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The Demise of Jodensavanne: Late 1770's

The late 1770s marked a turning point in Suriname’s plantation economy. A series of factors were responsible for a long period of economic decline. A debt or financial crisis caused in part by high plantation expectations that did not match actual crop yields. Especially Jewish plantation owners suffered more then others and as a consequence the mayority of the Jewish community was dragged into proverty and most plantation owners had to sell their property and move to Paramaribo[1].


Besides the collapse of Suriname’s plantation economy, other reasons such as soil depletion, absentee landownership, a sense of increasing insecurity caused by a series of slave rebellions and Maroon attacks (in fact a constant threat of being raided), as well as a raging fire in 1832 in the heart of the settlement contributed to the gradual downfall of Jodensavanne. By 1787, the center of Surinamese Jewry had shifted from Jodensavanne to Paramaribo encouraged by a decrease in sugar production in favour of coffee. In 1787 meetings of the Mahamad were no longer held at Jodensavanne, but rather in Paramaribo.  By 1788 most of the community’s ruling elite (adjuntos) were living in Paramaribo and engaged in business and trade[2], while some twenty-two impoverished families (around 100 persons) stayed behind at Jodensavanne, residing in some 49 houses and exisiting on petty trade with soldiers and officers stationed at the military posts along the Cordon path. [3] Accoding to Cohen, only 26% of the Sephardim lived in 1788 outside Paramaribo, while in 1817 this dropped to 18%.[4] The frequent sale of houses[5]  in Jodensavanne in the 1770s and 1780s (on the tail of the crash of the Stock Market) was also a sign of increased mobility, i.e. departure from Jodensavanne, or at least the sale of "holiday homes". Aviva Ben-Ur argues that the Jewish town was never  densely populated, and that most Jews did not resided at Jodensavanne, at least not full-time, except around on holidays. [6]


The gradual abandonment of Jodensavanne had a disastrous effect on long established ritual traditions and daily life of the remaining residents of Jodensavanne. For instance, Samuel H. Cohen Nassy was the only cohen (descendant of a High Priest) in the region by the 1780s. With the ruling elite moved out, there were fewer and fewer people present on both secular days and the Sabbath and the obligation for charitable contributions had become burdensome. The internal mechanism for the upkeep of the synagogue did not exist anymore and there was no longer a relationship between personal wealth and ritual prestige. A centuries-old cultural heritage was disappearing right before the remaining residents very eyes. [7]

In the 1780s Jodensavanne became a religious pilgrimage site. Only on Jewish high holy days numeorus people visited Jodensavanne, such as the Feast of Tabernacles (sukkot), which attracted some 200

residents from Paramaribo and the plantations.  In general, the synagogue and the village prevailed to be strong symbols of liberty and above all a favorite place to celebrate holidays with complete satisfaction. [8]

On April 2, 1825 the special privileges of the Jewish Nation came to an end by the “Order of the Crown” no. 149. The Jews in the colonies were accorded the same rights as the other inhabitants, and “all privileges, concessions and exceptions of whatever nature” were abolished. [9] At that time only fifteen poor families were living at Jodensavanne. Reference to the sparsely populated village was made in a statistical account of 1826, which stated that among the few residents at Jodensavanne there are some families with children. [10] The account also mentioned the decline of catechism.  At that time there was no priest and ruby (teacher or master of Judaism) for catachesis. In order to prevent the youth not to fend for them selves, the Mahamad had ordered the Hazan not only to teach Judaism, but also to teach moral education. In 1827 the number of families had dimished to eight families.  In 1828, when Marten Douwes Teenstra visited Jodensavanne there were few remaining residents, mostly elderly Jews who stayed behind for nostalgic reasons. [11]   In fact, when Jodensavanne dwindled in the 1800s, enslaved and free Africans were in the majority.

During the 1830s and 1840s there was a short lived attempt to revive the almost desolated village by the Hozer Holim Brotherhood (leaders of the poor and sick aid society), who proposed the construction of houses for poor residents whose houses had become inappropriate to live in, and for artisans and new migrants planning to make Jodensavanne their new home. [12] A fundraising Committee chaired by D. Coronel, published in 1840 a procurement notice for the construction of a house at Jodensavanne with two bedrooms, a kitchen and with brick pedestals. [13] However, these undertakings led to a brief but unsuccessful revival.

In 1865 the Beraha VeSalom synagogue was used for the last time for worship, ending a period of 180 years of serving the Jewish community. The majority of the residents consisted in 1867 of emancipated persons who were working for Abraham Garcia Wijngaarde and Jacob Samuel de Meza. [14] In 1873 the roof of the synagogue collapsed and no subsequent repairs were made causing the synagogue to become a ruin over time. In that same year G.P.H. Zimmermann, Commanding Officer of Infantry, gave the following description of the Jodensavanne:

“This once thriving and prosperous place has disappeard completely with its inhabitants. Not a trace anymore of all the grandeur and wealth, not even a trace of a village. Sand hills indicate the location where once there was life and activity. Only the synagogue rises up, weathered and dilapidated, amidst the graves of those, who once celebrated high days between its walls. The church can be seen from some distance,  as if it were a brick wilderness, a large tomb; from the inside everything is as if the Chief Rabbi has held his last prayer; a half rotten red velvet cloth covers the table of the rabbis, antique copper candeliers hanging from instable walls, an empty courtroom (...)”.[15]

[1] Beschrijving van de rivier “De Suriname”, 1873. Tijdschrift van het aardrijkskundig genootschap,
     1877, deel II no. 5 (XII + pp. 329-394). 

[2] Nassy, Essai Historique, part 2:55; NAN NPIGS, inv. Nr. 2, October 14, 1781.

[3] Cohen, 1982.

[4] Statistieke Opgave der Nederlandsch Portugeesch Israelitische Hoofdsynagoge te Suriname anno   
     1826. NL-HaNA, Port.Isr.Gem. Sur., 140, scan 60.

[5] Teenstra II, 36.

[6] NAN, NPIGS, inv. Nr. 481, Intekenlijst van gelden tot herstel van gebouwen op de Savanne (Financial
     subscription form for housing construction at the Savannah), August 28, 1838.

[7] Procurement Notice for the construction of a house, Nieuwe Surinaamsche Courant of 19 August

[8] Lijst der Inwoonen die op de Joode Savana woonende, benevens de geemancipeerde die in huur
     zijn de, zoals dezelve zich bevinden en Primo January 1867. Signed 14 January 1867 by Samuel B.

[9] Ben-Ur en Frankel, 2011: 33.

[10] Ibid, 2011: 33.

[11] Nassy, Essai Historique, part 2: 55.

[12] Cohen, 1982.

[13] Not the plots, since they were inalienable possessions of the Jewish community accoridng to the
       communal bylaws.

[14] Aviva Ben-Ur, Jewish Autonomy in a Slave Society: Suriname in the Atlantic World (Philadelphia:
       University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020): 48.

[15] Ben-Ur en Frankel, 2011, 34.

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