Jewish settlement in Tobago is intimately involved with the effort of the Dutch to settle the Wild Coast of the Americas witch lies between the Caribbean and Brazil. Its southern boundary is the mouth of the Amazon river, and its northern the mouth of the river Ornioco. The Dutch were trading in the region as early as the second half of the 16th century. The Wild Coast, with a climate adaptable to raising tropical agricultural produce, for which there was a growing demand in European markets, was attractive to the Dutch, British, and French. Especially so since the Spaniards and the Portuguese, who already had strongholds all over South America, Central America, and parts of North America, had not reached this areas.
The native Indian population (called in the region Amerindians) was sparse, and from reports of the ship captains who came in contact, with them, marked by a meek and peaceful nature.
The Wild Coast was of special interest to Zeeland, one of the most active agents among the United Provinces of the Netherlands in colonizing in the Americas. Unlike the Dutch outposts in the Caribbean islands which were, at that time, mainly involved in trading, privateering, and shipping, the Wild Coast ventures were aimed at settlement.
With the beginning of the 17th century Dutch outpost with factories destined to develop agro-industries and food processing, started cropping all over the Wild Coast. These outpost were intended to expand to more permanent settlements; we are speaking of Orange and Nassau in the mouth of Amazon river, Fort Kijkoveral on the Essequibo River, and outpost on the Berbice, Demerara, Pomeroon, and Moruca rivers in what was later British Guyana and today the Republic of Guyana. Other Dutch outpost were on the Marowyne, Surinam, Commanyne, and Corentyn rivers, in what was the Dutch Guyana and today the republic of Suriname, and in Cayenne, which is today the French Guyana.
The Spanish governors on the islands of Trinidad and Margarita off the Wild Coast and on mainland Venezuela alerted their government several times to the Dutch activities on the Wild Coast, and there were several Spanish expeditions to destroy the burgeoning Dutch colonies, in some instances with success.
In 1621 the Dutch West India Company was formed to preserve and promote the Dutch interest in the American continents. One of its aims was “to remove the resources which Philip IV, king of Spain and Portugal, drew from his American possessions” (1). The West India Company was, in a way an instrument of war against Spain, and this purpose dictated many of the company’s decisions when sending colonists to the new world.
One of those decisions was to include Tobago in the effort to settle the Wild Coast. Tobago a small island near the coast of the Guyanas (the Wild Coast), could serve as a maritime outpost and base of defence from the Spanish. Tobago was better situated than the Dutch Recife in Brazil or from the Netherlands could drop anchor in Tobago without being sighted by the Spanish. In addition, Tobago was destined by the West India Company to serve also as an agricultural settlement for the growing and refining of sugar and cacao and for the production of rum.
In its initial policy the West India Company had taken into account the possibility of having Jews among its colonist, and it gradually permitted the exercise of the Jewish religion, although the Dutch Reformed Church was the only one permitted in the colonies at the outset. With the growing presence of Jews in the colonies, priest did not do missionary work and avoided wearing their frocks in public (2).
Interestingly the Labor Code of the West India Company states that ‘the Negroes and slaves must be well treated and sent off at proper times, when it was the hour for church…and not be burdened with labour on the holidays” (3). This provision was never enforced except by the Jews, who did allow their slaves to work on the Sabbath (4). Open resentment was displayed by the Wild Coast set their slaves free after 49 years of servitude, following the Jewish law of the Jubilee Year (5).
The real wave of Jewish immigration to the Wild Coast started after the fall to the Portuguese invaders on the two Dutch Olinda (called Mauricia by the Dutch). The history of the settlement of Dutch Brazil is short –1630-1654. The success, however, of the Jews who settled there in growing sugar cane and refining sugar, their proficiency defence against the Portuguese attacks made them a very attractive human element for colonizing the Wild Coast. Special efforts were made to attract Jews to those new Dutch settlements by patent rights , privileges, and protection.
In paragraph 7 of a grant by the Dutch West India Company (Amsterdam) to David Cohen Nassy and partners for a Jewish colony at cayenne, dated September 12, 1659 (6); one finds that “its shall be permitted to the Jews to have freedom of conscience with public worship and a synagogue and school in the same manner as is allowed in the city of Amsterdam in accordance with the doctrines of their elders, without hindrance as well in the district of this Colony, as in other places in our Dominions, and they shall enjoy all liberties and exemptions of our other colonist…”.
