History of the Jews of the Caribbean
The year 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of the landing of Columbus in the New World. It also marked a less publicized anniversary, that of the beginning of what is known as the Second Diaspora, when the Jews were expelled from Spain and re-settled throughout the world. These two events are related by more than chronology: settlements in the New World offered an opportunity for many Jews to settle in a new land, where they hoped to escape the persecution they had been subjected to in Europe. In turn, the Jews of the Caribbean contributed both to the growth of that region and to the settlement of Jews in the United States. To provide background, this article will begin with a brief account of the Jewish settlement of the newly discovered Americas. Then, the history of Jews in the individual colonies of the Caribbean will be examined, grouped according to their European mother country. The surviving historical records from some islands is more complete than others, depending on factors such as how large the Jewish community was, whether documents have been kept locally or buried in archives of the mother country, and even on such factors as whether an individual in the community cared to preserve the records. Finally, we will see the effect these Jewish settlers in the Caribbean had on Jewish history in the U.S.A.
After Columbus claimed the New World for Spain, the Pope was asked to decide how the land was to be divided. He drew a line down the Western Hemisphere: everything east of the line, (most of Brazil) would belong to Portugal, and everything west of that was given to Spain. This ignored, of course, claims of other European countries, whose ships also voyaged to the New World. Holland, England, and France would all eventually fight against the Spanish and Portuguese to seize parts of these new lands for themselves.
The colonies could provide much-desired agricultural and mineral imports and serve as a market for European goods.When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many fled over the border to Portugal. But in 1497 the Portuguese government banished Jews from that country as well. Many of the Jews fled to other more hospitable European countries, such as Holland, but some sailed to Brazil to start over in this Portuguese territory. They set up trade routes between Portugal and its colony, started farming, and became wealthy plantation owners. With the Inquisition still in effect, they were forbidden to practice Judaism but set up secret societies so they could continue their faith. Back in Portugal, authorities were separating the children of remaining Jews from their parents and sending them to Brazil to be raised as Catholics. The crypto-Jews already in Brazil used their secret groups to teach these children about their true heritage thereby sustaining the Jewish faith in Brazil. During the time the Jews were creating their large plantations in Brazil, they provided their most lasting benefit to the Caribbean economy. Sugar cane was imported from Madeira in Portugal, and it became the basic foundation of the entire Caribbean economy until the 18th century. Sugar cane could be easily grown in the hot climates of South America and the Caribbean, then converted to sugar to be shipped to Europe.
Spain dominated most of Europe, including Holland, during the 16th century. Holland finally won its independence in 1581. After years under the control of the Catholic Hapsburgs, the new Dutch government established religious tolerance as one of its primary goals. In 1588, the Spaniards tried to overpower England; the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the British Royal Navy marked the beginning of Spain’s downfall as master of Europe. A weakened Spain meant that her colonies were vulnerable to other European powers looking to establish themselves in the New World.
Holland was a burgeoning rival to Spain and Portugal and was hoping to gain from their misfortunes. The Dutch hoped tocapture for themselves some of the Portuguese and Spanish territories in the New World. In the 1630’s, the Hollanders sailed into the harbor of Recife, in the northeast corner of Brazil, conquered the region, and claimed it for The Netherlands. They had the help of many of the secret Jewish settlers living in Brazil. Since the Jews had been persecuted by the Portuguese, their sympathies lay with the more tolerant Dutch.
A sizable Jewish community in Amsterdam had grown when Jews started arriving from Spain in 1492. When the Dutch wanted to send settlers to colonize their new territory in Brazil, a group of 600 of the Amsterdam Jews sailed for Brazil. By 1642, the “Holy Congregation”, as they called themselves, numbered between three and four thousand. They prospered in their traditional occupations as traders and merchants, but also became successful farmers and plantation owners. Under the Portuguese, Jews had been forced to pretend they were Catholic. When the Dutch came to power, Jews were no longer required to worship in secret communities, but instead were allowed to freely celebrate their religion.
In 1654, the Portuguese sent a fleet to reconquer their lost Brazilian territory. The siege lasted ten years. The Jews fought on the side of the Dutch while the Portuguese, who still lived there, and native Brazilian Indians sided with the Portuguese.
