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Jews & the AFRICAN Slave Trade: Lecture by Dr. Leonard E. Barrett, Sr.

In 1974, Dr. Leonard E. Barrett, Sr., professor of religion at Temple University, spoke at Fisk University in Nashville about the Jewish involvement in the slave trade, confirming the information and data in the Nation of Islam book series The Secret Relationship Between Blacks & Jews. The June 1974 conference was called the National Consultation on Black-Jewish Relations and was jointly sponsored by the Department of Religious and Philosophical Studies at Fisk and the American Jewish Committee.




When Dr. [C. Eric] Lincoln’s secretary informed me about this [conference], my first reaction was to say no. But in that I enjoy being in the thick of things, I complied. It was only later when Dr. [Bertram] Korn contacted me and asked me that I stopped over at [Synagogue] Keneseth Israel for a copy of his book, upon which his lecture is based, that I realized how deeply I did get myself in the thick of things. 

First of all, you have no paper [by Dr. Korn], as you see, but an outline. And I was really at a loss to know exactly what to do, so I decided to read his book. And it was for me a great treat. Although it was not possible to meet him then, at this first meeting, I learned from [his] monograph that this man is a learned scholar in American Jewish history, a prolific writer, and an avid researcher. His book American Jewry and the Civil War is well written, readable, and informative. The two chapters which deal with the black–Jewish relations in America are enlightening, objective, well researched. And I would highly recommend it to those professors teaching courses in Black studies and particularly to those who need resources on the Jewish perspective of American history.

I’ve enjoyed the conference so far, but somehow or the other I feel, as I am going to respond to this paper, that I’m in the same position of not long ago: I delivered a paper, “The Blacks and the Jews: a search for a bridge of understanding,” and the JDLs [Jewish Defense League members] were there. [Laughs; audience laughter] When I was through with that lecture, there was no bridge, and the river was flowing all over. [Audience laughter] However, the JDLs came to me and said, “I do not agree with what you said altogether, but to be truthful you have been so clear on the point that I am going to ask you to lecture to our group.” I said, “No thank you.” [Laughs; audience laughter]

Jewish participation in black servitude in the New World had eluded me for a long time. But the currency of Jewish names in the part of the world in which I was born kept suggesting to me that some kosher or un-kosher relationships between Blacks and Jews might have been rather common somewhere in the history of Black–Jewish contact, or else there would not have been so many black Cohens, and Gradises, Samuels, Levys, Abrahams, Lindos, only to name a few.

My brief oration for this conference has opened a new world of insights for me, the most important of which is that the Jews were a rather important factor in black servitude in the New World and probably one of the greatest benefactors of that peculiar institution. To properly understand and appreciate the Black–Jewish relations in early American history, one must go beyond the boundaries of these United States, which were a significant part of European colonial expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries. Furthermore, to get a picture of the relationship one must even start from the beginning—the so-called Age of Discovery. It is this dimension, I believe, that can best open the history of the Jewish participation in the founding and the development of the New World, which, of course, its central economy was slavery.

In this connection may we reflect on the following: One—it was the scientific knowledge of the Jewish scholars which so perfected the art of navigation that voyages across the Atlantic from Europe became possible. In this connection it was Abraham Zacuto [or Zacut], professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Salamanca in 1473, who devised the astronomical and [maritime] diagrams. And it was José Vizinho [also known in English as Joseph Vecinho], astronomer and physician to John the Second of Portugal, along with Moses the mathematician and two Christian scholars, who discovered the nautical astrolabe, the measurement of the altitude of the sun and the distance of the ship from the equator, that prepared the way for the voyages of Columbus.

