When we follow the history of the first Jewish settlement in the Americas, noticeable is the important role played by Jews from Leghorn (Livorno, Liorna) in those settlements as well as the central place this port had in Jewish emigration to the new continent. Deep in the jungle of Surinam, in the oldest Jewish cemetery there (17th century) — Cassipoera — on a hill where Jews had settled before moving to a better place in the nearby area called until today "The Jewish Savanna," we find the tombstone of Abraham Mendes Vaiz:
Sepultura de bem aventurado e
virtuozo de Abraham Mendez Vaiz,
nacido en Liorneno, Anno de 5458,
que corresponde a Anno 1697 e
apreparon em su vida da ydade de 64 Annos.
In the poems by the famous Sefardi poet Daniel (Miguel) Levi de Barrios, we find the autobiographical description of his voyage,
in 1659, with a group of Jews from Leghorn to the island of Tobago in the Caribbean where his wife Debora died.
We also find that in Amsterdam, a representative of the Leghorn Jews, Paulo Jacomo Pinto, started negotiating in 1658 and 1659
with directors of the company founded by the three Walchern cities of Flushing, Middelburg, and Vere in the Netherlands for the
settlement of Leghorn Jews in the New Dutch colony "Nova Zeelandia" on the Pomeroon river in the region of Essequibo, today
the Republic of Guiana, and with the Dutch West India Company (Amsterdam) for settlement of Jews from Leghorn in the Dutch
colony on the island of Cayenne, today French Guyana.
Finally, in the archives Archivo General de Indias, in Seville, we can find documents of a Jewish settlement on the Venezuelan
coast, Tucacas, settled by Jews from Leghorn in 1693.
It is interesting to see why Leghorn was such a center of immigration to the Americas, how this was carried out, and what
happened to those settlers in the new continents.
Leghorn, ruled by the Medici family, was distinctly exceptional in its attitude to Jewish settlement there. In 1548 Cosimo I issued
an invitation to foreigners to settle in Leghorn, in which conversos from Spain and Portugal could be included. This move was
made by the Medicis when it was decided to make Leghorn an important international port, especially after the port of Piza
became sand blocked. A more explicit invitation was issued by Ferdinand I on 10 June 1593 in which he guaranteed full religious
liberty, the right to obtain Tuscan citizenship, civil and partly criminal jurisdiction among Jews, the right to own property, and the
understanding that conversos could return to Judaism unmolested.
In 1675 Leghorn, with the status of a free port, grew in importance. This attracted Jews of Spanish origin from North Africa and
the Ottoman Empire, and also conversos from Portugal.
There were 114 Jews in Leghorn in 1601 and approximately 3,000 in 1689. Portuguese and Spanish became the languages of
Jews in Leghorn.
The interchange between Leghorn and North Africa was one of the most important elements of the Leghorn trade. Jews from
North Africa formed centers in Leghorn and Jews from Leghorn formed a special community of their own in Tunis in 1685. They
were called "Gorni."
The exodus of Jews from Oran, Algeria, started upon the Spanish occupation in 1509 and led to an increase in the Jewish
population of Leghorn. The Spaniards, found Jews in Oran who had taken refuge there after the 1391 anti-Jewish massacres in
Spain. In order not to move again, many of them had to convert to Christianity and the Inquisition followed those conversos until
the Marquis de los Velez, governor of Oran, called in 1667 for the Inquisition to expel all Jews from Oran, including the
conversos who had gradually returned to Judaic practices. Most of them settled in Leghorn where they joined the Oran Jews
On arrival in Leghorn, those immigrants from Oran who had been living as conversos returned to Judaism. This journey from
Oran is described by the poet Miguel de Barrios, an officer in the Spanish army, and stationed in the fortress Mers el Kebir near
Oran, who after reconversion was called Daniel Levi de Barrios:
Murio en Argel mi querida Madre Sara,
y mi Padre — en mi patria rigurosa [Spain]
Mis hermanos Francisco, Antonio y Clara:
Yazen debajo de Argelista Loja....
