Slavery and the Jews

A review of The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews: Volume One

Almost as soon as it appeared, in 1991, The Secret Relationship generated a controversy that centered more on its intentions than its scholarship. The noise level was heightened in 1993 by the turmoil that swirled around Professor Tony Martin, of Wellesley College. A tenured professor in Wellesley's Department of Africana Studies, Martin assigned to one of his classes portions of the book, which singles out Jews for special prominence in the Atlantic slave trade and for having played a particularly prominent role in the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. He was accused of anti-Semitism, and wrote a brief book to refute the charges. The title of Martin's book, The Jewish Onslaught: Despatches From the Wellesley Battlefront, gave a clear preview of his opinions. It was a mixture of discussion, factual refutation, and angry recrimination. This last predominated, with paragraphs that opened using language like "To the Jews, and to their favourite Negroes who have insisted on attacking me I say . . ." His views on The Secret Relationship's use of historical materials amounted to a barrage of enthusiastic endorsements. Ironically, Martin's assertion that "Jews were very much in the mainstream of European society as far as the trade in African human beings was concerned" was very close to what many Jewish scholars had claimed some thirty years before.

Martin, in one of his endorsements, made a startling assertion concerning slave ownership by Jews: "Using the research of Jewish historians, the book suggests that based on the 1830 census, Jews actually had a higher per capita slave ownership than for the white population as a whole." The Secret Relationship does in fact approach making that suggestion, and since the claim would appear to be a pivotal one, it is worth examining.

In order to assess such a claim, one must resort to details. Martin's purported actuality is wrong on its face if applied to the "white population" of the United States "as a whole," because in 1830 only a handful of white northerners still owned slaves. Jews were concentrated in the North, and they constituted a very small minority there. Even if the statement is taken as applying only to the states in the American South that had not adopted gradual emancipation laws, it remains badly flawed. A careful and honest footnote in The Secret Relationship reveals that "Jewish scholars" had concluded that Jews in the South lived mostly in towns and cities. Neither this book nor Martin's explains the significance of this fact. In actuality, slave ownership was much more common in southern urban areas than in the southern countryside. The relatively high proportion of Jewish slaveholding was a function of the concentration of Jews in cities and towns, not of their descent or religion. It is also the case that urban slaveholders of whatever background owned fewer slaves on average than rural slaveholders, including those on large plantations. Thus the proportion of slaveholders has never been an accurate measure of the social or economic importance of slaveholding, unless it is assessed on a broadly regional or state-by-state basis. In this instance, as in so many others, the statistical data do not stand up and cry out their own true significance.

The book is interesting in many respects. It has an unnamed editor and provides no indication of personal authorship. The title page declares that it was "Prepared by The Historical Research Department [of] The Nation of Islam," but does not explain why this is "Volume One" or what may be offered in ensuing volumes. The book is ostensibly a scholarly work, replete with a short bibliography and a huge collection of footnotes. Its opening "Note on Sources" asserts that it "has been compiled primarily from Jewish historical literature."

A second title page of The Secret Relationship announces that "Blacks and Jews have recently begun to question their relationship and its strategic role in their individual development" and that the book "is intended to provide an historical perspective for intellectual debate of this crucial social matter." The word "individual" raises the question whether persons or groups are intended. Individual African-Americans and individual Jews as persons? Or two distinct individual groups?

As for the mechanics of scholarship, they present a central difficulty. The footnotes are extremely difficult to check in the form in which they are presented: although they follow the custom (in common with most of the humanities but not the social sciences) of providing a complete citation upon first mention and a shortened author-title-page version for ensuing ones, and are placed at the bottom of the page, they are numbered consecutively--all 1,275 of them--rather than starting afresh with each chapter. A reader encountering a brief reference to a presumably important article on Jewish slaveholding in the South (such as one on page 304, in footnote No. 1,238) can find a fuller citation--on page 91, in footnote No. 349--only after nearly an hour of thumbing through the book. Having gone this far, the reader must then consult the "Footnote Abbreviations" at the beginning of the book in order to discover a reference that might be usable in a library. The citation names a three-volume work edited by Abraham J. Karp. Upon consulting that work, which actually has five volumes, one learns that the article in question is by Bertram W. Korn. The same article by Korn is listed in The Secret Relationship's "Selected Bibliography," but in another set of volumes, with an incorrect date and no indication that it was reprinted elsewhere several times.