Two—it is probably one of the greatest coincidences of history that Africa and the Americas, the two important ingredients in the slave trade, were discovered about a decade apart by Portugal and Spain, the two European countries which existed almost exclusively on Jewish wealth. A careful study of the documents of Spain and Portugal will prove that almost the entire New World’s enterprise was made possible by Jewish aid, and it now appears that Christopher Columbus was little more than a managing director of Israel. [Laughs; audience murmur] 

Our school textbooks taught us that the king and queen of Spain sold their jewels in order to obtain money to finance the adventures of Columbus, but it is now better known that the first voyage of Columbus was made possible not by the sacrifice of Isabella and Ferdinand but by the loan from Louis de Santangel, a Jewish financier of the king’s council of Spain. 

We are now aware that by 1492, the year of the Jewish expulsion from these parts, most of the Jewish wealth, which would be confiscated, was used by King Ferdinand to finance the second journey. It is now fairly well documented that the interpreter and the physician of Columbus on his second voyage were Jewish men, and that the first man to set foot on the American soil from Columbus’s boat was Luis de Torres, a Jew, the Jewish interpreter for Columbus. 

But even more, and this is without a doubt, Columbus himself was part Jewish. His mother, Susanna Fontanarossa, was said to be a Jewess. I can be corrected by the eminent scholar here. If the above findings are correct, it is then correct to say that the so-called discovery of the New World was partly a Jewish enterprise and that it came into being almost providentially as a refuge for Spanish and Portuguese Jews, whose expulsion from Spain and Portugal coincided with the discovery. 

With the opening of the New World, the Jews were the first Europeans to settle in them, and it was they who introduced much of the economic know-how to the new colonies, and know-how that demanded slave labor. It is no exaggeration to state that the Jews were the first traders in the New World and that they also may have been the first planters. For as early as 1492 we find that the Portuguese Jews in St. Thomas, now the Virgin Islands, were the first large-scale plantation owners with as much as three thousand African slaves.

But if the Jews fared badly on the continent under Portugal and Spain as a result of the expulsion, they soon dominated the colonial expansion of the Dutch and the English. In addition, they probably used their talents and wealth to destroy the hegemony of Portugal and Spain in the New World. That’s something to look at, hmm? It is soon revealed that the Jews owned large shares in the Dutch East and West India Companies. And in the Dutch colonial expansion the Jews were so dominant that we read of a Cohen as one of the early governors of the Dutch East India Company. It is also revealed that these companies facilitated the Dutch American colonies and later drove the Portuguese from the slave castles of West Africa. Elmina and Kor(o)mantin [both in Ghana] are two of them [slave fortresses]. Further, the Dutch and the Jews were so closely tied up in their colonial expansion and later in the slave trade that the two people were indistinguishable—were distinguishable only by quotation marks; that is to say, when references are made of the Jews as Dutchmen the word “Dutchmen” was generally in quotation marks.

We have already mentioned that by 1492 the Portuguese were in St. Thomas as planters. And by the time of 1550, the sugar plantations there had reached sixty in number. But the greatest involvement of Jews in the colonial period was to be found probably in Brazil. There the Jews transplanted techniques of the sugar industry either from St. Thomas or from the Madeiras, where the Jews had been engaged in the sugar trade for quite some time. 

Now, Brazil was by far the largest Portuguese colony, American colony in the colonial period, and the Jews took advantage of this new El Dorado. So large was their refugees’ migration in the 16th century that Queen Joanna took measures to limit the migration of Jews in 1511. But the Jews proved so beneficial to the crown and country that the ban was lifted in 1577. Thus, with the settlement of the Jews in Brazil, the first phase of its plantation industrial development began. By 1549 one of the earliest governors of Brazil was a Jew, Tomé de Sousa. Incidentally, it was under another Jewish governor, Aires de Sousa Castro, that the largest African republic in the New World was brutally destroyed. The Republic of Palmares, which was made up of runaway slaves in Pernambuco, Brazil, was destroyed by this insistence of this governor.

In 1644, the Dutch occupied Brazil and many rich Jews from Holland arrived. By the middle of the 17th century, all the large plantations belonged to the Jews. [Johan] Nieuhoff, who traveled in Brazil from 1644 to 1649, wrote: “Among the free inhabitants of Brazil the Jews were the most considerably numbered, who had transplanted themselves hither from Holland. They had a vast traffic beyond the rest. They purchased sugar mills and built stately homes in the Recife. They were all traders, which would have been of great consequence to the Dutch Brazil had they kept themselves within the Jew bounds of profit.” 

