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August 14: Isaac De Pinto and the Dutch East India Company

Lawrence Bush
August 13, 2016

Isaac De Pinto, a Jew of Portuguese origin who in 1748 became a director of the Dutch East India Company (its Amsterdam shipbuilding yard is pictured at right) and in 1749 of the Dutch West India Company, died in the Hague at 70 on this date in 1787. De Pinto helped finance William IV of Orange's successful defense against the French during the 1747 War of Austrian Succession; in return he negotiated equal commercial rights for Jews in the Netherlands. In 1762, he wrote Apologie pour la Nation Juive, ou Réflexions Critiques, a response to attacks on Judaism by Voltaire. ("Remain a Jew, for this is what you are," Voltaire responded. "But be a philosopher, that is the best that I can wish for you in this short life.") The Dutch East India Company is considered by many historians to be the first multinational corporation in the world, and was the first to issue stock. Between 1602 and 1796, it sent nearly a million Europeans on nearly 5,000 ships to Indonesia, Japan, India, and other Asian lands to pursue trade and colonization. The company's operations also included the enslavement of thousands of Africans and Asians. De Pinto also advised the British regarding their growing influence in India, and made a colossal loan to England for an amount representing about 22 percent of the total English public debt. He himself was bankrupt by 1760, but after helping to negotiate the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years War between France and England in 1763, he was placed on a lifelong pension by the British East India Company.

"De Pinto's struggle to gain recognition as a philosophe in his own right underscores the exclusionary attitudes toward Jews that endured at the heart of Enlightenment culture. His personal negotiation of the complicated relationships between his Jewishness, his political and economic interests, and his cultural and intellectual aspirations also offers a valuable insight into the precariousness of Jewish identity at the threshold of secular modernity."--Adam Sutcliffe

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.