Not to be outdone, and in order to attract Jews, the British, who at the time occupied Surinam which already had Jewish population in the so-called “Jewish Savanna”. Surinam, August 17, 1665 (7) declaring that “Every person of the Hebrew nation…shall possess and be considered as English born… shall not suffer any hindrance in the observance of their Sabbath…and to have a tribunal of their own”.
In 1658 and 1659, Jews who had fled Brazil, joined by Jews from Holland, from Saleh in Morocco, and probably from Hamburg started settling on the Pomeroon and Moruca rivers. The Jewish settlers as described by the British Major Scott who wrote in 1669 an, account on the Dutch possession on Essequibo and Pomeroon tells us that “ a great colony of Dutch and Jews drawn off from Brazil by the Portuguese settled there, and being experienced planters that soon grew a flourishing Collonie” (8). The Pomeroon settlement, where the majority of the Jews resided, was called New Middelburgh. This colony was described as “the most flourishing one the Dutch ever had in America” (9).
Unfortunately, British forces coming from Barbados destroyed the colony in January 1666. The Pomeroon Jews supposedly fled to the “Jewish Savanna” in Surinam.
A similar fate befell the flourishing Jewish settlement in cayenne. Here again Jews from Brazil excelled themselves in growing sugar cane and indigo. The capture of cayenne by the French in 1664 came after the Dutch surrendered on condition that Jewish rights be preserved. The French did not keep their promise, the colony was plundered and part of the Jews of cayenne fled to the “Jewish Savanna” in Surinam. Another part, it is said, was taken by the French to La Rochelle in France from where they trekked to the Netherlands.
This was not the case with the Jewish settlement in Tobago. In July 1654, Jewish refugees from Brazil petitioned the Netherlands States General for Permission to found a separate settlement in Tobago. Curiously enough the petition received no response (10), the explanation being that the Lampsins brothers of Flushing in Zeeland were pressing to obtain rights on the island for their own commercial interests.
The islands of Tobago was inhabited by Indian tribes, the Arawaks and Caribs. In the 16th century, the island was visited by sailors and traders, but the more stationary non-native residents, were pirates and buccaneers who came to hide and overhaul their vessels.
In the 18th century, surprisingly, the first of the European countries interested in Tobago was the Dutch of Courland, consisting of the two western provinces of Latvia, between the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. Being a very religious Lutherans and possessing a navy, their Duke Jekabs (Jacobus) became very Interested in possessions overseas. His contacts with the Protestant Dutch were strong, and he was related by marriage to shareholders of related by marriage to shareholders of the Dutch West India Company. Thus, he became interested in Tobago, when colonizing the Wild Coast, and the need to have a base there.
Attempts by Dutch Zeelanders in 1634 and 1637, and by Latvians in 1639 and 1642 met with disaster. Attacks by Spaniards coming from Trinidad for by the warlike Carib Indian tribe managed to destroy the new settlements.
The first successful Tobago settlement was founded in 1652 by 80 Latvian Courlander families in what is know until today as the “Great Courland Bay” named “Jekabspills” and the island was renamed “New Courland”. Foreigners are permitted to settle in Tobago, as long as they were willing to acknowledge the authority of the Duke of Cournad. Some Dutch, German, French, and English families settled there.
parallel, the influential Lampsins family of Zeeland with financial interests in
the Dutch West India Company, were also interested in the island. Adrian
Lampsins, “having great qualities was also considered as a sly crook” (11). In
Curiously enough the two settlements were unaware of each other’s existence for quite a while. Between the two settlements were Carib Indian who raided the new settlers, and who were gradually exhausting their resources, in spite of fresh settlers from Latvia and Netherlands arriving from to time.
According to a report from 1658 (12), in Tobago there were no more than 40 Latvia capable of carrying arms, along with 500 Zeelanders, joined by Frenchmen who settled under the Dutch. In 1659 the Latvians surrendered to the Dutch.
