This Day in Jewish History / A Ship Carrying 152 Jews Who Had Fled Spain Sails to South America

The passengers who thought they were hading to French Guiana ended up in Tobago where they became destitute.

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Pigeon Point, TobagoCredit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

On July 20, 1660, a ship carrying 152 Jews, most of them from Livorno, in Italy, set sail for the New World, under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company.

Livorno, a large trading center on the northwest coast of Italy, had since the late 16th century been a major destination for Jews fleeing Iberia in the wake of the Inquisition. By the mid-17th century, Sephardi Jews living there and in the Netherlands began to serve as a source of colonization in the Atlantic colonies.

The journey of the Monte de Cisne on July 20 was organized by one Paulo Jacomo Pinto, who negotiated with the West India Company to bring several ship loads of colonists to the northeast coast of South America. In the case of the Monte de Cisne, the destination was apparently the island of Cayenne, today the capital of French Guiana, but either by accident or perhaps by design, the ship ended up at Tobago, an island to the northeast, off of Venezuela. There, they were “reduced to utmost poverty,” according to the records of the Dutch West India Company.

Among those in the group was the converso poet Miguel de Barrios (1625-1701; called Daniel Halevi in Hebrew). Barrios was Spanish-born, but was on the move throughout his life, and had come to Livorno by way of Algeria, another destination for converso Jews looking for refuge after departing Spain. As Spanish rule in Algeria became increasingly strict vis-à-vis Jews, many of them moved on to Livorno, where they could live openly as Jews.

Historian Mordechai Arbell, in his book “The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean,” describes numerous Dutch settlements along the coastline of what are today Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. These colonies served not only as sources of agricultural exports to Europe, but also as defensive outposts in the Netherlands’ ongoing conflict with Spain and Portugal. The Dutch colonies were fairly welcoming to Jews, and allowed them to practice their religion. Especially after their expulsion from Recife, Jews, who had developed significant expertise in both growing and refining sugarcane, were sought out for the Dutch settlements.

Although the passengers on board the Monte de Cisne believed they were destined for Cayenne, there is reason to believe that Paulo Jacomo Pinto intentionally had them directed to Tobago, where they joined colonists from Britain, France and Latvia. Most did not remain. Some, like Miguel de Barrios, returned to Amsterdam, after the death of his wife on the island. Others moved to Cayenne. Although some remained, today, there is no evidence in the Jewish cemetery of Tobago of this early wave of settlers.

Arbell, in his book, outlines a number of reasons why the Jewish colony in Tobago failed. They include a lack of economic support from the Dutch West India Company or from the Dutch Lampsins family, who ran the colony, as well as an absence of the technical skills held, for example, by expellees from Recife; a lack of strong grounding in Judaism, considering that many of them were recent returnees to the faith; and tensions between the various nations with colonies in Tobago, as well as between settlers and indigenous peoples.

As for Miguel de Barrios, he ended up in Brussels, where he became an officer in the Spanish army. He wrote works of poetry and theater, full of philosophical and religious musings, and he became a follower of the false messiah Shabtai Tzvi. He died in Amsterdam in 1701.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

Pigeon Point, Tobago

Miguel de Barrios in Rembrandt's "The Jewish Bride" (c. 1667)

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