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The Jewish Story Guestbook

by Ralph G.Bennett

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. 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.

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 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 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.


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 is 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 he 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 he 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.



Although the rights of the Jews (in Surinam) 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).


(See also Guyana)
Jews arrived in French Guiana by the way of the Dutch West India Company. Later on September 12, 1659, came Portuguese Jews from Brazil. The company appointed David Nassy, a Brazilian refugee, patron of an exclusive Jewish settlement on the western side of the island of Cayenne, an area called Remire or Irmire. From 1658 to 1659, Paulo Jacomo Pinto began negotiating with the Dutch authorities in Amsterdam to allow a group of Jews from Livorno, Italy to settle in the Americas. On July 20, 1600, more than 150 Sephardic Jews left Livorno (Leghorn) and settled in Cayenne. The French agreed to those terms, an exceptional policy that was not common among the French colonies. Nevertheless, nearly two-thirds of the population left for the Dutch colony of Suriname.

Over the decades, the Leghorn Jews of Cayenne immigrated to Suriname. In 1667, the remaining Jewish community was captured by the occupying British forces and moved the population to either Suriname or Barbados to work in sugarcane production. Since the late 17th century, few Jews have lived in French Guiana. In 1992, 20 Jewish families from Suriname and North Africa attempted to re-establish the community in Cayenne. A Chabad organization exists in the country and maintains Jewish life within the community. Today, 800 Jews live in French Guiana, predominately in Cayenne.


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.


Jews have lived on the island of Cuba for centuries. Some Cubans trace Jewish ancestry to crypto-Jews—derisively called Marranos—who fled the Spanish Inquisition, though few of them practice Judaism today. There was significant Jewish immigration to Cuba in the first half of the 20th century. There were 15,000 Jews in Cuba in 1959, but many Jews left Cuba for the United States after the Cuban revolution. In the early 1990s, Operation Cigar was launched, and in the period of five years, more than 400 Cuban Jews secretly immigrated to Israel.  In February 2007 The New York Times estimated that there are about 1,500 Jews living in Cuba, most of them (about 1,000) living in Havana.


History of the Jews in Cuba
"Counting Shadows:a Broader Look at Cuban Jewish History", Robert M. Levine, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida
Cuba’s Jews: People of a Solitary Star By Ruth Behar The Journal of the International Insitute

GUYANA (Formerly British Guiana)
(From The Jewish Guianas, 3.11.2012, the algemeiner)

(‘The Guianas’ comprise Guyana (formerly British Guiana,) Surinam (formerly Dutch Guiana) and Cayenne, (formerly French Guiana)

Situated on the northeast coast of South America, between Venezuela and Brazil, are three remote former colonies of Britain, Holland and France. Even though they are full of natural wonders and the promise of unforgettable adventures, these countries are still undeveloped and consequently rarely visited by tourists. Today, the countries are known respectively as Guyana, Surinam and Cayenne, and each has written a unique chapter in the history of the Jewish people.

Guyana, the westernmost of the three, was formerly known as British Guiana and is the only English-speaking country among them. Its capital, Georgetown, is a vibrant city that reflects much of the country’s history and diversity. Georgetown was originally settled by the Dutch and known as Stabroek. It has wide, tree-lined avenues, lily-covered canals and fine examples of 18th and 19th century colonial buildings. Its cathedral is reputed to be the tallest wooden building in the world.

Among Guyana’s natural wonders are the Kaieteur Falls, located on the Potaro River in the center of the country. Kaieteur Falls is largest single-drop waterfall in the world…five times the drop of Niagara! A more benign experience awaits visitors to Marshall Falls, where one can bathe in a “natural Jacuzzi” created by the tumbling waters, stroll through the surrounding rainforest and strike up a friendship with locals in the nearby bush camp. These are but two examples of literally countless adventures that await the inquisitive visitor.

The population of Guyana is made up principally of East Indians and the descendants of freed African slaves. It has been reported that there was a small Jewish community in Georgetown during World War II, but no Jews live in Guyana today. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that, until just a few years ago, the country had a Jewish president. President Janet Rosenberg Jagan met and married her husband, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, in her native Chicago, where he studied dentistry. They both returned to Guyana where he opened a dental practice and she became his nurse. In due course, both of them entered politics, and he was eventually elected president. After his death, Mrs. Jagan ran for the presidency and was elected in her own right, thereby becoming one of only three Jewish women ever to be the chief executive of a country. She was a dynamic and outspoken leader of her nation from 1997 until her death in March 2008.

Surinam, the former Dutch Guiana, is said to have the oldest Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere, established about 1500 by Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. The community grew and generally prospered for the next three centuries, until the mid-19th century, when the country went into economic decline. Surinam’s interior, especially the Brownsberg Nature Park and the Galibi Nature Reserve, offer hundreds of different species of tropical plants and animals.

