By Dr. Diego Rodriguez

Sugar cane is a sort of grass that grows best in warm, tropical climates, with lots of water, and lots of sunshine. (How Cane Sugar is Made - the Basic Story,

Europe didn't offer the best growing conditions, but sugar cane grew just fine on Madeira and the Canary Islands (Mark Johnston, The Sugar Trade in the West Indies and Brazil Between 1492 and 1700, James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota,

By the mid-1500s, Madeira's main production was sugar. The island had about 40 sugar mills, which could produce about 6 million pounds a year. By 1552, there were 3 000 Negro slaves from Africa on the island, working for their Jewish masters. (A.H. de Oliveira Marques, History of Portugal, 2nd ed., Columbia University Press, 1976, p. 369)

In the 1500s, when the New World market was just opening up, Jewish global players found that conditions were just perfect.

A group of Marranos (Jews pretending to be Christian) rented the Brazil trade monopoly from the Portuguese king. The group was headed up by the Jew Fernão de Loronha . They got rich off the monopoly, trafficking primarily in rainforest wood. (id, p. 252)(map: to enlarge)

In 1530, the first colonists were sent out by the king, under command of Martim Afonso de Sousa. The state divided Brazil into 15 districts. (id., p. 254)

At this time, the Crown owned the monopolies in wood, slaves, spices, and drugs. (id, 255)

Duarte Coelho was running Pernambuco, which prospered. (id, 256) The Portuguese had Brazil, and the region there where sugar cane grew best was Pernambuco. Production costs in Brazil were about half of what they were on Madeira.

The Portuguese tobacco trade, as well as the sugar business, was controlled by the Jewish community. They "controlled the sugar and tobacco industries, and regrettably were involved in slavery, amassing huge fortunes." (Manuel Azevedo, The Nutshell History of Marranos of Portugal, The Jewish Magazine,

The Jews wasted no time in streaming into the area. Earlier experience with sugar cultivation, along "with the institution of slavery, made sugar production the most profitable cultivation in either the Americas or Europe." (Johnston, supra)

Around 1505, the first Negro slaves were brought over. (Jean West , Sugar and Slavery: Molasses to Rum to Slaves, This was about the same time as the first Jews arrived in Pernambuco (Jewish Community of Recife, Brazil, Museum of the Jewish People,

Big profits, good growing conditions, and slavery. "The first commercial production of sugar in the new world was undertaken in 1550, when the Portuguese Donatarios built mills near Pernambuco and São Vicente along the Atlantic coast of Brazil." (id.) (pic: to enlarge)

There were Jews living in Pernambuco. They pretended to be Christians, but really practiced the rituals of Judaism (Marranos). They claimed to be loyal citizens, but betrayed the Portuguese.

The Dutch wanted to take over in Brazil. With a very big effort the West India Company captured Bahia, the main town in Brazil, in May of 1624, but lost it to the Portuguese again the next year. In 1625, the Company was driven out of Puerto Rico. They lost their remaining forts around the mouth of the Amazon. (Jonathan Israel, Dutch Primacy in World Trade, 1585 - 1740, Clarendon Press, 1989, p. 160)

Jewish pirates working for the Company harassed Spanish shipping. "One such pirate was Moses Cohen Henriques, who helped plan one of history's largest heists against Spain. In 1628, Henriques set sail with Dutch West India Co. Admiral Piet Hein, whose own hatred of Spain was fueled by four years spent as a galley slave aboard a Spanish ship. Henriques and Hein boarded Spanish ships off Cuba and seized shipments of New World gold and silver worth in today's dollars about the same as Disney's total box office for 'Dead Man's Chest.'" (Adam Wills, Ahoy, mateys ! Thar be Jewish pirates! , Jewish Journal,

They captured the Spanish treasure fleet off Cuba in 1628. This theft was worth 11 million guilders. They also stole 40 000 chests of Brazil sugar worth 8 million guilders. (Israel, p. 162)

"Hollanders tried several times to occupy Brazil with the help of marranos. The capture of Pernambuco (Recife) in 1630 was organized by Dutch Jews under the command of Moïse Cohen. A few years later, David Peiscotto left with a 18 ships fleet to help to the defense of Pernambuco besieged by the Portuguese. As a clever strategist, he suggested to attack Portugal up to Coïmbra and to put fire to the Holy Office Palace.

