During the Jewish modern period, ships bound for colonies in the Americas not only carried products and lamentably, also slaves, but equally members of the Portuguese nation, among them young and old, poor and rich, adventurers and refugees, forasteiros and itinerant talmidei hakhamim in need of assistance, merchants and speculators, widowers and widows, grooms and brides (and sometimes the ships returned the travelers back to the places from where they had originally embarked). The colonies in the Atlantic, which attracted many members of the recently established Jewish Portuguese communities in Hamburg, Amsterdam, and London, negotiated between different colonial empires at long social, ethnic and cultural boundaries, crossed religious borders and frontiers, and showed the blending of multiple Jewish traditions.2 Through the personal stories of these travelers, we learn of the challenges and opportunities that faced the émigré Jews in these new places, and the many ties that bound them to their erstwhile homes across the ocean.3 Records of their travels and experiences shed light on a multicultural “Jewish” or “Swimming” Atlantic.4
For those who voluntarily made the voyage on a “God-damn floating coffin,” the other side of the Atlantic offered escape from hardship and the cares of daily life, with promises of marvel-filled adventure and exotic romance, but also more prosaic hopes for steady sources of employment and income or just the chance for a better life. For the unwilling voyagers, some of whom were banished by the Mahamad never to return and others who were to be allowed back to the motherland after a stipulated number of years, the Atlantic was a place of grief and loss. Only in rare cases was the journey undertaken with the intention to cultivate economic or family ties or establish new commercial ventures.5
Global Sephardic networks thus shaped the Atlantic into a Sephardic Atlantic and the Caribbean islands into Sephardic islands by building new cultures and bringing disparate cultures into contact for the first time, hence creating a vast marchland of Jewish civilization in the Americas and a unique Sephardic-Caribbean place, space, and culture.6 The Jewish Atlantic, however, was never exclusively Jewish. It included Christian colonists, colonial officials, sailors, soldiers, servants, enslaved men and women, but also indigenous inhabitants and Maroons in the hinterland. The Sephardic component comprised Jews and also New Christians, New Jews, Christian converts to Judaism,7 and Jewish converts to Christianity. This diverse group retained family, cultural, linguistic, and economic ties throughout most of its history, and eventually encompassed also the mulatto offspring of the Jewish slave owners in Barbados and Suriname.8 The strong ethnic endogamy motivated by religious, social, and cultural values coupled with the difficulty of finding spouses in the vicinity, often led to marriages among cross—or parallel cousins. Disapprobation of hypogamy (a female marrying someone of a lower social status or marrying “down”) also induced the Sephardim to marry among themselves.9 Strong bonds of ethnic kinship hence translated into resilient relationships of commercial trust.
Consequently, the world of Caribbean Jews was, in a sense, a portable social, cultural, and economic sphere sustained by informal ethnic trading networks that functioned as a mode of advancement for its members. Jewish places and cultural spaces were filled with the itinerant Sephardic community that spread out across the Caribbean Sea. Many of these places were established under the shadow of Dutch Brazil—in Dutch-controlled Berbice, Curaçao, Demerara, Essequibo, Curaçao, Suriname (disputed between England and Holland), St. Eustatius, Tobago (disputed among various powers), Cayenne (in what is today French Guiana), English-controlled Barbados, Nevis, and Jamaica, and Danish-controlled St. Thomas. Among the first Sephardim to settle in the Caribbean basin were men and women who had initially fled the Iberian Peninsula and made their way first, either directly or indirectly, to Hamburg or Amsterdam and only later to Dutch Brazil. Among these itinerant families we can note the Abudiente, Cohen Belinfante, de Mercado, Na(h)mias, Pacheco, traceable in Recife,10 Barbados, Martinique, Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis,11 Boston, New York, Newport, London, and Hamburg.12