In 1660 the Lampsins family started collaborating with the French king Louis XIV, and Cornelius Lampsins was elevated to the title of French Baron of Tobago. French planters founded a colony named “Les Quartiers des Trois Rivières” near what is called today “Little Courland Bay”.
Under these strange circumstances, in which the Dutch, French, and Latvians were fighting for Control of Tobago, while the Carib Indians continued their raids, a representative of the Livorno Jews, Paulo Jacomo Pinto, started negotiations in Amsterdam for the transportations of Livorno Jews to the new colonies in 1658 and in 1659 with the second group to comprise 120 souls. It was also understood that the group from Livorno would pass first through Zeeland. This we learn from the Hague’s Reijkarchief’s West India Papers, in the proceedings from February 24, 1659. This group was landed in Tobago, left there, and, “reduced to poverty and misfortune” (13).
Notwithstanding, a further group of 152 Livorno Jews sailed on the Monte de Cisne on July 20, 1660. The destination should have been Cayenne, but they again reached Tobago (14). Among the passengers was the famous Spanish Jewish poet Daniel Levi de Barrios, whose wife Debora died in Tobago. From these two or perhaps three, voyagers we can see that the Livorno Jews were on the way to Pomeroon and to Cayenne and for some reason or by virtue of a predetermined policy were left in Tobago.
From the West India Company proceedings we learn that in January 1661, Paulo Jacomo Pinto acted on behalf of those remaining in Tobago “which colonists through an accident, were deviated to the island of Tobago and reduced to utmost poverty”. In July 1661 “there appeared Avraham Israel Orta asking restitution of payment made by him…because he was deviated to Tobago instead of Pomeroon”.
Its Should be noted that the Jewish Parnasim of Amsterdam in a resolution made August 1661 prohibiting their Hazzanim (cantors) “of making misheberach or accepting offers for other than the six officially recogized institutions…in view of the great and urgent necessities that presently exist…on account of the failures our brothers have sustained in…Tobago and other islands whence they come, returning in utter poverty and requiring assistance” (15).
Many of the Livorno Jew who had embarked on the perilous journey were originally from Oran in Algeria, which at that time was under Spanish rule. Marranos from Spain preferred to go to Oran and Mers-el-Kebir, where for a while they could live in relative security. With growing Spanish inquisition persecution many fled to Livorno where they returned to Judaism (16). In Livorno they belonged to the poor part of the Jewish community and looked therefore for a better life and were attracted by the promise of the New World. Dutch middlemen were sent especially to attract these people to the new colonies. It also can be suspected that Paulo Jacomo Pinto had a financial interest in sending these people to their fate.
Researchers disagree whether Tobago served as a transit point only, or whether Jews were to finally settle in Tobago.
The Latvian Courlanders returned to Tobago and were there at least until 1693. The Dutch settlement was wiped out by the French forces in 1678.
Some of the Jews of Tobago returned to Amsterdam, as was the case with the poet Daniel Levi de Barrios and with Abraham Israel Orta mentioned above. Some of those originally destined to reach Cayenne, arrived at their destination only to be expelled from there in 1664.
However, some did remain. Among the applicants for dowries to the “Santa Companhia para dotar donzelas” in Amsterdam (a Jewish organization which saved for dowries for poor young virgins), there is a request by Sara, daughter of David Peres of Tobago. The family Fernandes Tobago – added Tobago to its name (17).
On a signboard at the site of the Latvian monument erected in 1978 on Courlander Point, the Tobago Tourist Bureau wrote, after historical investigation, that “under the benevolent rule (with interruptions from 1639-1693) of the Dukes of Courland in Latvia. Latvians, Dutch, British , French, Jews, Caribs and Gambians formed an international settlement of free men” (Gambia was Latvian colony in Africa at that time).
Daniel Levy de Barrios’s sister Judith had two sons, one of whom died in Tobago in 1680 (18), while the other died in the same year in Martinique.
The above two cases prove that Jews lived in Tobago even after the Dutch had left and the Jews were under Latvian rule.
A search for any physical evidence of Jewish presence in Tobago, made on my last trip there yielded nothing. The only Jewish graves were of Mr Baber Isaacs and his wife, buried in the yard of the Scarborough (capital of Tobago) Hospital. Neighbours told me that his father’s body had to be transported to Barbados the inscription reads: Sacred/to the memory of/Isaac Baber Isaac/who died/in the island of Tobago/20th Tammuz 5624/24th July 1864/and was interred here 29 idem/age 38 years (19).
