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Cayenne, French Guiana

CAYENNE, island separated by rivers from the mainland of French Guiana, today a French overseas department. On September 12, 1659, the Dutch West India Company (Amsterdam chamber) granted David Nassy, a refugee from Dutch Brazil, and his partners the status of Patroons of a "colony on the island of Cayenne." The intention was to permit an exclusively Jewish settlement which had to be distanced from the lands tilled by the non-Jewish settlers around the city of Cayenne. The Jews were given "Liberties and Exemptions," including freedom of conscience and the right to build a synagogue and open a school. This Jewish settlement was established in Remire.

The first group, composed mainly of Jewish refugees from Brazil and a number of Jews from Amsterdam, arrived in September 1660. They were joined by Spanish Jews from Leghorn, directly or through the island of Tobago, which was the scene of armed clashes between Dutch and Latvian forces and also of cruel attacks by the Arawak Indians. The Jews who had intended to settle in Tobago went on to Cayenne.

In a short time a sugar mill was built and a community founded. Apart from sugar cane, the Jews produced dyes from indigo and roucou and experimented with cocoa and other tropical products. Remire was the setting of "idyllic" Jewish life, which was cut short by a French invasion in 1663 headed by Lefebure de la Barre and Alexandre Prouville de Tracy. The Dutch quickly capitulated, but in the surrender document, the French had to promise to give freedom of religion to the Jews, estimated at 300–400 people. Nevertheless, the majority of them trekked to neighboring *Surinam , at that time in English hands, and settled in what is called the "Jewish Savanna."

In 1667, the English general Henry Willoughby attacked Cayenne, occupied Remire, and destroyed the settlement. He also ordered that the French settlers be left to their fate and the remaining Jews, some 50–60 persons, be taken aboard English ships, since the English needed their skills for their sugar plantations in Surinam and Barbados.

In 1994, a small Jewish community numbering about 80 people was established.


A.J. Lefebure de la Barre, Description de la France Equinoctial cy devant appellee Guyanne et par les Espagnols El Dorado (1666); J.N. Bellin, Description geographique de la Guyanne Contenant les Possessions et les Etablissements des Francois… (1783); M. Arbell, The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean (2003); Z. Loker, On the Jewish Colony at Remire, French Guyana (1990).

[Mordechai Arbell (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.