Migrants of the Caribbean
September 26, 2017
A little-known Jewish community, which inhabited the small East Caribbean island of Nevis in the 17th and 18th centuries, played an important role in shaping the United States and the whole of the modern world
It is hard to find a stone, let alone a pebble, on the sun-cracked patch of land which is the old Jewish cemetery in Charlestown, the tiny capital of Nevis, an East Caribbean island with a population of 10,000.
After several minutes of searching, I manage to spot a small piece of gravel, pick it up and, in accordance with an old Jewish custom, place it on the nearest tombstone as a token of respect for the once vibrant and important, but now-defunct Jewish community of Nevis whose records include the invention of Muscovado sugar and educating Alexander Hamilton, one of the USA’s founding fathers. Hamilton was born on the island in 1755 and it’s not a well-known fact that the creator of the USA’s first bank and George Washington’s closest aide, attended the West Indies’ then only Jewish school – in Charlestown.
The history of the Jews of Nevis, who migrated to the island from Spain and Portugal while fleeing the Inquisition in the 1670s, is a fascinating real-life story of immigration and societal change. It is also a tale of exile, hardship and perseverance.
A TROPICAL HEAVEN
‘Paradise’ was the wi-fi access password at Nisbet Plantation Resort, where I stayed while on Nevis. And tropical heaven it was indeed. A former sugar plantation and the only beach-side plantation property in the Caribbean, it was there that Admiral Nelson met the young widow Fanny Nisbet, who later became his wife.
Nowadays, the estate has 36 cottages, scattered over a coconut palm grove, and a colonial-style restaurant presided over by maître d’ Patterson Fleming, whose main duty is to make everyone feel welcome. On request, the ever-smiling Patterson (many first names of local men are derived from the last names of the former planters) would take you on a pub crawl around the island, or demonstrate his extraordinary collection of 3,000 outrageously bright ties that earned him the nickname of the island’s ‘Minister of Tie-rism’.
It was my first visit to the Caribbean, and the resort, with its palm trees, monkeys, exotic birds, string bands playing on the beach during the day and replaced after dark by the orchestras of melodiously squeaking, as if flute-playing, crickets, was like a widely accepted notion of the Caribbean coming to life. It could be a cliche, yes, but stereotypes can be beautiful too.
‘We are not quite in the 21st century here,’ Tim Thuell, the resort’s general manager, told me.
My favourite past-time on the beach was watching the abundant brown pelicans, locally known as boobies, fishing in the sea. With complete abandon, these large graceful birds, with powerful wings and aquiline profiles, would drop vertically – and often synchronically – in twos or threes – into the water, heads down, to emerge with a sparkling fish wriggling in their beaks. Never before had I seen such graceful creatures, fully immersed in their own mysterious reality.
Mystery was never far away in Nevis. Since 1628, when the island was colonised by the British, the latter used to refer to it as a jewel in the British Crown. By the onset of the 18th century, Nevis had become a centre of British social life rivalling many places in England itself. Some even claimed that Nevis was more important for Britain than the whole state of New Jersey. How could this tiny island manage to produce the best sugar in the whole of the Caribbean? How – for several centuries – had it been much more economically advanced and more upmarket that the neighbouring St Kitts, which is almost four times bigger, both in territory and in population?
Mark Brantley, Nevis’s Deputy Premier, whom I met in Charlestown, told me about the island’s impressive economic development and its ambitious plans to progress from relying mostly on tourism to being an exporter of renewable energy. He spoke of its toughening immigration policy, the island’s good schools and social housing. But as a true politician and a senior cabinet member of the federal government of St Kitts & Nevis (and the holder of ten different ministerial portfolios), he declined to comment on Nevis’ seeming lead over its neighbours.
SECRETS OF THE OLD BURIAL GROUND
No amount of brown pelican watching could give me an explanation, but a possible answer came unexpectedly during a tour of Charlestown from my driver-cum-guide, the dedicated local historian, John Paris.
‘Our economy is stronger due to the Jewish influence,’ he said as we were walking past the old, yet well-maintained, Jewish cemetery in the centre of the town. ‘Due to the Jewish settlers, for centuries – up to the 1980s when the whole of the sugar industry came to a stop – we had made the best sugar in the Caribbean because they brought to the island the technology of crystallisation.
‘There was a slave market in Charlestown, but the Nevisian Jews never had slaves or took part in the slave trade,’ he carried on. ‘They excelled in business and technology. It was they who taught young Alexander Hamilton to hate slavery and to be good with counting and money.’
