The Sefardim of the Island of Nevis

Mordechai Arbell

Nevis, one of the places where a Jewish community existed, is a small island in the group called Leeward Islands Nevis was among the list of "Caribee Islands" to which proprietary rights were granted in the King's letter patent of 2 July 1627 to the Earl of Carlisle. There is a theory that Spanish seafarers, seeing the island under the morning haze, thought it looked as if it were covered by snow, and therefore called it "La isla de los nieves" ("the island of snows"). The famous Sefardi poet, Daniel Levy de Barrios, still refers to that idea in a poem he wrote two generations later, "Nieves" ("Snows").

In 1628, the plantation of Anthony Hilton on the island of St. Kitts was destroyed by Carib Indians. The governor, Sir Thomas Warner of St. Kitts, acting in the name of the Earl of Carlisle, gave permission to Hilton to settle Nevis and appointed him its lieutenant governor. The number of settlers was augmented by people coming from the island of Barbuda where they had been raided time and again by the Caribs, prompting them to move to Nevis. Some of the settlers, in addition to their attempt to gain a livelihood through planting, turned to buccaneering which led to repeated attacks by the Spanish and the destruction of the first plantations.

The Spaniards saw the English in St. Kitts and Nevis as trespassers, and when the Spanish Admiral Fadrique de Toledo appeared in Nevis (7 Sept. 1629) with 30 armed vessels, the English indentured servants, being badly treated by their masters, deserted to the enemy and Nevis had to surrender. Anthony Hilton left for the island of Tortuga as a buccaneer. Peace was restored by the Treaty of Madrid 1620.1

The Puritan rebellion in England sent many exiled royalists to the West Indies, and Nevis acquired a group of prominent and affluent English families who became successful planters. The existence of healthy mineral springs (still extant) made Nevis, by the 18th century, "a center of West Indian social life, rivaling in pomp and circumstances Bath and even London itself."2 Jews may have been in Nevis as sugar merchants, and some may have settled as planters, as early as the 1650s; it was only after 1671, however, when a separate administration was installed in the Leeward Islands, independent of the Government of Barbados, that there are records of a Jewish settlement in Nevis. The heavy export tax in Barbados as well as the limitations and disabilities imposed on the Jews at various levels of life yielded a movement of Barbados Jews settling in Nevis.

Nevis was an overpopulated island in the 17th century. In 1640 the combined population of St. Kitts and Nevis reached 20,000. Nevis settlers attempted settlement in Antigua, Monteserrat, St. Lucia, and Marie Galante, but ferocious attacks by Carib Indians coupled with French attacks and the ultimate occupation of St. Lucia and Marie Galante by the French made the desired sites unattractive.

The 1678 census lists 8 Jewish families and that of 1707 census, 6.3 Not all Jews were listed since these censuses took into account only permanent residents and property owners. The Jewish population fluctuated, shifting between Barbados and Nevis. The families listed in 1678-Isaac Senior, Abraham Rezio, Salomon Israel, Daniel Mendez, and Rachel Mendez-are not in the list of 1707. Only Salomon Israel appears twice, together with Isaac Lobatto, Hananiah Arrobas, Isaac Pinheiro, Abraham Bueno de Mesquita, and Ralph Abendana.

Levy de Barrios, who wrote in Amsterdam but who was personally familiar with the Caribbean, having spent a period in the island of Tobago, wrote in 1688: Ya in seis ciudades anglas, se publica luz de sies juntas de Israel Sagrada, tres en Nieves, London, Jamaica, quarta and quinta en dos partes de Barbados, sexta en Madras-Patan se verifica.4 [translation: "Already in six English cities it is known about the light of the six holy congregations of Israel, three in Nieves, London, Jamaica, the fourth and fifth in two parts of Barbados, the sixth exists in Madras-Patan."5]

These words illustrate how precise Levy de Barrio's information was; he knew about the two communities in Barbados at that time, Bridgetown and Speighstown, and of the small community in Madras. Incidentally, the London community was not much bigger than the five others mentioned in 1688. In the lack of any written Nevis Jewish community records, the only evidence of Jewish life there is the remnant of its Jewish cemetery-a path, called "Jew's Walk," leading from the cemetery to an old house known as the "Jew's school."

