Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Samuel Ben Abraham

A Polish Jew by birth, Samuel arrived in Cochin in about 1757 AD. He was one of the most prominent merchants at Cochin. He involved in the trade of timber for shipbuilding and to a lesser extent in rice, pepper, iron and paper. 

He was the receiver of shipment of iron and iron cannons from a merchant of Anjengo. This expression mentioning about paper and Samuel shows the importance of both “The paper can only be found at the Jewish merchant, Samuel Abraham….” jokes apart…. The value of paper which is indispensable and cannot be bought anywhere for less and the quantity is small, the monopoly on paper were in his hand, This shows his prominence in the trade and which would have obviously reflected in social status, where he was also a diplomat to Dutch VOC and English East India Company. 

He advanced large sum to the Dutch company and he continues to appear on the list of “creditors of the Company” with huge amounts all through the years, even company repeatedly apologized to him for the delay in the payment. Samuel Abraham transacted the English companies’ business at Cochin and lent them money from time to time. Thus the Tellicherry board borrowed Rs. 6000 in January 1780. In April that year he was formally thanked by the English for the care he had taken in discharging their work, James Forbes, an English merchant from Cochin who came to borrow Rs. 12,000 from Samuel described him as the “most eminent merchant at mottancheree” 

With other leading Jewish merchants like Rahabi family, Rotenburg family, Daniel Cohen and his son Ephraim Cohen, Solomon Kassar and Isaac surgun ; he was also entrusted with confidential diplomatic missions by the Dutch governor even though he was a private merchant, unlike few of them.

His house was a meeting place for local princes, dignitaries, and merchants. It was customary to inform Samuel in advance of the forthcoming dispatch of treasure- boxes to Cochin from Anjengo or Tellicherry to be shipped to their destinations. And likewise this polish Jew became a prominent figure of the time. 

During these glorious days of Samuel, Solomon Joseph Simson a wealthy merchant hailed from New York, who was deeply interested in the Jewish communities of India and China, also engaged in foreign trade, dispatched a letter in June 1787, to Samuel in which he inquired about the possibilities of trade between New York and Malabar Coast. He replied to this letter accompanied by an outline note “History of the Jews in the land of Malabar”, a comprehensive portrayal. Samuel’s Hebrew letter dated 1790 AD, which reached via London is considered to be the first of its kind when contrasted with Dr. Buchanan’s and Michael Surgon’s accounts dated 1807 AD and 1822 AD respectively.

This is the Hebrew letter he had forwarded to Simson of New York

The following is the history of the Jews who came to the coast of Malabar

From the captivity consequent to the destruction of the second temple, (may it be rebuilt speedily in our days,} which was in the year three thousand eight hundred and twenty-eight of the creation, many Jews, male and female, departed thence, and came to the coast of Malabar, and settled in the four places following, namely; Cranganore, Paulore (Palayur), Madi (Madayi), and Pulota (Pulot); but the greatest part fettled in Cranganore, called Singalee. And it came to pass, under the dominion of Shiraprimael, and in the year 4139 of the creation, which answered to 379 of the Nazarene era, there was granted to them from the King of Shiraprimael, whose name was Airvi Brahmin, privileges and charters, engraved on a plate of copper or brass, called Sepiru, according to their custom and grandeur, and at this time there were 72 families of them in Cranganore, and the name of their prince was Joseph Rabban. This is that King of Shiraprimael, who divided all his country and gave it to 8 Kings, namely, the King of Trebangore, Varachangor, Callicut,  Argot, Palgatchery, Colastere, Corbenath, and the King of Cochin. 

And this is the translation of the plate of brass which was rendered from the Malabar to the Hebrew language. 