Peace was finally declared in 1664. The Portuguese conducted an Inquisition similar to that of Spain: if a citizen wouldn’t profess to being a Catholic, he was branded a heretic and expelled or killed. During the reign of the Dutch the Jews had openly celebrated their religion, and now they couldn’t go back to their hidden societies. The Portuguese provided sixteen ships to remove the Jews from Brazil. Once again, Jews had to leave their homes, businesses, and properties behind to search for a haven where they would find freedom from religious persecution and the simple chance to earn a living.
Many of the Jews who left Brazil returned to Amsterdam, including Isaac Aboab de Fonseca, the first American rabbi, and Moses de Aguilar, the first American cantor (Kishor 14-15). The rest of the Jews who left Brazil settled on the nearby islands of the Caribbean; one boatload even made it as far as New Amsterdam (New York). The large numbers of Jews arriving from Brazil marked the beginning of definite Jewish communities in the Caribbean. Jewish settlements rose up in Dutch colonies in the Caribbean like Surinam and Curacao, British colonies like Jamaica and Barbados, and French colonies such as Martinique. We will consider the territories of the individual European powers separately, starting with the British.
In 1654, the chief British colonies were Surinam, Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands. The British government actively promoted the settlement of Jews in their territories; Jews were reputed to be industrious, good businessmen, and generally model citizens. The British merchants, on the other hand, did not like the Jews, and accused them of unfair trade competition. The history of the British colonies is full of attempts by these merchants to limit the extent of Jewish trading and restrict their business.
Surinam, on the northeast coast of South America, is a special case among the British colonies for two reasons. First, it was only a British colony for a short while, but Jewish settlement started while it was British. Very soon it became a Dutchcolony, going by the name of Dutch Guiana. In addition, Surinamis not geographically located in the Caribbean Ocean since it is on the northeastern coast of the South American continent. It has, however, always been considered part of the Caribbean region because it is inaccessible by land from the rest of South America, and its economic and social focus has always been to the Caribbean.
Great Britain claimed the territory of Surinam in 1665. Rather surprisingly, given their history of colonizing other tropical colonies of the British Empire, British citizens did not seem to want to settle in Surinam. The British government decided to attract Jewish settlers to Surinam by offering them full British citizenship, recognition of their Sabbath, and ten acres of land to build a synagogue. The Jews had never before in modern times had full citizenship in any country (Kishor 16). It was around this same time that the Jews of Brazil were being forced from their homes. Therefore, it is natural that a large number of
Jews were attracted to Surinam, given Britain’s uniquely hospitable attitude. The Jewish community became successful there, as in Brazil, as traders and in agriculture. The colony passed to the Dutch, in 1667, and was known henceforth as Dutch Guiana. Although the rights of the Jews were not changed, many Jews moved to Barbados to retain their British citizenship. Jews are believed to have been established in Barbados as early as 1628. In 1661, three Jewish businessmen requested permission to institute trade routes between Barbados and Surinam, which was still part of the British Empire. As will be seen repeatedly, even though the Jews had full legal citizenship and were allowed by the government to trade and conduct business, their success caused the other settlers to try to limit the scope of Jewish trade. British businessmen claimed the Jews traded more with the Dutch than the British, and the government did finally put limits on the Jews’ ability to trade. They were not allowed to purchase slaves, and were required to live in a Jewish ghetto. By 1802, the colonial government in Barbados had removed all discriminatory regulations from the Jews living there. A Jewish community remained on Barbados until 1831, when a hurricane destroyed all of the towns on the island.
A synagogue for Sephardis, the Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent, had been established in Barbados in the 1650’s. The settlers named this first Barbados synagogue Nidhe Israel, “The Dispersed Ones of Israel”. The original Barbados synagogue building is still standing but no longer serves as a place of worship. The attached cemetery is in disrepair but the inscriptions on the headstones were copied and have been saved. They provide important historical and genealogical data for researchers. The Jewish cemetery on Barbados is believed to be the oldest Jewish graveyard in the Western Hemisphere with citations dating back to the 1660’s. Graves of several famous people are there, including Samuel Hart, son of the American Moses Hart, and Mosseh Haym Nahamyas (Moses Nehemiah), who died on Barbados in 1672 and was the first Jew to live in Virginia (AJA 18).
The British attracted Jews to their colony in Jamaica as well. There were settlements at both Kingston and Spanish Town. The account of their communities in Jamaica followed a pattern similar to that in Barbados. The Jews became economically successful there, and, in 1671, the citizens of Jamaica petitioned the British government to expel all members of the local Hebrew community.
