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.