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Group of islands in the North Atlantic adjoining the Gulf of Mexico; so named because supposed by Columbus, who discovered them, to be India reached by the western route. For convenience the Dutch possessions in South America are known as the Dutch West Indies, and are treated here. Kayserling asserts that the Jew Luis de Torres, who accompanied Columbus in 1492, settled in Cuba and died there. Jewesses who had been forcibly baptized are known to have been sent to the West Indies by the Spanish government. Thus the Jews have been identified with these islands from the time of their discovery; but although families of Crypto-Jews are known to have lived in Cuba during four centuries, it was not until 1881 that they were legally admitted into the Spanish colonies; nor did they obtain full rights until the Spanish-American war. As late as the year 1783 the Inquisition claimed its victims from among the Cuban Maranos. It is probable that the buccaneers obtained the assistance of Jewish residents, who were always antagonistic to the Spanish government.

The Portuguese were no less intolerant toward the Jews; and on their capture of Brazil from the Dutch in 1654 they exiled numbers of Jews. These sought refuge in the Dutch colonies, especially in Curaçao, to whose prosperity they have notably contributed until the present time. It was the tolerance shown by the Dutch and British governments which helped to build up the supremacy of those powers in the West Indies. France was nearly as intolerant as Spain; but prior to the promulgation of the "Code Noir" (1685) Jews were allowed, mainly through the policy of Colbert, to reside and trade in the French West Indies, despite the hostility of the Jesuits. In the eighteenth century laws were passed permitting some Jews to live in the West Indies; and in 1722 David Gradis established a business at St. Pierre, Martinique, and two years later a branch office in Santo Domingo. He sent out merchantmen from Bordeaux, carrying cargoes of alcohol, meal, and pickled meat; and his family gradually grew so wealthy and powerful that the efforts of the colonial authorities to expel it were unavailing. Abraham Gradis, son of David, traded between Bordeaux, the French West Indies, and Canada, and was granted exceptional privileges, such as the right of acquiring real estate.

View of the "Joode Savaane," Surinam, Dutch Guiana.(From a seventeenth-century print.)Curaçao and Surinam.

Jewish activity in the West Indies commenced in the middle of the seventeenth century, at a time when the exiled Spanish Jews had already made their influence felt in Amsterdam and in the Levant trade. Jews sent out by the government of the Netherlands had colonized Surinam and Curaçao, in which latter island there were twelve Jewish families in the year 1650. Governor Matthias Beck was directed to grant them land and to supply them with slaves, horses, cattle, and agriculturalimplements. Their settlement was situated on the northern outskirts of the present district of Willemstad, and is still known as the Jodenwyk. In 1651 there was a large influx of Jews into Curaçao, under the leadership of Jan de Illan, who had the rights of patroon, and the contractor Joseph Nuñez de Fonseca, known also as David Nassi. The settlement was successful; and by reason of the tolerant attitude of the government large numbers of Jews went thither from Brazil after the Portuguese conquest of that country in 1654. The settlement became increasingly prosperous. A congregation was established in 1656, and a new synagogue built in 1692. In 1750 there were 2,000 Jewish inhabitants in the island, and at the present time (1905) the trade is almost entirely in the hands of Jews.

Jews had settled in Surinam prior to the occupation of that colony by the British (1665), when they were confirmed in all the privileges previously enjoyed by them, including full religious liberty. Summonses served on the Sabbath were declared to be invalid; and civil suits for less than the value of ten thousand pounds of sugar were to be decided by the Jewish elders, magistrates being obliged to enforce their judgments. Jews were permitted to bequeath their property according to their own laws of inheritance. In order to induce Jews to settle in Surinam it was declared that all who came thither for that purpose should be regarded as British-born subjects. In Feb., 1667, Surinam surrendered to the Dutch fleet, and in the treaty of Breda, which confirmed the Dutch in their possession, it was stipulated that all British subjects who desired to do so should be allowed to leave the country. In 1675 Charles II. despatched two commissioners with three ships to bring off those wishing to leave. The governor of Surinam, fearing that the emigration of the Jews would injure the prosperity of the country, refused to let them depart. According to a list which has been preserved, ten Jews, with 322 slaves, wished to go to Jamaica. The governor at first claimed that Jews could not be British subjects, and, being compelled to yield this contention, took advantage of the arrival of a frigate in the harbor to pretend that he had received fresh instructions from the Netherlands forbidding the migration of the Jews. Finally the British commissioners sailed away without having accomplished their purpose. The number of Jews in Surinam continued to increase, and a splendid synagogue was erected there in 1685; David Pardo of London, who officiated as its rabbi, died in Surinam in 1713. Maps still exist showing the position of the "Joodsche Dorp" and "Joode Savaane" in Surinam (see R. Gottheil in "Publ. Am. Jew. Hist. Soc." ix.). In 1785 the centennial of the synagogue was celebrated.


