The Story of Senegal's Hated, Reclusive 'Jewish' Community

Portuguese navigators documenting their voyages around Africa's shores in the 15th century actually reveal how the Europeans saw the world – and the Jews

Great History in a Nutshell / Blog
Why was the Portuguese convinced that he'd met Jews? The continuation of the letter sheds light on the matter.
Why was the Portuguese convinced that he'd met Jews? The continuation of the letter sheds light on the matter.Credit: ilbusca / Getty Images
Great History in a Nutshell / Blog

In the 15th century, the Portuguese began to sail south along the West African coast, searching for the sea route to India. Along the way they landed in all sorts of places along the coast, where they traded with the natives and documented everything they saw.

Illustration of Gary, a West African troubadour, from the book 'Sailing to Western Sudan' 1897.Credit: 'Sailing to Western Sudan'

One of these documents, written by an anonymous Portuguese navigator, provides us with a rare glimpse into a very strange phenomenon: A group of “Jews” who lived in West Africa, near the Gambia River.

“Some of the people here believe in Mohammed, but the majority are idol worshippers,” wrote the nameless Portuguese navigator. “In this land there are Jews known as ‘Gauls,’ and they are black like the rest of the inhabitants. But they have no synagogues and do not conduct Jewish ceremonies.”

Because they do not dare enter villages, they settle behind the houses of the village masters.Credit: Ha'aretz

Given this, why was our Portuguese navigator convinced that they were Jews? The rest of his letter sheds some light on the matter.

A marine map of West Africa, by the Portuguese cartographer Fernau and then Duardo, 1520-1580.Credit: Ha'aretz

“They do not live with the other blacks, but separately,” he reported. “Because they do not dare enter the villages, they locate themselves behind the houses of the ruler of the village and at dawn they sing his praises, until he grants them a portion of millet. And then they go. If they didn’t do so, the rest of the blacks would not tolerate them – so great is their hatred for them, which forbids them from entering any house except for that of the ruler of the village. If they find them inside the village, they are beaten with sticks.”

Many societies in West Africa have wandering storytellers known as griot, jeli, jali, jawal, gaulu, etc. It seems that these are the same “Gauls” our Portuguese navigator saw.

These traveling troubadours commanded great respect and had a defined role in the tribal society of western Africa. However, they also lived separately from the rest of the inhabitants of the region and lived off their art.

So why did the Portuguese navigator decide they were Jews?

When he arrived in Africa and noticed a completely separate group of people – and, furthermore, a seemingly hated group – he could only use the terms he knew to describe them. Because the only group in the world that he came from matching such a description was the Jews, the “Gauls” all of a sudden became Jews for him, even after he himself admitted they did not conduct a single known Jewish ritual.

More than anything else, this story teaches us how when we reach the most isolated and distant corner of the world, we are capable of seeing it only through the perspective we brought with us from home.

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