Another writer speaking to this point said of them, “The profits they make after 9 or 10 years in these lands are so marvelous, for they all come back to Holland rich.” (That could have been—I don’t believe that, but so on and so on.)

Incidentally, it was soon after the Dutch captured Brazil that their trade in slaves began. Albert van Dantzig and Barbara Priddy in their book A Short History of the Forts and Castles of Ghana said of the Dutch: “In this respect their volte-face [about-face] is remarkable: at first, when they did not yet have any plantation colonies, the Dutch Calvinists had maintained a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude, strongly condemning the popish practice of using slave-labour, but as soon as they themselves realised the vast profits which could be derived from it they readily discovered the appropriate texts in the Scriptures to justify it.” 

The capture of Elmina was done by the Dutch West India Company. And I am prepared to show that this company was dominated by Jews during the slave trade.

Thus as early as 1553, according to [Richard] Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, the first English voyage to Elmina was under the navigation of a Portuguese captain named Antonio Anes Pinteado. This man was described as a renegade from Portugal, but a man of expert knowledge of the African and Brazilian waters, 1553. After reaching Elmina with his 140 men and after trading a lot of garbage for gold, the director in charge of the expedition, one [Thomas] Windham, wanted to go on to Benin for more loot. Pinteado, who knew the dangers of the African weather, counseled against such a trip, and a controversy developed. 

It was in this controversy that the real identification of Pinteado was revealed. I quote: “And being counseled of the said Pinteado, considering the late time of the year, for at that time to go no further but to make sale of their wares such as they had for gold, whereby they might have been great gainers; Windham, not assenting hereunto, fell into a sudden rage, reviling the said Pinteado, calling him a Jew, with other opprobrious words, saying, ‘This whoreson Jew has promised to bring us to such places as are not or as he cannot bring us unto, but if he do not I will cut off his ears and nail them to the mast.’” 

Hah, hah, hah, a bloody man, hmm. [Audience laughter] Here it is clear that as early as 1553 the Jews were in the service of the Portuguese African trade to Brazil and that of the English also. The quotation shows that Pinteado knew both the African and the Brazilian waters, and many scholars know that all of the slaves were being taken to Brazil during the first half of the 16th century.

But to come back to my point of the Dutch West India Company: This company was in charge of the African–Brazilian slave trade. And we learn from the Dantzig/Priddy work quoted above that the Director-General of the Elmina Castle in 1679 was one Herman Abrams. [Abrams, also spelled Heerman Abramsz, was a Dutch Jew.] The many slave castles of the Dutch West India Company can still be found along the Ghana coast to this day.

Although the Jews along with the Dutch were expelled from Brazil in 1654, many of the richer Jews remained in Brazil under the Portuguese and simply converted from Judaism to Christianity and became known as New Christians. [Laughs] Lovely. Crypto Jews. Hmm. On the other hand, others simply left Brazil and went to New Amsterdam [to become New York] and also to Surinam, which for all intent and purpose was a slave state owned to a great extent by the Jews. 

In 1730 out of 344 sugar plantations on the island of Surinam the Jews owned 115 of them. The Bank of Amsterdam, heavily Jewish, had a mortgage of 60 million gulden on Surinam alone. But there is only a little time to mention such countries as Martinique, where in 1655 we find the first large plantation in that island owned by one Benjamin Da Costa, a Jewish refugee from Brazil along with 900 of his co-religionists, with their 1,100 slaves. Or San Domingo, where sugar mills were introduced in 1587. The record shows that it was not until the Dutch “refugees”—in quotation [laughs]—arrived in the island that any degree of success was achieved in sugar. Anyone who knows French economic history will remember that about this time the Jews almost monopolized the sugar trade in France, which was controlled by the wealthy family of the Gradis of Bordeaux. In 1701 the Council of Trade in Paris states, “French shipping owes its splendor to the commerce of the sugar-producing islands and it is only by means of this that the navy can be maintained.” I need only recall to your attention the names of French-Jewish financiers who were the benefactors of this trade. Along with the Gradis, we may see later the Duponts, and the Rothschilds, etcetera.

