The role of Jews in the British colonies of the Western Mediterranean

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The British Isles and Morocco, both situated on the western edge of the old Mediterranean world, have been linked by trade since early times. Moroccans have not traditionally been ocean sailors, as their long Atlantic coastline faced miles of endless watery waste and held no attractions prior to the discovery of America. But Englishmen have been keen Atlantic sailors, and Morocco became the first non-European country with which some British people had direct contact. It was enshrined in popular imagination as an exotic and very rich country, as the legend of Dick Whittington bears out - although the story represents the percep- tions of the I6th rather than the I4th century, when the historical Whittington was thrice Lord Mayor of London.

A country of high mountains, deserts and fertile plains, cut off from close contacts with the north by the Spanish Reconquista, and from the east by the long rivalry with the Ottoman Empire, Morocco became a conservative and inward- looking country from the late Middle Ages onwards. The isolation was intensified by the tenacious hold on the popular cultuf e of Sufi mysticism which became an important political force.((Jewish religious life in Morocco reflected the Sufi mysticism of the national background, by its devotion to the Kabbala. )) Since 1510 Morocco has been ruled by two dynasties, both of them founded by country sheikhs from the south with conservative attitudes.

Until the English and Dutch entered on the scene in the I6th and I7th centur- ies, foreign trade was conducted largely by the Genoese. It is hardly surprising that in this very conservative and psychologically isolated country much of the organization of the internal trade was in the hands of the ancient but cosmopolitan Jewish community.((R. Hakluyt, The Principall Navigations of the English Nation (Everyman's Edition, Dent) 4:161; T. S. Willan, Studies in Elizabethan Foreign Trade (Manchester 1959) 145; Chantal de la Veronne, Tanger sous Voccupation anglaise (Paris 1972) 88.))

The Jewish community of Morocco was heavily depleted in the Almohade persecutions of the I 2th century, but was afterwards considerably reinforced by successive waves of immigrants from Spain. Many Jews in I 2th-century Spain wished to find refuge from Almohade persecution in an environment where they would pass unnoticed, where their real religion was not inquired into too closely, and their personal customs would not be scrutinized. (They were even less happy in the Christian parts of Spain, as the peregrinations of a family such as that of Maimonides show.) Substantial Jewish migrations from Spain followed the persecutions of 1391 (inspired unwittingly by Francis Xavier) and, of course, the expulsion in 1492. In the coastal cities, particularly Tetuan and Sal, colonies of Anda/uzes, Spanish Muslims who arrived in the years after the fall of Granada, were reinforced by Spanish-speaking Moriscos after their expulsion in I6o9.

Elizabethan trade with Morocco consisted mainly of the export of cloth and firearms, and the import of sugar. Sugar was a royal monopoly in Morocco and its production in the hands of Jews.((Willan (see n. 2) 127.))

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