The famous Sephardi poet Daniel Levy de Barrios wrote, along with other types of poems, some with historical and
geographical meaning. His information was usually most precise and drawing upon him we may receive a panorama of
Sephardi life in the seventeenth century. In 1688 he wrote a poem in Amsterdam:
Ya en seis ciudades anglas se publica
Luz de seis juntas de Israel sagrada.
Tres en Nieves, London, Jamaica,
Quarta y quintana en dos partes de Barbados
Sexta en Madras–Patan se verfica. In free translation this means: There are in six English cities, six holy Jewish communities — three in Nieves, London, and Jamaica; the fourth and fifth in two parts of Barbados, and the sixth in Madras-Patan.
This information is quite exact. From 1655 Jews had lived in Port Royal, Jamaica; there was also a Jewish community on the island of Nevis, called Nieves in Spanish. London in 1688 had a small Jewish community. There were two Jewish communities in Barbados — Bridgetown and Speighstown. Another one was in the Indian city of Madras, though not much is known about that community. We are better informed about Jews in other places in India.
Goa, 400 km south of Bombay, a Portuguese colony from 1510 until 1961, did have a presence of Christianized Jews called «New Christians.» We known of the Inquisition trials there against the physician Jeronimo Diaz, burned at the stake in 1560, and against the great scientist Gracia da Orta, condemned by the Inquisition after his death, his remains exhumed, burned, and his ashes thrown into the river (1580).
Cochin and the Malabar Coast had an ancient Jewish community composed of Jews from Persia and Palestine-Syria who were joined in the sixteenth century by Jews from Spain and Portugal. This community prospered under Dutch rule, 1663– 1795, and the benevolent attitude of the local rajas. We know about them in detail from the report by a leader of the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community, Moses Pereira de Paiva, who visited Cochin and produced his famous document, «Noticias dos Judeos de Cochin,» in which he also tells about the leading Sephardi families Castiel and Halegua. Jews also had a flourishing trade in Surat, a port north of Bombay, which in the seventeenth century was the main trading center between Europe and Asia. Jews could not settle there until the end of the century, when Pedro Pereira from Amsterdam did do so with a group of Portuguese Jews.
The English East India Company, looking for commercial opportunities in India and the Far East, wanted to break the monopoly held by Portugal in trading with precious stones to and from the Indian subcontinent. Therefore the company decided to build a fort in south India in 1639 which they named Fort St. George; the city of Madras grew up around it. This was the first settlement of the East India Company. The company's policy was that trading was permitted only to its shareholders or to those who had been given special trading rights.
Those who traded on their own were considered interlopers and met opposition to their doing so. The Jewish traders on the coasts of India were interlopers in the main. With time, their trading acumen, their specialization in diamonds and precious stones, and their relations with the local rulers were seen as beneficial to St. George, and they were gradually accepted as honorable citizens of St. George/Madras.
Jews from Leghorn and the Caribbean exported coral to India together with precious textiles and European ornaments. From India the Jews exported diamonds, precious or semi-precious stones, such as rubies, emeralds, opals, topazes, and pearls.
One of the first Jews who came to Madras with special permission to reside and trade there was Jacques (Jaime) de Paiva (Pavia), originally from Amsterdam. Through his good relations with the rulers, he acquired mines in the kingdom of Gloconda, neighboring Madras. At the same time he managed to convince the English authorities to permit Jews to settle in Madras, and he was the one who organized the Jews into the semblance of a community. On a plot of land in the suburbs he established a Jewish cemetery. During one of his trips to the mines he owned, he fell ill and died in Madras and was buried in its Jewish cemetery. On his tombstone we find that he died «in the month of Tishri 5548–1687.»
Incidentally, his wife, also a Portuguese Jewess, fell in love with the English governor of Madras, Elihu Yale, and went to live with him, causing quite a scandal within Madras' colonial society. Governor Yale later achieved fame when he gave a large donation to the University of New Haven in Connecticut, which was then named after him — the Yale University. Hieromima de Paiva and the son she had with him died in South Africa.
