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Black Jews in Africa and the Americas tells the fascinating story of how the Ashanti, Tutsi, Igbo, Zulu, Beta Israel, Maasai, and many other African peoples came to think of themselves as descendants of the ancient tribes of Israel. Pursuing medieval and modern European race narratives over a millennium in which not only were Jews cast as black but black Africans were cast as Jews, Tudor Parfitt reveals a complex history of the interaction between religious and racial labels and their political uses.
For centuries, colonialists, travelers, and missionaries, in an attempt to explain and understand the strange people they encountered on the colonial frontier, labeled an astonishing array of African tribes, languages, and cultures as Hebrew, Jewish, or Israelite. Africans themselves came to adopt these identities as their own, invoking their shared histories of oppression, imagined blood-lines, and common traditional practices as proof of a racial relationship to Jews.
Beginning in the post-slavery era, contacts between black Jews in America and their counterparts in Africa created powerful and ever-growing networks of black Jews who struggled against racism and colonialism. A community whose claims are denied by many, black Jews have developed a strong sense of who they are as a unique people. In Parfitt’s telling, forces of prejudice and the desire for new racial, redemptive identities converge, illuminating Jewish and black history alike in novel and unexplored ways.
Chapter 6: The Emergence of Black Jews in the United States
When Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) set off on his 1492 voyage he took with him as interpreter a certain Luis de Torres (d.1493) who was a recently converted Jew, and as it turned out, the first person of Jewish origin to settle (and die) in the Americas. Luis was something of a linguist and apart from Spanish, Greek, German and Portuguese, knew more exotic languages, including Aramaic. The idea was that his oriental languages would enable him to speak to the natives of the lands on the other side of the Atlantic. On Friday, 2 November, 1492 Columbus “decided to send .º.º. Luis de Torres .º.º. who, as he says, understood Hebrew and Chaldee and even some Arabic” with a landing party just in case they encountered any Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic speaking peoples. He may well have had eastern Jewish traders in mind, but given that he had attentively read Mandeville’s Travels it is more likely that he was thinking of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who were widely thought to inhabit the eastern portions of the great Asian land mass.
For hundreds of years after the arrival of Columbus the most frequently invoked explanation for the origin of the indigenous populations of the American continent, north and south, was that they were Lost Tribes of Israel. The Spanish embraced this theory with enthusiasm. According to the historian and missionary Juan de Torquemada (c. 1562—1624) it was Bartolomé Las Casas (c. 1484–1566) the so-called “Apostle to the Indies” who first proposed that the South American population was descended from the Lost Tribes. According to the Irish Lost Tribes enthusiast and antiquarian Edward King, Viscount Kingsborough (1795–1837) “the celebrated Las Casas entertained no doubt that the continent of America had in early ages been colonized by the Jews; and he even goes so far as to say that the language of the Island of San Domingo was ‘corrupt Hebrew.’In his Historia General de las Indias (1553) Francisco López de Gómara (1511–1564) noted of the native population in South America: “They are all very like Jews in appearance and voice, for they have large noses and speak through the throat.” The Indians according to Torquemada too, were literally of Israelite stock, biologically Jews, and had been persuaded by the Devil to worship him in South America, in a similar manner to their worship of God in ancient Israel. Moreover, it soon became axiomatic that most if not all the local languages were dialects of Hebrew and other Jewish languages What was true of South and Central America was also true of the North. Major-General Daniel Gookin (1612–1687) a settler in Massachusetts who was appointed captain of the military company in Cambridge Massachusetts in 1644, undertook a thorough study of the indigenous population. He started of his great work Historical collections of the Indians of New England (1674) with a chapter on the origins of the Indians. The predominant conjecture about their origins he pointed out was “that this people are of the race of the Ten Tribes of Israel.º.º.º. as many learned men think.” Later English colonists such as the Quaker William Penn (1644–1718) found all manner of signs of Judaism among the Indians: after his first few months he noted of the Native Americans: “Their eye is little and black not unlike a straight-looked Jew .º.º. their language is lofty, yet narrow; but like the Hebrew in signification; like short-hand in writing, one word serveth in the place of three.º.º.º. For their origin I am ready to believe them of the Jewish race; I mean of the stock of the Ten Tribes, and that for the following reasons; first they were to go to a ‘land not planted or known’ which, to be sure, Asia and Africa were, if not Europe; and He that intended that extraordinary judgment upon them, might make the passage not uneasy to them, as it is not impossible in itself, from the Easternmost parts of Asia, to the Westernmost of America. In the next place, I find them of like countenance, and their children of so lively a resemblance, that a man would think himself in Duke’s Place or Bury Street in London, where he seeth them.