Jewish Barbados? Tracking Down The Tribe in the Caribbean

When I first visited Barbados last year, I wasn't thinking about the Jewish people at all. And yet one morning I found myself sitting in the sanctuary of one of of the oldest synagogues in the Western hemisphere.
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When I first visited Barbados last year, I wasn't thinking about the Jewish people at all. I mean, I am Jewish, but, like most people who plan an island escape, my priorities were sun, rum, sand and surf -- in that order. I'd not planned on any cultural or religious edification, nor did I expect to encounter something of a Jewish historical mystery.

And yet, when I tore myself away from the beach one morning, to check out the capital city of Bridgetown, I found myself sitting in the sanctuary of one of of the oldest synagogues in the Western hemisphere. (See images here.) While sunlight filtered in through the lancet windows, playing on the chandeliers and intricate wood lattice work on the balcony, I listened as Paul Altman described the island's Jewish history in his island lilt -incongruous from someone who looks a great deal like a younger, more athletic Joe Lieberman. Altman is a second-generation Barbadian, real estate entrepreneur and one of the island's most prominent Jews.

Jews played an important role here on Barbados, he explained -- and perhaps one far greater than is widely acknowledged. When the Jews first arrived in the 1640s, they were experts in sugar production. Back then, the business of Barbados was sugar, and its fermented byproduct, rum. Which in turn lubricates tourism, the business of Barbados today.

And there's more. The name "Barbados" means "the bearded ones" in Portuguese. It's widely believed that the sailors named the island after the Bearded Fig Tree -- the island's coat of arms has the tree at its center. But Altman isn't so sure. "I ask people," he said, "Where are these trees? I searched and I searched. There are only perhaps fifty on the island." He raised an eyebrow, smiled. Could those "bearded ones" have actually been Orthodox Jews?

Intrigued, I walked a few steps to the new Nidhe Israel Museum, to find out how Jews wound up here in the first place. They were Sephardic, from Spain and Portugal, and "New Christians": posing as Christians in public, practicing Judaism in secret, sidestepping laws that restricted Jewish access to money and political power. They were the heretics targeted for torture and death by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, and they were on the run.

Meanwhile, Spain had laid claim to the entire New World, including the Caribbean, which the other world powers contested. Holland, and later England, pragmatically allowed "New Christians" (who had wealth, international trade connections and a hatred of Spain) to settle in the colonies they wrested from the Spanish. In Dutch Brazil, the now openly-practicing Jews entered the sugar trade in a big way, and a few even ventured to British-controlled Barbados, whose climate was also suited to sugar. Many more arrived after the Portuguese recaptured Brazil in 1654 -- immediately expelling the Jews.

They called Barbados the land of Coconut Milk and Sugar Cane, and they planned to stay. They built a Synagogue, and a mikvah -- the latter only discovered last year in the Synagogue's parking lot by University of West Indies archaeologist Michael Stoner. (See the mikvah here.) By the mid 1700s, the Jewish community numbered as many as 800. A small number, to be sure, on an island whose population was about 80,000, but the history of the Jewish people is one of outsized influence. Could Barbados be yet another example?

A few months later, I again arrived on Barbados, this time with nothing but the Jewish history-mystery on my mind. The first person I wanted to talk to was Dr. Karl Watson, a historian at the University of West Indies.

Historians are the only ones who would know a lot about the Sephardim today -the Jewish population began to dwindle in the 18th century, as sugar industry busts, natural disasters and assimilation took their toll, until it zeroed out in 1929. (Today there are about 16 Jewish families on Barbados, and they are Ashkenazim, their forebears were fleeing the Holocaust.)

Dr. Watson is writing a book about the Sephardim, for which he's studied business ledgers, minutes of the Synagogue's Mahamad, and close to 300 Jewish wills recorded from 1670 to 1831. He's gleaned many intimate details of his subject's lives -- who Rachel left money to, and didn't, which slave David fathered an illegitimate child with. He speaks of them as if they were his neighbors. "I feel like I know these people, even though they've lived and been gone for over 200 years," he said a bit sheepishly. "Although I'm not Jewish, I go to their graves, I leave a pebble, and I say the one or two lines of kaddish that I know."