Governor Lynch, the colonial governor in Jamaica, opposed this petition and it was not enacted. The citizens did manage to get a special tax decreed against Jews in 1693. In 1703, Jews were banned from using indentured Christian servants, and in 1783, they were again taxed, previous exemptions of duty on the Sabbath were taken away, and they were prohibited from holding any public positions. The Jewish communities flourished despite these restrictions and when the British Empire declared equal rights for Jews living in any colony in the early 19th century, ten percent for the Whites in Jamaica were Jews (Kishor 20).
The Leeward are a small group of islands at the eastern end of the Caribbean. Because of their small size, their history is sketchy. It is known that some Jews did settle in the area in the 1600’s. In the now familiar story, the other citizens there resented the successes of the Jewish merchants. In 1694, they enacted special legislation to prohibit the Jews from cornering the market on imported commodities. They evidently attributed the success of the Jews to unfair business practices: when the law was repealed in 1704 the Jewish citizens were required to promise to e fair and honest in their future dealings and to support the Islands in case of a war.
Sometimes the easiest way to understand history is by seeing it in relation to the life of an ordinary person who lived at a particular time. Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita was a Jewish merchant who settled in the Caribbean. His life illustrates the historical flow of Jews into the New World. It is not known where Bueno de Mesquita was born but there is little doubt that he was of European descent. He referred to himself as a Portuguese merchant but it so believed that he was actually Spanish, as Portuguese was often a euphemism for “Jew”. A paper, dated December 11, 1654, with his signature was discovered in Leghorn, Italy, so it is known that travelled there. He had settled first in Brazil. There is a document with his signature, matching the signature found in Italy, in Recife, the colony in northern Brazil established by the Dutch in the 1630’s. He was driven out when the war there between the Portuguese and Dutch began. He actually lived on several Caribbean islands, as business and political fortunes waxed and waned in those turbulent times. In 1661, he requested the British government to release him from the restrictions of the Navigation Act, which limited trading with the countries with which Great Britain was at war. He received permission for free trading and set up business in Jamaica. When he did not find the gold mine had pledged to begin, he, his sons, and several other Jews, (possibly his partners) were deported. It is thought that his wife and daughters were not in Jamaica at the time of their deportation.
One of his sons, Joseph, had moved from Barbados to New Amsterdam (New York). About 1679, Benjamin joined him there, and died in New York in 1683. He is buried in the Chatham Square cemetery belonging to the oldest Jewish Synagogue in America, the Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. Benjamin’s tombstone marks the oldest Jewish grave in New York.
The French, like the other European powers, strove to gain a foothold in the Caribbean. Their holdings included the small island of Martinique, on the eastern edge of the Caribbean to the north of Venezuela. Another major colony was Haiti, which comprises half of the island containing Santo Domingo. There was an early, sizeable Jewish population on Martinique; however, there were never notable Jewish settlements in what is now Haiti. France conquered and claimed Martinique in 1635. At that early date there were Jewish merchants and traders already settled there who had arrived earlier with the Dutch. They lived in peace until the 1650’s. Although the French did not conduct an Inquisition on the scale of the Spanish and Portuguese, they were a Catholic nation, and many of the settlers were Catholic clericsserving as missionaries. As with the British colonies, theFrench merchants in Martinique and, in this case, the Jesuit priests as well, resented the success of the Jews and caused discriminatory legislation to be enacted. In 1683, King Louis XIV ordered all Jews expelled from French colonies in the New World. Apparently the Jews, and the colonial government as well, ignored the rule, as Jews continued to settle and flourish on Martinique. After the French Revolution, all legislative discrimination against Jews on Martinique ended.
The life of David Gradis illustrates the story of Jews in the French colonies. Despite official religious intolerance, Jews on Martinique prospered. In 1722, David Gradis started a trading business in St. Pierre, Martinique. He was successful enough to start a branch in Santo Domingo in 1724. The Gradis family became so powerful that the colonial government was unable to banish them from the island despite French law. As was common at that time, their trade pattern was a triangular route between Europe, the Caribbean and North America. The Gradis’ business interests involved trading with Bordeaux, France, where ships picked up cargo of pickled meat and alcohol to bring back to the Caribbean and American ports. His son, Abraham, increased the family’s wealth and power. Abraham was so powerful that he was exempted from the discrimination that plagued the rest of the Jews and was allowed, for instance, to own property.
