History

Aaron Lopez

Aaron Lopez flees the Spanish Inquisition and arrives in Newport in 1752 as a religious refugee. He quickly became a successful entrepreneur and a pillar of the Jewish community. At the same time, he’s actively funding slaving voyages.

In the year 1752, a man by the name of Aaron Lopez arrived in the quaint town of Newport. But his journey to this new land was far from ordinary. Lopez was not an adventurer seeking fortune or a settler looking for a fresh start. No, Aaron Lopez was a religious refugee fleeing the oppressive grasp of the Spanish Inquisition.

The Spanish Inquisition, a tribunal established in the late 15th century, was notorious for its ruthless persecution of those deemed heretics or nonbelievers. Its reach extended far and wide, instilling fear and stifling religious freedom throughout the Spanish Empire. It was in this oppressive environment that Aaron Lopez found himself, desperately seeking a way to escape the clutches of this merciless institution.

Born in Portugal, Lopez had grown up in a Sephardic Jewish family. As Jews, they faced discrimination and prejudice in their homeland, but it was nothing compared to the horrors unleashed by the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition’s relentless pursuit of religious conformity left no room for individuals like Lopez, who held steadfast to their own beliefs and traditions.

December 2nd, 1763 is a Friday during Hanukkah. Aaron Lopez and his family are standing in a crowd on Spring Street in Newport. He’s a wealthier man than he’s ever been. He sings and prays with his community as they celebrate the grand opening of their long-awaited house of worship, known colloquially as Touro Synagogue.

With his life in constant danger, Lopez made the difficult decision to flee his homeland and seek refuge elsewhere. He set his sights on Newport, a small but burgeoning town in the British colonies of North America. Newport offered the promise of religious freedom and tolerance, a stark contrast to the persecution he had experienced for so long. Arriving in Newport in 1752, Lopez wasted no time in establishing himself within the community. He quickly became a prominent figure, not only for his entrepreneurial spirit but also for his unwavering commitment to his faith. Despite the challenges he faced as a religious minority, Lopez never wavered in his dedication to Judaism.

Lopez’s arrival in Newport marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life. He became a successful merchant, trading goods from across the Atlantic and building a thriving business empire. His entrepreneurial acumen and strong work ethic propelled him to great success, making him one of the wealthiest individuals in Newport. But beyond his financial achievements, Aaron Lopez left an indelible mark on the community through his philanthropic endeavors. He was known for his generosity, providing support to those less fortunate and contributing to various charitable causes. His commitment to giving back to the community was rooted in his own experiences as a refugee, understanding firsthand the hardships faced by those in need.

For the next 12 years, Aaron Lopez finances the voyages of close to 30 slave ships, forcing over 1,000 Africans into lifetimes of oppression and enslavement.

Lopez’s impact extended beyond Newport’s borders. He played a pivotal role in shaping the economic landscape of the American colonies, particularly in the trade industry. His business ventures spanned across continents, connecting Newport to ports in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Through his extensive network and keen business sense, he helped establish Newport as a thriving center of commerce.

Despite his success and contributions to society, Lopez never forgot the hardships he had endured as a religious refugee. He remained active within the Jewish community, supporting the establishment of Newport’s first synagogue and ensuring that future generations would have a place to worship freely. Aaron Lopez’s story is one of resilience and determination in the face of adversity. Fleeing persecution, he sought refuge in a land that promised religious freedom and tolerance. Through hard work and unwavering faith, he not only built a prosperous life for himself but also left an enduring legacy that continues to inspire generations.

A ship carrying goods from New England is sailing up and down the west coast of Africa, trading rum for enslaved Africans. This is when Aaron decides to become a slave trader. He and his cousin financed a slave ship in the Fall of 1761. The ship makes its first voyage to Jamaica, picks up rum, and goes to Africa. The rum is traded for human cargo. Months later, Aaron’s first shipment of enslaved people was sold to the highest bidders in South Carolina.

Today, we remember Aaron Lopez as more than just a successful merchant or philanthropist. He is a symbol of hope and resilience, reminding us of the importance of religious freedom and the power of one individual to make a lasting impact on society. His story serves as a testament to the human spirit and the enduring quest for freedom and equality.

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