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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2011
Number 74
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Jewish Experience in 17th century Barbados

By Ryan Hechler

The European colonization of the Caribbean represented the start of the incessant violence and exploitation that came to define much of Europe’s international colonial endeavors. England was quite possibly one of the most prepared European countries for island colonization within then temporal logic since England was able to “practice” and “perfect” her oppressive tactics through the colonization of Ireland by Norman warlords in 1169 and the subsequently English-encouraged Scottish occupation of Ireland in 1609. The initial monarchial instability in pushing colonial endeavors farther from European metropoles and its originating romanticization of piracy and freedom echoes the actual North American Jewish experience in Barbados; an island that offered so many career opportunities (with its own colonial strings attached, of course) that Jews could be merchants, informants, masons, pirates, and, on the rare occasion, plantation owners.

Barbados was a nationally and ethnically diverse island since its establishment as a colonial settlement. Henry Whistler noted in 1655, when stopping by Barbados to prepare for the conquest of Jamaica from Spain for England, that “[Barbados] is inhabited with all sorts: with English, French, Dutch, Scots, Irish, Spaniards they being Jews, with Indians and miserable Negroes born to perpetual slavery, they and their seed.” (qtd. Dunn 1972: 77). The Jews were but one community of a communal plurality that composed the island. Historian Richard Dunn explained in 1972, in his seminal work Sugar and Slaves, that the “[Jews of Barbados] lived a ghetto existence on Jew Street and Synagogue Street, tolerated for their business skill, but even more ostracized than the Quakers. The Jews were not only listed separately on the census but taxed separately ? and very heavily.” (Dunn 1972: 108). Thus, while the Jewish presence was accepted, it was done so rather begrudgingly by the colonial powers that be, powers whose very greed outweighed their religio-ethnocentrism. It should also be duly noted that Jew Street and Synagogue Street were established as the main Jewish communities of Bridgetown, the capital and original settlement of Barbados. Jew Street and Synagogue Street, through their very titular dubbing, have not been historically clarified as having been self-named by the Jewish communities or established by English authorities and it is a matter that should be further researched, since it would suggest a whole other tier of political and social power dynamics in the early Barbadian colonial system.

Barbados was either “discovered” by the Spanish in 1518 under Rodrigo de Figueroa, at the command of King Charles V (Drewett 2006: 209-210), or in 1536 when Portuguese Captain Pedro a Campos happened through and, according to a quasi-historical legend, left behind hogs for future sailors that may stumble upon the island and need sustenance (Drewett 1991: 1). Both of these accounts are highly disputed amongst academics, but then there is also the possibility that Barbados was found by other European endeavors prior to either of these. Regardless, Barbados was officially claimed by Captain John Powell as a British territory for King James I on 14 May 1625 and in 1627 the island was royally promoted as the site of a British colony (Beckles 1990: 7). While there may have been an Amerindian population during the Spanish and Portuguese arrivals, Amerindian communities were supposedly no longer present upon English arrival.

One of the most difficult historical facts of the Jewish experience in Barbados to prove is the exact date of the first Jewish inhabitants’ arrival. The evidence suggested by Sir Robert H. Schomburgk in 1848 of the Jewish presence is perhaps still the most relevant and accurate:

According to the best information that can be obtained it appears that the earliest settlement of the Jews in this Island dates from about 1628. A tomb is at present standing in one of the burial grounds bearing date 1658. (Schomburgk 1848: 97)

As Shomburgk suggests, Jews arrived very early in the English colonial process, yet their presence was by no means legal; however, Jews appear to have been tolerated early on, especially since it likely made no sense to the colonial powers of Barbados to cause communal strife when the island’s fledgling community was simply trying to survive in its earliest stages. Thus, if Schomburgk is correct, Jews began arriving to Barbados within a year of the island officially being dubbed a British colony.