[In Leghorn] a mi tia Raquel Coen de Sosa
devo la primer luz de la Ley pura
y anadie de Israel la misteriosa
lumbre que sigo en los pasos de Escritura
la vision de Ezequel maravillosa... Those new arrivals from Oran had difficulties in adapting themselves to their new situation and welcomed the opportunity to find possibilities for livelihood in the American continent. The provinces of Nederlands, anxious to find colonists for their new colonies in America, saw the Jews in Leghorn as a very good colonizing human element. This is very well described by Charles Longland, the English agent in Leghorn in his report to the English secretary of state, John Thurloe (1657): It seems that the States of Holland are making a plantation between Surinam and Cartagena in the West Indies, wherein they go very wisely and politikly to work, aiming chiefly at a trade there with the Spanyard: for which purpose they have sent hether to invyte many families of Jews and granted them many privileges and immunities. Spanish is become now the Jews mother tongue, not only in these parts, but throughout the Turkish dominions. In which respect they will be very useful to the Dutch in their plantation; and many opportunities may present them to converse with the Spanyard...for which purpose they were sending thither twenty five families of Jews. It is difficult to establish which colony was meant by Longland — "between Surinam and Cartagena" — but the Dutch planned and settled two colonies in the same year in which they counted on Jewish settlers. One on the island of Cayenne, part of which is today French Guyana, and the other beside the Pomeroon river — in a settlement called New Middleburg beside the fortress of Nova Zeelandia in the colony of Essequibo — today the Republic of Guiana. The two settlements were to be settled by Jewish evacuees from Dutch Brazil who had to abandon it after the Portuguese occupation — 1654. Those settlers had experience in sugar cultivation, refining and marketing, and also in growing and producing vanilla, indigo, and other tropical products. They also had experience with the tropical environment and had become used to it. They were to be reinforced by Jews from Leghorn. The representative of the Leghorn Jews in Amsterdam, Paulo Jacomo Pinto, negotiated the transportation and conditions for those new Leghorn settlers. According to the conclusions reached, the first group had to first pass through Zeeland, Netherlands, and from there proceed to Pomeroon; the same was true for the second group, compromising 120 souls. For some enigmatic reasons, maybe vested interests of the Dutch companies, they were landed on the island of Tobago and left there, "reduced to poverty and misfortune." The situation in Tobago was disastrous. The first successful Tobago settlement was founded in 1652 by 80 Latvian Courlander families in what is known today as the "Great Courland Bay" named Jekabspills. In 1654 a shipload of 50 Dutch Zeelanders established themselves on the opposite side of the island and named the island "New Walchern." Curiously enough the two settlements remained unaware of each other's existence for quite some time. Carib Indians living between the two settlements raided them and drove them to the exhaustion of their manpower and resources, despite occasional reinforcements. The Dutch and the Courlanders fought each other for complete control of the island. It was into that situation that the Leghorn settlers arrived in Tobago. Notwithstanding, on 20 July 1660, an additional 152 Leghorn Jews left Leghorn destined for Cayenne and were landed in Tobago. One of the passengers was Daniel (Miguel) Levi de Barrios, mentioned previously. He wrote: El 20 de Julio de 1660, que fue el ayuno de 9 de Av, Miguel y su esposa se embaracaron en Liorna en la nave — Monte del Cisne —con 152 correligionarios. Pensaban probar fortunas en el Nuevo Mundo. Apenas llegaron de Tobago, colonia hollandesa en aquel entonces. Se le murio la esposa. En esta isla recibio sepultura. The Leghorn Jews of Tobago finally found their way off the island. Some went back to Amsterdam, the others reached their original destinations — Cayenne and Pomeroon during 1660–1661. The Dutch States General formed a Dutch colony on the island of Cayenne — today French Guyana. This colony was passed over to the control of the Dutch West India Company. One of its most specific objectives was to attract Jewish settlers experienced in dealing with tropical products. One of the refugees from Dutch Brazil negotiated with the company a grant of liberties and exemptions (12 Sept. 1659) for a Jewish Colony on the island of Cayenne. Paragraph 1 states that David Nassy and his partners are to be Patroon and Patroons of a colony...provided they do not extend so far as to interfere with other settlers. We understand from this section that the company's intention was to have an exclusively Jewish settlement. The Jews situated themselves on the western side of the island in a place called Remire or Irmire. The place is described by J. Bellin, geographer of that period, as "the most smiling and the most fertile region of the island." The Jews planted sugar cane, erected a sugar mill, produced colors from indigo and roucou, and tried to experiment with various tropical products. Protected by a fort, the settlement had an orderly community life with its own rules and regulations. The success of Remire was due to gradually improving relations with the local Indians, the successful sugar plant, and "a successful commerce carried on with those of their nation and others." The historian Ternaux-Compans describes Remire by saying: "David Nasi and his compatriots were joined by persons of the same religion who had quit Leghorn and devoted themselves to the cultivation of the earth. On 26 February 1664, a French fleet of five vessels and 1,200 colonists arrived in Cayenne. The Dutch in Cayenne gave up without a fight on condition that the Jews would have free exercise of their religion, a step the granting of which was quite exceptional for the French. Still more than two-thirds of Remire Jews, estimated at some 300, trekked to Surinam, then still English, and settled in what is known until today as the Jewish Savanna. This explains why near there, in the old cemetery in Casipoera we can find tombstones of people born in Leghorn. The remaining third of Remire Jews was taken by a British force that occupied the place in 1667 and destroyed it completely to either Surinam or Barbados, where the Jews were needed in the English sugar industry,. As for Pomeroon, here there was no intention of establishing an exclusively Jewish settlement. Yet, a large part of the population of New Middelburg, 50–60 families, was Jewish. Very attractive financial conditions and purchases on credit were given to the new settlers. The Jewish settlers were given special rights — unprecedented in other regions of the world — in the document: "Privileges granted to the people of the Hebrew Nation that are to go to the Wild Coast — August 20, 1660, " the Wild Coast being in those times the term for the region between the Amazon River and the Orinoco River. Among the articles we find: "Liberty of conscience is granted with the exercise of laws and ceremonies according to the doctrines of their ancients, and
to have synagogues, schools, and burial ground according to their fashion." (Article 1)
"Sabbath and Holydays will be observed and they [the Jews] shall not be obliged to appear in court nor have guard duty
except if God forbid it should be of urgent necessity." (Article 2)
"The Hebrews shall be admitted as Burgezes of Zeeland." (Article 3)
The settlement grew in importance at a brisk pace. Its very fine sugar production hit the Netherlands market and a great demand
developed for it.