Even tiny Denmark had control of a few islands in the Caribbean. St. Thomas and St. Croix, part of what are now the United States territory of the Virgin Islands, were once Danish colonies. By the late 1700’s, there was a congregation, Berakah We-Shalom U-Gemilut Hasadim, and record books exist for births (dated 1786) and deaths (dated 1792). Most of the records were sent to the Royal Archives in Denmark or to the U.S. National Archives in Washington D.C.
Many of the details concerning Jewish history among the Danes has not been extensively studied by scholars. Still, in considering the history of Jews in the Caribbean, it is important to know that there were Danish colonies with Jewish settlements.
Holland, at one time, controlled several islands and territories in the Caribbean under the control of the Dutch West Indies Company. Jews were among the first settlers to travel to the new colonies, many of them descendants of Jews who had arrived from Spain in 1492. The most important of the Dutch colonies were Curacao and Surinam (which was originally British).
Curacao is part of the Lesser Antilles, the southernmost group ofislands in the Caribbean, quite close to the mainland of South America just above Venezuela. The Dutch were much more tolerant of Jews than the Spanish, Portuguese, or French. The Jews were allowed to build up their businesses, contributing to the success of the Dutch in the Caribbean. By 1650, there were twelve Jewish families living on Curacao. The Dutch West Indies Company was in charge of administering the Dutch colonies. The company ordered the governor to give these new settlers land, slaves to work the land, livestock and tools. The Jews settled in an area still known as Jodenwyk (Joden is “Jewish” in Dutch). In 1651, a large number of Jewish settlers, in flight from the persisting battle between the Portuguese and Dutch in Brazil, arrived in Curacao. By 1750, the population of Jews reached 2,000.
In 1656, there were enough Jews to establish a congregation in Willemstad, the Sephardic (Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent) Congregation named Mikveh Israel, which is still in existence. They built a synagogue in 1692. It was not until 1864 that a second Jewish congregation was established in Willemstad, a Liberal Jewish Congregation, Temple Emanu-El. The Jewish community in Curacao was so strong that it helped support newcommunities in the United States. One such example was the Newport, Rhode Island congregation that, in 1765, sent a letterbegging the Curacao congregation for financial help to pay offthe mortgages on their synagogue building (AJA 11).
Jews had first settled in Surinam when it was under British rule. A document dated 1643 from Surinam exists in the Amsterdam Jewish Archives. A boatload of Jews arrived from Britain in 1652, while Surinam was still British. Under British rule, the Jews there were offered rights that they did not have anywhere else, including he right to be full British citizens. In 1667, the British surrendered Surinam to the Dutch at the Treaty of Breda, for which they gained New Amsterdam, renamed New York. The Dutch intended for the Jews to maintain the rights they had under British rule.
All British subjects were to be allowed to leave, and a ship was sent by His Majesty Charles II to carry all those wishing to depart. The Jews were accustomed to being forcibly sent away from countries, but this time the government would not allow them to leave! The new Dutch government refused to let the Jews board the English ships, evidently fearing that the loss of the businesses owned by the Jews would damage the economy. A list survives claiming that ten Jews, many belonging to the Pereira family, and their 822 slaves wished to emigrate to Jamaica, but were not allowed to do so.
When Surinam became Dutch, the Dutch thought they had a traded the ordinary little town of New Amsterdam (which became New York City) for a rich tropical paradise. For awhile, it seemed they were right. The plantation-based economy of Surinam, with its riches for sugar cane, coffee, and chocolate turned out to be the leading community of the Americas by 1730. It far surpassed the wealth of such better known places as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.
But the plantations, with the crop of sugar cane as their main export, were dependent on the labor of slaves imported from Africa. In the late 17th century, these slaves began rebelling and escaped into the jungle. There they set up communities of their own, emerging periodically to attack the plantations. This resulted in a shortage of labor at the same time there was a banking crisis in Holland. These factors, along with the discovery that sugar could be obtained from beets, a crop that could be grown in Europe, caused Surinam’s economic decline, from which it has never recovered.