England’s King Edward I legally banished Jews from England and her territorial holdings in 1290. While many Jewish communities continued their religious practices in hiding, they were not officially allowed re-entry to the country until 1656 under Oliver Cromwell, two years after Jews were expelled from Brazil in 1654 (Johnson 1988: 249) which perhaps was a resultant of Portuguese mistrust developed from Jewish aid to Brazil’s invasion by the Dutch. While a noticeable surge in the Barbadian Jewish population occurred in the 1650s, waves of Jewish immigrants came to Barbados even earlier in the 1640s. Barbados was at the forefront of the 1640s’ Sugar Revolution, however the technology utilized in sugar mills was not of English origin. Exiled Sephardic Jews that just recently fled the failing Dutch colonial drive into Portugal’s Brazil and relocated to Barbados, brought with them Dutch-developed, and often Sephardic-developed, sugar mill technology.

While the Sugar Revolution was a peculiar window of opportunity for Jewish colonial settlement in Barbados, it was Cromwell’s seizure of power that truly allowed Barbadian Jewish communities to flourish. Cromwell took control of England during a period of increasing Christian extremism and, in his book Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, historian Edward Kritzler’s narrative of this time period properly conveys how such a temporality allowed a moment of stability for Jewish communities:

The midseventeenth century was a time when True Believers ruled and every action was righteous and backed by Scripture. It was the politics of Holy Inevitability, and Cromwell liked to frame his policies in those terms. Along with commerce, and intelligence, Cromwell’s religious convictions presented him with an irresistible motive for Jewish resettlement: Only when Jews were allowed back in England, he believed, would the Messiah return. His public expression of this religious rationale garnered him the fervid support of England’s philo-Semites, who saw this as necessary for the redemption of the whole human race. (Kritzler 2008: 195)

Cromwell also encouraged them to settle throughout England’s colonies, particularly to Barbados since it was quickly becoming viewed as the gem of England’s rapidly developing empire. Thus the presence of Jews in Barbados served an immediately dualistic purpose under Cromwell, they were there to insure economic flourishing as well as for the sanctification of Jesus Christ’s second coming.

Settlement passes had been commonly granted by Cromwell to case-specific Jewish settlers even prior to his decree of 1656. The following is an example of the typical outline of passes given out:

Calendar of State Papers. Domestic Series. April 27, 1655. Pass for Abr. De Mercado, M. D., Hebrew, with David Raphael de Mercado, his son, to the Barbadoes, where he has an order from His Highness [Cromwell] to exercise his profession. (Reprinted in Kohler 1896: 223)

There are two distinct permissions that were granted in such passes as these. Firstly, it was approved to allow a “Hebrew” to live on the island. Secondly, the ability for one to “exercise his profession.” Regardless of de Mercado’s actual career, Cromwell took interest in him and wanted Barbados’ colonial authorities to understand that both de Mercado’s profession and his religion of choice were both personally deemed acceptable by Cromwell.

General Richard Venables was the leader of England’s conquest of Jamaica from the Spanish; however, as with any military endeavor, one needs to rally the proper number of soldiers to their cause to fight an effective war. Thus Venables traveled to Barbados and found volunteers from English colonists, Jewish colonists, as well as through Barbadian Jewish contacts to Portuguese Jews in Jamaica. Venables was quite excited to learn that the Portuguese Jews of Jamaica were enthused to oust the Spanish, a reason being that many of them were survivors of both the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. On 13 June 1655, Venables wrote a letter to Secretary John Thurloe:

Since my last we have only taken some [few] prisoners; the rest continue in the mountains, wanting Houses, Bread, &c. willing to submit, if not aw’d by a few, and discourag’d by some Soldiers that are unruly occasion’d by extream want, which to redress was the work of this day; and we have to make them good subjects, being most of them Portuguise; the Spaniards we shall remove, and endeavor to gain all of them by our civility. (Venables 1900: 47)