As far as the mention of mining in Gloconda, two other Jews — Salvador Rodrigues and Antonio do Porto — after being refused to trade in Madras as interlopers, started mining projects in Gloconda. Their excellent relations with the local rulers were so beneficial to the Madras authorities that these gentlemen became widely respected in the city.
Gradually, the attitude towards Jewish traders became more positive. The Amsterdam and London Portuguese Jews who began to settle in Madras were joined by Sephardim coming from Leghorn and the Caribbean islands. Thus the community formed an official body, «Colony of Jewish Traders,» in 1687, whose board included Jaime de Paiva, Pedro Pereira, Antonio do Porto, and Fernando Mendes Henriques. The number of Jews residing in Madras cannot be verified, though their number in the municipality demonstrates their importance.
On 29 September 1688, Governor Elihu Yale founded the Municipality of Madras, composed of a mayor, 12 alderman appointed for life, and a council of 60 citizens. The mayor was elected by the alderman who consisted of three Company employees, one Frenchman, three Jews, two Portuguese, and two local citizens. This shows the proportional weight of Jewish representation.
The first three Jewish alderman were Bartolomeo Rodrigues, Domingo do Porto, and Alvaro da Fonseca who had arrived form Covalao, India, where they supposedly lived as Portuguese. Upon arrival in Madras, they became openly Jewish. At first they were regarded as interlopers, but over the years they came to own the largest trading company in Madras; it dealt with precious stones, coral, amber, sandalwood and its range was all of India and Burma, Indonesia, China, and the Philippines.
Bartolomeo Rodrigues, known also as Jacob de Sequeira was president of the company. An English Jew, he became one of the most prominent citizens of Madras. After his death in 1692, he was replaced by his partner, Alvaro da Fonseca, known also as Jacob Jesurun Alvares. (Some of the Portuguese Jews in Madras used their Portuguese names on their visits to Goa and Saint Tomé that were in Portuguese hands and when the Inquisition was active, and their Jewish names in Madras. Alvaro da Fonseca came from the English Caribbean island of Nevis. Under his management the company became even larger and owned its own ships for transport from Madras to Europe.
The East India Company used Portuguese Jews, based in Madras, in its diplomatic efforts to expand English trading. The most prominent of these Jewish diplomats was Avraham Navarro. He started his career as an interpreter and linguist and took part in a special mission to China that tried to convince the Chinese emperor to open the port of Amoy to international trade. The mission failed and Navarro became a company employee in Madras. When the Mogul Empire became aggressive toward the English traders, Navarro was sent on a mission to the Mogul ruler Aurangzeb, and in very complex negotiations with the emperor himself obtained permission (firman) for the English trade. He died in 1692.
The Jewish trading houses grew larger and continually expanded their international aspect. The trade in precious stones and gems became a science. The greatest specialist in the science of diamond polishing, in stone cutting, and in gem appreciation was Isaac Sardo Abendana (1662–1709). Originally from Holland, an observant Jews who knew Hebrew, he became scientific advisor to most trading companies in Madras and a personal friend of the governor, William Pitt. Curiously enough in his testament, Pitt stipulates that if his widow was to remarry it should be only in a city where there is a synagogue. Madras had no synagogue. His widow married a German Lutheran.
The big Jewish companies in Madras began slowly to move to London, leaving only a family member in Madras. The large trading house of de Castro, founded by Samuel de Castro, moved from Curacao to Madras and then gradually to London, where the company prospered. Another sizable trading house was that of Salomon Franco of Leghorn, who after flourishing in Madras moved the trading house to London. The largest trader in Madras, Alvaro da Fonseca, moved when very prosperous to London where he became one of the specialists in diamond appraisal.
By the mid-eighteenth century there were almost no Portuguese Jews in Madras. The gravestones of the old Jewish cemetery were moved to the Central Park of Madras in 1934 with the gate of the cemetery on which is written Beit ha-Haim in Hebrew letters, the last vestige of Jewish presence in Madras in the seventeenth century.
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