When dealing with the English colonies, one should first commence with Barbados and Jamaica. I have already dealt with Surinam, which in the colonial period was the pawn of both British and the Dutch. The Jews of Barbados and Jamaica formed the economic infrastructure of these islands. The Jews were in Barbados from the start of the penal colony, and they monopolized the trade of that island. And as Barbados was the pilot project for the West Indian sugar industry, we can rest assured that it was the Jews who developed this industry in the island, or partly so. In time, there was a petition to the crown to exclude them, and I don’t believe they would have asked for that if they were not in the business.

Jamaica was taken from the Spaniards in 1655. Its early foreign inhabitants were both Spanish Christians and Portuguese Jews. On the invasion of the English the Spaniards fled to Cuba. The Portuguese, who were mostly Jews, remained in Jamaica and became British subjects. But by this time the Jews in the British colonies were well favored by a British proclamation that granted them wide privileges. This 1635 proclamation said, “Immediately on reaching the colony every person belonging to the Hebrew nation shall possess and enjoy every liberty and privilege possessed by and granted to the citizens and inhabitants of the colony and shall be considered English born.” 

In my mind, there is no question that this proclamation of the 17th century was designed to get the Jews out of England, in which the Jews were almost totally disenfranchised and existed only on the faith of a true Christian. But the proclamation placed the Jews in a very strong position in the English colony. Some of these privileges were 

One: they should not be compelled to serve in any public office. (A very convenient privilege.) 

Two: their person and property shall be placed under the special protection of the government. This was not so with the slaves. 

Three: They should be allowed to practice their religion without hindrance along with the permission to erect synagogues, schools, and cemeteries. 

Four: the only prohibition to Jews in the colony was that they were prohibited to buy white slaves.

And the reason for this proclamation was because they had proven themselves useful and beneficial to the colony.

The Jews in the colonies, then, were placed among the ruling class as far as privilege was concerned, and this was inevitable because the entire fabric of the colonial system was somewhat dependent on the mercy of Jewish financiers in England and in the colonies. In the 18th century Jews paid almost all the taxes of Jamaica, and this of course is because they were the ones who had it. I am giving you the background here so that you can interpret what I mean by when you talk about Black–Jewish relations you have to look carefully at what you’re talking about.

Now, from the time of Queen Elizabeth down through [Oliver] Cromwell (1599–1658) the Jews were at court calling the cards in England. There was nothing more important than having friends at court. [laughs] King William the Third, after the Restoration, was so indebted to Francisco Lopes Suasso, Baron d’Avernas le Gras [alias Abraham Israel Suasso] of Holland, who is said to have loaned him two million gulden on his ascension to the throne, and as a result he invited the baron to settle in England. To this day the Suassos are still in Jamaica. (Hmm.) The entity known as the United States only became possible thanks to a chain of circumstances in which the Jews played no small part. If I may anticipate a little, it may be well said that the American colonies were only able to achieve independence by the help of wealthy Jewish firms which laid the economic foundation for the new republic.

The entry of the Jews in New Amsterdam in 1654 must then be considered an epoch of great historical importance for both the United States and the Jews themselves. When the Dutch governor refused to give permanent settlement for the Jews to live and do business in the colony, he was soon sent a letter from the Dutch East India Company to cool it [laughs], and I quote, “because of the large amount of capital which they have invested in shares in this company.” 

Later, when New Amsterdam became New York, there was no real problem for the Jews because the English proclamation which gave English-born status to the Jews was now in force. By 1740 they were Englishmen by acts of Parliament. Rhode Island, with one of the most favorable constitutions, welcomed the Jews, as did Pennsylvania. So the Jews entered the United States not as a poor slave, but as free men ready to do business—and that business was slavery and the slave trade. The ships of the State of New York will attest to this.