The oldest grave is that of Esther Marache, who died on 20 February 1679. Her family is not on the census list. The Barbados Jews preferred to be the official residents of Barbados and transients in Nevis. Taking into account that a 1689 epidemic of fever and a 1706 French attack reduced the population of Nevis by one-third, the existence of a Jewish cemetery as early as 1679, and a congregation, and perhaps a synagogue, in 1688 show that the Jewish population was much larger than indicated by the censuses.

The scarce information about the Jewish community in Nevis derives solely from sources which mention it incidentally. The presence of Jews in the Leeward Islands is noted in several documents. There were Jews in St. Kitts, but they had to abandon it owing to the prolonged war on the island between the English and the French. Some Jews settled in Antigua (the Gideon Abudiente family from Barbados, before reaching Nevis). There were Jews in Anguilla, but the only real community existed in Nevis in the 17th century. We do find, however, in the will-dated 20 October 1708-of the man who purchased the land for the first Jewish cemetery of New York, Joseph Bueno de Mesquita of New York, "I leave to my beloved brother Abraham Bueno de Mesquita of the Island of Nevis my five books of the Law of Moses in parchment with the ornaments of plate."6

The Leeward Island Council and Assembly passed an act on 31 August 1694, "An Act against Jews ingrossing Commodities imported in the Leeward Islands, and trading with the slaves belonging to the inhabitants of the same."7 The important role Jews played in the introduction of sugar planting and sugar trading in Nevis prompted the repeal of the same act on 10 December 1701, when the Leeward Islands Council met in Nevis, the reason given as the "many and great grievances sustained by reason from the said act." 8

Accusations about Jew trading with slaves, such as those already encountered in Jamaica and Barbados, were also made in Nevis. A description, by Nevis historian Karen Fog Olwig, of the market where the slaves sold their produce explains that: While the market seems to have been patronized primarily by the white population during the 17th century, during the 18th century, when the white population of small farmers and laborers had virtually disappeared from Nevis, the market became entirely dominated by the slaves...It was held Sunday morning in Charlestown...Negroes bring fowls, Indian corn, yam...It is no longer acceptable for the white population to trade at the markets, perhaps because they were held primarily by slaves, and on Sundays, and Robertson,9 noted that only Jews and lesser sort of Christians" traded with slaves. 10

By 1724 the Jewish population had grown, and although they had less disabilities than in Jamaica and Barbados, and despite the above-mentioned Salomon Israel having served as a jury foreman and as a witness of wills for Christian friends, there was still some enmity against the Jews. Rev. Robertson, in a 1724 letter to the Bishop of London clearly expressing his anti-Jewish feelings, also provided important information by describing the situation of the Jews in Charlestown in the first part of the 18th century.

The Parish consists of the Town (Charlestown) and 3-4 small plantations, about 70 householders, with their families being in all (children included) some 300 whites, whereof one fourth are Jews, who have a synagogue here and are very accepted to the country part of the island, but far from being so in town, by whom they are charged with taking the bread out of Christian mouths. And this, with the encouragement said to be given to transient traders, above what is given to the settlers, is by many thought to be the true cause of the strange decay of this place.-At present there is not above 3 or 4 Christian families of note in my parish.11

As it happened in the West Indies, Jews were respected all the time they were in their plantations and provided help with their know-how on tropical agriculture. Once they were in the cities engaged in commerce, they were seen as unfair competitors, and the hate they generated fostered limitations of their rights and a series of disabilities, removed only in the 19th century. With the gradual depopulation of Nevis, and the movement of Jews from Barbados to it, the percentage of Jews in Nevis rose to one-quarter of the white population of Charlestown, although that meant only about 70 souls. The decline of the Nevis Jewish population began in the second half of the 18th century. The sugar trade declined, and Nevis Jews had to look for new prospects. The last grave in the cemetery is that of Jacob Vas Mendes, dated 13 November 1768. Most Nevis Jews joined the Sefardic Jewish congregations in the British colonies of North America.

