The buildings and sites that make up the Synagogue Historic District in Bridgetown give us a glimpse into the history of the island’s early settlers from the Old World and their practices.
The British established a settlement in Barbados in 1627, with Bridgetown soon becoming its centre of commerce and habitation. Bridgetown was commonly used as a first port of call for ships making trans-Atlantic crossings from Africa. In the 17th century, it was regarded as the centre of the British Atlantic trade for goods, especially sugar, as well as a port for trading slaves. The British managed the island as a key sugar colony for several hundred years until the island achieved independence from Britain in 1966.
The Jews were first recorded in Barbados in 1628, one year after the English settled the island. They were Sephardic Jews that came primarily from Recife in northwest Brazil. Their clan had originally fled Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition period, seeking refuge in Brazil, which was under Dutch rule for a brief period. When Portugal reclaimed Brazil as their colony, they expelled the Dutch, resulting in some Jews fleeing to Barbados and beyond in the early 17th century.
By the mid 17th century, there is further documented evidence of the presence of a Jewish community in Barbados:
The 1654 Minutes of the Council of Barbados…
“ordered that consideration of the Jews and foreigners brought from Brazele to the Island be presented at the next sitting of the Governor and Assembly.”
A further Order was recorded at a 1655 Meeting of the Council of Barbados, such that…
“upon the petition of several Jews and Hebrews inhabiting in and about this island, it is ordered, that the Petitioners behaving themselves civilly and conforming to the Government of this island, and being nothing tending to the disturbance of the peace and quiet thereof, during their stay, shall enjoy the privileges of laws and statutes of the Commonwealth of England and of this island, relating to foreigners and strangers.”
Following initial settlement, Jews from England also settled in Barbados. Oliver Cromwell issued a pass in 1655 to Dr. Abraham de Mercado to go to Barbados to practice his profession. He was accompanied by his son, David Raphael de Mercado, who subsequently invented a new type of sugar mill for use in Barbados; it was also introduced to other islands in the Caribbean. Note that the oldest tombstone in the burial ground by the Synagogue bears the name David de Mercado, 1658.
By the 1660’s, the Jews had established a monopoly in the Barbados sugar industry, thus incurring the jealousy of non-Jewish planters. Non-Jewish merchants and traders on the island discriminated against them. Jewish success was based on their business acumen and profound knowledge of the industry.
Although the early Jewish settlers had to struggle under unfair practices, they nevertheless prospered; but their prosperity was met by a number of sanctions. They were not allowed to retail any goods, and were forbidden from trading with the coloured population of the island. Additionally, local authorities imposed a tax on all sugar manufactured by them.
By 1679, there were about 300 Jews living in Barbados. Their numbers peaked in the 1700’s to 800 people.
For 112 years the Jews in Barbados continued to live and work under discrimination of one kind or another. Not until 1831 were they granted permanent and practical freedom in both civil and political matters. Noteworthy is the fact that this liberty was granted to them two years before it was given to Jews in the UK.
The Jews of Barbados developed two synagogues on the island: one in Bridgetown in 1654, the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, and a smaller one in the north in Speightstown. The latter property no longer exists. In 1831, a hurricane destroyed the Nidhe Israel Synagogue. Ninety worshippers at that time raised funds for its reconstruction, which was completed in 1833. It measured 2,000 sq.ft. with a 300 person capacity.
The natural disaster in 1831 curtailed business opportunities on the island, causing the majority of the Jewish community to migrate to the UK and USA where they made substantial contributions. For example, they helped start Rhode Island’s oldest Jewish congregation. Also, it was a Barbadian Jew that pioneered the cultivation of tobacco in Virginia.
In 1873, the remaining Jews in Barbados petitioned for tax relief, which was granted in 1874, so the synagogue and other Jewish property were exempted from parochial and other taxes.
By the early 20 th century, there were only 2 practicing members of the Jewish community in Barbados. They continued to maintain the synagogue and cemetery until 1929. The synagogue was then sold and subsequently used as commercial offices and a law library. It is noteworthy that descendants of the Sephardic community remain on the island today. A new influx of Ashkenazi Jews arrived in Barbados in 1932 from Europe, and relatives of this group currently reside on the island.
Members of that group still reside on the island to date.
In 1979, the Barbados Cabinet made the decision to demolish the Synagogue building and use the site for the development of a new Supreme Court, but members of the Jewish community and the Barbados National Trust convinced Government to protect the building and the site. Hence in 1983, the Government acquired the Synagogue building, thereby halting plans for demolition. They then agreed to vest the building in the Barbados National Trust in 1985.
