Our colour blind slave traders

By Tracy-Ann Oberman, January 6, 2011

I was recently invited to hear the writer Andrea Levy give a small informal talk about her Booker Prize nominated The Long Song, which follows the life of July, a slave girl on a sugar plantation in Jamaica during the uncertain last years of slavery and the process of freedom that had to be negotiated after abolition.

As her inspiration, Ms Levy very movingly described a conference she attended when a young girl stood up and admitted she felt shame at coming from a lineage of slaves and how could she reclaim some pride in her humble ancestry.

The Long Song is an answer to this girl and it is exquisitely told and brilliantly researched and, for a reader like myself, steeped in every facet of the Holocaust but knowing nothing about slavery, it captured my indignation, horror and also admiration at the endurance.

I started the book on a plane journey to Antigua and it certainly acted as a juxtaposition to the backdrop of tourist paradise upon arrival. White sand, blue seas and lashings of rum punch. I couldn't put down this tale of hateful British plantation owners, defiant slaves, petty hierarchies and survival in the face of dehumanisation. How could such atrocities be allowed to go on for so many hundreds of years, I kept asking myself. And is there a Jew in this story anywhere?

I was answered when one Isaac Cecil Levy made an appearance and thank God, he was a good 'un. A newspaper publisher who didn't care what colour his freedman printer might be - he just wanted to go ahead and "do business".

The online assertion is that Jews kept the trade afloat

Furthermore, according to local history, the first person who came to trade with the newly freed "Blacks" was a Jewish trader. Most church-going whites in the region could not and would not trade with their one-time slaves.

I started to look further into this on the internet, and guess what? According to nearly every website I saw, the entire slave trade was apparently run, owned and financed by the Jews.

Site after site lists Jewish ships, Jewish traders, families who built their wealth on the slave trade. The assertion that Jews ran the trade routes and basically kept the whole thing afloat is worryingly accepted as truth. Scratch a little deeper and it seems most of these sites are coming from the far right - extreme Islamic organisations or in one case the Klu Klux Klan.

In reality, slavery was an intercontinental enterprise extending over nearly four centuries involving Arabs, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, Jews, Germans, Swedes, French, English, Danes, white Americans, Native Americans, and even New World people of African descent who became plantation owners themselves.

And, when it came to calls for abolition, some of the loudest support came from Jews across Europe and America.

Whilst most whites saw "Negroes" as inferior, it was the Jews who happily traded with them immediately. Practical commercial folk we may be, but racists we are not.

Last updated: 11:03am, January 6 2011