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Laura Arnold Leibman: Once We Were Slaves. The Extraordinary Journey of a Multi-Racial Jewish Family (reviewed by Hannah Holtschneider)

Sometimes (not often enough) an academic book comes along that ticks all the boxes: it is based on thorough research, spanning archives on different continents, engaging with rich and varied source materials; it is held together by a tight set of themes; it is written in beautiful prose. It places individuals at the centre of its narrative to demonstrate the ways in which social circumstances and norms, religious precepts and institutions, political and economic contexts, and ideas about race, religion, and belonging, shape and are negotiated by specific individuals. Laura Arnold Leibman’s Once We Were Slaves is such a book. Once opened, I could not put it down, so invested did I become in the lives of the extended Brandon family. Particularly engaging is the journey of its two central characters, Isaac and Sarah Brandon—born enslaved in Barbados to a Jewish father and a mother of African heritage—who concluded their lives as citizens of the United States of America, all vestiges of their slavery and complicated ancestry removed from public (and later largely also from private) view.

The family’s fortunes are the backdrop for compelling explorations of changing ideas about race and of their social ramifications, of human relationships conducted in colonial empires that relied on slave labour, of Jewish minorities in slave societies, of religious identity and belonging, and of migration across the Anglophone Atlantic from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Structured as a narrative family biography, Leibman’s book presents a wide social history of inter- and intra-communal relations in the Atlantic world at a time when perceptions of colonialism, slavery, and race were shifting. Leibman’s exploration of how individuals led their lives in this complex world—governed by varied social ideals, religious mores, and local legal codes—is the thread that holds the book together.

 These wide-ranging explorations are informed by a vast array of archival sources gathered and evaluated across the best part of a decade. Leibman extracts detail after detail with empathy and care, from synagogue registers, cash ledgers, membership cards, wills, letters, census data, legal codes, minutebooks of religious organisations, paintings, and many more diverse documents. Her masterful book not only demonstrates the art of crafting a compelling narrative but makes accessible the process of interpreting snippets of archival information to bring to life aspects of the past. All the while Leibman is careful to show that, while she presents her readers with a wealth of documentation and contextual information that allows Sarah and Isaac and their families to leap off the page, we know very little about who they were. What we have left are accidentally preserved and purposefully gathered traces of their lives, often in sources that are deeply biased, which must be read with great care to bring to light insight about individuals—at best we can guess at their thoughts. Throughout, the reader remains acutely aware of what we can know, what we may infer, where we can only speculate from contextual information, where we need to be cautious not to prioritise our own concerns and ideas, and what we will never be able to know.

In twelve chapters, sandwiched by a preface and an epilogue, Leibman presents a chronological narrative that follows the lives of the Brandon siblings and their extended family from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. The chapters are organised thematically and according to location. We begin in Bridgetown, Barbados, where, at the close of the eighteenth century one Abraham Rodrigues Brandon, member of Nidhe Israel synagogue, fathered two children with Sarah Esther Lopez Gill, an enslaved Barbadian whose father was white and whose mother was African-descended. Unusually carrying their father’s last name, Isaac Lopez Brandon (1792-1855) and Sarah Rodrigues Brandon (1798-1828) were born into slavery and freed in a complex process only in their teens. The Brandon and Lopez families were Jewish refugees from the Inquisition; their relationships with Barbados’s majority-enslaved, West African-originated population were complex. Leibman follows the archival trail like a genealogist, tracing members of the Brandon and Lopez families in post-Inquisition Europe and their moves westward in search of better economic prospects. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the enslaved members of the Brandon and Lopez families no longer engaged with the physical extremes of labour on the sugar plantations that were the basis of the Barbadian economy. Rather, they lived as domestic labourers in Bridgetown, where the Brandons were merchants and where they were, along with other Portuguese Jews, key to the island’s sugar trade. Leibman here focuses on the women, both those enslaved and those owning slaves. The traces these women leave are contained in sources that are biased against them by the perspectives that erase the experiences of women and of slaves. Leibman seeks to restore agency to the Brandon Lopez women who, as slaves and slave owners, sought to ensure survival for their children’s and themselves. Sarah Rodrigues Brandon’s mother had her daughter baptised, making marriage—with its attendant social advantages—a possibility; despite their proximity to the Jewish community, Sarah and Isaac had no rights to belong to or to marry within a Jewish community poised against facilitating their conversion.

It was the will of their grandfather George Gill that made a difference to the siblings’ future prospects. Slaves could inherit from the free and Gill’s bequest enabled the siblings to be freed, while their enslaved mother inherited slaves herself, and Gill’s long-term slave partner, the siblings’ grandmother Jemima Gill, was given the financial means to free herself. These complex relationships demonstrate examples of compliance with existing social structures that drew lines between free and enslaved, and show how some individuals used these same structures to better their own or their children’s futures. Financial stability, care, and responsibility for enslaved family are all evident in George Gill’s will.