Sephardic Jewishness thus bridged the Caribbean Sea and reached across the Atlantic to France, England, Amsterdam, Hamburg and the ancestral Iberian Peninsula, mirroring the post-expulsion dispersal of Sephardic conversos and “New Jews.”13 The cultural coherence that was the result of multiple and intersecting networks of Jewish groups of Sephardic Jews (Spanish and Portuguese), New Christians (cristãos novos, conversos), crypto-Jews (Marranos), and later Ashkenazim, underpinned the remarkable flexibility of these groups and their capacity to cross religious, political, and cultural divides. This was a boon to the new wave of Jewish exiles to the Caribbean who found themselves in the front row of the European invasion of the New World and the establishment of the first European trade zones in the Americas.14
The webs of Sephardic communal affiliation were, however, slow to fall in line with Imperial divisions. Amsterdam long remained the supreme “mother-community” for the Sephardim of the Caribbean, as Evelyne Oliel-Grausz’s work has shown in detail.15 Far from being exemplary “patriots,” it could perhaps be argued that in the early modern period, the Sephardim in the Americas were closer to model “non-patriots,” as Adam Sutcliffe points out, embedded as they were in particularly complex multiple networks of commerce and kinship, and thus remained necessarily aloof from the political rivalries among the various empires (and in part because of this, were better able to sustain trade with all parties during periods of conflict).16 On the other hand, as Sutcliffe highlights, the exposure of Sephardim “to a wide range of different cultures and religions, and their need to adapt in order to survive in contrasting and changing political regimes, promoted the development of particularly malleable political allegiances, and also of forms of religious heterodoxy,”17 that shaped the evolution of attitudes and values among the Western Sephardim over the course of this period.
The Caribbean basin became then a “New Heaven” for members of the transnational ethnic “nação portuguesa,” where they found not only commercial and economic privileges but also religious, political, and civil freedoms and rights. In the Caribbean, the powerless diasporic Jew could be a global trader, merchant, shipper, slave and plantation owner, an equal of his Christian peer. The dispersal throughout the Atlantic world of Sephardim who were not bound by either territorial sovereignties or specific locales, transformed the Caribbean into a Jewish place (bound by location), and a Jewish space (bound by opportunity).18 Yet, only a few Jewish Sephardic colonists and merchants who circulated across cultural, linguistic, political, and geographical borders in the Atlantic left behind much in the way of writing.19 Fragments of the Sephardic Jews’ transatlantic biographies can, however, be gleaned from a variety of sources. Among these are the various communal records such as the intra- and inter-communal correspondence (copiador), the communal minute books (livros da nação),20 registers of births and deaths, hashkabah books (prayer of repose), lists kept by ritual circumcisers (mohalim), marriage contracts (ketubot), final wills and testaments,21 bequests, family trees, coats of arms, portraits of Sephardic rabbis and merchants, passenger lists, and hand-written genealogies in Mahzorim (prayer books) and the various documentation left by the many itinerant hakhamim and hazzanim, merchants and physicians who island-hopped between the Jewish communities in the Caribbean.22 Colonial proceedings and records comprise another important primary source of information, as do also the denunciation reports and Inquisition protocols containing (mini-) egodocuments.23 Unfortunately, autobiographical life stories or ethical wills, which can teach us much about the past, are rare,24 and very few egodocuments25 or biographical sketches have come down to us and can be used by social historians interested in the daily life of these tropical exile Jews.26 Another rich primary source is the numerous Jewish graveyards across the Caribbean with their more than ten thousand Jewish gravestones containing important first-hand information about deceased members of the Sephardic communities of the Jewish Atlantic. The gathering and collating of all these sources into a prosopographical database is a project currently being developed in the Hamburg-based Institute for the History of the German Jews.