The graves in Tobago are of Rudolph Sydney Baber Isaacs, born 1865, died 1885 (20).
Tobago Jewish history is unique compared to the other Jewish settlements in the Caribbean and the Guyanas. It is the only place where there was no real intention of developing Jewish life, no to initiate a settlement with a sound economic base fitting for a more permanent stay. Some of the Jews returned to Amsterdam, others went on to Cayenne – their original destination – and a few went to Martinique where Jews could still reside – before their expulsion by the French due to the infamous “Black Code”.
Usually Jews fervently defended their newly acquired lands and liberty. The Jews of Recife fought valiantly against the Portuguese invaders, Pomeroon was abandoned after total destruction by the British, Cayenne Jews were forcibly expelled by the French, and the Jewish National Guard defended “the Jewish Savanna” of Surinam with such courage against the French that their stand is praised in French chronicles. The Jews of Togabo did not show the same attachment to their new land, or perhaps were not given a chance to do so.
I came to the conclusion that the reason for the failure of the Jewish settlement in Tobago are:
1) A large part of the settlers from Livorno were Marranos from Spanish Algiers. They came to Dutch enclaves with no knowledge of the language, no shipping. They lacked the expertise and know-how of the Jewish refugees from Recife who managed to transform the jungle lands of Essequibo, Pomeroon, and Cayenne into flourishing settlements.
2) After living a life of Marranos for more than 200 years, and after a relativity short stay in Livorno, where they returned to Judaism, they found themselves on the way to Tobago, with no sense of community, no knowledge of Jewish life, traditions, and religion.
3) The Lampsins family who were the barons of Tobago, governed from Amsterdam. Their only interest was in making money, and they did not care to make provisions for taking care of the settlers well-being.
4) The dealings with the Livorno Jews were made through intermediaries who were paid for each settlers they could mobilize, without having the welfare of the settlers as their priority. Paolo Giacomo Pinto was apparently the one responsible for delivering Livorno Jews to the Dutch Colonies. His role seems dubious – we know that he became one of the affluent Jews in Holland, whereas his client were reduced to starvation.
5) Jewish settlers usually had strong leaders to guide them. This was the role of David Cohen Nassi in Cayenne and later on in Surinam, Isaac da Costa in settling Curacao, Rafael de Mercado in Barbados, and others. Tobago Jews did not produce any known leadership able to act to defend their interests.
6) The timing of the Jews arrival in Tobago was the worst possible – 1658-1660 were years of war between the Dutch and Courland settlers and growing French settlement with the blessing of the Lampsin. At the same time the Carib and Arawak Indian continued their raids. It may be that the Jews just had nowhere to settle. In the graveyard of the Jewish Savanna in Surinam there are graves of Jews, born in Livorno (21). The one I saw is that of Abraham Mendes Vais. The descendants of the Mopurgo family in Surinam which I interviewed claim that they were originally from Padua in Italy, then embarked in Livorno and, via Tobago and Cayenne, reached Surinam.. On my last trip to Tobago, September 1992, while looking for some vestiges of Jewish presence in Tobago. I found it inconceivable to see such a flourishing island, blessed with a mild climate, natural ports, old plantations which still produce, and then fully understand the failure of Jewish settlement, especially since in the nearby Guyanas, with their heavy jungle growth and steaming tropical climate, the Jews were surprisingly very successful.
Mordechai Arbell, former Ambassador of Israel and South and Central America adviser to the World Jewish Congress, is a specialist in the history of the Jews in the Caribbean. Writer, he is also a contributor to the Encyclopedia Judaica.
(1) Goslinga. The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast, p. 89.
(2) Goslinga. The Dutch in the Caribbean , p. 338.
(3) Hamelberg, Nederlanders 1, Doc, p. 107.
(4) Hamelberg, Nederlanders 1, Doc., p. 100-102.
(5) Arbelle, personal research among descendants of the Arrias and Cotinho families.
(6) Historical Essay on the Colony of Surinam, p. 183.