Freed in 1801, the siblings travelled to Suriname in 1811 to regularise their religious status as Jews. This was the only autonomous Jewish society in the Atlantic world where children born out of wedlock to Jewish fathers and African-descended slaves formed part of the Jewish community; indeed, many Jews in Suriname were black. The siblings, still teenagers, briefly returned to Bridgetown where their new Jewish status was accepted but did not change their position in the community. As naçao—newly minted members of the Portuguese Jewish elite—the siblings’ social and economic aspirations could not be realised in Bridgetown, where the community was all too aware of their origin. In a hierarchical and variously racialised society, much prejudice remained. And so, Isaac made his way to Philadelphia where he and his mother found reception in the Portuguese Jewish community and struck up relationships with influential Jewish entrepreneurs, while Sarah accompanied her father to London where she attended school and entered the marriage market.

Abraham Rodrigues Brandon, Barbados’s wealthiest Jew, saw his daughter Sarah as an investment in future trade alliances. London, where the Brandons were prominent in a hub of interconnected economic and family networks, was the perfect place for Sarah’s transformation from a former slave of African heritage to a free, white, cultured young woman of excellent prospects. Sarah Rodrigues Brandon’s miniature portrait of 1815/16 identified her as the latter through choice of clothing, skin colour, positioning of her body and painting technique, all designed to communicate the social mores of the depicted. In 1817 in London, Sarah married the up-and-coming textile merchant Joshua Moses of New York, departing with him for her new life across the Atlantic that same year.

In New York, the siblings met again, their families now linked in marriage—Isaac wed Joshua Moses’s sister Lavinia—and business, the two brothers-in-law becoming partners in a textile company. The transformation from slavery to freedom was soon completed for both siblings and their children. Reflection on the vagaries of racialisation is a current that runs through the whole book. Across the Americas, how race was defined—and how this mattered in social life—differed by state, and often was at the discretion of individual census takers. ‘Early American censuses did not define race, because as a nation, early Americans did not agree on what made someone fit into different racial categories’ (p. 129). However, being seen as white correlated with obtaining civil rights. The 1820 census shows that Sarah was recorded as white by the local census taker, and in 1829 Isaac was naturalised as a citizen of the United States, a status only open to those who were white and free.

The families’ bliss in New York was short-lived; Sarah died in childbirth aged only 29, leaving nine children aged ten and under, and her sister-in-law, Lavinia, followed in the same fateful year of 1828, leaving her husband with one son and an infant daughter, who died a mere two years later. When Joshua Moses died unexpectedly in 1837 the extent to which the business was failing became apparent, and his children had to rely on the goodwill of family members to complete their education and make their way in life. Isaac Brandon returned to Barbados where he died in 1855, his extended family surviving mainly in London and New York.

The narrative is jam-packed with research on such varied topics as conventions and traditions of portrait painting and photography, clothing styles, Jewish education and schools in London and New York, public health, synagogue leadership, and name giving and changing. Each chapter opens one or more microsites of investigation, so that the entire monograph presents a rich and detailed narrative that merges social and religious history with family biography. While this review has focused on race, slavery, and the fortunes of Sarah and Isaac Brandon, I could also have focused on synagogue politics, social (in)stability in Barbados in the age of emancipation, and the complex family relationships of the free and the enslaved. Leibman’s ability to weave together personal, social, economic, and religious history leaves the reader wanting more on each of the topics, which, by necessity, are developed relatively briefly. This is by no means a detriment or criticism. It rather speaks to the wealth of metaphorical doors Leibman’s research can open. Individual family members become the access points for many historical topics, a task that this book has begun, and that I hope will be continued elsewhere in the future. Leibman’s book is also an example of an academic historian using the personalisation of historical representation popular in other media—such as historical fiction, museums, or historic sites—as a lens through which to access a research monograph’s questions. Leibman’s book clearly demonstrates the advantages that arise from personalising history while simultaneously digging deep into the specific themes she is interested in.

Finally, a word about the publisher. OUP has decided only to send out electronic copies of books for review. This is unhelpful to reviewers and a serious issue for the future of the review system that relies on the goodwill of expert reviewers doing this job as a labour of love. Giving reviewers the option of receiving a hard copy is the minimum courtesy, for two reasons. Firstly, most university libraries will stock OUP volumes as part of their electronic subscriptions package, so an e-book is no gain for reviewers who can access the book anyway. Secondly, and more importantly, a book review is a lengthy process and requires much active work with the text. As Leibman’s book deals with much visual and genealogical evidence, it is immensely useful to be able to have a hard copy that can be annotated, flipped backwards and forwards, and so on. This manner of working may, of course, betray my age and preference for books as actual physical objects. However, for the reviewer, the reward—aside from the pleasure of writing a review—is the book in its physical form, showing all the signs of having been worked with, bearing notes and flagging points of interest for future research.