The Jewish Slaves of the First Sugar Plantation

November 14, 2023 | M. Dores Cruz, Larissa Thomas, M. Nazaré Ceita
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In a prelude to the discovery of the New World, Iberian sailors ventured to a number of islands in the Atlantic. One of these is Saõ Tomé, an island 150 miles off the African coast that was uninhabited when the Portuguese discovered it in 1470. M. Dores Cruz, Larissa Thomas, and M. Nazaré Ceita report on their recent archaeological investigation of a sugar mill and estate house—and include a tantalizing detail:

In the 16th century CE, São Tomé was a major nexus between Europe and Africa, yet the island was perceived as remote and lethal; early settlement was rarely voluntary: it primarily involved degredados (transported convicts), and Jewish children from Portugal, and enslaved people from the African coast.

Sugarcane fields [on the island] are first documented in 1506, and by 1517 production had taken off, with two sugar mills in operation and plans to build ten more. Although enslaved Africans had been brought to populate the island, since 1495, the labor-intensive nature of sugar production spurred the importation of far greater numbers, mainly from Benin, Congo, and Angola. São Tomé became the first plantation economy in the tropics based on sugar monoculture and slave labor, a model exported to the New World where it developed and expanded.

There were hundreds of these Portuguese Jewish children, mostly refugees from Spain—whence they had been expelled a year before—who were exiled to São Tomé in 1493 by King John II. John’s successor, Manuel I, decreed in 1497 that all Portuguese Jews had to convert to Catholicism, or be forcibly baptized, and in 1506 deported thousands of these converts to São Tomé.

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