Footnotes matter because verifiability depends on them. In the Karp-Korn instance we are nearly home, though we do not yet know when the article was published--and, of course, the date matters greatly. We can determine it only by consulting actual copies of the article, which turns out to be "Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South, 1789-1865," which originated as an address by the president of the American Jewish Historical Society and was first published in 1961.

The date, it turns out, falls within a period when Jewish scholarship about the history of Jews in the United States was moving away from predominantly filiopietistic studies of ancestry and achievement and toward a more sophisticated assessment of the role of Jews in American culture. Korn's article contains a great deal of specific information to which The Secret Relationship has been thoroughly faithful. Overall, though, the conclusions Korn drew from his data were very different: he made a strong and persuasive case that there were few Jews in the planting class in the South, that Jews had historically been forced into commercial enterprises, that in the Old South they were typically city dwellers, that a small number participated in the domestic slave trade, that they treated their slaves no better or worse than other slaveholders, and that the few Jews in the South without exception endorsed slavery. The thrust of Korn's article was that Jews were not much different from other white southerners in their views on race and slavery.

Dating such historical writing is critical, given the shifting state of historical scholarship over time. Many of the works cited in The Secret Relationship are so old that it would be generous to call them outdated. Of the first sixty-odd, nearly a third date from before 1950 and eight from the 1890s. In contrast, a recent pamphlet on the Atlantic slave trade that was published by the American Historical Association as an aid to scholars and teachers cites four sources that date from 1949 through the late 1960s and twenty-eight published since 1970.

YET surely the compilers of The Secret Relationship will feel that such disparities merely confirm their case--that by avoiding these older historical writings, the history establishment has been hiding the facts about the important role played by Jews in the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in the New World. The AHA pamphlet does not, in fact, even mention Jews. The compilers will no doubt take this omission as further confirmation that the participation of Jews has been kept a secret. A more serious difficulty with The Secret Relationship lies in its general stance toward historical evidence. The compilers assumed that the book would be most persuasive if it were based almost entirely on "Jewish sources"--that is, retrospective histories written by Jews--and that there would be general agreement with the proposition that each group can most persuasively write its own history, a proposition that most historians find either naive or dangerous or both. On occasion this strategy deprives The Secret Relationship of evidence that would have bolstered its case, as with estimates of the total number of Africans killed by the Atlantic slave trade. The compilers cite figures gathered by both Jewish and non-Jewish Western historians but ignore the higher estimates claimed by Joseph Inikori, an established scholar from Nigeria.

The compilers have avoided another distinction that most historians regard as crucial--that between primary sources, written at the time, and secondary ones, written later on the basis of the primary sources. The evidence presented in the footnotes consists almost entirely of secondary historical accounts, written mostly by Jews and often in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Jews newly arrived from Europe were trying to establish themselves as full participants in their new country. At that time many of those immigrants saw the African slave trade and slavery as a key feature of the American experience, and participation in it as truly American. In fact, it was.

Many of these early Jewish-American writers thus missed the hideousness and the tragedy of what they were describing. Even Korn's 1961 article today seems downright blind to the suffering of the victims of the slave trade and their descendants. Since then, however, Jewish-American scholars have written some of the best studies of the internal workings of African-American slave communities in North America, and have been applauded by many African-American scholars for their understanding.

In assessing most historical works it is necessary to focus on mere details, on the minutiae that constitute the evidentiary base of the enterprise. The Secret Relationship includes numerous lists of Jewish shipowners and slaveholders. Its final chapter catalogues the involvement of numerous people with Jewish names who are documented as having participated in the persecution of Africans and especially African-Americans.

In addition, there are seventeen tables based on official U.S. Census data. These are drawn from the years 1790, 1820, and 1830, simply because those years are mentioned in secondary accounts written by Jews. There has been no analysis of the original data. The censuses of 1850 and 1860 are not considered, although the data from those two years were more informative.

To many readers, quibbling about census material may seem trivial; but when one gets down to individual cases, names and details are important in any historical work. The city of Newport, Rhode Island, was indeed active in the eighteenth-century slave and rum trades, and it had a flourishing community of Jewish merchants. Readers of The Secret Relationship are told that the writing of Jewish historians "seems to suggest that all the stills in Newport were owned by the Jews" in the eighteenth century. So much for the making of rum, a commodity commonly used in the slave trade and also a direct product of that same traffic. But what, then, is one to make of the fact that members of the Coggeshall family, who first came to Rhode Island as Quakers and later switched to the Church of England, were in the business of distilling on the eve of the American Revolution? In 1772 both Nathaniel Coggeshalls (father and son) were "distillers."

