Slave Traders

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Pablo Edronkin

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Slave trade in the Atlantic and other regions was a fact; Jewish financiers, traders and factors have been often been accused of participating in disproportionate numbers in the slave trade to the New World, but numbers contradict that accusation and facts unavoidably turn it into an antisemitic canard.

"The unexamined life is not worth living." - Socrates.

This is another case of anti - Semitism: Aside from being guilty for every war in the world, killing Jesus and so on, Jews are also guilty of the slave trade - especially wealthy Jews - or so believers in conspiracy theories say. But as in other cases, their beliefs are based on a lack of intellect which involves the use of both intelligence and knowledge. They have neither.

Before looking at any numbers, we have to take into account what kind of institutions were leading slave trade in the Atlantic between the XIV and XIX centuries: There was no Jewish state doing that but empire-building European nations, ruled by Christians, and the Muslim nations of the Middle East. These were all engaged in slavery as a business. Slavery was a common thing until the industrial revolution. The conjunction of new ideas regarding freedom and what later evolved into our present-day concept of human rights and the advent of machinery that could replace slaves turned the whole paradigm of slaves and owners into shameful obsolesence. Let's remember that even in the Greeek city-states slavery was common despite their ideas about the soul, philosophy, government and so on. Allegedly, a few centuries later Seneca was the first person to openly speak about slavery as someting wrong and the whole idea slowly gained momentum, but there were very significan economic issues that couldn't be put aside: The economies of the ancient, medieval and pre-industrial world could not function without slaves. So, morals were put aside for quite a while, until conditions were right.

Naturally, slave trade was a lucrative business, much as the production of machinery today is. It is true that Jews always had significant roles in the economic life of the nations in which they lived and of course, Jews did participate in slave trade which was at the time just another commercial activity. But was there anything disproportionate? Were there more Jews doing that than Christians? Was slavery the concoction of those ever-cunning Jews trying to conquer the world? Did they "owned" slave markets like they owned banks?

By looking at the laws, customs and regulations of the past it becomes evident that it was not the case: Jews often could not own even small-time real estate, and much less, large properties capable of sustaining an agricultural business - the kind of place where slaves often worked. Jews were barred from most productive activities, from cities, guilds, and only a few trades - which they developed well and were, in turn, prohibited to Christians and Muslims - became the means of survival for the various Jewish communities around the world. Some Jews became moneylenders, financiers and bankers; others were peasants living in villages, working for some landlord. The first group had no use for slaves and more often than not, they could not enter the markets that involved using slaves - i.e they could not buy large agricultural properties even if they had the money to do so -, and the second one could not afford to buy them.

It is important, when dealing with history, to try to see things from the perspective of the times in which events took place. While that doesn't mean to accept deeds that we can see as wrong now as good just because they were okay at the time, it does mean that you cannot condemn people from doing what was legal and fair back then. We cannot say that Christians, Muslims or Jews from the XIV century were particularly bad or good by seeing them from a XXI century perspective. We can only say that they were good or bad according to the laws and uses of their time. We can like or dislike it, of course, but we cannot pass moral judgement easily.

According to our present laws and convictions, slavery is awful, and according to religious and moral beliefs of that time it was an awful thing to do as well, but the laws permitted it. Slavery had been questioned since ancient times but it was nevertheless accepted as a fact of life and local economies. By the fifteenth century, slavery for Africans, Indians and other ethnic groups had no moral basis but the justification of force: European and Muslim nations among others were simply stronger and took advantage of that (see Henry the Navigator). Almost all nations of the world admitted slavery, even those that at times became slaves themselves.

Having said all that to clarify the background in which slavery evolved within some cultures, anyone accusing Jews of having a quasi-monopoly on evil should put forward all the evidence required to back those claims because that background suggests that Jews were not particularly keen on participating in the slave trade. So, where are the numbers that indicate that the amount of Jews participating in the slave trade was disproportionate? What particular documents demonstrate that Jews were more involved in slave trade than Christians or Muslims?

So far, there are none; but as a general logical principle the thing is not to prove that Jews are innocent of the quasi-monopoly of evil; anyone believing otherwise should prove things and until then, no one can be considered guilty. But in fact, evidence and studies suggest that Jewish participation in slave trade was disproportionately low[146].

Among our extended family, the Schoenberg Belmonte branch is directly related to European royalty (See Dom Iago de Sampayo y Belmonte). Hence, it should be said that our direct ancestors from that particular branch since several were monarchs themselves - participated in the decision making process of their countries, which involved making treatises, wars, peace and trading with tobacco, species, gold and also slaves. Some of them sailed in Portuguese expeditions to Africa and Asia (see Ancestors of the Skowronek Family in Portuguese Naval Expeditions) but does that mean that everyone was guilty?

Thus, they were indeed involved at some level in slave trade but guess what these were for the most part Kings, Queens and nobles which were Christian, yet related to the Jewish part of the family.

This comes as a deduction; however, I have found so far no evidence linking the Schoenbergs and much less the rabbinical branches of ancestry of our family with slave trade. We know that some made dealings with ships, traded in Amsterdam, etc. and there is even a story of one Baron de Belmonte talking to the King of England on behalf of Jewish settlers in the New World that were being disproportionately taxed[24.44][24.45]. The official excuse for taxing those Jamaican Jews so high as they were relied in the fact that they were originally allowed to settle in the colony as landowners and peasants but were increasingly engaging in other trades. Agriculture was then labor - intensive, and thus required slaves; hence, those Jews, far from participating in slave trade or demanding slaves were in fact moving away from it. Nevertheless, the authorities recognize that the Jews were better dealing with the "negroes," indicating that there was indeed some involvement with slaves, so it can be assumed that some Jewish settlers in the New world, like some Christian or Muslim settlers, would have had slaves because the laws of the time allowed such ownership.

However, there was nothing peculiar about that and in fact, the existing evidence shows that Jews in the New World were also discriminated by higher-than-usual taxation. There is also a 1695 mention of Manuel, Baron de Belmonte about Dutch ships leaving for Buenos Aires[1.85][24.43], which means that indeed our family had dealings with the New World so far back in time, but there is nothing indicating that slave trade was part of the Baron's business.

Slavery, Pablo Edronkin.

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