Jews were probably among the first colonizers of Barbados. In 1656 they were granted the enjoyment of the laws and statutes of the commonwealth of England relating to foreigners and strangers. Schomburgk relates that Jews settled at Barbados in 1628 ("History of the Barbadoes"). In 1661 Benjamin de Caseres, Henry de Caseres, and Jacob Fraso petitioned the King of England for permission to live and trade in Barbados and Surinam. The petition, supported by the King of Denmark, was referred to the Commissioners for Foreign Plantations, who reviewed the whole question of the advisability of allowing Jews to reside and trade in his Majesty's colonies, a matter which they said "hath been long and often debated." The request of the applicants was granted, but the principle was left undecided. About the time that this case was before the council, Jacob Josua Bueno Enriques, a Jew who had been for two years resident in Jamaica, petitioned the king for permission to work a copper-mine in that island. The result of this request is not known. In 1664 one Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita obtained letters of denization and relief from the provisions of the Navigation Act, but scarcely had these been obtained when he, with two sons and three other Jews, was banished from Jamaica for failure to find a promised gold-mine. His tomb has been discovered in New York. In 1671 Governor Lynch of Jamaica wrote to Secretary Arlington, opposing a petition requesting the expulsion of the Jews. Thenceforward their position became more secure. Despite special taxation in 1693, and a prohibition from employing indentured Christian servants (1703), the Jews' privileges were not afterward infringed. In 1802 an act of the Barbados legislature removed all the disabilities of the Jews.

There were Jewish colonists also in the Leeward Islands. A special act designed to prevent Jews from monopolizing imported commodities bears date of 1694. This was repealed in 1701 on the petition of the Jews, with the proviso that in case of war they should assist in the defense of the island to the utmost of their power, and further "behave themselves fairly and honestly for the future."


Spain and Portugal's loss was gain for the Dutch and British West-Indian colonies. For a few years the French possessions shared in the advantage. When France occupied Martinique in 1635 she found there a number of Jews whom the Dutch had brought with them as merchants or traders. For more than twenty years these were left unmolested, until their prosperity excited the envy of the colonists, and especially of the Jesuits, who caused various discriminating enactments to be issued from time to time against the Jews. Toward the year 1650 a Jew named Benjamin d'Acosta introduced into Martinique the cultivation of the sugar-cane. This benefit was rewarded with ingratitude; for when the epoch of toleration in France gave way to new persecutions under Louis XIV., an order of that king, dated Sept. 24, 1683, commanded that the Jews should be expelled from the French possessions in America. The "Code Noir" of 1685, referred to above, repeated this injunction. In spite of occasional complaints, Jews continued to enter the island during the eighteenth century. They remained subject to the caprices of the colonial governors until the Revolution, when all discriminations against them were abolished.

St. Thomas.

There exists a Jewish congregation in the Danish island of St. Thomas. After the sacking of St. Eustatius by Rodney in 1781, a number of Jews emigrated thence and settled in St. Thomas, where they in 1796 built a synagogue under the appellation"Blessing and Peace." In 1803 the congregation numbered twenty-two families, having been augmented by arrivals from England, St. Eustatius, and Curaçao. In 1804 the synagogue was destroyed by fire. It was replaced by a small building erected in 1812; and in 1823 this was superseded by a larger one. Ten years later a still larger synagogue was erected, the community having in the meantime increased to sixty-four families. In 1850 King Christian VIII. sanctioned a code of laws for the government of the congregation. There were at that time about 500 Jewish inhabitants in the island, many of whom held civil offices. Among the ministers were B. C. Carillon of Amsterdam and M. N. Nathan and Mayer Myers of England. Of recent years, however, the Jewish community of St. Thomas has greatly declined, numbering at the present time (1905) little more than fifty members. See also Barbados; Cuba; Curaçao; Jamaica; Martinique.

  • L. Wolff, American Elements in the Resettlement, in Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England;
  • Abraham Cahen, Les Juifs dans les Colonies Françaises au 18e Siècle, in R. E. J. iv., v.;
  • G. A. Kohut, Who Was the First Rabbi of Surinam? in Publ. Am. Jew. Hist. Soc. No. 5, 1892;
  • Dr. H. Friedenwald, Material for the History of the Jews in the British West Indies, ib. No. 5, 1897;
  • B. Felsenthal, The Jewish Congregation in Surinam, ib. No. 2, 1894;
  • B. Felsenthal and R. Gottheil, Chronological Sketch of the History of the Jews in Surinam, ib. No. 4, 1896;
  • Herbert Cone, The Jews in Curaçao, ib. No. 10, 1902.
J. V. E.
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