During England’s early colonization of the Americas, the term “Portuguese” was often synonymous with “Jewish” when used to describe a person found within the non-Portuguese controlled New World. It is particularly impressive that Venables immediately found his new “Portuguise” civilians to be “good subjects.” General Venables’ only Biblically Semitic reference during his Jamaica campaign was in regards to the ancient Israelites and, curiously, the only semantically direct comment was in regards to one of his officers learning a sound argument from the “20th of Judges [in which] he might have found the Israelites who prosecuted a good quarrel, and by the Express Command of God, yet fell twice before the Benjamites, but he then covers this unhandsomely by the Servants disobeying the commands of their Masters, but shews not wherein, pretends selfe seeking, but gives no instance, and Casts blemishes without Cause or ground upon all.” (Venables 1900: 90). Overall, Venables seemed to be quite fond of the Jews of the West Indies, especially since they were interested in aiding his militaristic campaign for revenge against the injustices that the Iberian Peninsular kingdoms inflicted upon them.

Richard Ligon, an early British visitor of Barbados, wrote in regards to a fortress wall that was being built at some point during his stay in Barbados, which was from some date in 1647 to 15 April 1650, this being perhaps one of the earliest mentions of Barbadian Jews in any published text (i.e. not within the context of a letter):

Many effayes we made, whilst I was there, for the making and burning of bricks, but never could attain to the perfection of it; and the reason was, the over fatness of the clay, which would alwayes crackle and break, when it felt the great heat of the fire in the Clampe; and by no means could we find the true temper of it, though we made often tryals. There was an ingenious Jew upon the Island, whose name was Solomon, that undertook to teach the making of it; yet for all that, when it came to the touch his wisdom failed, and we were deceived in our expectation, I doubt not but there is a way of tempering, to make it far better than ours in England; for the pots which we find in the Island, wherein the Indians boyl’d their Pork, were of the same kind of Clay, and they were the best and finest temper’d ware of earth that ever I saw. (Ligon 1657: 42)

Ligon seems to have been clearly frustrated at the Jewish mason Solomon’s inability to make his masonry truly come to fruition, however he holds no grudge since no European could effectively utilize the island’s clay and only, in Ligon’s opinion, the previous Amerindian settlers were the best at creating “temper’d ware of earth.” Solomon was possibly then the island’s only formally trained mason and Ligon did emphasize that he regarded him as an “ingenious Jew.” Ligon also included detailed maps of Barbadian sugar mills, maps that were reflective of the blueprints that Caribbean Jews carried with them throughout their West Indian diaspora (Ligon 1657: 42, 85). An ironic factor about such a technological aid that was often provided by Jews is that, even though their science created the very hearts of extremely profitable Barbadian plantation systems (i.e. the sugar mills), they were legally not capable of owning land in Barbados (however, the occasional exception did occur).

In April 1661, it was legally approved by King Charles II of Britain for Jews to settle and trade in Barbados as well as in the British colony of Suriname. This motion’s benevolence to Jews was historically significant for its monarchal support from the other European powers that be, most specifically due to the garnered support of King Frederick III of Denmark (Kritzler 2008: 309-310n24). While, as previously mentioned, Cromwell legalized the travel and settlement of Jews, perhaps Charles II wanted to clarify his support of such a statute as an anti-discriminatory motion since he was able to take control of England only after Cromwell’s death and especially because many of Cromwell’s extreme legal motions were largely condemned after his death and his son’s ousting.

