Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight. – Review

Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight. – Review – book review

Herbert S. Klein

Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight. By Eli Faber (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. xvii plus 366pp.)

There are some audiences in North America today who find it difficult to understand past societies and their value systems, and who think a transgression in the past, however distant, invalidates activities or ideas of the present. For these people the finding that even one Jew participated in the slave trade in the 18th century invalidates Jewish political support of civil rights or integration in the 20th century. One outcome of this has been a re-invented history of the Jewish participation in the slave trade which asserts that Jews were the majority of slave owners in the United States and played a major role in the slave trade everywhere.

It is in this context that Eli Faber wrote his scholarly book on the participation of Jews in the slave trade and slavery. He has provided the basic numbers that can be established on the relation between Jews and African slaves in the English and Dutch colonial worlds. His major finding is that Jews had a minuscule role in the slave trade and played only a minor role as slave owners wherever they resided in the New World. Of course, knowledgeable historians could have predicted the results of the book, given the circumscribed role of the Jews within European and American societies from the 15th through the 18th century. As Faber shows, the Jews were not a major factor in any international trade in the Anglo-Saxon world, except possibly the diamond trade. They were also not significant as planters or slave owning farmers, except possibly in Surinam. To the extent that they owned slaves they tended to own fewer slaves on average than their non-Jewish peers. A dozen or so participated in some aspect of the Atl antic slave trade to 1800, with only about half a dozen being serious traders, and even this group moved a very tiny fraction of the total Africans brought to America. The largest group of Jewish slave traders in the British Empire, and the only ones who systematically engaged in the African trade over a long period were the three or four Rhode Island Jewish merchants who in total controlled less than 10% of the voyages and less than 10% of the slaves delivered by Rhode Island traders in the 18th century. In turn Rhode Island was one of the minor ports within the English world engaged in the slave trade. Practically no Jews within England engaged in the far larger trades coming from Liverpool, Bristol and London.

That it was necessary for a scholar to provide this much detail on this issue, tells us more about our own society than it does about the Jews and Africans in this period. Indeed one can understand much of the fascination with the Jewish role in the slave trade not as a matter of scholarly interest, but as part of an attack by anti-integrationist leaders on the Civil Rights movement and the “rainbow” coalition. By the principle of condemning the participation of any single member of a particular group participating in slavery or the slave trade, it would be possible to write histories attacking the role of Catholics, Protestants, Moslems, West Africans or Mozambicans, all of whom engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. Of course it might be impolitic to antagonize these groups. This tactic even seems to have found some resonance in some liberal circles in the United States, as seen by apologies given for this past Jewish participation, or even shock from those who had no idea that Jews had ever held slaves or o wned slave ships.

As Professor Faber shows, the facts of limited Jewish participation in the trade and ownership of slaves have been known to historians for quite some time and has been dealt with at length by scholars. Where Faber has done all scholars a service is to gather all these specialized materials together and present them, along with his own research, in a coherent and well written book. For the English islands and mainland colonies in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries his is the definitive study on this question.

All studies have their limitations, and in this case Faber’s reliance on English sources means that he does not deal with the French colonial and Atlantic commercial world (though some of his Jamaican documents indicate close connection with French Jews in the Atlantic ports) and limits his analysis of Dutch participation to some of the secondary literature in English. It would have been useful had he provided more information on the very special Dutch Surinam experience. And while it is true that there were no practicing Jews in the Iberian world before the 19th century, it would have been useful to examine some of the Inquisitorial trials to see how many New Christians accused of being active Jews held slaves or participated in the trade. Finally he decided to end his study at about the 1820s for the West Indies and 1808 for the United States. Because of relative size of the local Jewish communities and the availability of records, he spends more time on Barbados and Jamaica than on British North America, which gets only a short chapter. Thus the history of Jews and their relationship to Black slaves in the US south in the 19th century is not dealt with.

The author includes many original and useful documents on the merchant activity of the English Jews. He carefully analyzes population, residence patterns, and above all what is known of their investments in land, trade and slaves. In each case he shows how they were similar to or differed from their non-Jewish peers. In all cases Jews owned a fraction of what the non-Jews owned, but more often than not they also held fewer slaves on average than non-Jews since they were rarely engaged in plantation agriculture, and probably used most of their slaves as domestic servants, since they were not usually owners of major artisan shops. It would have been useful had the author provided data on the occupations of these slaves. The only unusual aspect of slave ownership among Jewish families in the urban areas is that in some of the towns of the West Indies, a higher ratio of Jewish families owned slaves than did non-Jewish families, in this respect probably indicating a higher standard of living than was the norm amo ng these latter families.

This book is probably the best single work laying out the basic numbers and ratios of importance of the Jewish participation in the Atlantic economy in general and in the English-speaking world in particular in the period up to 1830. The author gives us the alternative investment in which the Jews were engaged besides slavery and the slave trade. Whatever the impulse behind the writing of this work, the resulting research is very much to be welcomed by scholars as a significant contribution to the economic and commercial history of colonial English America.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group