(7) Historical Essay on the Colony of Surinam, p. 188.
(8) Oppenheim, “An Early Jewish Colony in Western Guyana”, p. 128
(9) Oppenheim, “An Early Jewish Colony”, p. 137.
(10) Goslilnga, The Dutch in the Caribbean, p. 338.
(11) Anderson, The First Colonization of Tobago, paper 7, p. 5.
(12) Anderson, The First colonization of Tobago, paper 7, p. 7.
(13) Oppenheim, “An Early Jewish Colony in Western Guyana, Supplement data”, pp. 57, 67.
Schollberg, La poesia religiosa de Miguel
de Barrios, p. 10 : « El 20 de Julio de 1660, que fue al ayuno del 9
de Av. Miguel y su esposa se embarcaron en Liorna en la nave « Monte del
Cisne » con 152 correligionnaires. Pensaban probar fortunas en el Nuevo
Mundo. Apenas llegaron de Tobago, colonia hollandesa en aquel entonces, se le
(15) Emmanuel, « Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Jews in Brazil », p. 23.
(16) Fey, Histoire d’Oran, p. 211.
(17) Cardoso de Betancourt, « Notes on the Spanish and Portuguese Jews », p. 37.
(18) Peterse, Daniel Levi de Barrios, p. 16.
(19) Shilstone, Jewish Monumental inscriptions in Barbados – grave 110 , p. 58.
(20) Copied by M. Arbell.
- Anderson, E. and Goslinga, Cornelius Ch. The First Colonization of Tobago by the Courlanders and the Dutch, Museum Paper 7, Museum of Tobago History, Scarborough, Tobago, 1978.
- Arbell, Mordechai, “1992: 500 Years after Columbus. The Spanish-Portuguese Nation of the Caribbeans – La Nacion”, in: Encyclopaedia Judaica Year Book 1990-91, Jerusalem, 1992.
- The Barrios. Daniel Levy, Flor de Apolo, Brussels, 1665.
- Idem, Triumpho del Gobierno Popular, Amsterdam, 1682.
- Cardoso de Belancourt, “Notes on the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the United States, Guyana, and the Dutch and British West Indies during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Waltham, Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society, v. 29 (1929), pp.36-38.
- Chanlal, Liliane, Tobago et la présence française (XVIIe – XIXe siècles), Archives Départementales de la Martinique, Fort-de-France, 1992.
- Emanuel, Isaac, « Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Jews of Brazil (1630-1654). Cincinnati, American Jewish Archives, Jan, 1955, pp. 4-64.
- Goslinga, Cornelius Ch., The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast 1580-1680, Assen, 1971.
- Harsincks, Jacob Jan., Beschyving van Guyana, Amsterdam, 1770, p. 520.
- Lichtveld, Lou, A. Valuable Document concerning Tobago A.D. 1647, Scarborough, Tobago, Mount Irvin Museum Trust, publication N. 2, Feb. 11, 1977.
- Idem, The Earliest Reports about Tobago, Scarborough, Tobago, Museum of Tobago History, paper N. 5, 1977.
- Meijer, J. Pioneers of Pauroma – Eraliest History of Jewish Colonization of America, Paramaribo, 1954.
- Molho, Yitzhak, “El poeta y dramaturgo Miguel de Barrios”; Jerusalem, Tresoro de los Judios Sefardies, v. 7, 1964, pp. 99-100.
- Oppenheim Samuel, “An Early Jewish Colony in Western Guyana 1658-1666 and Its Relation to the Jews in Surinam, Cayenne and Tobago”, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, v. 17 (1909), pp. 53-70.
- Pieterse, Wilhelmina Christina, Daniel Levi de Barrios als Geschiedschijver van de Portuguees-Israelitishe Gemeente te Amsterdam in Zijn Triumpho del Gobierno Popular’. Amsterdam, 1968.
- Rodway, James and Watt, Thomas, Chronological History of the Discovery and Settlement of Guyana 1453-1665, Georgetown, Bermerara, 1888.
- Woodcok, Henry Iles, A. History of Tobago, Tobago, 1866.
- Several authors – Historical Essay on the Colony of Surinam 1788, Cincinnati, 1974.
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