Meet the Suassos – tracing a family tree among Voltaire’s London patrons

One of the pleasures of exploring the recently completed Œuvres complètes de Voltaire is occasionally stumbling across hidden treasures which can enrich our understanding of the writer’s life and work. One such treasure, found in volume 6A, is the list of 342 subscribers who supported the publication of his epic poem, La Henriade, in London in 1728. It provides a fascinating insight into his connections and networks in the English capital and beyond. The list is printed in what could first appear to be a rather haphazard fashion, and certainly not in anything so easy to navigate as alphabetical order by name. Yet as one begins to delve into the identities behind the names, it becomes clear that certain family groups and other social and professional relationships are hidden in the ordering of the list.

René Pomeau has already illuminated some of these milieux and networks.[1] He identifies the Mendes d’Acosta family of bankers; a literary contingent that includes Horace Walpole, Congreve and Swift; an intellectual group, with Samuel Molyneux, Anthony Collins, Rev’d Dean Berkeley and Newton’s nephew John Conduitt; Anglicans and Quakers; some names plausibly from London’s Huguenot community; families belonging to the British aristocracy; and finally a number of ambassadors or other diplomats from Protestant European states (Denmark, Brunswick, Sweden, Holland, and Prussia).

But a list of subscribers should not be confused with a list of everyone known to Voltaire in England at the time. Just as those creating online petitions today exhort signatories to share the petition with their friends and family, so it appears to have been with literary subscriptions in the eighteenth century. Beyond the obvious names and the famous ones, then, many wider circles emerge from the list, often grouped together, but sometimes surprisingly not.

Detail from page nine of the list of subscribers to La Henriade (London, 1728), including the elusive Suassos.

As we worked to prepare this volume for publication, the names ‘Honourable Baron Swasso’, ‘Honourable Lady Swasso’ (p.9) and ‘Alvaro Lopes Swasso, Esq.’ (p.10) at first resisted identification. But family connections, in this case unearthed by Norma Perry, turned out to be the answer. The first two names appear in the list of subscribers just ahead of a group from the Mendes Dacosta family, mentioned above as one identified by René Pomeau: Anthony Moses Dacosta and his wife Catherine (‘Mrs Catherine D’acosta’). This couple (also cousins) were members of a large family who had emigrated to London to escape anti-Semitic persecution in Portugal in the seventeenth century, and had become naturalised and prosperous in their new home city. Another cousin, Anthony Jacob Dacosta, was a banker who had speculated badly and ended up bankrupt, ultimately fleeing to France at the end of 1725.

One of Anthony Jacob’s enraged creditors was none other than Voltaire himself, who, upon trying to present him with letters of credit in the summer of 1726, was apparently furious to find that his man had lost all his money and fled the country. Perry suggests that Voltaire may have encountered Anthony Moses while searching for Anthony Jacob. The ensuing interview went unexpectedly well given the circumstances: Voltaire appears to have subsequently been on friendly terms with Anthony Moses and his immediate family. Perry also proposes that Voltaire may have attended social gatherings at their main residence, Cromwell House; he certainly noted a witty exchange with Catherine in his notebook of the period: ‘Madame Acosta dit en ma présence à un abbé qui voulait la faire chrétienne, votre dieu, est-il né juif? Oui. A-t-il vécu juif? Oui. Est-il mort juif? Oui. Eh bien soyez donc juif.’ (Madame Acosta said in my presence to a cleric hoping to convert her to Christianity, Was your God born Jewish? Yes. Did he die Jewish? Yes. Well then, become Jewish. [Translation source])

Portrait of Alvaro Lopes Suasso by Catherine da Costa (1718, Joods Historisch Museum).

But, to return to our Suassos, the proximity of the Mendes Dacosta family to the baron and Lady ‘Swasso’ in the list was the clue which led us to their identity. Anthony Moses and Catherine’s daughter, Leonor Rachel, was married to the Dutch-Jewish baron Antonio Lopes Suasso, and was thus the ‘Lady Swasso’ of the subscribers. And Alvaro Lopes Suasso, who appears further down in the list on page ten, was Antonio’s brother. The Suassos were an eminent banking family in the Netherlands, fervent supporters of the House of Orange. Like Voltaire himself, Alvaro later became a member of the Royal Society, which Voltaire compares to the French Academy in the Lettres sur les Anglais, and our old friend Catherine da Costa, a talented miniaturist, painted his portrait, as well as (probably) that of her Suasso grandchildren (‘[Two young children holding an orange]’, gouache on ivory, ex Sothebys, 16 March 1999).

We can also identify Anthony Moses’ younger brother, Joseph. He subscribed for two books for himself, suggesting an even keener interest in either the work or the author than his brother had. Even Catherine’s brothers, Anthony and James ‘Mendoz’ (Mendes) put themselves down for a copy each. Directly below them, we find a certain ‘Abr. Telles, Esq’, who seems on initial research to have further Dutch-Jewish connections – perhaps another family friend, though we have not yet managed to pin down a specific relationship. And he had already subscribed to at least one other book alongside assorted Suassos and da Costas, a 1725 Vocabulary in Six Languages (which lists its subscribers in alphabetical order).

Details from pages five and nine of the list of subscribers to R. J. Andrée, A Vocabulary in Six Languages (London, 1725). Present in the list is Abraham Telles, along with several members of the da Costa and Suasso families.

Voltaire may have known other members of the family too, but it must be the case that some were approached to subscribe not by the author himself, but by other relations acting as intermediaries. Even this small section of the list of subscribers, then, which might at first glance appear an arid document devoid of interest, is testament to the influence of family connections in literary patronage of the period, and to the effectiveness of networks in a world before social media. These lists are rich sources of information and we can guarantee that there will be more stories to tell about this one in particular.

– Alison Oliver and Gillian Pink


[1] In ‘Voltaire en Angleterre. Les enseignements d’une liste de souscription’, Littératures III 4 (January 1955), p.67-76 (repr. Revue Voltaire 1, 2001, p.93-100).

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