In 1951 as an English boy of 10 living close to Hampstead (a suburb of London) supported out of my mother’s millinery income, I visited the Festival of Britain. The British Commonwealth Of Nations had ended in 1949 replaced by the Commonwealth of Nations
In 1851 a century earlier, my paternal great grandfather, Judah Israel (born 22nd August 1830), a young man of 21, was living in the British Colony of Gibraltar – a member of its Jewish community who mostly originated from Morocco and still had ties there. Judah was to become a player in dramatic world events of which I am here but the narrator.
In 1851 Henry Wickham an English boy of 5 was curiously also living close to Hampstead and supported by his mother out of millinery income. The British Empire spanned the world. The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace opened that year with a spectacular giant South American Water Lily (Victoria Amazonica) exhibited as an inspiration linking with its architecture. I doubt that Henry visited the Exhibition or even knew where the Amazon was at his young age. Time would rectify that!
By 1851 Moroccan Jews had been arriving in Belem in Brazil at the mouth of the Amazon for 30 years, keen to make some living from its embryonic rubber industry.
A modest boom in the Brazilan rubber industry had occurred in 1840 resulting from rubber being used to make shoes. A major problem inhibiting the use of rubber generally – that of it being too brittle when cold and too sticky when hot – was solved in 1843 when Thomas Hancock patented the vulcanization process. This process involved using sulfur to create bridges between rubber molecules to harden the molecules and giving them, amongst other attributes, strength, elasticity and weather resistance. Thomas Hancock and Charles Goodyear (1800-1860), whom he beat to obtaining a patent, were amongst those ready to exploit its advantages. Even so in the 1850s world production was never to exceed 2,000 tons per annum.
The Moroccan immigrants at first merely hoped to be able to afford to send modest funds back home to support their families but to whom nevertheless, they would represent small windfalls. Soon the immigrants found themselves, if they so wished, able to achieve far more than just this. They could choose to play a full part in the community including politically.
In 1851 the Duke of Brabant, heir to the throne of Belgium, a country only created in 1831, had no ambition whatsoever to play any part in the world’s rubber industry. This would change!
Judah, Henry, and the Duke would play roles that would have significant effects on each other, on the world in general and on me and my heritage.
Judah Israel was a member of a very religious Jewish family trying to live fully in accordance with Jewish law in all aspects of their day to day lives – from praying 3 times daily to how they should conduct their business and social relationships.
Israel’s family history and religiosity had been incontrovertibly linked with major historical events for centuries. This linkage would not change. In 1492 the Israel family had been resident in Iberia – perhaps for a 1000 years – when together with their fellow Jews and the Moslems and the coming of the Spanish Inquisition – they were given by Isabel and Ferdinand, rulers of the country, the choice to either convert to Catholicism or to leave Spain. They chose “leave” .
They chose Portugal for their new home Portugal where they and fellow Jews making a similar choice were welcome immigrants. Unfortunately, shortly after their arrival, Spain successfully demanded as a precondition to royal marriage between the two monarchies that Portugal introduces its own Inquisition. Portuguese Jews were not given the option of leaving – they had to remain and convert so that the Portuguese economy could continue to benefit from their expertise. The Portuguese did at least delay enforcing the Inquisition heresy persecutions for some years. The Israel family, as practicing Jews (secretly if necessary), wandered through Portugal eventually to settle in Ceuta, a Portuguese enclave in North Africa. Ceuta was the first overseas Portuguese foreign possession – captured by them in 1415.
1492 was also the year in which Columbus who some say was a secret Jew set off to ‘discover” the New World. Pedro Alvares Cabral ‘discovered’ Brazil in 1500 and claimed it for Portugal. The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 had divided the New World between Spain and Portugal and the Pope later helped draw the line ensuring that Brazil fell to Portugal. The fact that indigenous tribes were already living in the New World was not considered relevant to the drawing of the line. Some secret Jews from Portugal would over the years choose to emigrate to Brazil believing it would give them more religious freedom.
When the later temporary union of Spain with Portugal between 1580 and 1640 ended, Portugal. retained all its colonies except Ceuta which became Spanish. Spain expelled the Israel family from Ceuta in 1707 and some of its members ended up living in Tetuan in Morocco where Eliyahu (Judah’s father) was born…
The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions continue to have ripple effects to this day. As a descendant of Jews forced out by those inquisitions I have been given the right to return. Many Jews descended from those expelled by Spain or who fled from Portugal know well their roots being members of what are still Spanish and Portuguese Synagogues even though 500 years may have passed since ancestors of those members left. With Brexit looming quite a number of British “Spanish and Portuguese” Jews are exercising their right to return.