However, settlement passes continued to exist under Charles II. A typical example of a monarchial permissive settling is such as follows, a legally sanctioned acceptance that Charles II approved on 24 July 1661:

A Denizacon granted to Daniel Bueno Henriques Mrchant Native of Sivile in Spaine & now Resident in the Barbados, whereby he is invested wth the priviledges belonging to a free denizen. Provided, that he yeild obedience to the Lawes of this kingdome, & pay such Customes as Aliens doe. Subsor by Sr Phillip Warwick vpon Significacon of Mats pleasure vnder his Signe manuall. Procur vt supra. [i. e. by Mr Secr Nicholas] (Reprinted in Friedenwald 1897: 65)

The real issue of the Jewish presence in the eyes of the English is perhaps most well conveyed in this settlement pass, the fact that “obedience” had to be able to be guaranteed. Many Englishmen fed off the stereotype that since Jews possessed no true geographical nation, they would too readily shift between states and thus their alliances were only between Jews; it should be clarified that most Europeans during this time period perceived Jewish communities as being simply one part of an ever mobile nation. Thus, even with their legally sanctioned presences, Charles II, as Cromwell before, had to constantly prove that individual Jewish settlers were in fact welcomed within his empire.

Even with the Jewish presence legalized in Barbados, the island’s courts would not allow Jews to testify, most especially since it was believed that any Jewish person would not feel shame for lying under a Biblical oath. Thus, with some deliberation, “An Act appointing how the testimony of People of the Hebrew nation, shall be admitted in all Courts and Causes” was passed in 1674, 18 years after the English legalization of the Jewish presence. The Act in its entirety is as follows:

Wherfas His sacred Majesty hath signified his Royal pleasure, that all persons of the Hebrew nation residing in this Island, that are made free Denizens, may be admitted to give their Testimonies on their Oaths, in all Courts and Causes, in such manner and form, as the religion of the said Hebrews will admit: Be it therefore enacted and ordained by his Excellency Sir Jonathan Atkins, Knight, Captain General and chief Governor of this, and other the Caribbee-Islands, the Council and Assembly of this Island, and are Men of Credit and Commerce, shall from henceforth be freely admitted before all Judges, Justices and other Officers, in all Courts and Causes whatsoever, relating to Trade and Dealing, and not otherwise, to give their Testimony upon their Oaths, on the five books of Moses, in such manner and form as is usual, and the religion of the said Nation doth admit. (Hall 1764: 94)

“Read and passed the Assembly, Nemini Contradicente, February 17th 1674.” (Hall 1764: 94). This act was signed by John Higinbotham, Clerk of the Assembly. “Read and passed the Council, and consented to by his Excellency, this 18th day of February, 1674.” (Hall 1764: 94). It was subsequently signed by Deputy Secretary Edwyn Stede. As is evident by the Act, the Old Testament was determined to be the proper half for any Jew to swear a testimony on since it was compatible with “the religion of the said Nation.” Schomburgk even referenced this passage in 1848; however, he was not accurate with the date:

Although [the Jews] are occasionally subjected to persecution and oppression, the policy they exhibited in keeping on good terms with the powers that were, caused their civil rights to be extended in 1680, and their testimony which had long been rejected in the courts of law, was from that time admitted in all civil suits (though not in other cases) upon an oath taken upon the five books of Moses, according to the tenets of their religion. (Schomburgk 1848: 97)

Schomburgk was correct in asserting that Jewish civil rights were “extended” from this point onward. In 1676 it was noted by the governor of Barbados that the island possessed “not above thirty Jew families of Dutch extraction from Brazil.” (qtd. Faber 1998: 277n2). These Jews were Sephardic Jews that escaped the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions via the Netherlands, however most likely to these Jewish families’ delight was the fact that their available rights in Barbados were better than anywhere else back in Europe, the mainland Americas, or, arguably, even in the West Indies.

Dunn noted that in 1680 Bridgetown, Barbados that there were a total of 54 Jewish households in comparison to the 351 English households. While none of the Jewish households held servants (there has been suggestion that it was illegal for a Jew to have indentured Europeans in their service, most especially Christian servants), the Jewish community possessed a total of 163 slaves (whether the enslaved persons were African or Amerindian is not specified), in comparison to the 1,276 slaves possessed by the English. Dunn averaged the mean number of people per family to be 6.4 Jews and 7.4 English; however the mean number of white people per family were 3.4 Jews and 3.7 English, which already suggests that both the social construct of race was mentally and socially established and that interracial relationships were already developing, especially since the Jews kept up with the English with their average number of 3 slaves per household and the English’s 3.6 slaves per household (Dunn 1972: 107, Table 9). During this same time period, Jewish burial records were not being sent back to London (Dunn 1972: 109).

