Rare manuscript describes Jews battling antisemitism in 18th-century Caribbean

At the time, there were flourishing Jewish communities in the Caribbean, particularly in areas under Dutch and English control.

November 28, 2017 04:32
2 minute read.
Rare manuscript describes Jews battling antisemitism in 18th-century Caribbean

CARIBBEAN JUDAICA – This letter was written to Victor Hughes, special agent of the executive directory on Windward Islands, Curaçao, on September 8, 1798.. (photo credit: CHRISTIE'S)


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A manuscript written by Caribbean Jews in 1798 protesting the ill-treatment of Jews worldwide will be up for sale next week at Christie’s auction house.

The manuscript was written in French by two Jewish merchants – “Jb d Castro” and “David Cohen Henriq” – to Victor Hughes, special agent of the executive directory on the Windward Islands, Curaçao.

It was donated to Christie’s by a private collector, who also contacted Wim Klooster of Clark University. Klooster researched the letter and discovered its significance and the circumstances surrounding it, which he is due to publish in the Studia Rosenthaliana Journal.

According to Klooster’s translation of the letter, the men wrote: “With regret, we see ourselves obliged to send you this letter in the name of the Jews spread around the universe to show our rightful resentment about the scandalous epithet that you [believe you are] authorized to apply to them in a letter that circulates here under your name....”

The letter continues: “You treat the Jews as the scum of all nations, feelings very much contrary to the principles of a nation of which you have the honor to be the representative, the conquering friend of liberty and equality, which it has established everywhere; its invincible arms triumphed, and that has so wisely destroyed fanaticism, the scourge of the universe and preserve of the intolerant.”

According to Peter Klarnet, senior specialist for manuscripts and printed Americana at Christie’s, the letter was written in response to insulting remarks made by Hughes, challenging Jewish loyalty to the Batavian Republic.

At the time, there were flourishing Jewish communities in the Caribbean, particularly in areas under Dutch and English control.

After the French invasion of the Dutch Republic in 1795, the new Batavian government prohibited merchants on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao from trading with Great Britain, Klarnet notes, adding that several Jewish merchants on Curaçao objected by asserting their loyalty to the House of Orange and their opposition to both the Batavian and French republics.

As a result, Hughes wrote in a letter: “We shall then see if those who conquered Europe and merit universal trust shall be insulted by that vile Jewish rabble, the scum of the entire people and universally despised.”

Hughes’s letter is said to have swiftly entered general circulation, drawing a reprisal from the island’s governor, who attested to the importance and loyalty of Curaçao’s Jewish community, according to the Christie’s specialist.

Several weeks later, Jacob de Castro and David Cohen Henriquez, two of the elders of the Jewish congregation of Curaçao, wrote their own response to Hughes.

“Have you considered, citizen, that by using an expression so general you have offended your sovereign, the French people?” the letter reads. “[...] And who is the vile informer who has defamed us in front of you? Is it not in the interest of the Jews to devote themselves to a nation that prides itself on rendering men equal without distinguishing between religions?” Klarnet told The Jerusalem Post on Monday: “This seems to be one of the earliest public statements like this made by a group of Jews.”

Describing the letter as “remarkable,” he added: “Before the Age of Revolution, this is not the type of letter you would have written... at least with this type of tone.”

The manuscript will be auctioned on December 5 for an estimated $10,000-$20,000.

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