Readers wanting to explore such a matter will not be helped by the book's index, which has no entry under "Newport," even though that little city is discussed or mentioned on at least eight pages. Similarly, there are no entries for much briefer mentions of Natchez and New Orleans, though other cities are there, such as Detroit--not in the Ds but in the Ms, under "Michigan."

THERE are several interrelated problems with this study. It sets out to reshape the prevailing historical record concerning the treatment of Africans and African-Americans during the period of the slave trade and slavery. Far from asking any question at all, this book begins with an answer--that Jews were especially important in exploiting Africans. It is able to demonstrate, at least ostensibly, that they were. This is the central difficulty: the book sets out to prove a thesis and pays little attention to evidence that might modify or contradict it. If one were to inquire more neutrally into what role Jews played in the Atlantic slave trade, one would find that it was a considerable one during the formative years of the trade, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and a very small one when the trade reached much greater volume, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This change in the role of Jews relative to the roles of other Europeans had to do with shifts in power and culture that occurred among various Atlantic-European nations over a period of some 500 years. The trade was dominated first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch, and then by the English and, to a much lesser extent, the French.

The reasons for the important role of Jews in the early years of the slave trade are not hard to find. To put the matter in summary terms, Jews in medieval Europe had effectively been pushed by the Western branch of the Christian Church away from land ownership and into commerce and financial dealings. During those early years of western overseas expansion many Jews continued to find opportunities for drawing wealth from commerce and finance. Under heavy threat in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many Portuguese and Spanish Jews found refuge in the Netherlands, a quasi-nation that by that time had a widely reputed tolerance for religious diversity. Jewish citizens of the Netherlands were able to participate in domestic and foreign trade, including the slave trade on the coast of West Africa and in the Americas. These Jews, along with many Christian Dutch traders, supplied slaves not only to the Dutch colonial enterprises in Brazil and Surinam but also to Curaçao and other islands in the Antilles for transhipment to the New World colonies of other European nations. Ironically, Jews were therefore able to make major investments in landed enterprises--which in tropical America meant slave plantations--in Brazil and then Surinam.

This brutal trade in human beings was carried on by various African peoples and sociopolitical entities in West and West Central Africa. The participation of these groups also waxed and waned over the 500-year period. Internal developments in Africa played an important part in determining how the trade varied from place to place and from time to time. The expansion of Dahomey and of the Asante kingdom, for example, along with the declension of power in Oyo, had fully as much effect upon neighboring African peoples as the different but roughly parallel shifts in the balance of power among European nations had upon Europe.

Developments in Africa are of course not the concern of The Secret Relationship. Owing to the nature of available data, historians will never know as much about international, inter-ethnic, and interreligious conflicts in western Africa as they know about those in Western Europe. In the latter region Protestants, Jews, and Roman Catholics, who lived in several political entities, traded in human beings with a great many more societies in Africa, whose members thought of their differences in such distinct terms as to defy comparison, but to whom such differences also mattered greatly.

One aspect of the present issue, however, is utterly clear: by focusing on the importance of the activities of one internationally distributed religious group of Europeans, the Jews, this book ignores diversities in Africa. In addition, by treating Africans as mere objects of trade, it deprives all Africans of their own agency, of their capacity to control or at least deal with their lives and their history, including the activities of powerful men who enslaved other Africans and traded them to Europeans. In effect, it treats millions of African people as a mere undifferentiated blob, a pool of helpless victims totally lacking in the perception, will, and power necessary to resist or to take advantage of economic opportunities. Such a focus radically distorts the historical record.

This theme also has a depressingly familiar ring, because for many years white Americans were saying almost exactly the same thing about black Americans. The dusty old image is still clear in its reverberatory way--those people really couldn't accomplish anything, for they were always and inherently acted upon, rather than taking active roles in determining their fate. Thus the reader is thrust backward in time, forced to stare at facing mirrors. The reflections bounce back and forth, continually conveying the earliest images generated not on the West African coast but in Western Europe and in its New World settlements. Those images originated with the oppressors, not the oppressed.