Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Jews and the Slave Trade

Some years ago the Nation of Islam, a Muslim-ish African-American group, published a book claiming that “the Jews” had dominated the slave trade. I think the point was to say that the alleged activity of one group of people in the 16th-19th Centuries says something about another group of people in the 20th-21st Centuries. The book was shredded by scholars, but they did say that for a moment Jews were significant in the Brazilian and Caribbean slave trades.

I am no expert, but have been reading a little around that period. Of course, the “Jews” in question were baptised Christians of Jewish origin. We don’t know what they believed. The strong probability is that all or most of them had never seen an Ashkenazi Jew and – if we focus on the mid-16th Century – it would be another two hundred and fifty years before any of their descendants who returned to Judaism might have considered an Ashkenazi Jew as belonging to the same “tribe”, someone they might consider marrying.

My impression is that a few New Christian families were involved in the Atlantic slave trade for a period starting in the mid-16th Century. I keep seeing the Dias name. I suspect that one or some of them had been involved in the Portuguese trade with India, and had seen an opportunity along the way.

Some of the Dias’ presumed relatives owned sugar plantations in Brazil, so will have owned slaves. These Brazilian relatives fought for the Catholic Portuguese against the philo-Jewish Protestant Dutch in the 1640s. A few decades later a slave-trader in Cartagena, in Spanish Latin America, was accused of “judaising”. I suspect he was somehow related to or connected to the Dias family, and possibly also to my own ancestors.

With hindsight, the African slave trade is a unique phenomenon. At the outset – and I am speculating – maybe it was no different from other forms of 16th Century slavery. Muslims enslaved Christians, including prisoners of war. There were Algerian slave raids as far north as England and Ireland. In Iberia and elsewhere, Christians enslaved Muslims and Jews. Criminals could become galley slaves.

Christians, Muslims and Jews were all clear that their adherents could not enslave other adherents, but people of other religions did not merit human rights. Before it developed onto an industrial scale, the African slave trade seems to have involved members of one African tribe traded by another tribe for European products.

But what about the Dias and other families involved in slavery? Confessionally they were Catholics of Jewish origin and, as far as I can tell, their descendants seem to have been overwhelmingly Catholic. The probability is that their parents or grandparents would have been Jewish. My first thought is that how can someone whose family has been exiled and persecuted then commit the same crime to other people. Historians would tell us that we should not use our values to judge people from another age, but still… Aren’t basic values unchanging?

Perhaps a psychologist would tell us that these people had been severely traumatised and therefore were willing and able to objectify other people, especially when they might have benefitted from the crime (and it was a crime).

Of course, to blame one group of 21st Century people for the actions of an unconnected group of 16th Century people is silly. Arguably it requires the same mentality as the slave traders: to dehumanise people in their imagination, and then draw unethical conclusions.

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