In the last twenty years, there has been a steady stream of important monographs,27 collections of essays,28 a broad range of research projects, exhibitions,29 and specialized conferences on the subject of the Jewish Caribbean, delineating geographic and thematic areas for further exploration and stimulating an important interdisciplinary discussion about Jewish life in the New World in the first three centuries of European colonialism. This burgeoning interest has led to some Sephardic places being considered for the UNESCO World Heritage list, such as the Jodensavanne (Jewish savanna) in Suriname and the Jewish cemetery at Cassipora,30 the oldest extant in the Americas and a reminder of the pioneers of American Judaism. Beth Haim cemetery on the island of Curaçao has already been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.31
These cumulative efforts have spurred the creation of a “Relational Prosopographical Database of the Sephardic Atlantic.”32 Prosopography is the study of a group through the collective study of its members. The relational database will contain information about all the members of the Sephardic nation who lived during any period of history in the Caribbean and will include the name, sex, date of birth and death, religion, marital status, social and economic class, profession, and offices held for every individual who was a part of one of the Jewish communities. The database will be a collective biography of the Sephardic Jews in the Caribbean, a community that was perpetually in flux, and whose written and material legacy is dispersed in archives and libraries all over the world. The database will be freely accessible to researchers and the broader public on the worldwide web.33
The Caribbean Jewish cemeteries constitute a rich primary source for the study of local and global Sephardic history. To date, most of the Caribbean Jewish cemeteries have been scientifically documented.34 Using the information collected from tombstones, historians, social historians, art historians, and genealogists will be able to trace the everyday life of the Sephardic communities in the Caribbean, reconstruct family relationships and population movement, and demonstrate the global nature of the Sephardic Nação and the significance of ethnicity and kin in the development of cross-Atlantic trade relationships.
Gravestones are unique lenses through which the historical developments in a given community become visible. The inscriptions are, as David Malkiel so aptly put it, “snapshots of a society’s social and cultural proclivities at particular moments in time.”35 For researchers focusing on the socio-economic history of a city, region or community, cemeteries are a rich primary source. Beyond the iconographical elements of the tombstone decoration and the spatial elements of the burial ground itself, a tombstone epitaph provides important biographical and prosopographical information. Usually the text is concise, but some provide a detailed accounting of the deceased’s life, religious role (rabbi, hazan [cantor], teacher;36 or profession (e.g., merchant, trader, shop owner, slave owner, physician).37 An epitaph can provide information about the individual and his or her family’s lineage, ethnic origins, religion, and religious attitudes,38 birthplace (important for studying geographical spread), facts about their life and cause of death (slave uprisings,39 crime, death at sea), peregrinations,40 marital status, transnational marriages,41 number of children, social status (attachment to society and culture), ethnic and kinship connections,42 inclusion and exclusion in colonial societies (guilds), magnitude of wealth, distribution of gender,43 profession, honorific titles, names (Jewish and/or non-Jewish),44 disambiguity of names,45 naming practices (naming the child after a living person),46 name change as a result of sickness (rogativa).47 The language choice may be testimony to the deceased’s peripatetic life as a trader, foreigner, or exile (Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English). Epitaphs containing compositions of languages (monolingual, bilingual and polyglot epitaphs),48 poetry (rhetorical and poetical devices, gematria poems), and arrangements of letters into acrostics, anagrams, palindromes, pattern poems, mnemonic strings of letters or cryptograms, letter manipulation and permutation, translations (from Hebrew into English, from Portuguese into Hebrew, etc.), biblical and Talmudic quotations, rhetorical formulae and literary devices (such as speaking epitaphs),49 are prime sources for studying the community’s cultural, social, and literary history, as are the richly decorated gravestones containing a profusion of visual images (Jewish vs. pagan symbols), memento mori symbols (skull, crossed bones, hourglass, butterfly, skeleton, karet [lit. cut down, a hand appearing from the clouds fells the tree of life]),50 family trees, biblical narratives (binding of Isaac; Joseph in the pit; David playing the harp; Daniel in the lion’s den; Jacob and Rachel, Abigail and David,51 depictions of God,52 scenes of illness and death,53 angels, cherubim, putti, animals and flowers,54 lettering (raised versus engraved letters), and the space of the grave itself (individual grave, family grave, grave of honor). Also the quality of stone (stones for Curaçao, Surinam, and for Barbados, for example, were invariably imported from Amsterdam [blue stones], Italy [marble stones], and North America [porphyry],55 reveals information about the deceased, the community, and the stonemason,56 and more. All the minor and major themes of Jewish Atlantic history—migration and peregrinations, circum-Atlantic world, Iberian roots, re-Judaization, ethnicity, circulation of ideas, European and American identity, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Jews and Blacks—unfold within in this corpus (Figs. 20.1, 20.2. 20.3 and 20.4).57