While in Surinam, my most memorable experience was a cruise into the interior in a small boat with an outboard motor. As we cruised up the Saramacca River, we saw alligators and were warned to keep our hands out of the water so as not to feed the piranha. When we finally arrived at a native village deep in the jungle, the village’s beautiful people captivated me, among them several nubile young ladies clad only in a sarong. I took a number of photos of them and compensated them with a few coins. I then photographed an elderly gentleman, and offered him the same amount of money, but he refused and asked for double. I asked him “Why?” and he pointed to the grey hair on his head and, in a combination of pigeon and sign language, indicated that it took him much longer to grow that head of white hair than it took those young women to fill out so beautifully.

Today, the remaining Jews of Surinam, numbering perhaps 200, live in the capital, Paramaribo, and valiantly support the last remaining synagogue, “Neve Shalom.” Also of interest to Jewish visitors are the ruins of the “Bracha v’Shalom” synagogue built in 1685 in the Jodensavanna, located in the wilderness south of Paramaribo.

Paramaribo itself is a bustling city with a culturally diverse population of Indian, Indonesian, African, Cereole and Dutch origin. As a result there is a rich architectural mix, including the Presidential Palace that is reminiscent of the country’s Dutch heritage and the St Peter & Paul Cathedral ,said to be the largest wooden building in the Americas. Fine examples of Hindu temples and Mosques also abound.

Cayenne, the former French Guiana, has played a pivotal role in Jewish history because it is there, on “Devil’s Island,” where Captain Alfred Dreyfus was imprisoned after being falsely convicted of being a German spy. It was after he witnessed the infamous Dreyfus trial that Theodor Herzl wrote “Der Judenstaat” which, because it concluded that Jews needed a national homeland, became the philosophical underpinning of modern Zionism.

Devil’s Island is actually one of a group of three small islands off the coast of Cayenne and can be clearly seen across a narrow, shark-infested channel from Royale Island, where the administrative headquarters of the prison community were located. Today, the group is officially known as the “Isles de Salud” (islands of good health). Even though Royale Island has been sanitized and has become a popular tourist resort, one can still see the cells that housed the more fortunate prisoners and cannot help but sympathize with Dreyfus, who spent four years in solitary confinement on the neighboring island.

Cayenne City, the capital, is a pleasant and unremarkable French colonial city with the mandatory Avenue du General de Gaulle as its main thoroughfare and a number of squares filled with public buildings, monuments and gardens. Fort Ceperou and Fort Diamant are both 17th-century military outposts. Other attractions include a museum and the picturesque Remire-Montjoly Beach.

Georgetown, Paramaribo and Cayenne are all relatively easy to reach by air from Miami, as well as from London, Amsterdam and Paris. While accommodations are not up to North American or European luxury standards, each city has “name brand” hotels as well as more modest lodgings. For travelers wishing to explore the interiors of the Guianas, it is important to have all necessary inoculations and is advisable to travel with groups organized by tour operators that specialize in wilderness and adventure travel.


History of the Jews in Guyana
Jewish-American Woman Becomes President of Guyana  Haaretz, Dec 6 2012


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).

Becoming Jewish in Jamaica.    Jewish Synagogue (United Congregation of Israelites) Duke Street, Kingston, Jamaica [date unknown]    


The Leeward Islands 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 be fair and honest in their future dealings and to support the Islands in case of a war.


Curacao is part of the Lesser Antilles, the southernmost group of islands 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.

Curaçao has the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas—dating to 1651—and the oldest synagogue of the Americas, in continuous use since its completion in 1732 on the site of a previous synagogue. The Jewish Community of Curaçao also played a key role in supporting early Jewish congregations in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, including in New York City and the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island.


Curaçao - JewishEncyclopedia.com
Curacao Virtual Je


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 clerics serving as missionaries. As with the British colonies, the French 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).

SURINAM (formerly DUTCH GUIANA)     

(See also Guyana)

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 Dutch colony, going by the name of Dutch Guiana. In addition, Surinam is 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.

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 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.


History of the Jews in Trinidad and Tobago
The Failure of the Jewish Settlement in the Island of Tobago


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 new communities in the United States. One such example was the Newport, Rhode Island congregation that, in 1765, sent a letter begging the Curacao congregation for financial help to pay off the mortgages on their synagogue building (AJA 11).


Background, Countries


Many Jews expelled from Spain saw the New World as an opportunity to escape from European persecution. Where they settled they contributed to local growth. Later they settled in the USA when fleeing from the Inquisition again.

Their local contribution included the introduction of sugar cane which was to become the mainstay of the economy for several hundred years and creating trade routes between the islands and their mother countries.

Understanding local history is told through the life of  a local Jewish merchant called Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita who was

See text below for details of Barbados, Cuba, Dutch Guiana (Surinam), Jamaica,
The Leeward Islands, Lesser Antilles - Curacao, Martinique and Haiti,
St Thomas and St Croix, Santo Domingo, Trinidad and Tobago and Willemstad    

Jewish pirates became pirates as part of a revenge strategy against the Iberian powers (though lining their pockets with Spanish doubloons was a (possible) incentive) as they came from refugee families expelled by Spain and Portugal  Many of them mixed traditional Jewish lifestyles with their exploits on the high seas.



Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita






The Leeward Islands

Lesser Antilles - Curacao

 and Haiti

St. Thomas
and St. Croix

Santo Domingo


Trinidad and Tobago