Now, in the Southern states, South Carolina was favorable to the Jews from its beginning. The constitution drafted by John Locke at the end of the 17th century provided that any settled persons may form a religious organization. It seems that the Jews took advantage of this quite early. For to this day the word “Jew’s Land” in South Carolina is synonymous with large plantation estates. 

Going farther south to Georgia, one finds that when James Oglethorpe set out to form that colony, three of the trustees were none other than three of the most wealthy Jews of England, namely Alvaro Lopez Suasso of the financial family mentioned above; Francis Salvador, director of the Dutch East India Company, famous financier, philanthropist, and owner of large tracts of land in South Carolina then [the aforementioned “Jew’s Land”]; and Anthony da Costa, Jewish director of the Bank of England….They sent a shipload of Jews, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic, to the Georgian colony. This incident was highly embarrassing to Oglethorpe, but he could do nothing about it. He who pays the piper, calls the tune. [laughs] The Jewish participation in black servitude, then, cannot be underestimated. Slavery and slave trading was the economy par excellence of the Americas, and at the center of the economy were the Jews.

In the final analysis then, referring specifically to Dr. Korn’s paper, I have shown that from the beginning the Jews were parts and parcels of the peculiar institution, and that if the Jews had anything to do with it, we would still be in chains, I think. That’s hard but I’ll soften it later. Now, a few voices here and there spoke against the inhumanity but the moral teachings of Judaism had no real influence on slavery. The number of slaves owned by the Jews in the colonial period cannot be taken on face value by referring only to those slaves owned by individuals and a few owners. Many of the plantations were run by absentee landlords, some of them Jews. I would suggest probably that, the fact that many of the names given as Protestants and Catholic owners of plantations were in fact pseudonyms. Hmm. [laughs] 

With regard to the census state data given by Dr. Korn, these probably are somewhat unreliable. Roger Bastide, in his book African Civilizations in the New World, quoted research of Stedman in Surinam, and alluded to the fact that the Ndyuka and the Saramaka Maroon communities of the Surinam bush came into being on account of the Jewish practice of sending many of their slaves to the bush on the day the slave assessors came to count the number of slaves owned by each Jewish planter. The slaves finally seized upon the practice to make sure of their freedom. [Laughs; audience laughter] The thriving Maroon communities in Surinam, known as the Bush Negroes, are still living in Surinam today and have preserved their African customs since the 16th century. They have become a veritable anthropological laboratory for African retention, and the American census therefore should not be taken too seriously.

In every other respect I agree with Dr. Korn’s paper and see it as an objective presentation of the facts about the Jews and their relations to the Blacks of this country. It is probably no coincidence that Dr. Korn now supervises Keneseth Israel [Synagogue], the Rabbinate once held by David Einhorn, who was a great Jewish scholar, rabbi, and abolitionist. 

My one conclusion is that the Jewish relationship with the Blacks has been historically one of convenience. Blacks for the Jews meant business; and wherever it has been possible, this relation has been parasitic and only symbiotic when Jewish survival in the Black community is involved. It is my conviction that the larger part of the Jewish community feels no real obligation to Black suffering in these United States. The relationship continues to be a neutral one—neutral, [with an] ‘n’—and in no way a mutual one. 

The Black community is in dire need of Jewish economic know-how as a reparation for serving as a scapegoat of white hostility in the United States—which protected the Jews from serious repercussions, which would have been inevitable were not the Black presence here to cushion it. 

If the Jews still have a divine mission, as I think they do; if they are still responding to a bard of righteousness and justice, we must hope to expect the Jews to set some example in these days, when righteousness and justice seemed to have taken a vacation. But probably we need more prophets and less rabbis. [Laughs; audience applause] 

[End of recording]

Read Rabbi Bertram W. Korn’s 1961 work “Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South, 1789-1865,” a publication of the American Jewish Historical Society.