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Virtual Jewish World: Spanish-Portuguese Nation of the Caribbeans: La Nacion

Many of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 sailed to seek refuge in other Mediterranean lands. A group estimated at 50–100,000 crossed the frontier into Portugal where they joined a Jewish community that has been established for several centuries. The breathing space they secured for themselves did not last long. In 1496, the Portuguese King Manuel I issued an order for their expulsion. However, when he realized the serious economic implications, the king decided to keep them in the country – as Christians. He ordered that all Jews up to the age of 21 be forcibly baptized, in the hope that this would stop their parents from leaving. When 20,000 Jews did gather in Lisbon to sail away from the country, he had them baptized by force and declared citizens of his kingdom.

Only a very few submitted to baptism willingly. In most cases, the Jews were dragged to the font, but continued to observe Judaism privately. At first their secret Jewish observance was much easier to maintain than under similar circumstances in Spain, as the Inquisition was not introduced into Portugal until the mid-16th century.

As they were no longer Jews, these "New Christians" sought to exploit their new status in order to leave the country. In 1499 Manuel I published a decree forbidding any "New Christian" to leave the country without special permission, and this law remained in force throughout most of the 16th century. Furthermore, the "New Christians" were not accepted by the "Old Christians" and were still known as "Jews," "Conversos," or "Persons of the Nation" (La Nación). There was strong prejudice against them, and once the Inquisition was fully established in 1547, they were subjected to a reign of terror. Those accused of secretly observing Judaism were tortured, tried, and brought to punishment.

Whenever the opportunity to escape from the country presented itself, these "New Christians" left. They traveled far and wide in search of non-Catholic lands where they could cast off their adopted faith and resume their Jewish identity. Those who reached western Europe headed for the Protestant centers of Amsterdam, Hamburg and London, where they returned to Judaism and established their own congregations. In Catholic France, they had to remain nominal Christians, but since there was no Inquisition to persecute them, they eventually dropped the pretense, forming communities in Bordeaux, Bayonne and elsewhere. They began to play a key role in international commerce, partly by virtue of their wide family connections. Certain branches of trade were entirely in their hands.

The "Nación" pioneered modern Jewish settlement in much of western Europe and eventually, following the burgeoning trade routes, in the New World. Conversos began to arrive in the transatlantic settlements soon after these were discovered. The ban on emigration from Portugal did not apply to Portuguese colonies abroad and many "New Christians" were attracted both by the financial opportunities and by the safe distance from the Inquisition. However, their advance was so rapid that the Iberian rulers took action and in 1571, the Spanish King, Philip II, who was also king of Portugal, instituted an Inquisitional tribunal in Mexico in order to "free the land which has become contaminated by Jews and heretics, especially of the Portuguese nation." Henceforward, the Conversos in the New World lived under the same rule of terror as their brethren in Spain and Portugal.

One of the largest secret groups of Jews had settled in Brazil. The activity of the Inquisition drove them to welcome the attempts by the Protestant Dutch to conquer the country in the 17th century. Equally enthusiastic were the former Conversos now living in Amsterdam. The Dutch, in establishing their West India Company, counted on the support of both groups. After the Dutch captured the Brazilian city of Recife in 1630, its Jews were allowed to practice their faith openly and the first community was established, founded by local ex-Conversos and by new arrivals from Holland (mostly of Spanish or Portuguese descent).

The Dutch enclave in Recife, capital of the province of Pernambuco, lasted for a quarter of a century. It was a period of prosperity for the Jews, and by 1645 they numbered 1,500 – as many as in Amsterdam. During this interlude, Jewish religious and communal life flourished, and the Jews were engaged in a wide range of occupations, particularly in sugar cane growing, business and finance.

The Dutch position in Recife was never secure and after a period of guerrilla warfare, the Dutch were ousted from their territories. Finally, after two sieges in which the Jews, who now numbered only 650, joined the Dutch in a valiant defense, Recife capitulated in 1654. Its 150 Jewish families had to leave with the Dutch; the majority returned to Amsterdam; 23 Jews made their way to New Amsterdam (New York) where they founded its Jewish community, while others moved to the Caribbean area. Individual Jews had been arriving in the Caribbean from Europe in the 1620s and 1630s. They were now joined by Jews from Recife, and by the 1660s there were Jewish settlements in *Cayenne (French Guyana), *Surinam (Dutch Guiana), Essequibo (British Guiana), *Curaçao , *Barbados , and other smaller islands.

The Caribbean provided a congenial environment for the Jewish newcomers. The Protestant colonial powers – Holland, Britain and Denmark – were liberal and tolerant towards settlers of different faiths. The Jews were particularly welcome since they were dynamic Spanish-speaking businessmen who could conduct trade with the Spanish main and with Europe; moreover they were innovative in agriculture, navigation and other fields.

In 1658 the Dutch Parliament recognized the Jews as Dutch citizens who would be defended if captured at sea by the Spaniards. This encouraged the Jews to develop trade and shipping in the Caribbean zone. The Dutch West India Company which viewed the Jews as a useful, dependable, and industrious element encouraged their settlement in the Dutch colonies. The Jews started with agricultural plantations growing and refining sugar, vanilla, coffee, cocoa, indigo, vermilion, coconuts and also introduced cantaloupe, watermelon, and eggplant. However, agriculture alone was not enough to meet the needs of the large families and they took up other occupations. The region had its share of Jewish shipowners and navigators, and Jewish merchants who often traveled together with their ships and cargo. In some places the Jews even owned dockyards.

