JEWISH PEOPLE OF BARBADOS TODAY AND THROUGH HISTORY
THE JEWISH PEOPLE OF BARBADOS TODAY AND THROUGH HISTORY
The history of the Jews of Barbados is a story of resilience and survival, spanning several centuries and marked by both triumph and tragedy. It is a tale of a small but vibrant community that flourished despite facing the challenges of discrimination, persecution and economic hardships. In many ways, the story of the Jews of Barbados reflects the larger history of the Jewish diaspora, with all its complexities and contradictions.
The Story of the Early Sephardic Jewish Settlers of Barbados
The Spanish Inquisition
The early history of Jews in Barbados were Sephardic Jews, their roots can be traced back to Spain and then Portugal, during the inquisition period (beginning in the 1200's and continuing for hundred of years the Catholic Church set out to root out and punish, torture and persecute Jews and Muslims). During this time, there were also Jews that had been forced to convert to Christianity that were suspected of secretly practicing Judaism; they were also targeted for persecution.
Jews Fled to the Americas to Avoid Persecution
In 1492, some Sephardic Jews had fled persecution in the Iberian Peninsula for Brazil, at that time Dutch Brazil, where they established a thriving community, in and around Recife. They were involved in various industries, including sugar cane production and trade, it is here they developed their technology in producing cane sugar and dominated the sugar trade with the use of Irish Slaves. However, their peaceful existence was short-lived.
Portugal Consolidated Their Hold Over Brazil and Expels the Jews
Eventually the Inquisitorial persecuting Portuguese Colonizers were consolidating their hold over all of Brazil and with that came renewed pressure on Jews to convert to Christianity and in 1627 the Sephardic Jews, now known as Conversos, were once again forced to flee. Most Jews fled Brazil and sought refuge in other parts of the world, including Barbados.
After 150 Years The Jews Leave Brazil and Arrive In Barbados
The expelled Jews, arriving in Barbados in 1928 with their deep knowledge of cane processing, transported their equipment on ships to Barbados, where they found there was no arable land left on the island for the immigrants to farm, but these Sephardic Jews had something far more valuable. They brought with them the technological expertise to make sugar cultivation and refining more efficient. The changes they instituted helped to make the country a world leader in sugar production and established a strong foundation for the country’s economy.
Building Nidhe Israel Synagogue
They were a close-knit community, and they established their own institutions to meet their religious and cultural needs. One of these institutions was the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, which was built in 1654 and today it stands as the oldest Synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. The Nidhe Israel Synagogue was a significant symbol of the Jews' perseverance in the face of adversity. It represented their desire to maintain their religious and cultural traditions despite facing persecution and displacement.
Economic Success and Legal Acceptance Resulting In Discrimination
The Jews of Barbados faced many challenges and prejudices. They were subject to discriminatory laws and regulations, which limited their rights and opportunities, but in 1655, Oliver Cromwell, the Protestant leader of England, signed a document giving permission to Barbados to accept Jews, although they were still subject to restrictions and discrimination and for example; Jews were taxed at higher levels than others in Barbados in 1661, the Barbados Assembly passed a law prohibiting Jews from owning slaves, although this law was later repealed in 1676. In 1663, the Assembly also passed a law prohibiting Jews from holding public office and were politically restricted.
On October 23, 1668, the Jews of Barbados were banned from all forms of trade. Jews were forbidden from purchasing slaves, and were forced into living in a Jewish Ghetto in Bridgetown, but the Jewish community grew and by 1679, nearly 300 Jews lived in Barbados.
The Sephardic Jews Thrive in Barbados
This discriminatory law was lifted by the colonial government in 1702, and over the course of the 18th century the Jewish community in Barbados continued to grow and flourish financially (despite the closing of the Jewish congregation in Speightstown). Barbados was the first British territory where Jews obtained full political rights, and by the late 17th century, there were two Jewish communities in Barbados, in Bridgetown and Speightstown.
