Barbados: A Jewish historical mystery

A vacation to Barbados leads to an investigation of the Sephardic role on the Caribbean island, according to an article by Alison Stein Wellner.

Wellner tore herself away from the beach and visited one of the oldest synagogues in the hemisphere (see the photos in the story).

While sunlight filtered in through the lancet windows, playing on the chandeliers and intricate wood lattice work on the balcony, I listened as Paul Altman described the island’s Jewish history in his island lilt -incongruous from someone who looks a great deal like a younger, more athletic Joe Lieberman. Altman is a second-generation Barbadian, real estate entrepreneur and one of the island’s most prominent Jews.

The Jews arrived in the 1640s and were already experts in sugar production in Brazil. The economy back then focused on sugar and its byproduct, rum.

The new Nidhe Israel Museum provides some insight. The Spanish/Portuguese Sephardim were conversos, posing as New Christians in public and Jews in secret. The Inquisition was after them and hiding in plain sight as Christians helped to keep them safe.

Spain claimed the New World, including the Caribbean, but Holland and England allowed the wealthy, internationally-connected and Spanish-hating Conversos to settle in those colonies. In Dutch Brazil, the Jews were in the sugar trade, and when the Portuguese recaptured Brazil in 1654 – expelling the Jews – many went to Barbados. Some others – about two dozen – went off to Nieuw Amsterdam (New York), but that’s another story.

Jews called Barbados the land of Coconut Milk and Sugar Cane. They built a synagogue and a mikvah – discovered last year in the synagogue’s parking lot by an archaeologist. Some 800 Jews lived there c1750, within a larger population of about 80,000.

Wellner visited the island again a few months later to speak to Dr. Karl Watson, a University of West Indies historian.

Watson’s writing a book about the Sephardim. His research includes investigation of business ledgers, minutes of the Synagogue’s Mahamad (board of directors), and some 300 Jewish wills (1670-1831). In these records, he sees intimate details of people’s lives. Who they left money to, who didn’t get any and personal histories.

He speaks of them as if they were his neighbors. “I feel like I know these people, even though they’ve lived and been gone for over 200 years,” he said a bit sheepishly. “Although I’m not Jewish, I go to their graves, I leave a pebble, and I say the one or two lines of kaddish that I know.”

Wellner visited today’s busy pedestrian mall called Swan Street, once the center of Jewish life, an once known as Jew Street.

According to Watson, most of the land was owned already before the Sephardim arrived, and there were restrictive laws of both land and people. Jews could only own one slave per Jewish person, while major sugar cane production required hundreds of slaves. The restriction ended in 1706, and by then Jews were already active as merchants and traders.

In the museum there’s a Jewish life timeline 1600-2000. For 1644-1654, it indicates that “Jews are sugar experts for British settlers.” According to Watson, this goes back to the Sephardic sugar plantations in Brazil. The island’s planters watched what the Jews were doing and borrowed technology.

In Ian Williams’ book Rum(Nation Books, 2005), writes Wellner, James Drax, an elite Barbadian planter with more than 700 acres, visited Brazil in 1640, and brought back two key innovations: a triple-roller sugar mill for crushing sugar cane, and copper cauldrons for boiling cane juice to get crystals. Williams credits the Jews for transferring the technology to Barbados, which they likely did as investors in sugar plantations they did not own. Watson’s ledgers show both investments in sugar plantations and certainly, handling the trade in sugar after it was harvested.

She asks Watson about the myth of the Barbados name – the bearded fig tree or bearded people?

“Well. There’s this myth that Barbados got its name from Portuguese, who landed here and found bearded men. Some said, well, those were Indians, and some said ‘no Indians didn’t have beards, this had to be some tribe of Judah, they were Orthodox Jews.’ Others say it doesn’t refer to humans at all, but the Bearded Fig Tree.”

There’s much more, so read the complete article and see the images. For more resources on Barbados, click here.

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