The Spanish-Portuguese Jews took synagogue and communal life very seriously. The synagogues were built with sand-covered floors, for which various theories exist. It is said that clandestine Marrano synagogues in Portugal covered their floors with sand in order to muffle the sound of the steps of those who would come to pray. The Caribbean Jews explain that as long as they are not back in Jerusalem, they still walk in the desert. In fact, the sand was a useful protection against snakes and insects. Usually the synagogues were built around four columns known as "the four matriarchs."

Religious life was part of daily existence. The planter did not work his laborers on the Sabbath, and the navigator took his prayer shawl and kosher meat for his voyage.

The Jewish festivals were celebrated with splendor, the Jewish law court was respected, and Jewish schools had a priority in communal expenses.

Permanent contact was maintained with the Holy Land. Emissaries from Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias came regularly to collect contributions for institutions in the Holy Land. Earth from Israel was placed on the eyelids of the dead before burial.

Contacts were maintained among the Spanish-Portuguese communities in the Caribbean and with the sister communities all over the world – New York, Philadelphia, Newport, London, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Bayonne, Bordeaux, Leghorn, Venice, Vienna, Salonica, Istanbul, and Izmir.

The Caribbean Jewish "Nation" was concerned about the rights of Spanish-Portuguese Jews elsewhere. When European countries sought trading rights, the agreement of the Caribbean Jews was often conditional upon the rights of the Jews in those countries. A legend relates that when Napoleon asked the Jews of Surinam for their assistance with his interests in Haiti, the Jews inquired whether the Jews of France "have the same privileges as we happily enjoy in Surinam." (There is no written proof supporting this legend.)

Larger communities helped the smaller ones – New York, Philadelphia, and Newport were helped by Curaçao and Surinam; St. Eustatius was helped by Amsterdam, New York, and Curaçao; Barbados was helped by London and Surinam; St. Thomas – by Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Curaçao, and so on. They saw themselves as an extended community and even in the 19th and 20th centuries when some sections had become Christianized links were maintained with them.

The Spanish-Portuguese "Nación" was sensitive to the movements towards autonomy and independence in the New World and in the 19th century played a role in various liberation movements. Simon Bolivar, the "Great Liberator" found refuge among and assistance from the Jews of Curaçao – mainly from Mordechai Ricardo – when he was planning his struggle against the Spanish. Jews participated in the liberation struggle of the Dominican Republic against Spain – led by Mordechai de Marchena – and the Cuban struggle against Spain was aided by the Jamaican Jewish family De Cordova. The channeling of supplies by the Jews of St. Eustatius to the North American revolutionaries provoked the British to destroy the community.

The 19th century and the liberation of the Spanish colonies from Spanish rule saw two waves of immigration which brought the "Nación" to new centers. Newly independent Venezuela and Colombia invited Jews to settle there. Others moved to Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica. Another wave settled in the early North American communities (Newport, Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York).

A general decline of the Spanish-Portuguese communities in the Caribbean set in during the 19th century. Growing competition in agricultural products, the abandonment of the plantations by the Afro-American laborers due to the abolition of slavery, assimilation, and emigration were the main causes of this decline.

Among those who remained, many became well integrated within the upper classes of the countries where they lived and continued to contribute to the development of the area.

Today in Curaçao, Surinam, Jamaica, and Panama there are active Spanish-Portuguese communities whose roots can be traced back to settlers originating from the Iberian peninsula. Their flagging Jewish identity was strongly aroused by the establishment of the State of Israel. In some places (St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; Barbados) new communities have taken over and continue the work of the pioneers. In other places only remnants can be found, and it is simply a matter of years before these last links may disappear altogether. Elsewhere, the communities have disappeared, leaving only material remains – gravestones or synagogue ruins – as a final record of a distinguished past.

The Wild Coast (The Guianas)

The so-called Wild Coast stretches from the Amazon River on the east to the Orinoco River on the west. From the beginning of the 17th century European powers were greatly attracted to it owing to the possibility of importing tropical produce from it. The Portuguese were settled in the Amazon River basin and the Spanish occupied the Orinoco River banks, today Venezuela. Between them were the territories of *Cayenne (now French Guyana), Berbice, Demerara, Essequibo and Pomeroon (today the Republic of Guiana – formerly British Guiana), and Surinam (formerly Dutch Guiana).

To gain a foothold on the Wild Coast, the Dutch, the English, and the French began a series of expeditions that deteriorated into a series of armed conflicts among them, with territory passing from hand to hand, accompanied by murder, pillage, and destruction. This situation continued up to the 19th century.

The successful colonization of Dutch Brazil, its plantations, sugar mills, and commerce, along with the important Jewish presence there, made the Jewish exiles from Brazil a very desirable human reservoir for colonizing the Wild Coast. To attract the Jews to the area, the Dutch and the English (the French were not enthusiastic about drawing Jews to their territories) began to compete with each other in offering benefits to satisfy the Jews, namely, civil rights, free observance of their religion, Jewish schools, and observance of the day of rest – the Sabbath.

This resulted in "the Grant by the Dutch West Indies Company (Amsterdam Chamber) to David *Nassy and Partners for a Jewish Colony at Cayenne" dated September 12, 1659.

It is important to note that the rights and privileges given the Jews applied exclusively to the area of the Wild Coast, while the Jews were treated differently in other Dutch and English possessions.

To gain a secure foothold on the Wild Coast the colonial powers needed bases that could serve as refueling stations and a military backup. This was among the purposes served by the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Eustatius, Tobago, and Barbados.

Jewish settlement on the Wild Coast was quite tragic in most places, and the Jews, many of them refugees from Dutch Brazil, had to suffer a third or fourth exile. The Jewish settlers of Remire on the Dutch island of Cayenne, who had arrived in 1660, were forced to leave – one group in 1664, with the French occupation, the other with the English occupation in 1667. After having started a successful settlement in 1659 in Dutch New Middelburgh on the Pomeroon River, the Jews were evacuated in 1666 by the English to other English possessions after the total destruction of the settlement. In their new locations, the Jews again developed high-level plantations and produce, only to see it savagely plundered.