‘Wait a moment!’ I interrupted looking at the time-beaten tombstones. ‘Jewish influence? How did that come about? How big is the Jewish community of Nevis these days?’
‘There’s no such thing any longer,’ John replied. ‘The last Jewish migrants left the island over 200 years ago. We don’t know where they had gone to or what happened to them afterwards.’
More moss-covered stone fragments of the once thriving Jewish community were to be found in a small narrow lane that led from the cemetery to the town centre.
‘We locals call this lane Jew’s Walk, although this is not its official name,’ John explained. He showed me the spot where Alexander Hamilton’s Jewish school used to be located – now part of an old garage – and a crumbling stone building that used to be a mikvah, the Sephardic Jews’ ritual bath.
‘I went to school past these ruins,’ he said. ‘Until 1971, when the cemetery was officially rededicated, no one knew what they were. Some believed they could be the remains of a synagogue, the first in the Caribbean, but later they established it was probably just the school, and that the synagogue must have been elsewhere.’
We finished the tour at the two-storied Georgian house, built on the foundations of the structure where Hamilton was born in 1755, and now housing his museum. It was there, with the help of Nicole Liburd, the museum’s curator and the executive director of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society, that I begun to unravel the intriguing story of the mysterious Jewish enclave of Nevis.
THE RABBI’S DISCOVERIES
The modern part of the Jews of Nevis’ long saga began on a scorching Sunday afternoon, 3 February 1957, when the first ever cruise ship, the SS Ryndam of the Holland-America line, visited the tiny island.
The gleaming white ocean liner was so huge that her crew included an on-board rabbi, Malcolm Stern. Rabbi Stern couldn’t wait to get ashore for one simple reason: during the cruise, he’d heard from Captain John Smith – who had visited Nevis before – that Alexander Hamilton, one of the ‘greatest Americans ever’, was not only born on the island, but also received his early education in the local synagogue. When Stern asked the Captain why Hamilton, who was not Jewish, had to be educated in a Jewish school, the reply was that the future USA’s first Treasury Secretary, having been born out of wedlock, was denied admission to the Anglican school, but was readily accepted by the Jewish one.
An avid scholar of Jewish history, the rabbi knew that the Sephardic community of Nevis was no more, but was eager to check if the Nevis synagogue, the first in the Caribbean, was still standing. And how about a Jewish cemetery and other memorabilia?
Accompanied by his wife Louise, Stern got ashore to explore Charlestown. Having turned off the main road, they stumbled upon what he later called ‘an almost unidentifiable ruin’. A local guide told the Sterns that Nevisians called that structure ‘the Jews’ school’. The Sterns then spotted the remains of two characteristic columns inside the ruin and concluded that, synagogue or not, the building definitely had Jewish origins.
They proceeded down an unpaved path (the same ‘Jews Walk’ I’d been guided to earlier) which lead them to a rather neglected lawn, overgrown with weeds, where goats grazed among hardly visible crumbling tombstones, on some of which the semi-obliterated epitaphs in Hebrew, English and Portuguese could still be discerned.
‘The lot, approximately 200 feet by 75 feet, is delineated by the remains of a wire fence,’ Rabbi Stern recorded. To his sheer delight, he was able to read some of the epitaphs: ‘The body of Benvenida Cohen Rodrigues who departed this life the 3rd of September 1684…’ – altogether 19 markings ranging between 1684 and 1768.
On returning to the United States, Stern wrote several articles about his findings thus bringing the forgotten Sephardic community of Nevis to public attention. A handful of scholars, philanthropists and enthusiasts visited Nevis in the following years. With the help of the government of St Kitts and Nevis, particularly the then Prime Minister, Robert Bradshaw, some modest funds for the restoration of the historic burial ground were found, and on 25 February 1971, the old Jewish cemetery was reconsecrated (declared sacred again) in a special ritual which included a ceremonial procession, an official opening of the cemetery’s gate by Rabbi Stern, prayers for the dead, singing of psalms, a brief address by the Premier himself and the Poem of Reconsecration, composed and read by writer and attorney Robert D Abrahams:
Long, long ago they walked this lovely isle,
And lived and died within Mount Nevis shade,
Far was their coming, here found rest awhile,
Enjoying what their fruitful labours made.
We know not why they came, nor where they went,
But these remained, reposing in this spot,
Their wanderings at end, their voyaging spent,
A while they were remembered, then forgot.