Watson couldn't meet with me right away, so he suggested I visit Swan Street, just a block away from the Synagogue. This was once the center of Jewish life here-in fact, it was once known as "Jew Street". (See an image of Swan Street here.)

I strolled over. Swan Street is actually a pedestrian mall, thick with locals patronizing small vendors, many of whom exhibit their wares--clothing, jewelery, housewares --outside. (Globalization creeps in though, there's also a Kentucky Fried Chicken.) Although the building facades had changed, the streetscape was similar to what I'd have seen hundreds of years ago, Watson said -only the merchants would have been Jewish.

If this was the center of Jewish Barbadian life, I wondered, where did all the sugar expertise come in? This didn't look like a sugar plantation to me.

Next, I wanted to see a Bearded Fig Tree for myself. While there are a few on the island here, the sure thing is to go to Andromeda Botanic Gardens, in Bathsheba. There, I followed a path past bougainvillea, the Bilimbi, and the Breadfruit trees, to find my quarry, and I didn't need the placard to tell me when I'd arrived. The tree was tall, and wide -it drops aerial roots down from its branches, creating new trees that connect with the parent tree. The ruddy aerial roots are the "beard". I stood under the gently swaying root canopy, looking up into the filtered sunlight. (See an image of a Bearded Fig tree here.)

Before I'd seen the Bearded Fig, the notion that Barbados had been named for it sounded strange to me -- it seemed more the fashion of the time to name Caribbean islands after saints, people or the homeland. But these trees looked more like fairy tale entities -and one designed by Tim Burton at that. If the island was in fact covered with these trees when the Portuguese sailors first arrived in the 1500s, I could understand why they might have been moved to take plume to map.

The next afternoon, I paid a call to Dr. Watson at his home. First, I wanted to know about the Jewish contribution to the sugar and rum trade.

He confirmed the impression I'd started to form on Swan Street: although a few Jews owned sugar plantations, most did not, and certainly not when they first arrived on Barbados. Most of the land was owned already, and laws restricted Jewish property ownership, of both land and people. (Jews were also only allowed to one slave per Jewish person, a major sugar cane operation would require hundreds of slaves.) The slave restriction was lifted in 1706, and by then, most Jews were already earning their livelihood Jew Street-style, as merchants and traders.

Hmmm. I thought back to the Nidhe Israel Museum, with its wall-sized timeline of Jewish life from 1600-2000. For 1644 and 1654: "Jews are sugar experts for British settlers." What was that about?

This, it seems, stretches back to when the Sephardim were running their sugar plantations in Brazil. Barbados' most elite planters watched what the Jewish planters were successfully doing in Brazil, and borrowed their technology. For instance, James Drax, an elite Barbadian planter who worked more than 700 acres in Barbados, visited the Sephardic colony in Brazil in 1640, and brought back with him two key innovations: a triple-roller sugar mill for crushing the sugar cane, and copper cauldrons for boiling the cane juice to get crystals, writes Ian Williams in his book Rum. (Nation Books, 2005). Williams credits the Jews for transferring that technology to Barbados, which they likely did as investors in sugar plantations they did not own. Watson's ledgers show both investments in sugar plantations and certainly, handling the trade in sugar after it was harvested.

"Everything can't be laid at their doorstep, they can't be given credit for everything, that would not be historically accurate," Watson says of the Sephardic Jews. "But did they play a major role in the sugar industry on the island? Yes."

"And what about all this with bearded fig tree, and the bearded ones?" I asked.

"Oh God," he sighed. "What is truth, and what is fiction?"

He paused, looked at me.

Seeing this didn't satisfy, he continued.

"Well. There's this myth that Barbados got its name from Portuguese, who landed here and found bearded men. Some said, well, those were Indians, and some said 'no Indians didn't have beards, this had to be some tribe of Judah, they were Orthodox Jews.' Others say it doesn't refer to humans at all, but the Bearded Fig Tree."

We sat for a moment, listening to the birds, absorbing the island heat.

"Take your pick," he said, finally. "There's absolutely no historical evidence whatsoever."

Learn more about Jewish Barbados in these books.

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