The English commander of Surinam, Gen. Byam, wrote in his journal: "...but the greatest of all the Dutch ever had in America
was Bawroom [Pauroma, Pomeroon] — a most flourishing colony 16 leagues leeward of Essequibo."
The success of the Pomeroon Colony was of short duration. The British holding Surinam were anxious to eliminate the
neighboring Dutch colonies and started to attack them with force.
General Byam described it: "9 Dec. 1665 Major John Scott commissioned by his Excellency Francis Lord Willoughby of Parham,
with a small fleet and upward of 300 men took the Dutch Fort and Colony of Bawrooma [Pomeroon]."
Scott destroyed the forts and plundered and burned the houses of the inhabitants. Most of the Jewish settlers sailed for the island
Curaçao, called the "mother of the Jewish communities in the Caribbean," was the center of Jewish life in the area, and the
majority of its population of 4,000 consisted of Spanish-Portuguese Jews. The arrival of the Pomeroon Jews came during a period
of crisis in Curaçao.
One of the highest ranking Dutch administrators, Balthazar Beck, had a irreconcilable hatred of the Jews, who called him "The
Second Haman." He tried his best to make Jewish life in Curaçao miserable. This situation, aggravated by a cholera epidemic,
made life very difficult for the newcomers. The cantor of the Jewish community of Curaçao in the second half of the 19th century
found the following in the synagogue archives:
In the year 1693 a party of Hebrews about ninety, left Curaçao and set sail for America. These families established
themselves in Newport....In the same year another number of Israelites left Curaçao for Venezuela. The majority of these,
however, were Italians...emigrated from Leghorn...[who] came to Curaçao from where they went to Tucacas [Venezuela],
where they established and formed themselves into a congregation.
This finding was met with skepticism by many historians, as it was quite improbable that Jews could settle in territories governed
by Spain and there was almost no other mention of this congregation's archives.
A more thorough investigation in the Spanish colonial archives enabled us to complete the story of these Leghorn Jews. In 1714,
José Francisco de Canas, Spanish governor of Caracas, reported to the king:
In the first years of the eighteenth century the Dutch established themselves on the key of Tucacas. This place
became a major center of smuggling to the people in the valley of Barquisimiento, Barinas, Turiamo, Coro, and even
including Santa Fe [Bogotà, Colombia], and Quito [Ecuador]."
The Jews participated actively in the settlement, where they have built houses, raised cattle, constructed a fortress and even a
synagogue ...At the same time they inform [Dutch] Curaçao about the activities of the Spanish authorities.
This fortified enclave of Tucacas was a center for the purchase and export of agricultural produce, mainly cacao, and the import of
good from Europe. This competed with the Spanish colonial government which, owing to the lack of shipping, had difficulty in
dealing with import and export.Different attempts by the Spanish authorities in 1710 and in 1712 to capture the settlement failed,
as a result of an insufficient number of soldiers and the enmity of the local population who were interested in the commerce with
the Tucacas Jews.
The president of the Jewish community, which was called "Santas Irmandad," Samuel Hebreo (Samuel Gradis Gabay),
also held the title of "señor de las Tucacas."
At the end of 1717 the province of Venezuela became part of the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. In November 1720 a special
judge, Pedro José de Olavarriaga, was named commissioner against the contraband trade. He had a special army force and forty
ships to attack Tucacas. In his report to the king, the viceroy Jorge de Villalonga wrote, "The synagogue which the Jews had
erected on the mainland was destroyed, together with the other houses, and the intruders retreated to the key of Paiclos.
