The British first colonized Barbados in 1627. A year later, Spanish and Portuguese Jews, Marranos, arrived in Barbados from Dutch Brazil, Suriname, Germany and England. The British actively promoted Jewish settlement in Barbados during this time.
The majority of Jews that settled in the 17th century were of Sephardic origins. In 1654, the Jewish community in Bridgetown, the capital, was formally established and a Sephardic synagogue, K. K. Nidhei Israel (“The Dispersed Ones of Israel”), was consecrated.
After the once British colony of Suriname passed to the Dutch, in 1667, many Jews moved to Barbados to retain their British citizenship. Barbados was the first British territory in which Jews obtained full political rights. By the late 17th century there were two Jewish communities in Barbados, in Bridgetown and Speighstown, K. K. Semah David. By 1679, nearly 300 Jews lived in Barbados.
Once in Barbados, many Jewish settlers engaged in sugar and coffee cultivation. While the British government considered Jews to be good businessmen and tradesmen, British merchants did not like the Jews and accused them of committing illegal business transactions. Jews were accused of trading more frequently with the Dutch than the British merchants. In 1661, three Jewish traders in Barbados requested to establish trade routes between Barbados and Suriname (it was still a British colony); through this enterprise the Jews gained much wealth, but created more irritation among many British merchants.
On October 23, 1668, the Jews of Barbados were forbidden to engage in foreign or local retail trade. Jews were forbidden from purchasing slaves, and were forced into living in a Jewish Ghetto in Barbados.
All the discriminatory laws were removed by 1802, by the colonial government of Barbados and in 1820 the British Parliament also repealed the discrimination laws.
During the 18th century, the Jewish community of Barbados continued to grow and become financially successful, although the Jewish congregation in Speighstown closed. Rabbi Raphael Hayyim Isaac Carigal served the community of Bridgetown from 1774 until his death in 1777.
The Jewish community thrived in Barbados until 1831, when a massive hurricane ruined all the towns on the island.
By 1848, the Jewish population had decline to only 70 Jews. As the economy deteriorated in succeeding decades, many Jews immigrated to the United States and those who remained eventually died and, by 1925, no Jews were left on the island.
During the Holocaust, 30 Jewish families arrived in Barbados from Eastern Europe and they were soon followed by several more Jews from Trinidad. By 1968, the Jewish community had begun to rise and had a population of about 80 Jews.
In 1987, the Nidhei Israel Synagogue was rededicated in a new location and the Old Jewish cemetery in Bridgetown was restored. The synagogue, widely considered one of the oldest such buildings in the Western Hemisphere, features a dark wood ark, grand European chandeliers, a stained-glass window etched with the Star of David, and balck and white marble floors.
The former Nidhei Israel building, which served as the synagogue, is today used for a library and as a museum. The museum features interactive exhibits and a range of artifacts including a 17th-century mikveh (ritual bath) discovered in 2008 when archaeologists were digging in the synagogues's parking lot.
The Jewish cemetery in Barbados is considered to be the oldest graveyard in the Western Hemisphere. A few of the graves date back to the 1660s and include some famous individuals such as Samuel Hart, son of Moses Hart, and Moses Nehemiah (the first Jew to live in Virginia).
Today, approximately 40 Jews live in Barbados. It was the Jewish community of Barbados that initiated and maintains the Caribbean Jewish Congress.
Sources: “The Sephardim of the Island of Nevis”