The Centrality of Slavery: Jews in the Atlantic World
In 1778, Mosseh Rodrigues del Prado of Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America, took justice into his own hands. Three years earlier, Prado had been convicted of verbally insulting the sexual virtue of various Jewish women. One of these was Ribca de la Parra, widow of Selomoh de la Parra, described variably as a “white woman” and “a noted lady … from a family so esteemed.” The detail of her racial identity was no aside, for Prado was a Eurafrican Jew, the direct descendant of a white Portuguese Jew and his enslaved African concubine. Although Eurafrican Jews in the colony were considered bonafide Jews as well as members of the Jewish community, local ordinances assigned such individuals a second-class status. These manumitted and freeborn people of African ancestry were held to the strict obligation of behaving “humbly,” in the words of the Jewish court, and of recognizing the “prodigious difference” between them and their white coreligionists. By gossiping about Ribca de la Parra’s sexual behavior, Prado had violated that unwritten law, or so claimed a number of Jewish witnesses, both Eurafrican and white. The court ruled to banish Prado forever from Jodensavanne (“Jews’ savannah”), a village located some 30 miles south of the colony’s capital city of Paramaribo. But in 1778, Prado returned to the village armed and dangerous, determined to have the last say. 1
The story of Mosseh Rodrigues del Prado reminds us that ancient slavery and its latter-day expressions are part and parcel of Jewish history
Suriname was home to a Jewish population without parallel in the early modern world. Founded by Portuguese Jews in the 1660s, the community was organized primarily around agricultural endeavors, rather than commerce, and for a long time constituted the largest Jewish settlement in the Americas in early modernity, peaking at nearly 1,500 individuals by the late eighteenth century, at which time it was only slightly outnumbered by U.S. Jewry. While the majority of its members barely eked out a living, it was the planters who created for the community a reputation of wealth and helped justify to colonial authorities the continued presence of Jews. These leaders, like their counterparts in Western Europe’s metropoles, grappled with the problem of endemic poverty among their people, who were barred by law from settling in the realms of France, Spain, and Portugal, and in some parts of the Protestant Atlantic World as well. With the notable exception of North Africa, the Jewries of the Atlantic World, an interconnected region encompassing the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas, were entirely new, reconstituted or founded after centuries of forced conversion to Christianity, massacres, and expulsion in England, the Iberian Peninsula, and France.
The few places in western Europe that permitted open Judaism, including Amsterdam, banned Jews from entering various guilds and professions, severely limiting or altogether eliminating their prospects of economic survival. The Portuguese Inquisition’s intensifying racial and religious persecution stimulated a stream of refugees, reputed to be insincere Christians. Many of them formally adopted Judaism in Amsterdam and London, the two European cities that served as major springboards for Jewish settlement in the Americas. The establishment of Dutch rule in Brazil from 1630 to 1654, and of an English and Dutch presence in Barbados, Jamaica, Curaçao, and Suriname starting in the 1650s, allowed Portuguese Jewish leaders in Amsterdam and London to extend to the Americas their frantic search for new settlements that would accommodate their poor. In Suriname, as in most of the colonies founded in the torrid zone of the Americas, the slave labor of forced migrants from West Africa would serve as the underpinning of the economy. From 1668 to the 1830s, between 213,000 and 250,000 Africans were introduced into the colony, and for much of that period over 90 percent of Suriname’s residents were both enslaved and of African origin.2
In the early 1660s, while Suriname was still under English rule, Jewish leaders had successfully petitioned local authorities for special privileges, including the freedom to practice their religion, operate their own schools, govern themselves by a Jewish tribunal, hold title to an entire village, and most importantly for our story, own human beings as property. The earliest surviving evidence of enslaved children born to Portuguese Jews and converted to the father’s religion dates to that decade. Although the conversion of such minors to Judaism also manifested intermittently elsewhere, namely in Amsterdam, Brazil, Barbados, and Africa’s Senegambian coast, nowhere else in the vast territory of the Atlantic World did there emerge a sustained group of Eurafrican Jews sufficiently large and sufficiently politically organized to assert their own corporate identity and lobby for equal rights. This unusual group of Jews testifies to the flexibility of rabbinical law as practiced in the region. Their very existence contradicts popular understanding that diasporic halakha discouraged the transmission of Jewish status through the father. But the Surinamese Jewish past also speaks to broader themes, disclosing aspects of the African diaspora, slavery, and religion little known to scholars of the Atlantic World.
