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A Jewish Jacobin in Revolutionary Charleston: Abraham Sasportas

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | February 11, 2019 | No Comment |

This post is written by Philippe R. Girard, Professor of Caribbean History, McNeese State University.

© Philippe Girard 2019

Charleston, where I spent a week doing research in January 2019 as a fellow at the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture, is famous for its rich architecture and history. Some of it has not yet been fully explored: that is the case of Abraham Sasportas, who built the two houses now known as the “Sasportas tenements” at 44-46 Queen St., and whose name is also mentioned on the plaque in front of 54 Tradd St., as one of the “distinguished residents” who once lived at this address.

Abraham Sasportas was the scion of a wide-ranging Sephardic family, which, like all members of this Jewish community, originated in the Iberian peninsula before branching out to various Atlantic ports of Europe, the United States, and Charleston. Born in Bordeaux, France, Sasportas visited Cap-Français, Saint-Domingue (now Cap-Haïtien, Haiti) before settling in Charleston, SC, where in 1778 he married another Sephardic Jew with Caribbean connections: Rachel da Costa.

Sasportas became a noted patriot during the American Revolution. He served in the French militia that helped defend Charleston during the British siege (other members of the Sasportas family living in London and Amsterdam helped John Adams and Alexander Hamilton sell U.S. bonds in European markets). Then, when the British occupied Charleston, he left for Philadelphia rather than live under British rule. In Philadelphia, he helped finance a new synagogue as well as privateers to attack British shipping. This dual allegiance to his faith and to the age of revolutions defined his life.

Returning to Charleston after the American Revolution, Sasportas became one of the town’s leading figures. Ads for his mercantile house appeared regularly in the press: using his family connections, he imported sugar and other tropical goods from Saint-Domingue and Jamaica, as well as wine and brandy from Bordeaux. He often appeared in legal records as well, usually over unpaid debts, either as a defendant or a plaintiff. He was also active in freemason circles as well as the Jewish congregation, which was the largest in the United States and in 1792 began work on an impressive synagogue (now burnt) on the site of the current synagogue on Hassel St.

Sasportas never severed his links with France, particularly in the 1790s, when the French and Haitian Revolutions led to multiple waves of migration from France and the Caribbean, reinforcing Charleston’s distinctive French and Caribbean flair. This was the time when Sasportas became even more of a revolutionary activist and trouble-maker. He sided with pro-revolutionary Frenchmen, particularly the French consul Mangourit, and France’s local allies in the Democrat-Republican Party. Conversely, he made numerous enemies among exiled French monarchists and slave-owners, as well as the pro-British Federalist party. He joined the French Patriotic Society, the first and most radical of the pro-revolutionary societies in the United States, and involved himself in public battles that were the talk of the town. One was so bitter that Sasportas came close to fighting a duel with a French aristocrat he had insulted.

Just as he had done during the American Revolution, Sasportas outfitted privateers to harass British shipping. He was also the official French prize agent in Charleston, in charge of selling the British merchant ships seized at sea. The administration of George Washington, however, wished to remain neutral in the European war and banned such activities for US citizens. Sasportas, using his ambiguous status as a dual French-American national, continued his activities nonetheless, leading to sharp complaints by the British consul in Charleston and various lawsuits that ended up on the docket of the US Supreme Court.

Once, when visiting the prison of Charleston, Sasportas met a prisoner named Jonathan Robbins, who was accused of having been the ringleader during the mutiny of the HMS Hermione, the bloodiest mutiny in British naval history. British authorities spent years tracking down the mutineers, eventually locating Robbins in Charleston. Sasportas immediately took up his cause and hired lawyers for Robbins. No stranger to controversy, Sasportas found himself at the center of yet another political and legal maelstrom over impressment, extradition, and citizenship that attracted national attention (Robbins lost the case and was eventually hanged in Jamaica).

To prevail against the British and Spanish monarchies, the French revolutionary government had an ambitious plan: to raise funds and troops in the United States, then use them to invade Louisiana and Florida. French Consul Mangourit in Charleston was charged with organizing the invasion of Florida. The man who handled logistics for the expedition was none other than his prize agent: Abraham Sasportas. After years of preparations, the expedition was cancelled at the last minute at the request of the US government, but not before a group of French and American adventurers had invaded Amelia Island in Florida in 1794.

In the Caribbean, the French went one step further: they abolished slavery in 1793-1794 and employed black freedmen to attack British colonies and free local slaves. In South Carolina, where slavery underpinned the plantation economy, fears grew that French exiles would attempt a similar scheme. When slave conspiracies were uncovered in Virginia and South Carolina, Abraham Sasportas was immediately cited as a possible conspirator. The evidence for Sasportas’ involvement is thin, however: like most elite white men of his time, Sasportas was a slave-owner and remained so well into the 1800s. Like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, he saw no contradiction between the ideals of the Enlightenment and the peculiar institution of slavery.

Another Sasportas disagreed: Isaac Sasportas, the son of Abraham Sasportas’ brother in Saint-Domingue. From 1793 to 1795, Isaac lived with his uncle in Charleston. Isaac was a young man and an idealist who had embraced the more radical ideals of the French and American revolutions, including universal emancipation. After returning to the Caribbean, Isaac Sasportas hatched an ambitious scheme to invade British Jamaica with an army of 4,000 freedmen from Saint-Domingue and free the slaves of Jamaica. If successful, the plan would have changed the course of history, allowing the Haitian Revolution to export itself to foreign shores. With the help of the French representative in Saint-Domingue, Isaac recruited troops, armed ships, and went to Jamaica to set the plan in motion. But details of the plans were leaked—amazingly, by none other than the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture—and the British were able to arrest and execute young Isaac in 1799. The slave revolt in Jamaica never took place.

Armband with slogan “Vanquish or Die”

When news of Isaac’s death reached Charleston, local planters again accused Abraham Sasportas of being again tied to the cause of abolition. He demurred, explaining that he had nothing to do with the Sasportas executed in Jamaica—even though he was his own nephew and he had lived with him for years.

Possibly because of his controversial political activism, Abraham Sasportas distanced himself from Charleston in later years. After remarrying to another member of a Jewish Charleston family, Charlotte Canter (who was 33 years his junior!), he made extended visits to his native Bordeaux and eventually re-settled there permanently. This leaves us with another mystery about his cultural identity: did Sasportas see himself primarily as a Jew? An American? A Frenchman? It’s difficult to know.

Several descendants of Sasportas remained in the United States, however. Some were white and Jewish; others were Protestant and mixed-race. Some of these mixed-race descendants, like Joseph Sasportas, owned slaves and did not challenge the existing racial order. Others, like Thaddeus K. Sasportas, were active in Republican politics during the era of Reconstruction and helped broaden black educational opportunities at Claflin University. Those complex dynamics are appropriate for the descendants of such a fascinating figure as Abraham Sasportas, who was at once an American patriot, a French sentimentalist, a Sephardic Jew, an outrageous Jacobin, a privateer, a tireless litigant, and a slave-owner. The plaque on Tradd St. might have to be enlarged to fit all the ways to describe the man who once resided there.


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