By the beginning of the 19th century there was little trace of the Jews. The main body of the white population consisted of masons, blacksmiths, poor cotton growers, seamen, fisherman, and tavern keepers. "It looks as though the Jews had almost deserted the island."12

The Jewish Cemetery

The most visible reminder of Jewish presence on Nevis is the Jewish cemetery, located on Government Road. Squatters, emancipated slaves who had left the plantations and drifted to Charlestown, built their shacks on the main parts of the cemetery, so today only nineteen tombstones are visible, although fewer epitaphs-usually written in Hebrew, Portuguese, and English-are legible. The most prominent, legible, and well known epitaph is on the tombstone of Bathseba Abudiente, who died in childbirth on 8 August 1684, wife of Rohiel Abudiente (Rowland Gideon): This heap be witness and the pillar be witness, that in its womb rests the modest woman of valor, crown of her husband, Mrs. Bathsheba, wife of Mr. Rohiel Abudiente, whose spirit was returned to God after she had borne a son, buried next to her, on Tuesday 28th of Av in the year 5444. She did right in the Lord's eyes. May her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.

An enterprising American couple, Florence and Robert Abrahams, cleaned the old abandoned cemetery and rededicated it on 25 February 1971. The Nevis Historical and Conservation Society is preserving it. Elderly islanders claim they have seen Jewish gravestones across the street. It could be a separate burial place for mixed couples and other outcasts of faith.

The Jewish School

Across the road from the cemetery is a path, traditionally known as "Jew's Walk," leading to a location considered by the local population to be the synagogue and Jewish school. It is quite logical that the congregation maintained a school. Details about the school are obtained, again, from indirect sources. It is unclear if the school was in the synagogue or in a separate building. Curiously enough, we know of the existence of a Jewish school through some of the biographies of Alexander Hamilton, born in Nevis. With the plethora of biographies, it is prudent to consult one that appeared in the island of St. Croix which tried to combine most of what was written.13 Hamilton's mother, Rachel Faucett, after her separation from her Danish-Jewish husband John Michal Lavien, cohabited with a Scotsman, James Hamilton, in Nevis and gave birth to Alexander. "The Anglican Church could not offer full acceptance of the situation...(and) denied Alexander membership or education in the church school. He was enrolled in a private school on Nevis taught by a Jewish head mistress and...soon was fluent in Hebrew and French."

Another biography of Hamilton, this one by Dorothie Bobbé, who did research on Nevis, writes14 that "Denied schooling, [his mother] sent him to the Jewish school, the only one [in Nevis]. The Jews were respectable, and respected, in the islands...His teacher liked to stand him on a table and make him recite the Decalogue in Hebrew."

The Synagogue

The existence of a synagogue is mentioned by several authors. Still, it is difficult to verify this and to pinpoint an exact location. The Nevis Historical and Conservation Society initiated, prompted by several architectural elements, study of a building at the end of "Jew's Walk."The following serve as the main basis for this research: (1) The communication of one of the chief planters on Nevis (Pinney), in 1809, in which he refers to a piece of property he owned "where the Jews synagogue was formerly."15

(2) The mention in Hester Marsden Smedley's article "The Jews of Nevis" of a 1684 document in the Amsterdam Jewish Community Archives in which a synagogue in Nevis is noted together with a "common path leading to the synagogue."16

(3) The above-mentioned letter byRev. Robert Robertson. The investigation is mostly archeological and is still going on.17 As to the diaspora of the Nevis Jews, while some went to London, most left for North America. Interesting statements appear in some of their wills, such as in that of Isaac Pinheiro of New York, " body I commit to the Earth to be interred in the Burial Place belonging to the Jewish Nation of the Island of Nevis-April 12, 1710."18

In the later part of the 18th century a change took place, and Jews no longer left anything of Nevis in their wills. Typical is the will of Haim Abinun de Lima of Nevis: "The little Sepher Torah (Scroll of Law) (I will) for St. Eustacia-June 27, 1765."19

Nevis was abandoned by its white inhabitants, including the Jews. At the same time, the Jewish community on the nearby island of St. Eustatius began to grow and flourish. A hint of this change can be seen in the Torah scroll left to the Jews of St. Eustatius in the will just mentioned.

