The history of the Jews in the Caribbean dates, according to some interpretations, back to Christopher Columbus and his first cross-Atlantic voyage on August 3, 1492, when he left Spain and eventually "discovered" the New World. His date of departure was also the day on which the Catholic Monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon decreed that the Jews of Spain either had to convert to Catholicism, depart from the country, or face death for defiance of the Monarch.
There were at least seven New Christians (converted Jews) who sailed with Columbus in his first voyage including Rodrigo de Triana, who was the first to sight land (Columbus later assumed credit for this), Maestre Bernal, who served as the expedition's physician, and Luis De Torres, the interpreter, who spoke Hebrew and Arabic, which it was believed would be useful in the Orient - their intended destination. (Note: Since not all conversos were crypto-Jews, some argue that to approach all of them as conscious "Jews" merely because of their ancestry, or because of what the Inquisition said about them is to reproduce old Iberian religious and racial prejudices.) In the coming years, New Christians of Jewish origin settled in the new Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Caribbean, where they believed that they would be safe from the Inquisition.
Nevertheless, several Jewish communities in the Caribbean flourished, particularly in those areas under Dutch and English control. By the 16th century, fully functioning Jewish communities had organised in Curaçao, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Barbados. In addition, there were unorganised communities of Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese territories, where the Inquisition was active, including Cuba and Puerto Rico, however, these Jews generally concealed their identity from the authorities.
Join the discussion: JEWISH NAMES OF jAMAICA
Book: HISTORY OF THE JEWS OF THE NETHERLANDS ANTILLES (TWO VOLUMES)
Book: The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean
- The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean: the Spanish Portuguese Jewish settlements in the Caribbean and the Guianas
Occasionally one comes across a book, which is unexpected, delights and inspires.
- Surinam, known as the ‘Jewish Savannah’, where a vibrant Jewish community was granted full and equal rights two hundred years before the Jews of other communities in the region.
- St Eustatius, where the economically successful Jewish community was plundered during the British occupation in 1781.
- Curacao, named the ‘Mother of Jewish communities in the New World’, where a prosperous Jewish community comprised nearly half of Curacao’s non-slave population and was the center of Jewish life in the region.
For all their economic and local political power, the Jews were little more than pawns in the 200-year struggle for control of the Caribbean by Holland, Great Britain, France and Spain. Eventually growing tired of this chess game, the Jews of the Caribbean drifted into assimilation or immigrated to the United States, where life was more secure.
An ideal resource and captivating read for those traveling to the region or people with an interest in Jewish history, this is an exceptional book that brings the Jewish communities of the Caribbean to life, with intensity, and with a heartbeat so strong as to secure their proper and rightful place in recorded Jewish history.
Author of The Jewish Nation o fthe Caribbean, Mordechai Arbell.
Mordechai Arbell was born in Bulgaria and immigrated to Israel with his family during the Second World War. After studies at Hebrew University, he joined the Foreign Ministry of the State of Israel, including posts as Consul in Bogota and Ambassador to Panama and Haiti.
He has devoted much of his life to documenting the story of Jews in the southern part of the New World. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East at Hebrew University, and is an advisor to the World Jewish Congress. Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
In 1655, Rabbi Menashe Ben-Israel, one of the outstanding personalities of Amsterdam's Jewish community, arrived in London to urge Oliver Cromwell, the "Lord Protector" of England, to look favorably upon the return of the Jews - who had been expelled from that country in 1290 - to England.
Ben-Israel (whose portrait is said to have been painted by Rembrandt), explained to Cromwell that although the Jews had been condemned to wander, "if one pursues us, another accepts us... and do we not see that those communities that have taken the children of Israel in do flourish, and their wages rise greatly." He emphasized to Cromwell that the dispersal of the Jews had not made them inferior, but rather that they were compared to "a tree that gives the tastiest fruit, and brings profit."
Speaking about dispersion and economic prosperity, Rabbi Menashe Ben-Israel no doubt also had in mind the Jewish experience in the Caribbean. In seventeenth-century Amsterdam, a time and a place in which Jews were freed from the oppression of the Inquisition and from generations of life as "New Christians," they could strengthen their community ties both inside and outside the city. Their growing international activity could openly rely on connections with fellow Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, Italy, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Asia and the Caribbean.
At the end of the seventeenth century one quarter of the shares of the Dutch East India Company were held by Jews. This archetype of an international trading company illustrates once more the historic role of the Jews as harbingers of globalization.
It is precisely in the Dutch colonies of the Caribbean that the Jews, for the first time in their Diaspora history, received full emancipation and equal rights.
This emancipation was fully recognized in Dutch Guiana (today's Suriname) in 1667, when the Dutch gained control over the colony. By this time, some of the Caribbean Jews had already arrived in New York, which until 1664 had been known as New Amsterdam. These initial immigrants helped build the most remarkable adventure of globalization the world has seen.
In the Caribbean, as this book demonstrates, the Jews helped transform some of the impoverished islands into sugar and cocoa industrial centers, and created major centers of global commerce later termed the "shopping mall of the Americas." As explained by Edward Long, the governor's secretary of Jamaica in 1774, "The Jews' knowledge of foreign lan- guages and intercourse with their brethren, dispersed over the Spanish and West Indian colonies, have contributed greatly to extend trade and increase the wealth of the island."
Dr. Avi Beker Secretary-General World Jewish Congress
More Sources of Information re Caribbean Jews.
- Jews of Caribbean Jamaica
- Wiki List of Caribbean Jews
- Jewish Caribbean Spanish Portuguese Settlements
- Stories of Caribbean Sephardim
- The Jews In Jamaica
- Jews in the American Colonies
- Caribbean Sephardic genealogy and a collection of family trees of Curaçao's Sephardic Community
- virtual tour jewish history