The only place on the Wild Coast where the Jews could attain permanent settlement was Surinam, where Jewish exiles from Cayenne and Tobago joined the Jewish settlers already there and were able to begin a normal life and a community that exists until today.


When *Surinam was settled by the English in 1652, they already found some Spanish-Portuguese Jewish families living there peacefully among the Indians. In 1665 the British Colonial Government granted several very important privileges to the Jewish community including freedom of religion, a Jewish civic guard, and the permission to work on Sunday while observing the Sabbath on Saturday. With the Dutch occupation in 1667, the Jewish rights and privileges were preserved, and special privileges were even added.

The Jews settled the so-called "Jewish Savanna" with flourishing plantations bearing biblical names and by the mid-18th century the Jews constituted more than half the white population of Surinam.

Economic decline of the community was largely due to the fact that export of sugar dropped off during the 19th century, the inhabitants made efforts to adapt the soil to other uses; as their efforts failed, they moved largely to the coastal areas and the capital Paramaribo. The Jewish population dropped off during the first quarter of the 20th century – there were only 818 Jews in 1923. During World War II a few Jewish refugees from the Netherlands and other parts of Europe settled temporarily in Surinam. By 1970 there were only about 500 Jews left in the community, which held alternating services at the synagogues of Congregations Neve Shalom and Zedek ve-Shalom, the congregations of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities respectively.

Surinam attained its independence in 1975 and maintains full diplomatic relations with Israel. As of 2000 some 200 Jews lived there. Two 18th century synagogues in the capital, Paramaribo, have been restored. There is a community organization and a newspaper, Sim Shalom, which appears in Dutch.

Netherlands Antilles

The Netherlands Antilles (or Dutch Antilles; formerly Dutch West Indies) are two groups of islands: Saba, St. Eustatius, and the southern half of St. Martin Island in the Leewards group; and Bonaire, Curaçao, located off the coast of Venezuela, and Aruba, independent under the Dutch crown; population (1990) approximately 184,000.

In 1621, the Dutch West India Company was formed to preserve and promote the Dutch interests on the American continent. One of its aims was "to remove the resources which Philip IV, king of Spain and Portugal, drew from his American possessions." The West India Company was, in a way, an instrument of war against Spain, and this purpose dictated many of the company's decisions when sending colonists to the New World.

The founder of the West India Company, William Usselinx, was a fanatic Christian who saw it as the company's duty to bring Calvinism to America. He was bitter when the company's charter hardly mentioned the Christianization of the new colonies. He was also a thoroughly convinced anti-Jew.

The company itself did not adopt his stance regarding the Jews but rather considered them as a positive colonizing element. Thus, even though the Dutch Reformed Church was the only religion permitted in the colonies, Jews were given the right to exercise their religion. It its initial policy the West India Company had taken into account the possibility of having a relatively high number of Jews among its settlers, and it gradually permitted the exercise of the Jewish religion. The priests of the official Dutch Reformed Church that prevailed in the Caribbean did not engage in missionary work and avoided wearing their frocks in public.


After the Dutch capture of Curaçao from the Spanish, *Curaçao had several governors who had various attitudes toward the Jews. In some cases the Jews had to apply to the Dutch West India Company's head office in Amsterdam or to the Jewish community there to defend their interests or to ask for justice. Peter Stuyvesant, who after being nominated governor of New Amsterdam, did not relinquish his post in Curaçao and continued with his anti-Jewish policy. Extreme in his anti-Jewish attitude was Balthazar Beck, captain of the Civil Guard, slave commissioner, and brother of Governor Mathias Beck (1668). Balthazar Beck had an "irreconcilable hatred for the Jews and he swore that he would be a second Haman to the Jews." Relations with the Dutch authorities improved in the 18th century. The company was more than satisfied with the growing commerce generated by the Jews, and with the taxes levied on this commerce. Most of the governors recognized the importance of the Jews for the islands' well-being, and by 1789 the Jewish population exceeded 2,000, about one-half of the total white population. During the 18th century, governors often entrusted Jews with delicate missions to Latin American countries. The Jews contributed liberally to the construction of fortresses, hospitals, and even churches. Three Jews attained the rank of commandant major of the Civil Guard, three others became presidents of the Colonial Council in the 19th century. Many Jews represented Holland as consuls in different cities in the Americas.

As the "mother community" of the Spanish-Portuguese congregations in the Caribbean, and actively assisting them until the first half of the 20th century, Curaçao also became the spiritual center of those communities all over the American contintent. Shearith Israel of New York, Mikve Israel of Philadelphia, and the Touro synagogue of Newport still mention in their services the assistance they received from Curaçao. The synagogues of St. Eustatius and Berakha ve-Shalom in the Jewish Savanna were refurbished by Curaçao. An important part of the community chest was for contributions to the Holy Land.


St. Eustatius is a small Dutch volcanic island with an area of 7.5 square miles, lying 250 miles from Puerto Rico, and a large natural port. By 1722, 21 Jews lived on this small island. By 1750 there were more than 450 Jews among the 802 free citizens of St. Eustatius. They originated from the refugees of Recife-Brazil, from Tobago, Surinam, North Africa, Curaçao, and Amsterdam. At a later stage several Ashkenazi families from Rotterdam joined the community. The Jews had full civil rights, except for serving in the Civil Guard, supposedly to save them from serving on Saturdays.

In 1737 the community of "Honen Dalim" was found, and in 1738 permission was given to build a synagogue on condition that "it does not disturb Christian religious services."