Although in some ways unprecedented, Surinamese Jewish life was largely grounded in ancient traditions. This is readily discernible in the names Jews gave to their agricultural estates. These properties, most of them sugar, coffee, and cacao plantations located along the Suriname River, were purposefully situated in the environs of Jodensavanne, the administrative headquarters of the colony’s Jews. By the 1720s, dozens of manors owned by Portuguese Jews had sprung up north and south of the Jewish village. A map of 1737 identifies 72 Jewish-owned estates, many of them bearing biblical names, such as Mahanaim, Sucot, Gosen, Carmel, Petah Enaim, Kayam, and Rama.3 These toponyms suggest that Suriname’s early Portuguese Jewish planters viewed their agricultural undertaking as a link to biblical ancestors, who communicated directly with God and received His blessings of plenty. Mahanaim, for example, was the land the sons of Jacob found to be the best in Egypt, suitable for both crops and livestock, after famine forced them out of the Land of Israel (Genesis 46:28–34, 47:1–6). Mount Carmel, located in the northern Kingdom of Israel, is described as a place of beauty and fertility (Isaiah 35:2). Sucot, meaning “tabernacles,” is the harvest feast commemorating the exodus from Egypt and God’s bounty as well as a city bordering Egypt and the Promised Land (Leviticus 23:42–43; Exodus 12:37).
Moreover, the conversion of enslaved children to Judaism was also inspired by ancient rabbinical law that both recognized and countenanced the institution of slavery. Surinamese Jews had recourse to prayer books, published in Amsterdam, that mandated the recitation of certain prayers upon the purchase of slaves. The “Order of Prayers” (Orden de Bendiciones) is the earliest known Jewish prayer book that mentions slave regulations. Published in Amsterdam in the Hebrew year coinciding with 1686/1687, it contains a special formula used in the purchase of slaves (bendición de quando compran siervos). It probably refers to an intermediary conversion, without conferring full Jewish status, that made it ritually permissible for slaves to prepare kosher food and drink. Michael Studemund-Halévy argues that the Hebrew locution of the prayer—avadim, the same word that in the Hebrew Bible denotes the unfree Israelites who labored under the pharaohs of ancient Egypt—confirms that slaves, rather than domestic servants, were the prospective converts. 4
A successor, “Covenant of Isaac” (Sefer Berith Yishak), published in the same city in 1767/1768, includes instructions for the full conversion of slaves to Judaism, which required ceremonial wine, Hebrew prayers, circumcision for males, and ritual immersion for both sexes. Instructions for welcoming slaves into the bosom of Judaism are preceded by the explanation that this ceremony was practiced “when the Temple [still] stood.” While the use of Sefer Berith Yishak in Suriname has not yet been explicitly verified, the appendix at the back of the book, listing the names of ritual circumcisers, includes seven living in Suriname. The circumcisers are listed according to their city of residence, all within the Atlantic orbit. In Europe, these include Amsterdam, The Hague, Naarden, London, Hamburg, and Bayonne. Suriname and Curaçao, a Dutch island whose Jewish community rivaled that of Suriname in both size and economic importance, are the only Caribbean locations.5
Over the course of the eighteenth century, the group classified in the community as “mulatto Jews” steadily grew in size and economic importance, although the majority remained impoverished
We know about the experiences of enslaved converts to Judaism thanks to thousands of pages of surviving communal minutes. Diligently recorded by members of the community’s planter class, these records show that Eurafrican Jews were permitted, like Mosseh Rodrigues del Prado, to serve as the directors of plantations, and even to inherit and purchase property. At the same time, they were banned from participating in the honorary functions of the synagogue, from forming part of a minyan (prayer quorum requiring ten adult Jewish males), restricted to sitting on the “mourners bench” or in the back row of the ladies’ section, and for burial relegated to the margins of the cemetery.6 As the aforementioned court case suggests, deprecatory treatment extended to the meting out of justice.
But Mosseh Rodrigues del Prado would have none of it. Although it took him three years, he returned to Jodensavanne in 1778 brandishing a sword and accompanied by two pistol-bearing slaves. When the communal beadle ordered him to leave the village, Prado answered that he had come to carry out some business affairs and would leave when finished. He then proclaimed that he was well known by the Surinamese governor as a homem de bem, a Portuguese term that implies good behavior, wealth, philanthropy, and political power all at once. At that point, reportedly without incitement, Prado began marching through the streets of Jodensavanne, shouting that the Jewish judges who had presided over his case in 1775 had been biased, and that if any one of them had the courage, Prado would fight him. Prado then attacked the next official he encountered, the community’s treasurer, who happened to be passing by. The official immediately summoned a patrol to arrest Prado and detain him in the dreaded Zeeland Fort in the capital city of Paramaribo. 7
Prado’s tumultuous visit to Jodensavanne was arguably motivated not by the desire to carry out business but rather to rectify perceived injustice. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the group classified in the community as “mulatto Jews” steadily grew in size and economic importance, although the majority remained impoverished. Between 1778 and 1835, some 7 percent of the Jewish community was officially of African origin.8 If we take into account the communal “whitening” clause, by which Eurafricans who married whites for two consecutive generations retrieved the family’s former racial and first-class status, it is likely that the majority of Suriname’s Jewish community by the early 1800s was of African slave origin, however attenuated.9 Along with free people with roots in slavery throughout the urban Atlantic, Eurafrican Jews in Suriname increased exponentially in size over the eighteenth century, becoming indispensable to the local economy, and growing sufficiently confident to assert their entitlement to equal treatment before the law.
