Letters from Jamaica, 1719-1725.

Author:Faber, Eli
Position:Part Three: New Documents for the Study of American Jewish History

The letters transcribed here were written by Diego Luis Gonsales (Gonzales) and his son, Abraham Gonsales, both of Jamaica, to Nathan Simson of New York and London. Informative about many commercial matters, they underscore the importance of transatlantic ties for Jewish settlers in England's New-World colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Jews who settled in colonial America aspired to careers as merchants who participated in the international commerce that spanned the Atlantic basin. Such trade provided the economic basis for the small seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jewish communities that developed in New York, Savannah, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston, with the most successful merchants often serving as leaders of the congregations that arose in those locations.

Success in commerce during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries depended upon participation in a transatlantic network of merchants connected by ties of religion and, when possible, family. This was true not only of Jewish merchants but also of businessmen who belonged to other contemporary ethnic and religious groups, notably Quakers and Huguenots. Such connections provided a large measure of trust and stability in an era in which commercial correspondents had no other means for ascertaining the reliability of their counterparts in the scattered, distant ports that spanned the Atlantic trading world, which ranged from Western Europe to Madeira, the Azores, Africa, the Caribbean, the North American mainland, and the coasts of Central and South America.

For Jewish merchants in British colonial America, the island of Jamaica, England's largest possession in the Caribbean, comprised an essential component of their trading world because of the size of its Jewish population, the largest in the English-speaking world outside London during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. England captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, and Jews began to settle there as early as 1663. By 1680, 20 Jewish households with 75 individuals resided in Port Royal, out of a total white population of 523 households and approximately 2,069 white individuals. (1) Port Royal, located on Jamaica's southern coast at the end of a long, narrow peninsula that described one of the finest natural harbors in the world, was Britain's premier port in the Western hemisphere in the late seventeenth century. It was logical, therefore, for colonists who sought success through commerce to settle there, and non-Jewish Jamaicans soon complained that the island's Jewish inhabitants dominated trade and that they refused to settle on the land and work at agriculture. (2) Following Port Royal's destruction in a massive earthquake in 1692, some of its Jewish residents removed to Spanish Town, the colony's inland capital, while still others settled in Kingston, which was established north of Port Royal on the coastal mainland in the aftermath of the devastation, where it, too, became a major port.

Nathan Simson, the recipient of these letters from Port Royal and Kingston, appeared in New York as early as 1703 and returned to London in 1722, dying there in 1725. (3) He was a merchant in both localities, participating in a transatlantic commercial network that included non-Jewish as well as Jewish correspondents. His letters and account books, a sizeable collection that documents the commercial activities of an eighteenth-century British Jewish merchant, are in the Public Record Office (C 104/13-14), but the letters transcribed here have been selected from the microfilm copy of the collection available at Queens College of The City University of New York.

To Mr. Nathan Simson Merchant In New York Mr. Nathan Simson Jamaica Port Royll. July 31 1719 Sr. We...

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