Caribbean Islands and the Guianas
The area of the Caribbean basin was one of the regions in which Spanish-Portuguese Jews (descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and particularly Jews from Portugal) settled in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
“The Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Nation of the Caribbean,” as they called themselves, founded flourishing communities and in certain localities (Curaçao, Surinam, St. Eustatius) made up the majority of the European population.
By the early years of the twenty-first century, several Caribbean Jewish communities had almost completely disappeared. Those still active—Jamaica, Curaçao, Surinam and Panama—are fighting what may be a losing battle against the trend toward assimilation and disappearance. In the Caribbean, Jews have enjoyed equal rights (and in some instances—e.g. Cayenne and Surinam—special privileges), good relations with the local population, high social standing, and a comfortable economic standard.
By the end of the sixteenth century and in the seventeenth, the European colonial powers became aware of the financial and economic possibilities of the Americas and the Dutch, English and Danish (and to some extent the French) authorities initiated a policy of colonization in all those American territories not already occupied by Spain or Portugal. Their main interest was the so-called “Wild Coast” (the Guianas) and the Caribbean islands.
These colonial powers saw in the Jews who had left Dutch Brazil after its occupation by the Portuguese (1654) a favored population for the settling of the Guianas. The Jews’ success in sugar plantations (in both growing and marketing sugar), in cultivating other tropical products, in shipping and in banking, along with their knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese and their adaptability to tropical conditions—owing to their experience in Brazil—all resulted in a series of efforts to attract Jews to their colonies.
The Jews settled in the island of Cayenne—a Dutch colony, today French Guyana; Pomeroon—a Dutch colony that became British Guiana and is today the Republic of Guiana; Surinam—an English colony that became Dutch, today the Republic of Surinam; Martinique; Guadeloupe, and Haiti—French colonies from which Jews were expelled in 1693 after Louis XIV signed the “Black Code”; the English islands Barbados and Nevis; the Dutch islands of Curaçao and St. Eustatius; the Danish West Indies—St. Thomas and St. Croix; and Jamaica—a Spanish colony occupied by the English in 1655, today independent.
With the liberation of the Spanish colonies in America in the nineteenth century, Jews of the Caribbean settled in Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.
Jewish life in the area can be viewed as constituting three overlapping periods:
The Jewish settlers tried their best to situate their plantations in a region settled almost exclusively by Jews, the “Jewish Savanna” in Surinam, a region of Jewish plantations, around a Jewish town—Jerusalem on the riverside.
The town had a synagogue, a Jewish court of law, a school and a unit of the national guard composed of Jews, with Jewish commanders. The plantation was quite a large settlement, numbering several hundred or even thousands. In 1694 the population of the Jewish Savanna totaled more than 570 Jews employing about nine thousand laborers in forty plantations, and in the mid-eighteenth century, two thousand Jews in 115 plantations with tens of thousands of laborers (Arbell 2002, 92). The Jews on the plantation were the owner, his wife and children, the overseer (not always Jewish) and the accountant. The others were plantation workers, usually salaried Indian workers or African slaves and house slaves. The owner’s wife was customarily in charge of the house slaves.
Jewish regions of the same type also existed on the island of Cayenne, around the town of Remire and in the “Jewish Quarter” on the seashore of Curaçao.
Details on the status of women during the plantation period are sketchy. The frequent changes of colonial power and the movement of the Jews from island to island left very few archives and scarce documentation.
The overseers took care of the plantations. The accountant oversaw financial matters. The owner’s wife was in charge of the house, the house slaves, the provision of food and the education of the children. The plantation owner dealt with the entire operation: agriculture, agroindustry, manpower and export, while also being active in the community and the synagogue, which were located in town.
Following Iberian tradition, Jewish women did not abandon their maiden name in marriage. If Abigail Henriques married Abraham Cardoso, her name became Abigail Henriques de Cardoso. The children retained both their father’s and their mother’s surnames. Thus the children of the aforementioned Abigail and Abraham had the surname Cardoso Henriques. In some cases, Jews adopted and kept their mother’s surname together with the father’s for future generations, so that in the Caribbean well known families were Gomes Caseres, Alvares Correa, and so on. One typical case: when Diego Rois Maduro was burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition at the beginning of the seventeenth century, his only daughter, Rachel Maduro, escaped to Amsterdam and married Moshe Levy. To prevent the effacing of the name Maduro by the Inquisition, Moshe Levy added Maduro to his surname. The Levy Maduro family, which is very famous in the Caribbean and Central America, includes two presidents of republics—Panama and Honduras. Moreover, there are several instances of the husband taking the wife’s maiden name.
