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The British encouraged Jews to go to Jamaica by offering them full rights and British citizenship in the colony
The British, like the Jews, are fond of their history. Their past is more heroic than their present, but also more horrific. This year, a flurry of exhibitions celebrates the abolition of slavery bill that passed through Parliament 200 years ago. Books, art and artifacts light up both the horrors and the heroes of an era that brought much wealth to Britain from the Caribbean. The Jews, thankfully, seem to be out of this picture - or so I thought until I began to delve into my own family history.
"Breaking the Chains" is a major exhibition about Britain and the slave trade, on show in Bristol, Britain's most important slave trading port in the early 1700s. It tells that British ships were responsible for transporting approximately 500,000 Africans into slavery in the Americas between 1698 and 1807. Exhibits reveal the historical context of slavery, its destructive effect on relations between Europe and Africa, the nature of survival and resistance among African and Caribbean communities, the role of abolitionists and the legacy of the slave trade today.
"Chasing Freedom," an exhibition at the Royal Naval Museum in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, tells the unique story of the Royal Navy's role in stopping the slave trade. From 1807 until 1865, the Navy's West Africa Squadron freed some 150,000 people through its anti-slavery operations.
"London, Sugar and Slavery" opened this month at the capital's Museum of Docklands, in a former sugar warehouse built to store produce from the Caribbean plantations. This exhibition reveals London's "dirty big secret" about the link between sugar and 10 million African slaves. London was the fourth-largest slaving port in the world.
The British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Camden, Richmond, and the City of Westminster, to mention only a few more venues, mounted exhibitions on the history and abolition of slavery, of particular interest to more than a million British citizens who are ethnically African or Caribbean. Oxford University also joined the effort, opening an exhibition on this topic at the grand colonial-style mansion built in memory of Cecil Rhodes, and another in the Music Faculty. The latter display focuses on a particularly musical and zealous abolitionist hero, Granville Sharp, who formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and signed his name G#.
A collection of interesting diaries and books, under the headline "Am I not a man and a brother?" showed for one week only in Rhodes House, but immediately became available for all on-line on the Bodleian Library's Web site. The quote comes from the slogan of the abolition campaign, symbolized by Josiah Wedgwood's design of a black slave in chains, kneeling, with his hands lifted up to heaven.
I happened to enter the Commonwealth history library in Rhodes House just the week that this little collection was on show. I had gone there to try to find out what my ancestors were doing in Jamaica in the 1830s and 1840s. My father thought they were involved in the sugar or spice trades. By the time his great-grandfather, Solomon Schloss, and his brothers arrived at Kingston, the slave trade had ended, so I presumed that their merchandise was untainted.
The British abolition bill came into force on May 1, 1807, but it took another quarter of a century of campaigning before the slaves in the British colonies were freed in 1833. That was the year my ancestor sailed from Frankfurt, via England, to Kingston, Jamaica.
I discovered that Solomon Schloss settled in Kingston because he already had family and business prospects over there. In 1780, his paternal uncle traveled from Frankfurt's Judengasse to England to commission and export British-made fabrics. However Solomon's maternal uncle, Sigismund, chose to move onwards, all the way to Jamaica. The British encouraged Jews to go to Jamaica by offering them full rights and British citizenship in the colony. Persuaded by their Stiebel uncle, Solomon and his older brother Sigismund (named after the same forefather as his uncle) also sailed for the island, soon followed by their younger twin brothers, Daniel and Leopold, leaving two brothers behind in Frankfurt. They were to set up a family business with trade links in Kingston, Bogota, Frankfurt, Manchester and London. Like Moses Montefiore, these Jews served in the militia, a proof that they had become devoted Englishmen.
In 1839, they helped to build the new English-German synagogue in Kingston, as the old synagogue was now too small for the enlarged non-Sephardic community. Did all these Jewish fortune-seekers, healthy young bachelors far from their mothers, really have no contact with the sugar slaves who were now free?
Some time in the 1820s, Sigismund Stiebel's "native housekeeper" bore him a son, George Stiebel. This woman wouldn't have been an Arawak, as most of these natives had died out when the Spanish invaded. She was, rather, of African parentage and had grown up on a sugar plantation or in a runaway slave community.
In the Rhodes library, I found a book that was not included in the exhibition. John Bigelow's Jamaica in 1850; or, the Effects of 16 Years of Freedom on a Slave Colony moaned about the way the country had fallen apart after the slaves gained their liberty. But it also told me about the likes of George. On page 13, the disgruntled Englishman wrote: "The proportion of Jews of all colours is fearfully great. I had never seen a black Jew before, and I was astonished to find how little the expression of the Israelitish profile was effected by colour. My imagination could never have combined the sharp and cunning features of Isaac with the thick-lipped, careless, unthinking countenance of Cudjo [African slave]; but nature has done it perfectly, if that can be called a combination in which the negro furnishes the color and the Jew all the rest of the expression."
Following Jewish tradition, Sigismund took responsibility and cared for his son, setting him up in business. After many adventures, George eventually became Jamaica's first black millionaire, honored by Queen Victoria. He also ran my great-great-grandfather's business, Schloss & Co. in Kingston, after the Jewish, German-born Schlosses and Stiebels had settled in fashionable mansions in London and Manchester. George Stiebel's immense estate, Devon House, is one of Kingston's leading tourist attractions today.
George Stiebel was not alone, however, at Schloss & Co. in Kingston. There was also a Schloss descendant looking after the family business there. This man, Sigismund Leopold Schloss, who became vice-consul of Columbia in 1910, does not appear on the Schloss family tree. The naming traditions of Frankfurt Jews suggest that his father was Leopold, my ancestor's younger brother, who later married into the Montefiore family. There is no sign of Sigismund Leopold Schloss on the ample Montefiore or Schloss family trees. If his mother wasn't Jewish, he wasn't Jewish, either, like George. He was just a wild oat, of a dark color probably, not worth talking about...
When the Frankfurt-born Schlosses arrived in England in the mid-19th century with their West Indian fortunes in their pockets, they were eligible bachelors in their late 30s. They married into the Anglo-Jewish aristocracy and became eminent Victorian gentlemen. I would like to think that these German-Jewish merchants were respectful lovers and did not exploit the native women as sex slaves. But who knows?
Prof. Eli Faber's research has shown that Jews had a very small role in the slave trade and few New World Jews owned slaves. But who knows what happened in the bedrooms - or the servants' quarters? I can't help wondering how many cousins I may have scattered in the West Indies as a result of the freedom that followed the abolition of slavery.
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