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 theNew World.
Holland was a burgeoning rival to Spain and Portugal
and was hoping to gain from their misfortunes. The Dutch hoped to capture for
themselves some of the Portuguese and Spanish territories in the New World. In
the 1630's, the Hollanders sailed into the harbor of
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
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
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
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
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
Governor Lynch, the colonial governor in Jamaica,
opposed this Ü|�Ü?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 Islan!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!ds 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
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 Jewishcommunity in Curacao was so strong that it helped
support newcommunities in the United States. One such example was theNewport,
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
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 Nu¤es 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 "NewWorld."