Jews of the Caribbean

Finding history, heritage and happy hour in Barbados


Just outside Bridgetown, you can find the Barbados archives, housed in what was once the Leper Hospital. In front of me is a deed of sale of an enslaved woman called Debby. She was sold by Aaron Baruch Lousada, a Jewish merchant, to Rebecca Bennett, a “free Mulatto”. The date is 1661 and beside it is Lousada’s last will and testament from 1695; one of many documents from the island’s long Jewish history.

Barbados became British in 1625 and has long been a favourite winter holiday destination, renowned for those pristine beaches that stretch for miles, and its clear waters.

But there’s far more to do and see here beyond lounging on the sand; it’s well worth arranging a hire car or joining a group tour to explore this large and diverse island, not forgetting its exotic cuisine and its celebrated Mount Gay rum.

The island capital, the Unesco World Heritage Site of Bridgetown, was once the richest port in the Caribbean and it’s small enough to be explored on foot. Start beside the Careenage, a natural harbour consisting of a long finger of water that reaches the city centre.

A plaque marks the space where the first enslaved people arrvied, and opposite sit the Victorian Parliament Buildings, magnificent neo-Gothic structures which house the country’s government.

A short walk away is National Heroes Square, formerly known as Trafalgar Square. This historic plaza pays tribute to Barbados’ national heroes although the bronze statue of Lord Nelson has been relocated to the Museum.

Just nearby is Cheapside Market, once the hub for the buying and selling of slaves; today it bustles with stalls selling fresh produce, spices and local crafts.

And it’s here that the first Jews arrived in 1628, one year after British settlement, with a larger wave of immigration a generation later after Portugal retook its former colony of Brazil from the Dutch in 1654.

Many Portuguese Jews and conversos who had been living happily under Dutch rule made their way back to the Netherlands, before Oliver Cromwell gave them licence to resettle in Barbados.

Meanwhile others left from Suriname, when the once British colony passed to the Dutch, in order to retain their British citizenship, so by the late 17th century there were two Jewish communities on the island.

Their coming revitalised the struggling sugar cane plantation, with those coming from Brazil bringing expertise and windmill technology. The cane thrived in the Caribbean climate and soil, making it an ideal cash crop for European plantation owners — although the labour-intensive process of cultivating and harvesting also led to the widespread importation of slaves from Africa.

Barbados soon became one of the world’s leading producers of sugar and the industry brought immense wealth to the island, playing a significant role in shaping the economy, society, and landscape of the island. Grand mansions sprung up everywhere, windmills for grinding the cane dotted the island, and a distinct Barbadian culture began to develop.

In 1679 a new law prevented the island’s 300 Jews from owning slaves so they moved to Bridgetown to become shopkeepers and merchants, with many investing in plantations and mills and becoming wealthy as a result.

By the next century, the community numbered around 800 and there were so many Jews living in Swan Street that it became known as Jew Street.

Today, the bustling alleyway is lined with shops and restaurants, but the Jews themselves have long gone. However, a short walk away, in Synagogue Lane, the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere remains. The coral pink Nidhe Israel synagogue dates from 1654, although it was damaged in a hurricane in 1831 and rebuilt in 1834.

As the sugar industry declined in the mid-19th century, many Jews began to move further west to Jamaica and the USA. By 1859 the population was down to 71 and in 1925, Edmund Baeza, said to be the sole surviving member, sold the synagogue for commercial use.

Happily, it has been completely restored and sits alongside a historic mikveh, rediscovered only 15 years ago, and an ancient cemetery. Services are held at the shul every Friday — although the community is still too small to support a rabbi — while the Jewish school, built in 1750, has been converted into a state-of-the-art museum detailing the history of the community.

While you’re in Bridgetown, there’s another slice of Bajan history to discover, with the Mount Gay Rum Factory on the outskirts of the city, although the distillery itself is now located elsewhere. One of the longest running rum producers in the world, it was founded in 1703 by Sir John Gay.

A 45-minute tour begins with a short film and covers all stages of rum production, while at the end you’re rewarded with a tutored tasting of different blends and vintages of the rum.

But you shouldn’t spend your entire trip in museums, however fascinating the island’s past. One unmissable activity is a catamaran cruise from Bridgetown, sailing along Barbados’s calm waters to a shallow shipwreck site.

Here you can don your snorkel to explore the wrecks, swimming among the fishes and even sighting sea turtles. Later the boat takes you to a secluded bay where you’re served a buffet lunch before making your way back to the city — there’s a romantic sunset option too.

In complete contrast to the sandy coastline is the Scotland District, a hilly region in the north of the island. The first settlers here were Scots, attracted by the craggy hills and mild climate that reminded them of home, and the area is dotted with small settlements with brightly painted wooden shacks. Then head up Mount Hillaby, the highest point in the island at 340m, to get a good idea of what landscape was like before it was deforested.

For a real taste of Barbados and a chance to mingle with the locals, Oistins Fish Fry is the Friday night event. It’s held in Oistins Bay Gardens, which are packed with food stalls, bars, and music stages. You order whatever you fancy from the makeshift kitchens, grab a rum or beer and listen to the music. It’s usually loud and a vibrant mix of reggae, calypso and soca.

The food, though, is the main attraction, with wonderfully fresh fish barbecued in front of you. It’s all perfectly safe, with no sign of trouble, and there are plenty of families with young children.

After you’ve eaten, if you’re feeling energetic, get on the dance floor and boogie with the locals. And if that’s not your thing, wander to the oldies stage where couples demonstrate their best ballroom dancing.

In an island only slightly bigger than the Isle of Wight, it feels as if there is constantly something new to discover. And that’s just as true for the archives.

The vast numbers of documents crammed onto the heaving shelves are slowly being digitised — but in the meantime, slowly yellowing from the sunlight streaming through the windows.

Ingrid Thompson, the chief archivist, tells me there’s a wealth of information about Jewish history yet to be discovered. She pleads for volunteer expert researchers to come and spend their summers here.

Without their help, much of the real story of Jewish Barbados may be lost for ever.

Getting There

Return flights from Heathrow to Barbados cost from around £575 with Virgin Atlantic.

Rooms at Cobblers Cove boutique hotel cost from around £335 per night.

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