Jews began settling in commercial centers in Martinique in the early 17th century. Jewish merchants and traders arrived on the island, prior to the French colonization, along with the Dutch. One of France’s first colonies in the Caribbean was Martinique, on the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea. France conquered Martinique in 1635 and, shortly after, a large Jewish settlement began to form on the island. The first synagogue was founded in 1667.
Much of the Jewish population in Martinique became very prosperous during the 17th century. In 1722, David Gradis began a trading business in St. Pierre, Martinique. David and his son, Abraham, became so wealthy and powerful that they were not affected by French discrimination that often besieged the rest of the Jewish community.
Over time, the French merchants and the Jesuits in Martinique began to resent the success of the Jews on the island. In 1683, the Jews were expelled from Martinique by an order from King Louis XIV; many of these Jews went to Curacao. Many Jews, however, ignored the law and the Jewish community of Martinique continued to increase. All discriminatory laws against the Jews were terminated after the French Revolution.
In the 1960s and 70s, a Jewish community was formed in Fort de France by Jews from Northern Africa and France.
Today, approximately 90 Jews live in Martinique, predominately in Schoelcher. Both a community center and a synagogue exist in Schoelcher. The community center maintains a Torah study group, a youth group, and a chevra kaddisha. There is also a kosher market on the island.
Association Cultuelle Israelite de la Martinique
Sources: “History of the Jews of the Caribbean” by Ralph G. Bennett; World Jewish Congress; Header photo courtesy of Pascalou Petit