The St. Eustatius community had very close relations with that of Curaçao, and in 1772 when the synagogue was damaged by a hurricane, financial help came from Curaçao, Amsterdam, and the Spanish-Portuguese Jews of New York.

From 1760, St. Eustatius became the commercial entrepôt of the Caribbean region. Sugar was exported from the French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean to North America (in 1770 St. Eustatius exported 10 million kg of sugar), meat was imported from North America and Canada, corn from Venezuela, flour from Scandinavia, all with ships owned by St. Eustatius' Jews. The commerce embraced European ports and the Mediterranean ones; there were strong commercial ties with North African Jews. After 1760, between 1,800 and 2,700 ships anchored in St. Eustatius port each year. The record year was 1779 with 3,551 ships. St. Eustatius was the commercial center of the Americas and was called by many "The Golden Rock."

St. Eustatius Jews were instrumental in supplying arms and military equipment to the American revolutionaries from their sources in Antwerp and in France. The British Navy started seizing ships from St. Eustatius, many owned by Jews, on their way to North America. Nevertheless, in May 1776 alone, 18 ships from St. Eustatius reached the 13 colonies.

As the frequent British protests were of no avail, in 1781 British Admiral Rodney and General Vaughan invaded and captured the island. Admiral Rodney called the island a "nest of vipers." He arrested 101 Jewish heads of families who were maltreated and beaten, their property confiscated, and 30 of them banished from the island leaving their penniless families behind. Edmund Burke in a speech in the British Parliament condemned the treatment of St. Eustatius Jews.

In Nov. 1781, the French captured the island, tried to restore the plundered Jewish goods and money, and invited the Jews to remain.

When the Dutch captured the island in 1816 they found only five Jews.

Today the synagogue, ritual bath, and the Jewish warehouses remain in ruins.


Aruba is an independent autonomous island under the Netherlands crown. The first permanent Jewish settler was Moses de Salomo Levi Maduro in 1754. He was authorized to have farm land but was not permitted to have cattle. The Levi Maduros were joined by other Curaçao Jews. Between 1816 and 1926 they numbered about 30 people. The local Jews were usually dependent upon Curaçao for religious services. New immigrants from Eastern Europe reached Aruba in the 1920s. A cemetery was established in 1942 and an Orthodox synagogue, Beth Israel, was founded in 1962. The Jewish population in 2000 was estimated at around 200.


The island of Sint Maarten is divided roughly into two halves between the French and the Dutch. The Dutch side is part of the Netherlands Antilles.

In the 18th century there was a sporadic Jewish population, mainly refugees from the English raid on St. Eustatius. In 1783, there were enough Jews there to ask permission to build a synagogue, which was already in ruins by 1828 – not much is known of its short life. A disastrous hurricane and dwindling Jewish population brought an end to the community.


Tobago is an island part of the state of Trinidad and Tobago. The island was inhabited by the Arawak and the Carib Indian tribes. In 1652 Latvian Courlanders settled on one side of the island with the capital at Jekabspills, while the other side was settled by the Dutch (1654). In 1659 a boatload of Jews from Leghorn landed on the Dutch side of the island followed by a second one in 1660, comprising mainly Sephardi Jews from Leghorn. The Jews did not manage to found a settlement or a community. In 1661 the Jewish population was reduced to "poverty and misfortune." Some of the Jews managed to proceed to the Jewish settlement in Cayenne, others, including the famous poet Daniel Levi de *Barrios , whose wife died on the island, returned to Amsterdam.

French Antilles


Martinique and Guadeloupe are part of the French Overseas Departments. Upon the French occupation of Martinique in 1635, they found a number of Jews there who had arrived earlier from Amsterdam to serve as agents and managers for Dutch enterprises established on the islands. The Jewish presence changed dramatically with the Portuguese occupation of Dutch Brazil. Ships loaded with Jews and Dutch settlers roamed the Caribbean Sea exploring the possibility of settlement. Reaching Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1654 they were received with open arms by the French governors M. de Porquet and M. Houel, respectively, who overcame the bitter enmity of the Jesuit priests. The Jesuits saw the Jews as delinquents who had returned to Judaism after being Catholic. With the arrival of the Jews, both islands switched from tobacco culture to sugar cane. In a short while the Jews erected sugar mills and specialized in processing cocoa and vanilla. In 1661 there were 71 sugar mills in Guadeloupe, with Martinique lagging behind. By 1671, however, Martinique had 111 sugar mills with 6,582 workers and in 1685 reached 172 mills.

The most famous of the Jews, Benjamin d'Acosta de Andrade, specialized in sugar production and also found a way to transform the Indian cocoa drink, chocolate, into pellets and to export it to Europe.

The Jesuit priests did not relent. They finally managed to convince the French king, Louis XIV, to issue the "Black Code" in 1683, ordering the expulsion of the Jews from the French islands in the Caribbean. Most of the Martinique Jews settled on the Dutch island of Curaçao.

As for French *Haiti (today an independent state), despite the "Black Code" a limited number of Jews remained, mostly foreign citizens (Dutch, Danish, or English) or holders of special residence permits (lettres patentes). These Jews specialized in agricultural plantations. Portuguese Jews from Bordeaux and Bayonne settled mainly in the southern part of Haiti (Jacmel, Jeremie, Les Cayes) and Jews from Curaçao in the northern part (Cap Haitien). With the slave revolts at the end of the 18th century, Jews gradually abandoned Haiti for other Caribbean islands or for the United States (New Orleans, Charleston).