At the end of the 18th century Nevis entered into a slumber. The story of the Jewish community there remains a mystery and a challenge for future researchers. Today, Nevis is part of the independent state of St. Christopher (St. Kitts) and Nevis. The local authorities have shown interest in reconstructing the story of its Jewish community.

1 Sir Alan Burns, History of the West Indies , London, 1954, p. 202. 2 Rabbi Malcom Stern, "Some Notes on the Jew of Nevis," American Jewish Archives, 10:8, Oct. 1958, p. 1 3 Rabbi Malcolm Stern, "A Successful Caribbean Restoration-The Nevis Story," American Jew ish Historical Society, No. 16 (1972), pp. 21- 22. 4 Daniel Levy de Barrios, Historia Real de Gran Bretaña, Amsterdam, 1688, pp. 55-56. 5 Spanish-Portuguese Jews were active as agents of the English East Indies Company. In 1689, Abraham Navarro was official company envoy to the Mogul Court, and Spanish-Portuguese Jewish merchants formed a community in the English enclave of Port St. George in Madras. See Enziklopedyah Ivrit, 1961, 13:544. 6 David de Sola Pool, Portraits Etched in Stone-Early Jewish Settlers 1682-1831, New York, pp. 188-89. De Sola Pool deduces that Joseph and Abraham were the sons of Benja min Bueno de Mesquita, possibly the first per son buried in the New York Jewish cemetery, who in 1665 was granted a piece of land in Port Royal, Jamaica, but was banished from there, with his two sons after the failure of his project to find gold in Jamaica. 7 Michel Marie Terrell, "Summary Report of the 1993 Archeological Investigation of the Buil ding Complex, Thought to be Associated with the 17th-18th Century Jewish Community," Charlestown, Nevis, February 1994, pp. 3-4, prepared for the Nevis Historical and Conser vation Society (manuscript); it is also mentio ned in Friedenwald, "Jews in the British West Indies," Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 5, 1897, pp. 100-101. 8 Terrell, pp. 3-4; Friedenwald, pp. 100-101. 9 Rev. Robert Robertson, rector of St. Paul parish, which consisted mainly of poor families and baptized slaves, did not see the desirability of converting slaves, "before they have given up polygamy, random divorce, and marketing and merry making on the Lord's Day (Sunday)." 10 Karen Fog Olwig, Global Culture, Island Identity-Continuity and Change in the Afro- Caribbean Community of Nevis, Chur, Swit zerland, 1993, p. 48. 11 Samuel M. Wilson, "Caribbean Diaspora- Sephardic Jews Were an Important Link bet ween Europe and Colonial America," Natural History, 102:3 (March 1993), p. 57, and Stern, "Notes," p. 7, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, v. 20, p. 160. 12 Richard Pares, A West India Fortune, London, 1950, pp. 241 and 342n. 13 Florence Lewisohn, "What So Proudly We Hail-Alexander Hamilton's West Indian Boy hood," St. Croix, 1975, in the American Revo lution Bicentennial Commission of the Virgin Islands, pp. 17-30. 14 Dorothie Bobbé, "The Boyhood of Alexander Hamilton," American Heritage, June 1955, pp. 4-9. 15 Michel Marie Terrell and Eva Terrell Hill, "The Synagogue 1994 Dig," Nevis Historical and Conservation Society Newsletter, Charlestown, November 1994, p. 12. 16 Hester Marsden Smedley, "The Jews of Nevis," Jewish Chronicle, London, 15 August 1969. 17 Headed by Prof. Robert N. Zeitlin of Brandeis University and Dr. Judith Frances Zeitlin, Mi chelle Marie Terrell, and Eve Terrell Hill in coordinationwithDavid Robinson, curator of the Nevis Historical Society, and Joan Robin son of the Nevis Historical Museum. 18 Isaac Pinheiro was buried in New York anyway. De Sola Pool in Portraits, pp. 453-54, mentions that he was very close to the Bueno de Mesquita family and had left a plantation, probably in Nevis, to his two sons. See Lee M. Friedman, "Will from Early Settlers in New York," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 23 (1915), pp. 147-61. 19 Stern, "Notes," Appendix II, p. 159.

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