Diamonds and Coral: Anglo-Dutch Jews and Eighteenth-Century Trade

By Gedalia Yogev | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

Trade to the West Indies and
North America

If city merchants had been asked, between 1650 and 1670 at the time of the Jewish Resettlement, in what branch of commerce the new immigrants could be expected to distinguish themselves, they would probably have pointed to the West India trade as the most likely field of Jewish commercial activity. There is indeed some evidence indicating that this is what they expected (or feared). When a discussion arose in the early 1660s about the advisability of permitting Jews to settle in the colonies (meaning chiefly the West Indies), both supporters and opponents assumed that the Jews would play an important part in the West India trade, if given the opportunity. The supporters — mostly plantation owners — thought that Jewish competition would lessen their dependance on English merchants and enable them to do better business. The merchants, fearing what the plantation owners hoped for, maintained that if Jews were given liberty to trade with the colonies, they themselves would be driven out of the trade. 1 These opinions were only natural in view of the intensive activity of Dutch Jews in the West India trade. Much of the trade with Barbados, which had been English since the beginning of the seventeenth century, was still in the hands of Dutch Jews during the second half of the century. 2 Many of the Jews who had escaped from Brazil, after its re-conquest by Portugal, settled in the West Indies. When the English took Jamaica in 1655 they found a Jewish community there, and at the time of the Jewish Resettlement in England Jews also began to settle in the English West Indian islands. 3

In other ways, too, conditions seemed favourable to a rapid penetration of the English West India trade by Jews. Unlike the trade to the East Indies, it was not a monopoly of any company, and every English subject was free to trade with the western plantations and to keep agents there. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews were familiar with the products of colonial agriculture, and

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