The first synagogue in Surinam was built out of wood in the 1660’s at a site upriver from the capitol at Paramaribo called the Joden Savanne (Jewish Savannah). It was surrounded by a town which acted as headquarters for the Jewish plantation owners. A more permanent brick synagogue building was erected in 1685, and a rabbi, David Pardo, arrived from London. In 1734, Ashkenazic Jews (of Dutch, German, or Eastern European descent) began arriving. The Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews did not get along well, and ultimately two congregations were founded. Sephardis, who were mostly wealthy and well-educated business people, were considered the elite of the Jewish people. Ashkenazis were, in general, poorer people than the Sephardis. When their population had grown to a substantial size, they wanted a synagogue of their own. They bought the old Sephardic satellite “prayer house” in Paramaribo from the Sephardis. The Sephardis specified that the Ashkenazic Jews must follow the Sephardic minhag, or order of the service. Thus, there was never a synagogue that followed the traditional Ashkenazic order of prayers in Surinam and, today, both congregations are served by the same rabbi.
Among Jews settling in Dutch territories, David Cohen Nassy played a part in the history of both Curacao and Surinam. Nassy was born in Portugal in approximately 1612 as Christovao da Tavora. With the Portuguese Inquisition behind him and with religious freedom in Holland ahead of him, young da Tavora headed for Holland where he changed his name to Joseph Nues da Fonseca. This was done probably either to protect his family still in Portugal, or just to make it harder for anyone to find him. He emigrated to Brazil, but was driven away during the war between Holland and Portugal. In 1662, he and a financier, Abraham Cohen, established a colony in Cayenne, which was later French Guiana. By this time, he had adopted the name of David Cohen Nassy. He received a charter from the Dutch West Indies Company to start a new Jewish settlement in Curacao, but eventually moved on to Surinam. He founded the early Jewish colony in Surinam in the Joden Savanne. When the slave revolts started, he organized the other Jewish plantation owners to try to combat the raids of the runaway slaves. He was killed during a foray into the jungle in search of one of the slave encampments. The community he founded in the Joden Savanne was decimated by the French in 1712 during an attempt to capture Surinam from the Dutch. His two sons, Samuel and Joseph Cohen Nassy, were also military leaders. There was never much of a Jewish population on the largest
Caribbean island, Cuba. A Jew, Luis de Torres, was on one of Columbus’s ships for the 1492 journey and served as an interpreter.
It is believed that de Torres settled in Cuba. Spain’s Inquisition spread to its colony of Cuba, and Cuban Jews were its victims as late as 1783. The Inquisition was not officially abolished until 1823. Although Jews have been on Cuba for centuries, they were only lawfully allowed to settle in 1881 and still suffered legal discrimination until after the Spanish-American war. In 1898, they were finally allowed to publicly worship and built a synagogue or the congregation.
The history of Jews in the Caribbean is one that is not well known. Their place gets lost in more colorful tales of Spanish conquistadors, cutthroat pirates, and continual battles between the European powers over territory. But their importance cannot be underestimated. A Jew introduced sugar cane to the Caribbean; this crop was the mainstay of the economy for several hundred years.
Jews started trade routes between the islands and their mother countries. As we have seen, the Caribbean Jewish merchants were so successful that the other businessmen often persuaded their governments to tax or restrict Jewish trade. In spite of these attempts to put them out of business, Jewish communities flourished. In a time when the United States did not exist but was itself no more than a set of colonies, Jewish settlers looked to the religious and economic freedom they found in the New World to make new lives for themselves. We know Jews fleeing Brazil went to North American colonies as well as to the Caribbean. The Caribbean congregations helped support the Jewish communities that were starting in the United States. We know there was much travel and trade between the communities in the “future” United States and the Caribbean. In fact, the Jews of the Caribbean are regarded, by many scholars, as the “missing link” in the Jewish settlement of the early United States. It is clear that as Europeans fanned but to set up colonies in the Western Hemisphere, the Jews were among the vanguard of the settlers who made important contributions in the colonization of the “New World.”
Ralph G. Bennett, M.D., is a physician whose practice encompasses Dermatology and Allergy in Hayward, California (a suburb of San Francisco). He first became interested in the history of the Jews of Surinam when he discovered that his wife’s ancestors were some of the first Dutch Jews who settled there in the 1660s. From genealogy, his interests over the years have broadened to involve scholarly study in a number of other areas as well. Dr Bennett has written numerous articles concerning medical subjects, history, genealogy, anthropology, art history and economics. His work has been accepted for publication in the United States and six foreign countries and has been translated into four foreign languages. Dr Bennett would like to thank Jere Conley and Mary Jo Kochly for their wonderful work editing these pieces.