The status of women in the Surinam plantations was described by a group of community leaders, headed by David de Isaac Cohen Nassy, who wrote a description of the community in 1788 stating: “a community whose members are, by religious principle, good husbands, good fathers … a community whose women, setting the example of integrity, are strongly attached to their husbands, despise finery and devote all their care to their households” (Nassy 1788, 1:112).
Yet being from the Portuguese community, they stressed:
…at home we restrain ourselves in the presence of our children…it is a question of least conversation no matter how little free it is before the daughters of the house; for it is the first care of the mothers not to leave their daughters with the Negresses and never to go out of the house without having them at their sides….Portuguese Jewish children are more attached to their parents than any in the place. (Nassy 1788, 2:155).
In a number of instances, there is mention of brutal treatment by Jewish women of the house slaves. The diary of an English officer in the Dutch army describes, among other cases, the whipping of a naked slave girl by a Jewish woman. The officer’s explanation was that the girl had had intimate relations with the woman’s husband, the owner of the plantation. The Jewish woman was banished to the town of the Jewish Savanna. (Stedman 1796, 1:34).
The officer did cite other instances of brutality by Jewish women to house slaves, but the editor noted that the Jews in general were relatively more humane to their slaves than other nationalities (Stedman 1796, editor’s note, xvii).
Jewish planters, who engaged in business relations with non-Jewish planters, enjoyed a fairly acceptable social standing. However, this was not the case with their wives. Officially Jews had equal rights, but socially Jewish women suffered from discrimination. A typical example appears in the narrative of the traveler Henry Bolingbroke, who notes after sojourning in Pomeroon: “A Dutch lady, out of superstition, will not visit a Jewess. The wives of the richest Jews were not invited to the official festival and balls of the Dutch governor” (Bolingbroke 1809, 206).
One of the institutions granting special rights to women in the Jewish community was the “Santa Compania para dotar donzelas” (the special fund dedicated to providing dowries for unmarried ladies). Most Portuguese Jewish communities had a dowry fund to facilitate marriage and to avoid spinsterhood. In the Caribbean and the Guianas, this was taken as a sacred trust and even when community budgets were constrained the leaders gave priority to the dowry fund. A typical, illustrative document from the Surinam community states that “In April, 1674, 8,000 pounds of sugar were granted to the daughters of J. Brandon of Amsterdam for each of his daughters who should get married,” with the explanation given for the community resolution as “because he had been one of the members of our congregation in Cayenne” (Nassy 1788, 1:26). (In 1664, the French occupied Dutch Cayenne and most of the Jews escaped to Surinam.)
As for property ownership by women, the extant marriage contracts tell us that ownership was preserved, and the situation is well summed up in the Essai Historique:
The marriages were performed with complete legitimacy, and the marriage contracts (ketubbot) had the right of preference over all debts, in favor of the women…Their income from personal property had the right of ownership as it was registered in the archive of the Jewish community. The same is the case with regard to their wills and other provisions. (Nassy 1788, 1:61).
Women’s property was also registered in the colonial administration. If it belonged to women who had inherited it from their husbands, they were listed as “widows”; in other cases, the property was held under the direct ownership of women. As illustrative examples one finds that (1) when a special tax was levied upon Jews for highway construction in Barbados in 1681, the list of taxpayers having property included Rebekkah Burges—2 May—77 lbs. of sugar; Judith Rozana—12 May—45 lbs of sugar (from “An Account of the Highways for the Parish of St. Michael’s for the year 1681,” unpublished manuscript in the possession of M. Arbell); (2) the lists of plantation owners in Curaçao contained, among others, Ester Alva Rodgriguez Nunes, owner of Berg Sinai, 1798; Leah Abraham Jesurun, Bona Vista, 1849; Rachel da Costa Senior, owner of Caracas Boá, 1855; Ester Ab. Jesurun, owner of Bottelier, 1874 (Emmanuel 1970, 622–728).
There were very few women among the shipowners, other than widows who inherited ownership. Still there were exceptions: Rachel Jesurun Henriquez, owner of La Solidad, 1772; Ester Penso Moron, owner of St. Carlos, 1772.
A special custom prevalent in the Caribbean area was a prenuptial agreement called “Shetar Halizah.” According to Jewish law a husband’s brother has to marry his widowed sister-in-law if she was left childless. This obligation could only be lifted by going through a halizah ceremony in which the widow takes off her brother-in-law’s shoe and denounces him for refusing to marry her. Until this ritual takes place, the widow cannot remarry and she remains an agunah (“anchored” woman).
