This Day in Jewish History

1668: Envious Barbadian Colonists Enact 'Jewish Laws'

Jews flocked to Barbados with the island's conquest by the English, who promptly accused them of underhanded practices.

Wikimedia Commons

On October 23, 1668, the Jews of Barbadoes were subjected to “Jewish laws,” which constrained where they could reside and their ability to engage in commerce.

The laws, enacted by British colonists on the island, who resented the Jews’ success in foreign trade and believed they were engaging in underhanded business practices, remained in effect until 1802.

Barbados, an island in the Lesser Antilles group, in the Caribbean Sea, was settled by the British in 1627, three years after a force from the United Kingdom took possession of it in the name of King James I. Within a year, Jews - from Dutch Brazil, Suriname, Cayenne, Germany and Italy, in addition to England – had joined them.

In 1654, when Portugal regained control of Brazil from the Netherlands, a group of refugees arrived from that South American country, settling in Bridgetown, the island’s capital.

Jews brought with them a variety of skills and experience that were useful to the development of the island’s economy. This included expertise in the cultivation of sugar, a crop perfectly suited to the climate and soil, but of which British settlers had no knowledge.

Inhuman bondage

According to historian David Brion Davis, author of “Inhuman Bondage,” a history of slavery in the New World, the opening of sugar plantations transformed the economy and demography of Barbados. By 1680, within the course of a single generation, the island had 175 major plantation owners, 1,000 small planters – and some 40,000 slaves.

By 1680, Bridgetown counted 54 Jewish families among its residents. They had established a synagogue in 1654, Nidhei Israel, with a cemetery. The other major Jewish community was in what came to be called Speightstown, in the island’s northwest corner. Its synagogue was called Tzemah David.

There were a small number of Jews who owned land and operated plantations, where they grew sugar and coffee. Most, however, were urban, and supported themselves through export and import business.

The knowledge of Spanish that many brought with them to Barbados made it easy to do business with Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and in South America. But Jews were accused of trading extensively with Dutch businesses too, a privilege that was denied British colonists, who therefore viewed it as a sign of disloyalty.

Wikimedia Commons

Swearing on the Christian bible

With the legislation of October 1668, however, Jews were forbidden from owning more than one slave, or employing Christians. Henceforth, they were limited to living in the towns, since the law basically prevented them from running a plantation.

They were subjected to new taxes, payable as a community rather than on an individual basis, and prohibited from participating in retail trade. Records from 1679, for example, note the payment of taxes "in pounds of Muscovado Sugar on the Hebrew Nation Inhabitants in and about Bridgetown toward defraying the charges of the Parish," yielding 13,299 pounds of sugar.

Although in theory, Jews were free to practice their religion, their testimony was inadmissible in Barbadian courts, because of their insistence on swearing their oath over a Hebrew Bible. Eventually, the law was amended so that they were permitted to testify in cases related to trade and business, but it was some years before they could testify in all cases.

It was only in 1802 that the colonial government of Barbados, followed in 1820 by Parliament in London, repealed all of the legislation that discriminated against Jews. By then, however, the Jews had largely, if slowly, abandoned the island. An attack on the Tzemah David synagogue in Speightstown, in 1739, for example, had led to the departure of the Jewish community from that town.

By 1929, it is thought that the last descendant of the original Jewish settlers on Barbados left. However, the community was renewed with the arrival of European Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.