Olavarriaga himself was imprisoned in 1721. At his trial most of the witnesses had a different story which coincided with the
account given by one of them, Juan José de Varrios: "The inhabitants burned their own houses in Tucacas and left for Curaçao,"
and the witness Juan Salgado confirmed that "the inhabitants burned their houses and twelve to fourteen ships left for Curaçao."
The descendants of the Jews from Leghorn settled in Curaçao and are today part of the Jewish community there.
The Leghorn Jews of Cayenne are today part of the community of Surinam. In both places, Surinam and Curaçao, they have lost
their identity as Italianos, and identify with the community at large.
1 Fred Oudschans Dentz, "Wat er overbleef vom het kerkhof en de Synagogue van de Joden-Savanne in Suriname," WIG, vol. 29 (1948), p. 218.
2 Mordechai Arbell, "The Failure of the Jewish Settlement in the Island of Tobago," in Judaica Latinoamericana, III (1997), 9–16, and Kenneth Scholberg,
La poesia religiosa de Miguel de Barrios, Columbus, Ohio (1962), p. 10.
3 P. M. Netsher, Geschiedenis van de Kolonien Essequibo, Demerary en Berbice, The Hague (1888), p. 73, and Mordechai Arbell, "The Jewish Settlement in
Pomeroon/Pauroma (Guyana) 1657–1666," Revue des etudes Juive, vol. 154 (July–Dec. 1995), pp. 343–361.
4 David Nassi and friends, Historical Essay on the Colony of Surinam, Paramaribo, Surinam (1788), p. 183.
5 Mordechai Arbell, "Rediscovering Tucacas," in American Jewish Archives, vol. 48 (1996), pp. 35–43.
6 Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 10, page 1571.
7 Ibid., 1572.
8 Encyclopedia Judaica Castellana, (1950), vol. 8, P. 201.
9 Daniel Levi de Barrios, in Triumphal carro de la mayor perfecion, Amsterdam: 1682, pp. 632–633.
10 Adam Anderson, Origins of Commerce, London: 1790, vol. 2, p. a585; David MacPherson, Annals of Commerce, London: 1805, v. 2, p. 472.
11 Proceedings of the committee for the three Walchern cities Middleburg, Flushing, and Vere, the colony of "Nova Zeelandia" 1658–1663, in the
Reijkarchief—West Indian Papers—24 February 1659.
12 Samuel Oppenheim, "An Early Jewish Colony in Western Guiana 1658–1666 and Its Relations to the Jews in Surinam, Cayenne and Tobago," in
Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, no. 16 (1908), pp. 57, 67.
13 Scholberg, "La poesia religiosa," p. 10.
14 Jan Jacob Hartsink, Beschryving van Guiana, Amsterdam: 1770, p. 940.
15 J. Bellin, "Description geographique de la Guayane, contenant les possession, les establissement de Francois, Les Espagnoles, Les Portugais, les Hollandais
dans ces vastes pays," Paris: 1763, p. 16.
16 Jean Baptist Labat, Voyage de Chevalier de Marchais en Guinée et Cayenne, Amsterdam: 1725, p. 99.
17 H. Ternaux-Compans, "Notice Historique sur le Guyane francaise," Paris: 1843, p. 66.
18 Jean Baptiste du Tertre, Histoire generale des Antilles habitées par les Francais, Paris: 1667, v. 3, 0p. 34.
19 Hague Rijksarchief, West India Papers published by Samuel Oppenheim in Appendix I of "Early Jewish Colony...," Publications of the American Jewish
Historical Society, vol. 16 (1909), p. 168.
20 Lieut. Gen. Byam's Journal of Guyana from 1665 to 1667: An exact narrative of the State of Guyana as it stood Anno 1665, British Museum, Sloane MS
No. 3.662 fol. 27.
22 Joseph Corcos, A Synopsis of the History of the Jews of Curaçao, Curaçao: 1897, pp. 16–18.
23 Archivo General de Indias, Seville (Santo Domingo), December 9, 1714, document 715.
24 Archivo General de Indias, Seville (Santo Domingo), document 759 of September, October, November 1720.
25 Celestino Andres Arausz Monfante, El ContrabandoHollandes en el Caribe durante la primera mitad del siglo XVIII, Caracas: 1984, p. 199.
26 Jorge de Villalonga to the King, Cartagena de Indias, March 7, 1721, Archivo General de Indias (Santo Domingo) document 761.
27 Archivo General de Indias (Santo Domingo), October 8, 1727, document 759, pp. 656–668.
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