Guyana Virtual Jewish History Tour
Guyana (formerly British Guyana) is a nation in N.E. South America, population: 791,300 (est. 2023); Jewish population: two persons (2022 estimate). The earliest Jewish settlers in Guyana arrived during the Dutch rule which began in 1613. In 1657, an agreement was reached between Paulo Jacomo Pinto, acting on behalf of the Jews of Leghorn, and Phillipe de Fuentes, acting on behalf of the Jewish refugees from Dutch Brazil and Dutch cities of Middleburgh, Flushing, and Vere on the settling of Spanish-speaking Jews in the colony called Nova Zeelandia. Jews arrived from Amsterdam and Leghorn and were later joined by Jews from Hamburg and Salé (Morocco). The Jews settled in the town of New Middleburgh on the Pomeroon (Pauroma) river, and numbered 50 to 60 families, specializing in sugar cane plantations and vanilla. In 1666, an English attack destroyed the settlement, and the Jews dispersed in the Caribbean, mainly to Curaçao.
Before the outbreak of World War II there were a handful of Jews in the capital, Georgetown, but there was neither an organized community nor a synagogue. Early in 1939, 165 Jewish refugees from Europe, who arrived on the S.S. Koenigstein, were not permitted to disembark, and shortly thereafter the government barred immigration. However, 130 Jews found refuge in the country during the war years but most of these eventually emigrated.
In 1939, in the wake of the failure of the Evian Conference on the German refugee problem and in view of Britain’s intention to severely restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine (see 1939 White Paper), Britain proposed her crown colony Guyana as a site for Jewish immigration and settlement. Thus, in February 1939, an international investigating committee under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Commission on Refugees, formed at Evian, arrived in the country to explore the proposed area. The land under consideration consisted of approximately 42,000 sq. mi. in the forest and swamp region of the interior. Neither the coastal region, which comprises 4% of the area of British Guyana but holds 90% of the country’s population, nor the open region adjacent to it, were included in the proposed area.
The committee stated that although the region was not ideal for the settlement of European immigrants, the quality of the soil, the availability of important minerals, and the climatic and health conditions did not preclude their settlement. The committee proposed a two-year trial period during which 3,000–5,000 sturdy young people with professional training would be sent to the region to test the practicality and the advisability of large-scale investment and development.
Many considered the British plan for Jewish settlement in British Guyana to be a political strategem. They pointed out that the same region was investigated in 1935 by an international commission and found unsuitable for the settlement of 20,000 Assyrians suffering persecution in Iraq. Not only had the commission stated unanimously that the region was unsuitable for settlement, but also its conclusion had been accepted by the British government itself.
However, in May 1939, before British policy on Palestine was officially proclaimed in the White Paper, the British government published the report of its own investigating committee which found British Guyana to be a place for possible settlement. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that Jewish settlement in British Guyana would bring the establishment of a new community which would enjoy a large measure of autonomy and representation in the government of the colony. The program was described in government circles as a
New Balfour Declaration and as a plausible alternative to the Jewish National Home in Palestine.
The only Jewish organization which was seriously involved in the British Guyana scheme was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee on whose behalf Joseph A. Rosen participated in the inquiry commission.
Janet Jagan, a Jew from Chicago who moved to Guyana with her husband in 1947. Cheddi Jagan became involved in politics and served as president until his death in 1997. Janet was sworn in as his replacement and was then elected to the position. She died in 2009.
In 2022, it was believed there were only two Jews in the country. One is Israeli-born Raphael Ades a guesthouse operator who bought Sloth Island off the coast in 1997. He left Israel in 1963 and always expected to return.
The other Jew is Andrea de Caires, who was at one time the country’s largest private tour operator. De Caires was born in Chicago and later worked in New York where she met her Guyanese husband. She moved with him to Guyana in 2010
Relations with Israel
Since April 1967, Israel’s ambassador to Colombia has also been non-resident ambassador to Guyana. Out of a desire to mobilize the Arab and Soviet blocs in the international arena, for support of its own conflicts, Guyana formerly adopted a hostile line toward Israel. However, after 1969 relations between the two countries improved substantially and Israel has extended technical assistance to Guyana.
M. Arbell, "The Jewish Settlement in Pomeroon/Pauroma (Guyana), 1657–1666," in: idem, The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean (2003); Report of the British Guyana Refugee Commission… (1939); E. Liebenstein (Livneh), Ha-Teritoryalizm he-Ḥadash (1944), 11–16.
[Aryeh Morgenstern /
Mordecai Arbell (2nd ed.)]
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Seth Wikas, “Meet the 2 Jews of Guyana, a South American nation with a tradition of religious tolerance, JTA, (November 28, 2022).