In the peace of God, he is the King who made the earth according to his will, and to this God have I Airvi Brahmin lift up my hands, (swore) as is decreed in virtue of this charier. Whereas from time immemorial, (Hebrew many hundred thousand years) the government has been subject to continual changes and as this day I dwell in Cranganore, and still decree, and which is the 36th year of my reign ; and as in might I am strengthened to decree, so with might will I strengthen the nobility of Joseph Rabban of five different colors ; to have mulberry trees, to ride elephant and horse, to cry before him to clear the road, to proselyte of the five nations, light of day, carpets on the earth, and carpets for the habitation, a flower garden, shade, pomegranates, trumpets, drums, and these privileged have I granted lo him and the 

72 families; and the land rents, and weight (duty) are quoted to them; and in the other provinces wherein there is Jew settlers and Synagogues, he shall be their head and ruler, forbidding any alteration or gainsaying. This plate of brass is made and given to the Lord of 5 colors to say to Joseph Rabban, to him and his seed, sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, all the time that any of his seed shall exist in the world ; and all the time that the moon shall abide, and their seed shall abide, and let God be praised. 

And this is witnessed by the 6 Kings aforesaid and the scribe who wrote it, Chilapin, and this is his seal,                                                                                                                      

And the Jews were settled in Cranganore until the coming of the Portuguese: and as soon as the Portuguese came, they were a thorn and stumbling block to them and they departed thence and came to Cochin in the year 5326 of the creation; and the King of Cochin gave them a place for houses and synagogues near his palace in order to be an assistance to them:  and the synagogue was built here in the year 5326 of the creation, by four wealthy men viz Samuel Casteal, David Belila, Ephraim Selach and Joseph Levi and yet they were laboring under persecutions, in so much that they could not observe our statutes neither could they retain their former occupations, and they experienced great troubles, even till the Dutch came to Cochin, in the year 1663 of the era of the Nazarenes; then they received light and enlargement of mind, and lived quietly and peaceably with the people of Malabar, by the assistance of the Hollanders in Cochin.

And in the year 1686 of the Nazarene era, there arrived at Cochin, four Hollanders from Amsterdam namely Moses Pereira Isaac Yergas, Abraham Boretta, and Isaac Mucatto, Spanish Jews merchants, who visited all the places settled by Jews, and rejoiced: they also wrote to Amsterdam, of their concerns particularly about the lack of books, which when understood in Amsterdam, the congregation there sent a present to the congregation at Cochin, consisting of Pentateuchs, prayer books and the Shulchon Aruch and several other books, and all the congregation rejoiced.

And from that time we have had friends in Amsterdam with whom we correspond, who sent such books as we needed continually In consequence we have here many books, Gemaroth, Medrashoth and books of Cabala: but we are not well versed in those books but are governed by the Shulchan Aruch composed by Joseph Caro and our customs are the same as the Portuguese Jews

In Cochin we are called white Jews; they came from the captivity of the holy land; we consist of forty families and one synagogue and there is no more in all the coast of Malabar, except the Jews called the black Jews who are from such as were converted in Malabar, from converted and freed females and even from unfreed females, and mixed people on which account we do not intermarry, however their customs and laws are exactly like ours; and they are settled in seven places namely:

In Cochin about                     150 families  3 Synagogues
Anchigamal (Ernakulam)       100 families  2 Synagogues
Paroor (Parur)                        100 families  2 Synagogues
Chinotta (Chennamangalam)   50 families  1 Synagogues
Mela (Mala)                             50 families  1 Synagogues
Tertoor (Tirutur)                      10 families  1 Synagogues
Matram (Muttam)                    10 families  1 Synagogues

This letter was published in New York in 1824, by the American society for meliorating the condition of the Jew, 

In a Dutch record of 1792 AD, September, reference is already made of “the heirs of merchant, Samuel Abraham” to whom interest was due from the company. His son, Abraham Ben Samuel of Cochin carried on his father’s business and activities. He pursues the service of the company like his father. He continued to supply timber and lend money whenever required……

This popularly unknown merchant lived in Cochin established the first known contact between the Jews of Cochin and those of the Western Hemisphere with a Hebrew letter……

Oriental Memoirs, I, 328.
Harry Austryn Wolfson jubilee volume on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, vol 1
India and the Indian Ocean world: trade and politics


  1. Interesting reading. No mention of the lost 10 tribes or Yemenite Jews.

  2. Thank you Mr. Mathew for your comments...

    I will be writing soon about Yemeni jews.

    Keep in touch.