To prevent this situation, in the Caribbean the groom’s brother gave the bride—at the marriage ceremony—in writing, a letter granting her halizah in case of the death of his brother. The wording, taken from an actual example from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1824, was as follows, “… the woman Esther, wife of my brother Uri, should hold it as proof that I have consented of my own free will … that if Esther will have need of halizah, I am obligated to free her of a valid halizah ….” (This halizah letter [see illustration], in the possession of M. Arbell, was given in Kingston, Jamaica, by Yitzhak Yehuda son of Eliezer to Esther daughter of Naftali Halevi, and was signed by two leaders of the community.) This custom was instituted to enable the widow to remarry, especially in Jewish communities where people traveled the high seas and were absent for years from their homes, meaning that the halizah ceremony could not be performed.
Some Jewish wills, however, do show that there were husbands who tried to prevent their widows from remarrying: “Joseph de Torris (1724) left most of his estate to his wife, but specified that his son would inherit if she should remarry. Isaac da Silva Fensequa (1767) left his wife money and property, as long as she remained a widow. Aaron Baruh Lousada (1768) willed his wife money, goods, and a pension of three hundred pounds a year that would cease if she should again marry” (from an unpublished manuscript by David M. Zielonka, “A Study of the Life of the Jews in Jamaica as Reflected in Their Wills, 1692–1798” (1963), 10, in the possession of M. Arbell.)
Other wills demonstrate clear discrimination between boys and girls. “Jacob de Castro (1729) willed three hundred pounds if the child to be born by his wife were a boy and 750 if a girl,” but conversely, “Aaron Baruh Lousada (1768) left one thousand pounds to an expected grandchild if a girl and two thousand pounds if a boy” (Zielonka manuscript, 9).
Education and Culture
Education of Jewish children on the plantations was difficult. At times the fathers or mothers were directly responsible for it, while the more affluent employed private tutors. The state of education in the planters’ society was best described by one of the greatest Jewish leaders of Surinam, David Cohen Nassy, upon his return in the second half of the eighteenth century from doctoral studies in the Unites States:
Jews brought remnants of a European education with them. The ancestors of the Portuguese Jews made use of the European education they had received in their country of origin, transmitting it to their sons. But they did not reap the benefits of their labors for two reasons—for lack of good teachers and wanting to concentrate upriver in their plantations, fearing still the Inquisition.
In the Jewish Savanna, they have concentrated on transmitting their Jewish heritage, and even that diminished over time. General education declined even further for, rich as they were, each settler resided peacefully on his plantation. Their children required neither the arts nor the sciences in order to earn a living. With the economic recession, it was necessary for the planters’ children to study. (Cohen 1991, 101).
Yet even under these conditions there were some prominent educated women. One of the most outstanding was the poet Benvenida Belmonte who composed her poems and ballads in the early years of the eighteenth century. In them she tells the heroic story of the Jewish military unit and Captains Jacob d’Avilar and David Cohen Nassi, defending Surinam and protecting Jewish plantations against marauding rebels. She is one of the few sources for learning about the Jewish history of Surinam. (Felsenthal–Gottheil 1896, 3; Nassy 1788, 1:99)
A famous female physician on the island of St. Eustatius, Hana de Leon (1715–1783), wife of Philip Benjamin, is described on her tombstone as a “skilled doctor and expert midwife.” She was an exception—both in keeping her maiden name, by which she was known professionally, and for having studied abroad (Hartog 1976, 99).
Opportunities for women to obtain education narrowed at the close of the eighteenth century when the Jews started to abandon their plantations for economic reasons (Europe began to produce sugar from beets and no longer depended on the Caribbean sugar cane) as well as owing to the anti-Jewish legislation on the English islands of Jamaica, Barbados and Nevis, which forbade Jews to employ Christians, limiting them to only one or two house slaves. Jews started to send their sons to study in Amsterdam, Bordeaux or the United States. Daughters could neither travel alone nor stay abroad unaccompanied. Thus, only girls who joined their brothers outside the Caribbean could obtain an academic education.
With the abandonment of the plantations, Jews turned to international commerce, creating centers of marketing with the Spanish colonies, North America, Europe and beyond, even reaching North Africa, India and China.
The heart of this commerce was the Dutch island of St. Eustatius, where the Jews were the majority of the white population. After the English occupation of the island in 1781, the center passed to St. Thomas in the Danish Virgin Islands. Another focal point was the Dutch island of Curaçao, where again Jews were the majority of the white population. With the opening of the Panama Canal, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a commercial center formed in the city of Colon, which attracted Jews from the Caribbean.