Because of anti-Semitic incidents in Tetuan in 1804 baby Eliyahu and his mother, Azibuena, went to live in Gibraltar whilst his sibling brothers stayed with their father, Moses, to attend their Jewish School (Yeshiva) in Tetuan. Why Gibraltar? Not only because it was close by! Under the 1713 Treaty Of Utrecht ending the War of Spanish, Succession Gibraltar was given to the United Kingdom (UK could have chosen to take Florida instead where I now live!). UK and Morocco had subsequently agreed that Britons could freely access Morocco and Moroccans could freely access the British Empire including Gibraltar. After an uncertain start, Moroccan Jews were welcomed into Gibraltar to help supply the troops stationed there even though the Utrecht treaty had specifically barred Jewish settlement. When his other sons’ education was completed Moses joined Azibuena in Gibraltar.
Brazil featured in conversations of “ Portuguese” Jews in Morocco and Gibraltar because it had been part of the Brazilian Empire with many secret Jews living there. Moroccan Jews of Portuguese descent often had trading links with these secret Jews. It would not be surprising that Judah’s son of Eliyahu would learn of the potential opportunities in the rubber industry in the now independent Kingdom of Brazil from members of the Jewish community in Gibraltar and Morocco.
Judah seriously considered a possible move to Brazil. It was not such as a daunting prospect as might be at first thought. He already spoke Portuguese. Indeed whilst most of the Portuguese descended Jews in Gibraltar spoke English amongst themselves they also spoke Rakitia- a language mainly derived from Portuguese. Some of Judah’s Brazilian descendants believe that Israel’s family members had been traveling to and from Brazil soon after it became a Portuguese colony. They suggest some of their descendants living there at that time may have been amongst those who encouraged Judah to move to Brazil. Judah also confidently expected to be able to quickly become part of the local Moroccan Jewish community in Brazil.
Judah’s eventual decision to move to Brazil was to lead to his playing a significant part in the explosive growth of its Rubber Industry. In “Amazonia Formacao Social e Cultural”, Samuel Benchimol states that Jews from Gibraltar were the most significant pioneers of the export of rubber from Amazonia.
Judah departed the British Colony of Gibraltar but would not forget this element of his roots and obtained a British passport as would other family members in Brazil.. The births of my grandfather Moses and my father in Belem in Brazil were registered with the British consulate.
Around the same time, Henry Wickham would also journey to Brazil to stay only a few years but this was sufficient for his visit to have disastrous consequences for its rubber industry.
The Duke of Brabant ( future Leopold II of Belgium) never visited Brazil but assisted by Henry Morton Stanley (of Dr. Livingstone, I presume, fame) created the Congo Free State which, with his encouragement, became a major foreign player in the Rubber industry.
In 1870 Judah arrived in Belem in Para State of the Kingdom of Brazil (independent of Portugal since 1822 and was in the right place at the right time. The rubber trees (Hevea Brasiliensis) from which rubber was being extracted to any material extent were only found in Brazil. The trees being exploited at the time of his arrival were in forests close to nearby Santarem. Most of the 25,000 gatherers of rubber in Brazil were living in this area. The world demand for vulcanized rubber was soon to explode. Annual world production multiplied fivefold in his first five years in Brazil reaching 10,000 tons p.a in 1875. In the process, Belem was transformed – all because of rubber. Judah was at the heart of the transformation and became rich
Judah became an “Aviador” who funded ‘Seringueiros’ – the syringers of sap from the rubber trees. Leao Israel & Irmao at some time became the family vehicle for carrying out their activities in the Rubber Industry. Leao was the first name Judah used in Brazil. It is Portuguese for “Lion” –the emblem of the Tribe of Judah. “Irmao” refers probably to his three sons born. These sons were to be known as the Rubber Baron Brothers and comprised Moses (my grandfather) born Ist April 1871, Elias 25th February 1876 (according to his British passport and Michael. They had a sister Zara born in 187
Henry Wickham arrived in Santarem in 1871 to commit in 1876 what in today’s world many would call the stealing of a natural resource of a country. Rubber tree saplings were taken from Santarem in Para Province to England, wintered there in Kew Gardens before eventually being taken to Malaya part of the British Empire (now Malaysia), to Indonesia and elsewhere. Plantations were created where rubber trees would eventually stand in line waiting for the sap to be tapped. Wickham’s actions would create a problem for Brazil but that was long in the future.
It is a passing curiosity for me that another consequence of the Brazil visit of Henry Wickham who lived in Hampstead in 1851 was that Judah would have a great-grandson born, namely me, living close to Hampstead in 1951. …