David Liss

The Coffee Trader provides a compelling insight into the world’s first commodities exchange, which was in Amsterdam in the 1650’s. Historical fiction is always informative and this is no exception. Learn about Holland; learn how commodities trading emerged; learn about 1650’s culture in Holland, all in a well written and interesting novel.

Many Jews of the period had fled King Ferdinand’s persecution in Spain, and Holland had been among the few nations to provide sanctuary to the Jews, who remained in debt to Holland and who sought to do nothing to offend their Dutch hosts. “The Ma’amud” was a much feared Jewish Council which fiercely disciplined any Jew who offended the Dutch in any way. (Indeed, the great Jewish philosopher, Benedict Spinoza, was excommunicated (“cherem”) by them during this period. Liss’ characters seem real, and his plot moves swiftly. Miguel Lienzo, a widowed Portuguese Jew, is a commodity broker who tries to avert bankruptcy by becoming a pioneer in the trading of coffee. Some of the other key characters, for easy reference, are Miguel’s jealous brother, Daniel; Geertruid Damhuis, a mid-30’s brainy beauty and widow with money; Alonzo, a usurer from a a family of Gypsies; Converso, a Jewish “New Christian” (which a common way for Jews to curry favor of the Dutch); Solomon Parido, a wealthy traded and the much feared leader of Ma’amud.; and Hannah, the beautiful wife of Miguel’s brother.

Learning the basics regarding the birth of commodity trading, 17th Century Holland and the Jews travails therein, fascinated me.