Jews and Slavery and Abolition
In Barbados, Jews did own African slaves, which is a truth that modern Jews will question "how a population, with a history of being enslaved persons could do that?" The Jews like the Puritans were known to treat their slaves with kindness. Despite their involvement in the slave trade, Jews in Barbados were also active in the abolitionist movement, and some played a significant role in the eventual abolition of slavery on the island.
The Population of Jews in Barbados Continue to Thrive and Become More Diverse
The Jewish community in Barbados grew and became more diverse over time. In the 18th century, Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive on the island, joining the Sephardic Jews who had settled there earlier. The Ashkenazi Jews came primarily from Europe and were involved in various industries, including trade and finance and the Jewish community of Barbados continued to grow and become financially successful. They established their own synagogue, which was known as the Ashkenazi Synagogue, while the Jewish congregation in Speightstown closed.
All the discriminatory laws were removed by 1802, by the colonial government of Barbados and in 1820 the British Parliament also repealed the discrimination laws.
Hurricane Louisiana Devastates Barbados and the Jewish Community Resulting in Their Decline
Sadly, in 1831 Barbados was crushed by Hurricane Louisiana, a Category 4 hurricane. The storm slammed into Barbados on August 10, levelling the capital of Bridgetown, some 1,500 people perished, either drowned by the 17-foot (5.2 m) storm surge that the hurricane brought or crushed beneath collapsed buildings (including the Nidhe Israel Synagogue and St. John's Parish Church, Barbados). Barbados was in ruins after the hurricane. No house on the island escaped the impact of the storm, being either torn off of their foundations or being unroofed, resulting in many families without shelter and destruction to lives and property in every corner of the island. Even the Government House-unroofed and nearly destroyed. Many ships were driven on shore, these ship wrecks on the beach mingled with the ruins of the bay.
The hurricane devastated the island economy and destroyed the Nidhe Israel Synagogue. Many Jews left the island, significantly diminishing the community’s population.
Further Decline Over the Next Century
The community continued to decline until 1929, when the last living Jew on the island couldn’t support the synagogue’s upkeep and sold the property to a local lawyer.
Once sold, the synagogue saw many changes, including removal of the women’s gallery and construction of a full second story. The building changed ownership many times, serving over time as commercial space and law offices.
The Modern Barbados Jewish Community and the Rebuilding of Nidhe Israel Synagogue
The Barbadian Jewish community rose again in 1931, a full century after the devastating hurricane, when a Jew left Poland for Barbados, followed in quick succession by 40 families fleeing persecution and certain death in Nazi Europe. Unfortunately, there was no longer a synagogue for them, so the community built their own small shul.
In the late 1970s, the government seized Nidhe Israel property in order to build a courthouse, but the descendants of the 1931 immigrant petitioned the government to give the building back to the Jewish community. The then-Prime Minister Tom Adams, agreed to do so, money was raised and in the1980's renovation began. With the help of the Barbados National Trust and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and using archival photographs, contractors built an exact replica of the original sanctuary. The restoration included repairs to the building and the preservation of the historic artifacts and documents that were housed inside, preserving the history and heritage of the Jewish community for future generations.
The restored Nidhe Israel Synagogue was rededicated in 1987, one of the oldest such buildings in the Western Hemisphere. Today, the synagogue is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular tourist attraction, with a museum that houses a collection of artifacts and documents related to the history of Jews in Barbados, including Torah scrolls, prayer books, and letters from 17th-century rabbis. The synagogue continues to be the Sanctuary for the Barbados Jewish Community and for visitors.
The story of the Jews of Barbados is one of strength, resilience and the power of faith. It is a reminder that even in the face of adversity, we can find the strength to persevere and overcome the challenges that life throws our way. Through their determination and their commitment to building a better world, the Jews of Barbados have left a lasting legacy, inspiring us to keep pushing forward in the face of adversity and to never give up on our dreams. As Maya Angelou once said, "We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated." The Jews of Barbados have proven this to be true, and their story will continue to inspire and uplift us for generations to come.
Please consider the following as guidance to help you research the Jewish history of Barbados. This page is for reference and is not meant to be comprehensive.