During the Dutch occupation of Pernambuco in 1630, the crypto-Jews revealed themselves in their true colors and claimed their Judaism. They were joined by Dutch Jews." (Herbert Israël, Wanderings in the Carribbean Sea, added)

The Jews attacked Pernambuco, where they had been living for more than 100 years. They knew the fortifications, and the military dispositions. Sure they had pretended to be loyal, but then they revealed their true colors. They had been Jews all along, and just wanted to take over the place.

Things got going really well when the Dutch East India Company conquered Pernambuco. This company had many Jews amongst its stockholders. (Marc Reizman, Brazilian Jewry – A concise history,

The company sent Mauritius, the prince of Nassau, with soldiers to conquer Pernambuco. He was accompanied by 200 Jews who would waste no time to exploit the business opportunities. (Compare with Québec)

The Jews who came with the invading expedition and on subsequent trips,
established a variety of businesses in New Holland, which is what the Dutch called their new territory.

Many became owners of sugar mills. However, sugar cane harvesting is very intensive labor and Brazilian Indians turned out to be unreliable workers. To find the necessary workers, the mill owners turned to Africa
for slaves. The West Indies Company controlled the shipment of slaves because it owned the ships. But once on the ground in Brazil, Jews were responsible for the selling and buying of black slaves, often at prices that were four and five times what they had paid the West Indies Company for them.

There is some historical evidence that slaves working for Jewish mill
owners fared somewhat better than those working for Christian owners. It is said that those working for Jews had the Sabbath off.

The Dutch in New Holland continued to allow religious freedom, as in
The Netherlands. As a result of this policy, many Portuguese conversos who lived in the Portuguese controlled areas of Brazil moved to New Holland and dropped their forced conversion to become full-fledged Jews once again.

One Dutch survey during those years listed the New Holland population as
12,703. Of these, 2,890 were white and half of them were said to be Jews in
the city of Recife. Most of the Jews who were merchants could be found
on the Rua dos Judeus - street of the Jews. It was on this street that the
first synagogue in the Western Hemisphere was built in 1630. It was called
Kahal sur Israel, the rock of Israel. Its first rabbi was Isaac Aboab da Fonseca who came from Amsterdam to lead this congregation. (id)

This is most interesting. The Jews ran the slave trade on the ground. They were part owners of the company that shipped the slaves. And they ran the sugar business in general (Azevedo, supra) And they were more than half the population (aside from their slaves).

Nieuhoff, the traveler, writing in 1640, says: "Among the free inhabitants of Brazil the Jews are most considerable in number; they have a vast traffic, beyond all the rest; they purchased sugar-mills and bought stately houses in the Receif." (
Cyrus Adler and Hühner , RECIFE (PERNAMBUCO),

The Jewish sugar business was prospering. And the Jews needed lots of slaves. Between 1636 and 1645, the Company auctioned no less than 23 163 African slaves in its Brazil territory. This was a big number, so the Jews needed to secure their supplies. In 1642, Company forces conquered Angola. (Israel, p. 163)

The company allowed very liberal terms for Jewish religious practice in Brazil. By 1644, there were 1450 Jews in Pernambuco. (Israel, p. 165)

"Very liberal": Slavery? No problem. Ritual mutilation? No problem. Usury? Go right ahead.

The Portuguese Catholic planters in Pernambuco became dissatisfied. "They disliked Dutch rule and passionately hated the Jews". Many of the Portuguese were heavily indebted to the Jews, so they launched a revolt against the Dutch. "The Dutch troops withdrew to their forts, and to Recife, along with the Jews." (Israel, p. 168)(compare with Béziers) And then they were forced to leave (see Chapter 150)

The first Jews came, and they were just refugees fleeing persecution. They got to know the lay of the land, and when the time was right, they took over the place. Attacking from without, in 1630, with cooperation of those within (betrayal and treachery).

And once they got control, lots of slavery, which resulted in enormous profits and wealth. Producing harmful products, which destroy health. (Compare with Béziers and Carcassonne )

Ah, but that was all ancient history, right?

The government anti-slavery unit has freed 1 000 slaves from a sugar cane plantation in Brazil, where is still plenty of slavery. ('Slave' labourers freed in Brazil, BBC, Jul 3, 2007,

The plantation was owned by a company called Pagrisa, the largest ethanol producer in the Pará region. The company is owned by three Jewish brothers, Murilo, Fernão and Marcos Villela Zancaner. They will be prosecuted by the federal court. (Charles Nisz, Federal Court hears charges against Pagrisa for slave labor in Pará,, Sep 25, 2007,

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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