The outcome of Prado’s small-scale mutiny is recounted and analyzed in my forthcoming book. If it were not for the proclivity of literate members of the community to record their experiences in the colony, their commitment to preserving those accounts, and—above all—the activism of individuals like Mosseh Rodrigues del Prado, we would know very little of Suriname’s Eurafrican Jewish community, and almost nothing about the past from their point of view. The story of Mosseh Rodrigues del Prado reminds us that ancient slavery and its latter-day expressions are part and parcel of Jewish history. In the Hebrew Bible, the very first law that Moses presented before the Israelites who had fled slavery in ancient Egypt was the injunction that a master set his Hebrew slaves free in the seventh year of service (Exodus 21:1). Over the generations, most rabbis discussed and interpreted the verse as a theoretical exercise, and not as a reflection on labor practices in their own communities. The case of Mosseh Rodrigues del Prado attests to a prodigious archive that captures the lived reality of slavery and its aftermath, affirming the centrality of unfreedom and poverty to Jewish communities of the Atlantic World.
Excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press. Copyright © 2019 Aviva Ben-Ur.
Note: The Latin-scripted Hebrew orthography in this essay reflects the usage of exilic Iberian Jews in the Atlantic World. This distinctive spelling is very different from both Arabic-inflected and modern Israeli Hebrew and should not be mistaken as a transcription or pronunciation error. All translations from foreign languages are the author’s.
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- Nationaal Archief Nederland (hereafter NAN), Nederlandse Portugees-Israëlitische Gemeente in Suriname (hereafter NPIGS), inv. nr. 1, September 28, 1775; July 8, 1777, November 26, 1778; inv. nr. 135, September 29, 1775.
- The estimate and percentage are derived from Alex van Stipriaan, Surinaams contrast: Roofbouw en overleven in een Caraibische plantage-kolonie, 1750–1863 (Leiden: KITLV, 1993), 314; Johannes Menne Postma, The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600–1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 213; Cornelis Christiaan Goslinga, The Dutch in the Caribbean and in the Guianas, 1680–1791 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1985), 279, 291, 309, 341, 519; and Kofi Yakpo, Margot van den Berg, and Robert Borges, “On the Linguistic Consequences of Language Contact in Suriname: The Case of Convergence,” in Eithne B. Carlin et al., In and Out of Suriname: Language, Mobility and Identity (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 164–95, 171 (for the period 1651–1826).
- Alexander de Lavaux, Generale Caart van de Provintie Suriname, 1737.
- Michael Studemund-Halévy, Biographisches Lexikon der Hamburger Sefarden: Die Grabinschriften des Portugiesenfriedhofs an der Königstraße in Hamburg-Altona (Hamburg: Christians, 2000), 665.
- Solomon Levy Maduro and Abraham Maduro, eds., Sefer Berit Yishak (Amsterdam: Israel Mondwei, 5528 [1767–68]), 15v, apparently a reprint of the 1729 edition, cited in Moritz Steinschneider, Catalogus Librorum Hebraerum in bibliotheca Bodleiana jussu cura- torum digessit et notis instruxit M. Steinschneider (Berlin, 1931), entry 3222.
- NAN, Stadhouderlijke Secretarie, inv. nr. 1264, Redres der Reglamenten, Institutien, en Instellingen van de H. Gemeente B.V.S., November 9, 1752, p. 21 (treatise 19, article 4, Portuguese section); NAN, NPIGS, inv. nr. 102 (1754), treatise 19, articles 3 and 4, pp. 43–44.
- NAN, NPIGS, inv. nr. 1, December 7 and December 8, 1778.
- Statistic based on ibid., inv. nr. 417, Alfabetische staat van geboreren over 1777-1812, inv. nr. 418, Alfabetische staat van overledenen over 1777-1812, inv. nr. 419, Alfabetische staat van geborenen over 1777-1833, inv. nr. 420, Alfabetische staat van overledenen over 1777-1833.
- NAN, NPIGS, inv. nr. 101, Askamoth voor de gemeente B.V.S., vastgesteld 1754, treatise 26, article 3.