By 1986, the Synagogue Restoration Project was initiated. Funds were raised both locally and internationally. The original design of the early synagogue was recreated through the use of old photographs obtained from the Barbados Museum. The site remains a symbol of the Jewish community of Barbados, their contribution to Barbadian society, and their link with the past.
An excerpt from the 1942 Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society encapsulates the spirit of the original Barbados Jewish community:
“Note the Synagogue building and Burial Grounds as they are positioned today, and the buildings that are identified as Dwelling Houses were contiguous. They housed the officers of the Synagogue - the Rabbi, Shamash (warden), Shoket (ritual slaughterer), and Banadeira (female keeper of the Mikvah)”. (Karl Watson in “1806 Plat of the Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados, Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, Vol. LXI, 2010).
The Quakers, or “Society of Friends” as they were commonly known, emerged in England in 1652 during a period when the country was in religious disarray. It was a religious society founded by its leader, George Fox. They sought to live a life of peace, simplicity and equality. That meant equality and love for all humans. They avoided the temptations associated with earthly prosperity, while at the same time embracing industry and frugality. By 1660, there were about 50,000 Quakers in England. As a result of persecution in their own homeland, many Quakers migrated from England to the New World.
Quakers began arriving in Barbados in the mid-1650’s. There were more than 1,000 Quakers in Barbados by 1680. It is noteworthy that prior to their large-scale migration to Pennsylvania, Barbados had more Quakers than any other English colony.
“Over then next few years, the Quakers sent many ‘itinerants’, or missionaries, to Barbados. Their call was to go out to the New World and convert people. They felt they had to take their faith everywhere in the English-speaking world. Most who kept a journal said they had gotten a call – that God told them they had to go to this place.
In Barbados, the Quakers experienced great success – at least for a couple of decades. The reason was the ‘simple message’ of their religion. They had a very simple message and it was very reassuring. Their message was that everyone had the ‘inward light’ and that everyone was assured of salvation. That wasn’t the case with the Church of England.”
Quakers on Barbados became a critical part of a transatlantic network of “Friends”. In the mid-17th century, they were religious enthusiasts who challenged the beliefs and practices of the dominant planter class, thereby creating a culture that threatened the interests of Barbados planters.
Quakers refused to fund the Anglican Church in Barbados, take oaths, participate in the militia, or pay taxes to build forts. They frequently disrupted Anglican services and wrote papers critical of the established church.
They created a separate religious establishment in Barbados. By the 1680’s, they were maintaining 5 meeting houses and several Quaker cemeteries, and keeping their own records. (One Quaker burial ground is located in the Synagogue Historic District.)
Most threatening to the planters on the island was the Quakers attempt to convert slaves and improve their working and living conditions. A few even advocated the abolition of slavery. Some of them owned their own slaves, and in their wills they sometimes included provisions to improve their slaves’ living conditions. Between 1674 and 1720, a few Quakers on Barbados freed some of their slaves.
By the late 17th century, the Quakers had amassed a sizeable and influential group in Barbados. By the 1680’s, they were thriving with a string of meeting houses scattered throughout the island. Due to the existence of slavery in Barbados at that time, they faced a moral dilemma – how to reconcile principles of freedom and equality, and carry on with their burgeoning businesses while following their morals.
By the mid 18th century, there was a decline of Quakerism in Barbados, and by the 1790’s it had vanished. Many had migrated to Pennsylvania to set up communities there.
According to local historian, Karl Watson (2016):
“the Quakers in Barbados, led by George Fox in the 17th century, attempted to convert Bridgetown’s Jews to Christianity. He had various religious pamphlets translated into Spanish and circulated them to Jews, who angrily rejected these unwanted advances. A major Quaker cemetery abutted the lands of Nidhe Israel, and during recent excavations, the (1837) gravestone of a Quaker leader, Rowland Gibson was uncovered. These new gravestones add to our understanding of the spatial dynamics of the synagogue complex. Also, they are poignant reminders of a once flourishing Sephardic community whose members had spent five or six generations on the island. Over this period of time, as all newcomers to the island discovered, a process of creolization took place, during which an identity emerged that was both Sephardic and Barbadian at the same time.”
For further information on the history of Barbados, including pre-colonial days before the 17th century, please refer to the following resources:
Barbados National Trust (http://www.barbadosnationaltrust.org)
Barbados Museum and Historical Society (http://www.barbmuse.org.bb/web/)
Digital Library of the Caribbean (http://www.dloc.com)