British West Indies

Although the English colonial authorities were very generous in 1665 in granting rights and privileges to the Jewish settlers in Surinam, this was not the case in the English islands of the Caribbean. Jews in these islands were mainly merchants and not planters, creating envy among the English colonists. There the authorities, even though benefiting from the Jewish commerce, preferred to have the Jews as first-class merchants but second-class citizens. It was only in 1820 in Barbados and 1826 in Jamaica that the Jews received full civil rights, and all disabilities against them were removed.

Another difference was that in the English islands the Jews, although relatively numerous, did not reach the majority of the white population as was the case in Surinam, Curaçao, St. Eustatius, and St. Thomas.


*Barbados , a small island of the Lesser Antilles, uninhabited when settled by the English in 1627. Jews began to arrive mainly as sugar specialists from Dutch Brazil a year later. In 1654 a Jewish community was founded and the synagogue Nidhe Israel was established. A second synagogue, Semah David, was founded in Speighstown. By 1679 the Jewish population had reached 300 and by 1750 between 400 and 500, all of the Spanish-Portuguese. Decrees levying special taxes on the Jews, prohibitions barring Jews from employing Christians as their plantation workers, and lack of civil rights prevented the Jews from having a comfortable life in Barbados.

The Speighstown community was destroyed in 1739 by a mob that burned the synagogue and drove the Jews out of town, a very unusual incident in the Caribbean. Bridgetown Jews gradually began to abandon the island for the island of Nevis, for England or New York. By 1848 only 70 Jews remained; in 1925 the last professing Jew died. Nidhe Israel was abandoned.

With the rise of Nazism in Europe about 30 Jewish families, mostly from Eastern Europe but also from the island of Trinidad, settled in Barbados.

In 1987 the synagogue Nidhe Israel was restored and the old Jewish cemetery cleaned.


*Jamaica was a Spanish colony from 1494 to 1655. During that period there was a constant stream of Jewish settlers from Spain and Portugal who came as Conversos and found Jamaica a place in which they could live, away from the centers of the Inquisition.

In 1655 the British occupied the island and were welcomed by the Conversos, who threw off their guise and started openly to profess their Jewish religion. In the same year they founded a synagogue in Port-Royal. After a disastrous earthquake which completely destroyed Port-Royal, synagogues were erected in Spanish Town (Neve Shalom, 1704) and Kingston (Shaare Shamaim, 1750).

Jews fleeing Recife after the Portuguese reconquest arrived in Jamaica in 1662. They were joined by Spanish-Portuguese Jews from England in 1663, from Essequibo in 1664, and in the next years there were Jewish arrivals from Surinam, Barbados, Bordeaux, Bayonne, and even from Amsterdam.

Under the British the Jews were permitted to own land and to profess their religion openly. This resulted in Jewish settlements all over the island, attested by the 23 Jewish cemeteries existing in different localities. In a short time the Jews with agricultural plantations controlled the sugar and vanilla industries, and those in the towns were the leaders in foreign trade and shipping.

With their success, the Jews fought for complete equality with the other British subjects on the island. In 1700 the Jews paid the bulk of the taxes levied in Jamaica.

In 1831, all disabilities against the Jews were removed. The Jews of Jamaica now started to play a prominent role in the political, social, and cultural life of Jamaica.

By 1881 the Jewish population had reached 2,535, out of 13,800 whites in Jamaica.

In the 20th century the Jewish population was reinforced by the arrival of Jews from Syria and Germany. However, the Jewish population diminished due to economic decline, emigration, and intermarriages. Today, 90 percent of the Jews live in Kingston, and the synagogues of Shaarei Yosher, Shaarei Shamaim, and Shaarei Shalom have amalgamated in Shaarei Shalom to form the United Congregation of Israelites. In 1969 the Jewish population was about 600, but today less than 300 remain. Jewish institutions are maintained, including the Hillel Academy school, a home for the aged, WIZO, synagogue sisterhood, and B'nai B'rith.


A permanent Jewish settlement in the island of Nevis was started in 1671 by Jews from Barbados and the oldest grave in the Jewish cemetery is from 1679. In 1688 a synagogue was built. Some Jews were plantation owners, others were merchants in the capital of Charlestown. In 1724 Charlestown had 300 white inhabitants, of which one-fourth were Jews, and they continued growing until 1772 when a disastrous hurricane all but destroyed the island and most of its Jews left. The last Jewish grave dates from 1768. The Jewish school, where Alexander Hamilton studied, still existed in 1772.

The Jewish cemetery in Nevis was rededicated in 1971, by Jewish volunteers residing on the island.

Virgin Islands – St. Thomas, St. Croix

The *Virgin Islands were formerly the Danish West Indies. The settlement began in 1655, and from the outset Spanish-Portuguese Jews moved there. They came as shipowners, and actively participated in the sugar, rum, molasses, and general trade with Europe and the American colonies. The Jewish settlers came from Recife (Brazil), Surinam, Barbados, France, and Holland.

A community existed on the island of St. Croix, and in 1766 there was a synagogue and a cantor. The oldest grave in the Jewish cemetery of Christianstad, St. Croix, dates from 1779.

The exodus of St. Eustatius Jews in 1781 helped the formation of a Jewish community in St. Thomas. In 1796 the congregation Berakha ve-Shalom ve-Gemilut Hasadim (Blessing and Peace and Acts of Piety) was established and a synagogue erected, still in service today.

The 1837 census shows the number of whites in *St. Thomas were 250 Danes and Germans, 250 Anglo-Saxons, 350 French and Italians, and 400 Jews. In 1850 in St. Croix the Jews numbered 372, whereas in St. Thomas there were 800 Jews, more than half of the island's inhabitants.

