The year 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of the Second Diaspora, when the Jews were expelled from Spain and re-settled throughout the world. 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 to the growth of that region and to the settlement of Jews in the United States.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
BRIDGETOWN, BARBADOS W.I. 1654 Old Synagogue & Cemetery
The old synagogue, located about 200 yards from Broad Street, the main shopping street in Bridgetown, had its origins soon after the first British settlement in 1627 with the exodus of Jews from Recife, Brazil in 1654. A group of those who had fled Recife for Amsterdam, upon learning that Oliver Cromwell had opened British domains to Jews, applied for and secured permission to settle in Barbados. Among them were members of the de Mercado family. Aaron de Mercado died in 1660 and became the second Jew known to have been buried in Barbados. The prime organiser of the congregation Nidhe Israel (The scattered of Israel) was a Recife Jew, Lewis Dias, alias Joseph Jesurum Mendes and the earliest reference to the synagogue is found in a deed of conveyance of land adjoining, the Jewish property dated September 1661, and vestry minutes of that period also date the old synagogue to the late 1660’s. Public worship for Jews in Barbados came in 1654, three years ahead of London.
The old synagogue in Barbados can boast of being one of the two oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere and similar in age to the synagogue in Curaçao which has become a landmark of that Island. (Of interest, two Barbadian Jews established the beginning of a Jewish community in Rhode Island, USA in 1677 and it was another Barbadian Jew who was responsible in 1682 for purchasing the plot of land that is today the oldest surviving Jewish graveyard in North America, at Chatham Square, New York)
The hurricane of 1831 destroyed most of our original synagogue and on 29 March 1833, the present building was dedicated, constructed at a cost of 4000 L. The moving spirit behind the rebuilding was Dr Hart-Lyon, a jeweller who together with ninety other influential Jews, raised the necessary funds.
A fall In sugar prices led to emigration of most of the Jewish community from Barbados and by 1900 only seventeen Jews remained. The synagogue was sold in 1929 by private treaty with only one Jew remaining.
In 1931, after returning from a business trip to Colombia and Venezuela, the trader Moses Altman decided to relocate his wife and five children from Lublin, Poland to Bridgetown, Barbados. The Islnd was along the trade route between Europe and South America and it also presented an opportunity for him to acquire a valuable British passport; it was a welcoming place for Jews. By 1946, about forty members of the family and friends had settled on the island.
The Altmans soon discovered that the welcoming spirit was due in part to the fact that a significant number of the island’s non-Jews, both white and black, with names like Mendoza and Da Costa, felt a strong affinity with their Sephardic ancestors who in the nineteenth century had converted to Christianity and assimilated. Some still preserved a tallit (prayer shawl) or siddur (prayer book) that had been passed down to them.
Without a synagogue, the Ashkenazic settlers worshiped in a back room of Moses Altman’s home. Eventually the community bought a property and converted it into a house of prayer.
The Altmans prospered on Barbados, first in retail and later in the real estate business, but made no effort to gain possession of Nidhe Israel until 1980, when the government announced its plans to demolish the former synagogue and clear part of the graveyard to erect a new Supreme Court building. Paul Altman’s father, Henry, became very agitated at the news, especially because his father, Moses, lay buried in that cemetery. Stirred into action, the Altmans initiated an international letter-writing campaign aimed at pressuring the Barbadian government to spare the synagogue and cemetery. Prime Minister Tom Adams agreed to meet with Paul Altman. Mr Altman ahowed the Prime Minister pictures of the interior and exterior of the synagogue in 1928 that he'd found in the Shilstone Library at the Barbados Museum. After studying the photos, the prime minister agrred that if he could find the money to restore this building to its former state as a synagogue, the government would hand it over to him.Within a matter of months we raised the funds, and the prime minister honored his promise.