Barbadian Jews were able to flourish commercially due to their linguistic capabilities, a resultant of European languages that were learned throughout diaspora. Jews of Barbados were teaching their children English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and, of course, Hebrew. Such linguistic abilities even occasionally allowed Jewish people to be colonial interpreters for the various empires they chose to reside under (Faber 1998: 69). Jewish merchant Isaac de Mella had his 1768 will in Portuguese for the sole possibility of if, as de Mella clarified, “one of my Nephews Sons to my Brothers and Sisters who reside in the Kingdom of Portugal or Spain shall come and embrace Judaism.” (Trans. & Qtd. Faber 1998: 69). Historian Eli Faber noted that this was in 1768, more than a century after the original Barbadian Jewish community began, thus the very fact that such linguistic traditions continued well into colonization is remarkable. However, what did de Mella mean by “embrace?” If anything, it seems that the Caribbean itself came to be the new homeland for the Jews, that Jewish communities from all over western Europe could pull themselves out of a politico-religious pandemic of a colonial fervor to perpetuate their diaspora for the sole intention of religio-preservation, that instead of holding the title of converso in Spain or Portugal, the Sephardic Jews could flee and truly embrace their familial roots without such a fa?ade or a social stigma of a label.

Controversial in regards to mainstream American notions of the history of Hebrews and Judaism, Jewish academic Jos? V. Malcioln pushed the notion of Judaism’s tendencies of ethno-cultural amalgamation in his book The African Origins of Modern Judaism. Malcioln is a Panamanian national whose mother is of Morrocan-Hebrew heritage, and throughout his work Malcioln explored the African religio-cultural binding contribution and beginnings of Judaism. Malcioln noted in regards to Barbados the following:

… [M]any of the refugees who were given shelter in Barbados were also allowed to have Bajan [colloquial term in Barbados for a Barbadian] women whom they kept on the side. Those Jewish men became the negligent fathers of the dark-skinned Mendes, Lindo, Blackman, Angus, Maduro, Henriquez, and other Jewish people all over the West Indies and Latin America. Most of those poor women raised their children with very little assistance from their pious fathers. Naturally, the children were more concerned with survival than being interested in ethnic or religious traditions. But once their primary needs were met, they, too, began searching for satisfaction of their cultural needs and spiritual guidance on a higher plane than the one where Christians lynch others for having a different skin color or non-Protestant affiliation. Moreover, the Romans took a Jew and Romanized Him [i.e. Titus Flavius Josephus]. So why shouldn’t the Barbadians of color seek and practice an African religion which Judaizes them? And why should someone seek to worship the Son, when he can worship the Father? And, after all, most people want to be God’s chosen people! (Malcioln 1996: 361-362)

Perhaps a topic that is uncomfortable for many to confront, Malcioln emphasizes an important point, that many European colonists, regardless of past victimizations they faced, embraced a racial hierarchy so that they could feel some sense of privilege over another group of people. While traditional “Jewish heritage” is to be passed down matrilineally, the Americas provided a transcontinental forum for a plasticizing of the traditional rules of unilineality, in which typical tradition was sacrificed since ambilineality provided the most prime means of Judaism surviving in a colonial world in which one’s mere presence was at the whims and interests of international, land-hungry European powerhouses. But while some religio-law was bent for survival purposes, others were bent for commercial purposes and thus solely for economic gain, such as the ignoring of the seven (or six depending on regional practice of Judaism) years forgiveness of debts and the freeing of slaves. To survive, adaptation to Christian European rules became a must, that or perpetual diaspora, and thus many Jews found themselves sucked into playing into the racial hierarchies that European metropoles were quickly establishing by the mid- to late-seventeenth century. Some Sephardic Jews participated in the African slave trade, perhaps in a twisted attempt to escape persecution from their European homelands, however through such a commercial fleeing they themselves became perpetually bound into the grinding gears of colonialism in which they were as much the oppressive pawns of the very metropoles that they loathed for their own persecution.