In March 1684 the Danish West India Company nominated the Jew Gabriel Milan, originally from the Hamburg Portuguese Jewish community, as governor of St. Thomas over all other candidates. His governorship was marred by high-handedness. He arrested his predecessor, did not consult the council over his decisions, and alienated the planters. Recalled to Denmark, Milan was accused of rebellion and beheaded in 1689. Historians deduce that the trial had antisemitic overtones.

In 1814 the Jews received full civil rights and in 1835, Jews were given the freedom to intermarry with gentiles.

With the opening of the Panama Canal, and the transfer of the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix to the United States, commerce declined and the Jewish population diminished. By 1942 there were no more than 50 Jews on the island. Most of the Virgin Islands Jews emigrated to Panama.

The U.S. government named two Jewish governors of the islands – Morris Fidanque de Castro and Ralph Paiewonsky.

Today the Jewish population is increasing due to the influx of Jews from the United States. The community is active, preserving the synagogue and community life.

Among the prominent Virgin Islands Jews have been David Levi *Yulee from St. Thomas, the first Jewish senator in the United States; Judah P. *Benjamin of St. Croix, secretary of state and war in the confederacy; and Camille Jacob *Pissarro of St. Thomas, who became one of the founders of French Impressionism.

Caribbean Jews in the Liberated Colonies of Spain


*Venezuela was the country on the South American mainland closest to the island of Curaçao where a well-established flourishing community existed. Jews from Curaçao traded with Venezuela, helped by their knowledge of the Spanish language, the ownership of ships, and the favorable location of Curaçao. Jews used to exchange manufactured goods for tobacco, hides, coffee, corn, powdered gold, and cocoa. Even the Inquisition saw the benefits of this trade and tolerated it.

After the short-lived community of *Tucacas (1693–1720), there was almost no Jewish presence until the liberation from Spain.

After the liberation of Venezuela, Bolivar invited the Curaçao Jews to settle there and help the development of the newly independent state. Starting in 1821, Spanish-Portuguese Jews started to settle in various Venezuelan cities, namely, Barcelona, Caracas, Carabobo, Barquisimiento, Maracaibo, and Puerto Cabello. The main Jewish settlement was in Coro, some 35 miles (60 km) from Curaçao.

In 1830 the Venezuelan government passed a law giving foreigners equal rights. In that year David de Samuel Hoheb was elected mayor of Coro, and a Jewish cemetery was established. However, the non-Jewish merchants in Coro initiated a campaign against the settlement of Jews. This was one of the reasons why, although the Jews had the right to build a synagogue, they did not do so and used to pray in private houses. By 1848 the community numbered 160 and was growing. There were anti-Jewish riots in 1848 and 1854, when the government of Curaçao sent warships to protect its Jewish citizens in Coro, the Jews of Coro were evacuated to Curaçao. The Jews returned in 1858 after their right for reparations had to be recognized. Still an anti-Jewish feeling remained.

Although small in number the Jewish community of Coro became influential all over Venezuela. Dr. Jose David Curiel became president of the Supreme Court of Justice, his brother Elias Curiel was a national poet and writer, and David Lopez de Fonseca held high political posts including that of senator.

The Jews of Coro never had a feeling of security and, even after three generations, saw their situation as temporary. Most of the Jews started leaving Coro for Caracas and Maracaibo in the 20th century, and today only one or two Jews remain.

In 1970 the minister of public works, José Curiel (the grandson of the mohel [ritual circumciser] of Coro), restored the old Jewish cemetery, and it is kept as a national monument.

Spanish-Portuguese Jews in Venezuela, descendants of Curaçao and Coro Jews, have distinguished themselves in Venezuelan life.


Already in 1819 the government of *Colombia accorded the Jews the right to settle, religious liberty, and political privileges identical with those of other citizens, and the Inquisition was officially abolished two years later.

Jews, mainly from Curaçao with a sprinkling from Jamaica and Surinam, started settling in Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast and to a lesser extent in Riohacha and Santa Marta.

In 1855 Barranquilla became one of the principal cities in Colombia and its Jews were involved in steamship companies, railroads, and river transportation. In the 20th century Ernesto Cortissoz founded the first airline in Latin America, which is still in operation today under the name Avianca (the international airport in Barranquilla is named after him).

The Barranquilla Spanish-Portuguese Jews founded several banks and some were prominent in national affairs.

The Jews used to pray in private houses until they decided to form their synagogue in the house of Augustin Senior in 1880. In 1874, the Jews formed the "Colombian Jewish Community," at that time numbering 61 souls, and founded a cemetery.

Colombia being under strong Spanish influence did not adapt easily to Jewish presence and from time to time there were anti-Jewish phenomena. One famous incident in the mid-19th century was the murder of Moshe Lopez-Penha, when he refused to bend his knees during a Catholic procession.

The 20th century brought an influx of Jews from Europe and the Middle East to Barranquilla. However, by the end of World War II, there were no practicing Jews remaining there from the Spanish-Portuguese community.


Although a Spanish territory, *Panama , due to its geographic location, served as a transit point for many Spanish-Portuguese Jews en route from North to South America or from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Sephardi Jews settled there under the guise of New Christians or as "Portuguese merchants" which became a synonym for Jews. The Inquisition in Lima from 1569 and later from 1610 in Cartagena, Colombia, sent emissaries to try to control the activities of the so-called "New Christians" in Panama. Prominent Conversos citizens of the Spanish Colony were arrested by the Inquisition. Sebastian Rodriguez, who decided to establish a secret synagogue in the city of Panama, was arrested and condemned by the Inquisition of Cartagena in 1643.

The settlement of Jews in Panama started in 1836, when Panama served as the land route from the eastern U.S.A. to rapidly developing California. Jews from Jamaica and Guadeloupe formed transport companies. The 1851 cholera epidemic in Jamaica and the 1867 hurricanes in the Virgin Islands brought a new wave of the Jews to Panama. These were joined at the turn of the century by Jews from Curaçao.