Here in Barbados the best physical presentation of the history of the Jews in Barbados is to be found at the Museum, www.synagoguehistoricdistrict.com. Hours are 9 am – 4 pm Monday through Friday. To arrange a guided tour from a member of the Barbados Jewish Community, please Book a Guided Tour.
Additional Information About the History of Jewish Barbados
- Virtual History Tour of Barbados (Virtual Jewish Library)
- Jewish Atlantic World
- The Barbados Synagogue Restoration Project Records Digital Collection
Resources on the history of Ashkenazi Jews in Barbados
Kreindler, Simon. Peddlers All: Stories of the First Ashkenazi Jewish Settlers in Barbados. Toronto: Simon Kreindler, 2017. Website: www.peddlersall.com
Newman, Joanna Frances. “Nearly the New World: Refugees and the British West Indies, 1933-1945.,” 1998.
Foreign press, 1985-2015. Various articles about the Synagogue Restoration Project activities during the process of the site’s restoration process that also touch upon the life of the Barbados Jewish community during those years. These documents have been digitized as part of the Barbados Synagogue Restoration Project Digital Collection and can accessed here. (Click on “Thumbnails” (page 1 and 2) to see an overview or on “Page Images” or “Page Turner” to click through).
Resources on the history of Sephardic Jews in Barbados
Arbell, Mordechai. “Barbados.” In The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean: The Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Settlements in the Caribbean and the Guianas. Jerusalem: Gefen, 2002.
Ben-Ur, Aviva. “The Rise of Jewish Merchants Capitalists in the Caribbean: The Triangulation of Barbados, Jamaica and Curaçao.” In A Sefardic Pepper-Pot in the Caribbean, edited by Michael Studenmund-Halévy. Barcelona: Tirocinio, 2016.
Bowden, Martyn. “Disasters, Revolutions, and Discrimination in an Era of Economic Depression 1766-1796: The World of the Sephardic Jews of Bridgetown, Barbados.” The Journal of the Barbados Museum & Historical SocietyLXII (December 2016).
———. “Houses, Inhabitants and Levies: Place of the Sephardic Jews of Bridgetown, Barbados, 1679-1729.” The Journal of the Barbados Museum & Historical Society LVII (December 2011).
———. “Levels of Discrimination and the Making of the Swan Street Jewish District in Bridgetown, 1725-1766.” The Journal of the Barbados Museum & Historical Society LXI (December 2015).
Gallery, Wyatt, Stanley Mirvis, and Jonathan D Sarna. “Barbados.” In Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean: The Legacy of Judaism in the New World, 2016.
Leibman, Laura Arnold, and Sam May. “Making Jews: Race, Gender, and Identity in Barbados in the Age of Emancipation.” Jewish American History 99, no. 1 (2015).
Miller, Derek. “‘A Medley of Contradictions’: The Jewish Diaspora in St Eustatius and Barbados.” Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects, January 1, 2013.
Schreuder, Yda. “A True Global Community: Sephardic Jews, the Sugar Trade, and Barbados in the Seventeenth Century.” The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society L (December 2004).
Shilstone, E. M. Monumental Inscriptions in the Burial Ground of the Jewish Synagogue at Bridgetown, Barbados. Transcribed with an Introduction by E.M. Shilstone. Pp. xxxiii. 205. American Jewish Historical Society: New York, 1956.
Studenmund-Halévy, Michael. “More than Images: SefardiSpulchral Iconography in the Jewish Cemetery in Bridgetown, Barbados.” In A Sefardic Pepper-Pot in the Caribbean, edited by Michael Studenmund-Halévy. Barcelona: Tirocinio, 2016.
Watson, Karl. “Shifting Identities: Religion, Race, and Creolization among the Sephardi Jews of Barbados, 1654-1900.” In The Jews in the Caribbean, edited by Jane Gerber. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2014.
———. “The Sephardic Jews of Bridgetown.” In Beyond the Bridge: Lectures Commemorating Bridgetown’s 375th Anniversary, edited by Woodville Marshall and Pedro Welch. Barbados Museum & Historical Society and The Department of History and Philosophy, UWI, Cave Hill, 2005.