In 1811, William Robinson, a purser's steward in the royal navy, deserted, having served six long and brutal years at sea. Years later, he wrote his memoirs, under the colorful title of Jack Nastyface. In it he recorded the many indignities inflicted on the sailors of his day. He did so in terms designed to horrify polite men and women, toward which end he dwelled at considerable length on floggings, keel-haulings, and the like. He was, however, perfectly prepared to tolerate the indignities that sailors inflicted on a group even more marginal than themselves: the Jews who made an uncertain living peddling slops and trinkets outside the royal dockyards. In one passage, Robinson fondly remembered how a sailor had avenged himself on one such peddler, known disparagingly as “Moses.” The sailor, assisted by several of the crew, succeeded in appropriating a new suit of clothes; “Moses,” sputtering with rage, was forced to leave the ship “amidst the grins and jeers of the whole crew, who were much diverted and pleased to think that any of their shipmates had tact enough to retaliate so nicely on a Jew.”
The incident, at first blush, bears all the marks of anti-Semitism. It suggests that “Moses” was singled out precisely because he was Jewish; as such, it fits nicely with the claims of a new and very pessimistic generation of scholars. These scholars, in true academic tradition, have expressed a great deal of disappointment over the work of their predecessors.