In 1876 the community of Kol Shearith Israel was founded, and in the same year the cornerstone of the Jewish cemetery was laid. In 1890 the Spanish-Portuguese community in the city of Colon founded "Kahal Kdosh Yaacov."

The Spanish-Portuguese community in Panama took a prominent part in the life of the Republic of Panama, and has included two presidents of the republic – Max Shalom Delvalle (1969) and his nephew, Eric Shalom Delvalle (1987–88).

From the 1920s the Spanish-Portuguese Jews were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and Jews from the Middle East.

Kol Shearith Israel is considered the most active Spanish-Portuguese community in Latin America. It participates in maintaining a Jewish school, the sisterhood of Kol Shearith Israel, and other Jewish organizations.


Spanish and Portuguese Jews settled in Central America and the Spanish-held Caribbean islands mostly after the liberation of these regions from Spain. Before that period some Jews lived there as British or Dutch citizens.

The Jews arriving in *Costa Rica during the 19th century came from the Netherlands, Denmark, or British Antilles, most of them via Panama. At the turn of the century there were 26 family groups of Spanish-Portuguese Jewish origin in Costa Rica. They did not manage to form a community, and by the mid-20th century the majority had assimilated into the local population.

In *El Salvador and *Honduras there were even fewer Spanish-Portuguese Jewish families. One of their descendants, Dr. Juan Lindo, was president of El Salvador 1841–42. He is remembered as the founder of the National University of El Salvador, author of the second constitution, and the law to build schools in every village. In El Salvador there were three or four family groups of Spanish-Portuguese Jews originating in St. Thomas who became noted coffee planters and agro-industrialists.

Juan Lindo was also president of Honduras in 1847–1852 where he distinguished himself as an educator and jurist. In 2002, Ricardo Maduro, of Jewish origin, was elected president of Honduras.

In the *Dominican Republic , in the old Jewish cemetery (later renamed "the foreigners' cemetery") the oldest grave is from 1826. Even earlier Jews from Curaçao lived there under Spanish rule as Dutch citizens.

In 1856 after a commercial treaty was signed between Holland and the Dominican Republic, more Jews from Curaçao came to settle in Santo Domingo, Monte Christi, Puerto Plata, La Vega, and St. Pedro Macoris.

These Jews never organized as a community. They prayed in private homes and had a ḥazzan-mohel for marriage ceremonies and circumcisions. Some of them and their descendants achieved prominent positions, including President Francisco Henriquez y Carvajal, a grandson of Jews, who took office in 1916.

A prosperous settlement of German Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution, Sosua, on the Atlantic coast, has been decimated by intermarriage and emigration. Almost all of the Spanish-Portuguese Jews assimilated into the local population.

Not much is known about the Jews in Belize. The Jewish cemetery, situated south of Belize city, has tombstones of Spanish-Portuguese Jews originating from Hamburg. There is a theory that Jews of St. Eustatius settled in Belize after the destruction of their Jewish community.

Comfortable Disappearance

Although the Caribbean area was dominated by several independent countries, and Dutch, British, and French colonies, the Spanish-Portuguese Jews of the Caribbean lived as one national unit, calling themselves the Caribbean Jewish Nation. Since the 20th century the gradual disappearance of Jewish life in the region has become discernible.

At the beginning of the 21st century the situation can be summed up by noting that the only active Spanish-Portuguese communities in the Caribbean area are those of Curaçao, Jamaica, Surinam, and Panama. The community in St. Thomas is still active, with very few Spanish-Portuguese members. The communities mentioned have a diminishing number of congregants. In Latin America (except for Panama), Caribbean Jews have almost completely disappeared. A disappearance without acts of antisemitism, pogroms, or discrimination can be called a "comfortable disappearance." An examination of the causes of such a fading away can serve as an example for other communities in similar situations.

Most of the Spanish-Portuguese Jews in the Caribbean had returned to Judaism after living for three, four, or more generations as New Christians. In that period they had to do without religious leaders, schools, synagogues, and orderly communities. They could only practice limited Judaism in secret. Once in America, they became dependent upon hahamim (rabbis) brought in from Europe. The hahamim led the communities along the path of strictly Orthodox observance. The temperament of the imported leadership clashed with the lax way of life and morals in the tropics and the distances of the Jews from the synagogue.

We see in *responsa from Istanbul, Salonika, and Amsterdam that the special conditions in tropical America were not always taken into consideration in rendering rulings on questions of religious observance. This created opposition among the younger generations and alienated them from communal life.

The Reform movement saw the Caribbean as an area ripe for the introduction of Reform Judaism and the movement met with success in the Jewish communities of St. Thomas, Curaçao, Jamaica, and Panama. The Jews of Surinam continue with strictly Orthodox ways.

The Reform movement introduced its own prayers and brought its own religious leaders to the islands. Gradually it began erasing the Sephardi (Iberian) roots and traditions so dear to the Spanish-Portuguese communities all over the world.

The sand-covered floors of the synagogues in Surinam, Curaçao, St. Thomas, and Jamaica have a special meaning for the Caribbean Jews. These floors are the link to the past. The walking on sand gives one a sense of silence, tranquility, and respect that were so typical of Caribbean Jewish prayer. The synagogue in Panama and the rededicated one in Barbados have concrete floors, and the feeling is that something has been lost.

The hymns that were sung in Spanish were replaced with English texts set to non-Sephardi melodies. An effort has now been made to preserve what remains of the Sephardi heritage. They still want to be connected with their common past. The synagogue was no longer felt to be an intimate family center, but only a temple for prayers. Of late, this situation has been corrected. Neither Orthodoxy nor Reform has found a way to preserve Judaism in the Caribbean.