Status of Women
The frequent contacts with the outer world brought winds of change to Jewish life. The Jewish Reform movements in Germany and the United States began to influence the Jewish way of life and clashed with the Orthodox Hakhamim (rabbis) of the Caribbean, most of whom had come from the Balkans. After intense quarrels on some of the islands, compromises were reached preventing the dismemberment of the congregations. Surinam remained Orthodox; Jamaica and the Virgin Islands kept some Orthodox Sephardi customs; Panama became completely Reform (the Portuguese community). These changes also brought about a change in the status of women.
In 1844 in the Virgin Islands, the Hakham Benjamin Cohen Carillon introduced the confirmation ceremony affirming one’s becoming a member of the synagogue, with men and women having equal standing. The text of the “Certificate of Confirmation” reads as follows:
I Benjamin Cohen Carillon Minister of the Israelitish Congregation in this island, certify that on the eighth Shabat 5604 corresponding with 13 April 1844 I confirmed Hanna de Sola duly accepted as a member of the synagogue and entitled to all the rights and benefits thereof.
An eye-witness to this ceremony, a Mrs. Lazarus, relates “how beautiful the girls looked in their long white veils similar to bridal [veils]. Here was the first class confirmed on the island, the year following a class of young married women was confirmed” (Philipson 915, 180–82).
In Curaçao, in 1963, a new “United Portuguese Dutch Congregation” was formed, affiliated with Reconstructionist Judaism. Paragraph 6 of the conditions of merger between the previous congregations states that “the women may sit among the men and vice versa,” and Paragraph 12 determines that “the women shall be counted in the religious quorum or minyan.” (Emmanuel 1970, 506–12). Similar rules were adopted in Jamaica in 1979.
In Jamaica and Panama there is a Bat Mitzvah ceremony for girls reaching the age of twelve, in which girls read from the Torah. Since 1959, the ceremony has been held in Jamaica once a year for all girls reaching Bat Mitzvah age in that year.
Today, Jamaican Jews call themselves “Progressive Conservatives,” which they define as halfway between Orthodoxy and Reform. One of the customs in Jamaica, shared with other Caribbean communities except Surinam, is the evening Sabbath service where the Hakham calls a woman to the teva to light the candles and recite a blessing. The woman’s head is uncovered (Holzberg 1987, 46).
Economic Role of Women
During the plantation period, and particularly in Surinam, Ashkenazi Jewish women from poor families used to sell wares “through their Negresses both in the cities and in the plantations” (Nassy, 1:121). Portuguese Jewish plantation owners criticized this custom, seeing it as “undistinguished.” But after the plantations had been abandoned, Jewish women entered more openly into commerce. In St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, Jewish women dealt in what was called “the tray,” or in the local dialect, the “droga bowl.” Women imported scented soaps, jeweled hairnets, perfumes, laces, ribbons and braids from Europe. They sent out “pleasant black women crisply dressed wearing gay bandanas on their heads, carrying wide wooden vessels heaped with fineries for sale” (related in an unpublished manuscript, in the possession of M. Arbel, by Vida Lindo Guterman, “Joshua Piza and His Descendants” , 77).
With the development of commerce, women entered into shopkeeping, and when, in the nineteenth century, the port of Charlotte Amalie became an international port and coaling station in St. Thomas, women opened stores and depots for supplying the transatlantic ships. Very famous was the store owned by Hana de Piza, wife of the chief Hakham of the Virgin Islands (Lindo Guterman, 5). Her husband was not allowed inside, as “his presence disturbed the commerce” (Lindo Guterman, 6).
In Curaçao women were among the chief exporters to Amsterdam. For example, in the list for 1744 there appear Ester de Aron Motta; Ribca Alva; Rachel Henriques Moron; Sara de Mordechay Alvares Correa (Klooster 2001, 362–63).
By the end of the nineteenth century women had begun working in the large Jewish commercial and financial enterprises in Curaçao and Jamaica. Starting as secretaries, they worked their way up to executive positions. Women also specialized as actuaries, directors of insurance companies and accountants.
Education and Culture
To compensate for the diminishing level of education during the plantation period, Solomon de Montel in Surinam founded the “Docendo Docemur” (“We are taught by teaching”) society. In 1785 David Nassy upgraded it into a college of literature in which “both sexes of the age of puberty are welcome” (Cohen, 101). This was in addition to the Sunday school lessons given in the synagogue for boys only.
With the cultural upsurge, Jews founded public and private libraries in which books in many languages were available.