Standing close today beside their graves,
We say the ancient prayer they would have known,
‘All men are brothers’ – this the truth that saves,
And may the Lord of all here, bless each stone.
THE WHY AND THE WHERE
The poet might have been right in saying that it was (and still is) unclear why and to where the Jews of Nevis eventually went. Some historians refer to the French invasions of 1706 and of 1782, others to the recurrent earthquakes and the economic depression as reasons for that enigmatic mini-exodus.
But the fact remains: if by the end of the 17th century, a quarter of the island’s white population were Jewish, by the last half of the 18th century only three Jewish households remained. It is fair to say, therefore, that by the early 1800s, the once strong and vibrant Jewish community of Nevis had simply vanished both from the island and from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.
But their influence persisted. Armed with the traditions, attitudes and technologies introduced by the Jewish migrants, the sugar industry of Nevis became one of the most advanced in the Caribbean. By 1870, with over 200 plantations, mills and estates on both Nevis and St Kitts, it was the first in the West Indies to move from wind to steam power, with sugar being the undisputed king of the island’s burgeoning economy.
As for why the Jews came to Nevis in the first place, the reason is perhaps obvious – religious persecution. The choice they were facing back in Spain and Portugal under the Inquisition was simple: convert to Christianity or die.
Their way to Nevis was long and full of hardship. Many first went to Brazil (where they learned the secrets of sugar-making), or to Barbados before turning up on Nevis in 1677-78, when the census listed four Jewish families there.
Their wanderings reminded me of the Russian ‘Old Believers’ in Alaska. Driven out of Russia by so-called ‘Great Schism’ of the 1650s and by severe persecution under Peter the Great, whom they saw as the Antichrist, they had to flee first to the outskirts of the vast Russian empire and then farther afield – to Brazil and to Oregon, where they survived by growing wheat and corn, before settling down in Alaska in 1968.
The difference, however, is that whereas the happy colonies of the Russian outcasts in Alaska are still thriving (as I could see for myself, having visited them), the Jews of Nevis disappeared over 200 years ago, having left a remarkable, if little- known legacy which, alongside the technological breakthroughs in sugar-making still in use today, had helped to shape modern America.
By that I mean their indisputable strong influence on the outlook of young Alexander Hamilton who, as one of the USA’s founding fathers, a hero of the American revolution and the First Secretary of the Treasury, had a huge effect on the state of his adopted US and hence, eventually, on the future of the whole world.
For reasons unknown (yet easily guessable) the Jewish part of Hamilton’s life and education has remained obscure and has been silenced by many a biographer. One of the current Broadway musical hits – Hamilton – while looking at Hamilton’s life in some detail, does not mention it either. According to a recent issue of Tablet Magazine, a digitally-published American Jewish general interest title, ‘something the musical doesn’t explore is the founding father’s early connections to Judaism…’
So, what did the Jewish school of Nevis give to young Hamilton, apart from opening its doors to the bright little boy, ostracised for being the son of an unmarried woman? According to Rabbi Malcolm Stern, it was there that ‘by the age of ten, he had acquired his love of reading, his skill in mathematics, and the ability to recite the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) in Hebrew.’ His son later related that Hamilton often mentioned with a smile how he was repeating the Decalogue in Hebrew when so small that he was placed standing by his teacher’s side upon a table.
It was also while at the school that Hamilton had become fluent in French, learned to love freedom and to hate slavery, of which his headmistress was also a staunch opponent.
All through his life, Hamilton harboured reverence for Jewish people. In later years, he wrote that:
‘…the progress of the Jews from their earliest history to the present time has been and is entirely out of the ordinary course of human affairs. Is it not then a fair conclusion that the cause also is an extraordinary one – in other words, that it is the effect of some great providential plan?’
And once, speaking in court, he challenged the opposing council by saying: ‘Why distrust the evidence of the Jews? Discredit them and you destroy the Christian religion.’ This was a thought later echoed in the works of the exiled 20th century Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev.
‘Well, what can I say? They just left, after 200 years here,’ shrugged Nicole Liburd when, after my time with the archives came to an end, I asked her if as a historian she had her own version of why the Jews had not stayed in Nevis?
She then smiled and added: ‘The Jewish migrants left – and the community briefly went into decline. They played a great role here. They were fine merchants, inventors and they helped the economy.’
That ‘help’ can still be felt in Nevis where all the locals I spoke with expressed genuine affection towards Jewish people, both ‘their own’ and in general. Good deeds and people behind them are always remembered warmly, and that memory never fades.