Hispanidad (The Spanish Way of Life)

After about 200 years of life in English-, Dutch-, or Danish-speaking islands, the Jews were permitted to settle in Spanish-speaking countries, but this time they were well received, with equal rights, and in most places respected and appreciated. The Jews excelled in the Spanish language, which they preserved; they always wanted connections to Spanish culture. The widespread social acceptance of Sephardi Jews led to intermarriage and assimilation. The Sephardim took pride in their Jewish ancestry and their Spanishness, but they were being lost to Judaism.

Spiritually, Caribbean Jews depended on guidance from Istanbul, Salonika, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Bordeaux, and Bayonne. These communities served as their link to Judaism. With the advent of Nazism, and the destruction and disappearance of most of those Sephardi communities, the Caribbean Jews began to lose hope. The Holocaust broke them in spirit. For some the birth of the State of Israel came too late; they only hope that for those who have remained Jews, the existence of Israel will strengthen their resolve to continue to be Jews.

Another factor in the gradual disappearance of the Spanish-Portuguese Jews in the Caribbean is the arrival of Ashkenazi and Oriental (Middle Eastern) Jews in Latin America. Most of them started life as peddlers or petty shopkeepers. They did not know the Spanish language or culture. This was seen as detrimental to the standing of the Spanish-Portuguese Jews as bankers, shipowners, professors, generals, and even presidents of republics. They did not wish to be lumped together with the newcomers and endanger their high social standing.

Another reason for the decline of the Jewish population in the Caribbean area was its gradual replacement as a center for the production of sugar, vanilla, cocoa, and other tropical products. Africa and southeast Asia also became suppliers of these commodities. Transatlantic ships no longer needed coal stations. This caused a reduction in the importance of Jewish trading and shipping companies in the region. Caribbean Jews saw the opportunities offered by the United States. This tendency has drained the Jewish communities of the younger generation, usually educated and trained in American universities.

Curiously enough, the relatively new communities in Latin America (excluding Panama) have almost completely disappeared, whereas the older ones – dating back nearly 350 years – still exist, as in Curaçao, Surinam, and Jamaica. They are declining numerically but feel great pride in belonging to the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Nation of the Caribbean, its rich history, its tradition, and the spirit of the pioneer builders and entrepreneurs of the first settlements in America.


CARIBBEAN: M. Arbell, The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean (2003); Spanish-Portuguese Jews in the Caribbean and the Guianasa Bibliography (1999); Z. Loker (ed.), "Jews in the Caribbean" (1991). SURINAM: D. Nassy, Essai Historique sur la Colonie de Surinam (1788; English trans., Papers of the AJA, no. 8 [1974]); F. Oudschans Dentz, De Kolonisatie van de Portugeesch Joodse Natie (1975). GUIANA: J. Meijer, Pioneers of PauromaEarliest History of the Jewish Colonization of America (1956); S. Oppenheim, "An Early Jewish Colony in Western Guiana," in: PAJHS, 16 (1907): 95–186, 209–220. J. Rodway & T. Watt, Chronological History of the Discovery and Settlement of Guiana, 1493–1668 (1888). CAYENNE: A.J.L.F. La Barre, Description de la France Equinoctiale (1666); Z. Loker, "Le Juifs a Cayenne," in: La Grand Encylopedie de la Caribe (1990); NETHERLANDS ANTILLES: I. and S. Emmanuel, History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles (1970); Ch. Goslinga, A Short History of the Netherlands Antilles and Surinam (1979). Curaçao: I.J. Cardozo, Three Centuries of Jewish Life in Curaçao (1954); J.M. Corcos, A Synopsis of the History of the Jews of Curaçao (1897); M. Arbell, "Ha-Kehillah ha-Yehudit be-Sant Usteyshus," in: Peamim, 51 (1992); J. Hartog, The Jews and St. Eustatius (1976). Barbados: E.M. Shilstone, Monumental Inscriptions in the Burial Ground of the Jewish Synagogue at Bridgetown, Barbados (1956); W.S. Samuel, Review of the Jewish Colonists in Barbados in the Year 1680, in: TJHSE 13 (1932–35, 1936): 1–111; M. Arbell, "The Portuguese Jews of Barbados," in: Nova Renasnenna (1998). Jamaica: J.A.P.M. Andrade, A Record of the Jews in Jamaica (1941); M. Arbell, The Portuguese Jews of Jamaica (2000). MARTINIQUE, GUADELOUPE, HAITI: M. Arbell, "Jewish Settlements in the French Colonies in the Caribbean (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti) and the 'Black Code,'" in: Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West (2001); A. Cahen, "Les Juifs dans les colonies francaises au xviii siecle," in: Revue des Etudes Juives, 4 (1882): 127–45, 238–72. VIRGIN ISLANDS: S.T. Relkin and M. Abrams, A Short History of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas (1983); E. Baa, "Sephardic Communities in the Virgin Islands" (1960). VENEZUELA: I.S. Emanuel, The Jews of Coro, Venezuela (1973). COLOMBIA: I. Croitoru Roitbaum, De Sefarad al Neosafaradismo (1967). PANAMA: A. Osorio Osorio, Judaismo en Inquisicion en Panama Colonia (1980); E.A. Fidanque, Jews and Panama (1970). DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: A. Lockward (ed.), Presencia Judia en Santo Domingo (1994); COSTA RICA: R. Kalina de Pisk, Sefaraditas en Costa Rica antes y despues del Siglo XIX (1981).

[Robert Cohen / Mordecai Arbell (2nd ed.)]

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