A tombstone’s epigraphy and iconography stand in relation to the specific cemetery in which it is found, but also to neighboring and even distant cemeteries, often across borders, and oceans. All the minor and major themes of Jewish Atlantic history—migration and peregrinations, re-Judaization, Iberian roots, race and ethnicity,58 circulation of ideas and knowledge, European and American identity, relations between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, between Jews and Blacks—unfold within this corpus.59 And because practically all Sephardic communities, whether in Europe or the Caribbean, were interconnected by close family, religious and economic ties, the standardization of Sephardic sepulchral art and language can provide information not only about globalization, both economic and cultural, but also about inter-Caribbean and international trade relations and family networks. A methodological study of the documentation of the lived experiences of real people, their loves, their suffering, would at long supplant random biographies with solidly established “human truths” and “human belongings.”
A cemetery’s spatial aspects—the gravestones lying next to and behind one another, the rows and fields—what binds the gravestones in situ and constitutes the cemetery as an ensemble of tombstones, can also yield important information. Placement in a burial compound is rarely accidental.60 The database will have an interactive location tool for examining the spatial layout of the gravestones that will be able to highlight regularities and patterns such as rows or groups of gravestones that display the same symbol or a family-specific symbol that can be found in a number of Caribbean cemeteries or in cemeteries in Amsterdam, Hamburg, or Glückstadt.
The database will be reachable through a website that will provide access to rich, structured, biographical information relating to the broadest possible number of recorded Sephardic Jews and New Christians in the Caribbean from the mid-seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, drawing initially on primary archives in the Caribbean. This will gradually be enriched by archives from other former Sephardic centers such as Amsterdam, London, and Hamburg.61 The database will also be enhanced and refined by associated research projects that will utilize (and in the process, contribute to) the database.62 This will require biographical data for large numbers of individuals, and the information available for many individuals may be quite limited, and consist of scattered references in different documents. These will need to be connected and recorded in databases in order to facilitate investigation of larger patterns. In accordance with the model presented by the well-known epigraphic database EPIDAT, all data relating to the Sephardic cemeteries in the Caribbean will be entered into the EPIDAT Cemetery Databases.63 Using the programming language TUSTEP and a special EDV program, a full-text search in Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Dutch, and German is possible. In addition, there are text-visual levels of documentation (time-based, location- based, index-based, map-based, full-text-search) as well as the provision of options for detection of biblical quotations, parallel passages, iconography, and rough draft translation of a large number of fixed formulae. Symbols and dated headstones are visualized in the spatio-temporal interface of the DARIAH-DE Geobrowser Visualization of family relations using the XTripels webservice. With the aid of the EPIDAT database developed at the Duisburg Salomon Ludwig Steinheim Institute64 and the Excel Database SEFARAD at the Institute for the History of the German Jews in Hamburg,65 into which the epitaphs of all previously studied and published Caribbean Sephardic cemeteries will be entered in the coming years, relations between the Sephardic cemeteries in the Old World and New World can become searchable and visible.
The relational prosopographical database will be an important tool for untangling the complex history of the Jewish Atlantic and the stories and peregrinations of individuals and family networks that Atlantic history might have otherwise forgotten.66
Websites and Databases
A Nação: Prosopography of the Portuguese Jewish Nation, 1599–1800: http://nacao.weebly.com/about.html
DIGITAL LIBRARY OF THE CARIBBEAN: http://dloc.com
Digitizing Caribbean Jewish Documentary Heritage: The Barbados Synagogue Restoration Project: http://dloc.com/p1_nisyn
Unesco Tentativelists: http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1083/
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