In Curaçao a bet midrash existed for Jewish boys who could later continue to study at the yeshiva. For general education boys attended public schools, while young females had private tutors at home. With the establishment of secondary schools in 1885, girls participated in studies—but only in limited numbers. A change came only after World War II, with greater female presence in secondary education. Owing to the lack of universities in Curaçao, Jewish youth, including young women, studied abroad. This, however, led to the so-called Americanization of the community, and the female students who married in the United States usually remained there with their husbands.
In Jamaica in 1843 a Beit Limud (House of Study) and a Sunday school were founded in Kingston for all Jewish children. A parallel girls-only school was established in 1844 (Holzberg 1987, 95). In 1847 the Ashkenazi community joined the schools and together with the Sephardi community opened the Hebrew National Institution for both boys and girls. This was eventually followed in 1967 by the Hillel Academy for higher education.
On the small island of Nevis, a Jewish primary school, under a Jewish school mistress, existed in the second half of the eighteenth century; one of its pupils was Alexander Hamilton.
With the liberation of the Spanish colonies in America and the abolition there of the Courts of the Inquisition (in the first quarter of the nineteenth century), Caribbean Jews began to settle in Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Being received with open arms and once again encountering the Spanish language and culture, the Jews began a rapid process of assimilation. Jews of both sexes intermarried with the local population, and the Jewish communities started disappearing. This “comfortable disappearance” (Arbell 1998) left only four active Jewish communities in the Caribbean—Curaçao, Jamaica, Surinam and Panama.
“Sisterhoods” active in the communities (except for Surinam) are in charge of the social work of the synagogues: Mikve-Israel–Emanuel in Wilemstadt, Curaçao; Shaarei Shalom in Kingston, Jamaica; and Kol Shearith Israel in Panama City, Panama. In those three communities there are active WIZO chapters in which women engage in Zionist activities.
Worth mentioning are the “Jewish Ladies Organization” (JLO) of Jamaica, founded in 1928 to take care of the “Jewish Home,” which included the home for the aged, the home for needy families and the home for orphans; and the “Sunshine Circle,” founded in 1940 to assist in the work of the JLO as well as to take care of the growing number of the needy (Holzberg 1987, 80–85). In Curaçao the women’s club “Entre Nous” (“Between Us”) was established in 1895, collecting money for theatrical presentations, for distributing food to those in need, and for general cultural and social work. In 1898 the “Quintete” was founded, a club of five women that used to read books to the local population (Emannuel, 457–79).
Jewish women were also active in initiating theaters in Surinam (1844) and in Jamaica in the early years of the twentieth century (Holzberg 1987, 89). Women participated as actresses, which was quite exceptional for certain Jewish communities in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the Caribbean, daughters of prominent families performed in theatrical works that were stagings of plays imported from Paris, London and Vienna.
To sum up, the life of Jewish women in the Caribbean and the Guianas differed from that elsewhere in the Jewish world, since Jewish life had to adapt itself to the jungle, to isolated plantations and to small islands, with only limited contact with the outside world.
Arbell, Mordechai. Spanish
and Portuguese Jews in the Caribbean and the Guianas: A Bibliography. Providence
and New York: 1999.
A comprehensive, annotated bibliography.
Idem. The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean: The Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Settlements in the Caribbean and the Guianas. Jerusalem: 2002.
Idem. Comfortable Disappearance: Lessons from the Caribbean Jewish Experience. Policy Study No. 15. Jerusalem, 1998.
Bolingbroke, Henry. A Voyage to the Demerary, containing a Statistical Account of the Settlements There. London: 1809.
Cohen, Robert. Jews in Another Environment, Surinam in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century. Leiden and New York: 1991.
Emmanuel, Isaac and Suzanne. History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles. 2 vols. Cincinnati: 1970.
Felsenthal, B. and Richard Gottheil. “Chronological Sketch of the History of the Jews in Surinam.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 4 (1896): 1–8.
Hartog, J. The Jews and St. Eustatius. St. Maarten: 1976.
Holzberg, Carol S. Minorities and Power in a Black Society: The Jewish Community of Jamaica. Lanham, MD: 1987.
Klooster, Wim. “Jews in Surinam and Curaçao.” In The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West 1450–1800. Providence: 2001.
Nassy, David de Isaac Cohen. Essai Historique sur la Colonie de Surinam sa foundation, ses progress, depuis son origine jusqu’a nos jours. Paramaribo: 1788.
Philipson, David. “Certificate of Confirmation.” PAJH 23 (1915): 180–82.
Stedman, John Gabriel. Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam…from the year 1772 to 1777. 2 vols. London: 1796.
How to cite this page
Arbell, Mordechai. "Caribbean Islands and the Guianas." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/caribbean-islands-and-guianas>.