The Jewish experience in colonial Barbados was by no means continuously placid, however the Barbadian colonial endeavor was arguably an unparalleled temporality for Sephardic Jews to flourish since possibly the times of the Umayyad Caliphate of the Iberian Peninsula. Barbados came to be a place of sanctuary for Jews, a place where socio-economic privilege finally became a reality devoid of physical persecution. While the New World was a place of devastation for many, Jews included, at least there were niches like Barbados that offered Jews havens away from the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal.


Mordechai Arbell, The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean: The Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Settlements in the Caribbean and the Guianas (Hewlett, NY: Gefen Books, 2002).

Hilary Beckles, A History of Barbados: From Amerindian Settlement to Nation-State (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Norman F. Cantor, The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1995).

Edward S. Daniels, “Extracts from Various Records of the Early Settlement of the Jews in the Island of Barbados, W.I.: Extract from an Old Document found amongst the Papers in the Cathedral and Parish Church of Barbados”, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 26 (1918), pp. 250-251. Nicholas Darnell Davis, “Notes on the History of the Jews in Barbados”, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 18 (1909), pp. 129-148.

Peter L. Drewett, Prehistoric Barbados (London, England: Barbados Museum and Historical Society, 1991).

Peter L. Drewett, “Dating the Pre-Historic Settlement of Barbados”, The Journal of the Barbados Museum & Historical Society, Vol. LII (Dec. 2006).

Richard S. Dunn, Sugar & Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1972).

Isaac S. and Suzanne A. Emmanuel, History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles: First Volume – History (Cincinnati, OH: American Jewish Archives, 1970).
Eli Faber, Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998).

Stephen Alexander Fortune, Merchants and Jews: The Struggle for British West Indian Commerce, 1650-1750 (Gainesville, FL: University Presses of Florida, 1984).

Herbert Friedenwald, “Material for the History of the Jews in the British West Indies”, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 5 (1897), pp. 45-101.

Eds. Richard Hall, Esq. & Richard Hall, Acts, Passed in the Island of Barbados, from 1643, to 1762, Inclusive (London, England: Printed for Richard Hall, 1764).

Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1988).

Max J. Kohler, “Notes”, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 4 (1896), pp. 219-225.

Edward Kritzler, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom, and Revenge (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2008).

Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (London, England: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1657).

Jose V. Malcioln, The African Origin of Modern Judaism: From Hebrews to Jews (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, Inc., 1996).

William S. Samuel, “A Review of the Jewish Colonists in Barbados in the Year 1680”, The Jewish Historical Society of England 13 (1932-35), pp. 1-111.

William S. Samuel, “Quaker Records”, Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society 15 (1947-48), pp. 81-83.

Sir Robert H. Schomburgk, The History of Barbados: Comprising a Geographical and Statistical Description of the Island; a Sketch of the Historical Events Since the Settlement; and an Account of Its Geology and Natural Productions (London, England: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1848).

E.M. Shilstone, “The Jewish Synagogue Bridgetown, Barbados”, Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society 32 (1966-68), pp. 3-15.

General Robert Venables, The Narrative of General Venables: With an Appendix of Papers Relating to the Expedition to the West Indies and the Conquest of Jamaica, 1654-1655, ed. C.H. Firth, M.A. (New York, NY: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1900).

Ryan Hechler has been researching the history of Jewish communities in the West Indies for two years; he also has been studying the slave trade of Native Americans in the Caribbean as well as the history of East Indian communities in the West Indies. He holds a Post-baccalaureate Certificate of Geographic Information Systems and dual Bachelors of Arts in History and Art History from Virginia Commonwealth University.

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