Altman’s next challenge was to find a way to translate Shilstone’s photographs and sketches into a workable blueprint for the reconstruction of the synagogue. First, though, he inspected the building, now a warehouse, for signs of its former sacred incarnation. The warehouse owner cleaned some grime from the floor, revealing the black-and-white marble tiles that had been installed when the sanctuary was rededicated in 1833, after it was severely damaged by a hurricane.
As treasurer of the Barbados National Trust, Altman had heard about a program at the University of Florida dedicated to preserving the architecture of the Caribbean. He contacted the school, and the professor in charge sent a graduate student to Bridgetown. Together the student and a local architect drew up plans for the restoration based on Shilstone’s 1920s photographs of the synagogue.
Altman also struggled to recover the synagogue’s eight brass chandeliers, which he traced to the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, Copies now hang in Nidhe Israel the originals remain in the Winterthur.
Altman had greater success in retrieving the mahogany representation of the Ten Commandments which had hung over the Torah ark. Lady Stella St. John, wife of the prime minister, had displayed the tablets above the swimming pool of Ilaro Court, their official residence, and graciously donated them back to the synagogue. As the Torah ark and reader’s desk no longer existed, Altman commissioned a woodworker to refabricate them in Barbados mahogany.
It took four years to complete the restoration of the synagogue at a cost of more than one million U.S. dollars. In 1987, government officials joined 300 Jewish delegates from India, Canada, Great Britain, and throughout the British Commonwealth at the re dedication ceremony of Nidhe Israel.
Restoring the overgrown cemetery proved the most challenging of all. Several attempts were made to restore it and at one time on bad advice some of the tombstones were moved and they lost track of their original locations, causing serious chaos. Then, in the 1990s, Evan Milner, an archaeologist specializing in restoring gravestones (and a member of Bevis Marks), volunteered to work with us. Guided by the burial records archived at the London Spanish-Portuguese synagogue and Shilstone’s work, Milner spent three years determining the exact locations of the stones, repairing them with old bricks and lime mortar, and mounting them on new cement foundations.
In 2005, the Jewish community of Barbados initiated another ambitious project—the construction of a museum in the abandoned school building on Synagogue Lane at the edge of the cemetery.
The floor of the museum is designed to appear as an extension of the cemetery: recessed into the floor are glass display cases in the size and shape of the gravestones, filled with sand and embedded with excavated artifacts. The Sephardic founders, many of them formerly secret Jews, had covered the floors of their synagogue with sand supposedly to muffle the sounds of the prayers and thus avoid attracting the attention of Inquisition informers. A screening room features oral histories, and a modern interactive display highlights the 350-year history of the Barbados Jewish community.
The museum’s collection of artifacts used by the Sephardic settlers grew after an unexpected discovery beneath the synagogue parking lot. A few years earlier, about the same time as the cemetery reconstruction workers were instructed to dig a foot-deep trench in a section of the parking lot which Shilstone had labeled ‘rabbi’s house.’ They found outlines of some brick walls in a strange configuration, but they didn’t have the time, energy, or knowledge to do more than confirm that something was there. So they back filled the area and continued to use it for parking.
Altman described the outline of walls to University of West Indies professor Karl Watson, a non-Jew who was writing a history of the Jewish community of Barbados. Watson later proposed that one of his doctoral students, archaeologist Michael Stoner, excavate the site as the subject of his dissertation. Altman agreed to fund the dig, and Stoner moved into an apartment on the second floor of the new Jewish museum.
In April 2008, Stoner, also a non-Jew, uncovered a series of steps leading down to an elevator-sized chamber half filled with water. As he pondered his discovery, an Israeli tourist passed by. “That’s a mikveh!” he told Stoner. The young archaeologist had unearthed a mikveh (or a baño, as the Sephardim called it) dating to the mid-seventeenth century. What Shilstone had assumed was the rabbi’s house was in fact the bañadeira, the building housing the congregation’s ritual bath.
Altman doesn’t expect that the spring-fed mikveh will be restored for ritual use. The current plan is to maintain the archaeological site as an added point of interest for museum visitors.
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