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Jewish Colonization: 1661 -1832

In 1664 around two hundred Sephardic Jews arrived from Cayenne, which was captured by the French from the Dutch. The leader of the first Jewish colonization efforts in the Americas was David Cohen Nassy (1612-1685), a Converso, who bore the dual aliases of Joseph Nuñez de Fonseca and Christovão de Tavora. Nassy lived in Dutch Brazil and later became a “patroon” (professional colonizer), a position created by the Dutch West India Company in1629 to encourage colonization in the New World. The patroons were the administrative and judicial leaders of these colonies. Nassy set out to establish settlements for fellow Sephardim, many of whom, like himself, had been New Christians before openly returning to the Jewish faith in their lands of refuge. The forced apostasies of Iberian Jews to Christianity (in Spain in 1391 and in Portugal in 1497) gave rise to the phenomenon of crypto-Judaism, whereby professing Catholics of Jewish ancestry continued to identify as Jews or to secretly practice Judaism.

In the beginning David’s community was called “Congregation of Cayenne”. In 1665 the Jews got important privileges from the English colonial government: free expression of religion and permission to build a synagogue, freedom of ownership, the right to have their own judicial court and educational system, and the right to have an own militia. In the same year the Jewish Nation achieved a piece of land close to the Cassipora Creek to build a synagogue and to layout a cemetery. Shortly afterwards, the community moved to a hill overlooking the River. The Dutch who came into power after the English maintained these privileges. The Jews were occupied with agriculture, especially sugarcane farming. Other products they traded were coffee, cacao and timber.

The main reason they chose Jodensavanne as location for a new Jewish settlement was its position, situated on a hill and the constant availability of healthy spring water. In 1685 a second synagogue, named 'Beraha Ve Shalom' (Blessing and Peace), was inaugurated. It was  mainly made of imported European brick. Jodensavanne Jews were granted the opportunity to live their lives as an autonomous religio-cultural enclave. In Jodensavanne Jews approximated the diasporic dream of self-jurisdiction in a “kingdom” of their own, one of the only examples before the founding of the modern State of Israel, where Diaspora Jews achieved political autonomy. Jodensavanne was a village of contemporaneously unparalleled Jewish autonomy.

In 1683, when the first Governor of Suriname boated up the Suriname-river Jodensavanne was prosperous. Van Sommelsdijck found twenty-five houses and a fortress in Paramaribo, one hundred houses in Thorarica (at that time still the capital of Suriname) and in Jodensavanne, sixty houses. In 1684 Jodensavanne counted 105 Jewish men, 58 Jewish females and 69 children, with 543 male slaves and 429 female slaves. A few “Amerindians” – some also kept in slavery, most however free people – also lived at Jodensavanne. In that year, Jews were a quarter of the European population of Suriname. At a later stage also a small number of German (Ashkenazic) Jews seemed to have lived at Jodensavanne. They came there by marriage. In 1694 the number of Jews living at Jodensavanne and surrounding had risen to 570. At that time they owned 40, mainly, sugar plantations on which 9,000 slaves labored. In 1730 Suriname had around 400 plantations, of which 115 were in Jewish possession.

The community prospered for more than a century, a period that made the Surinamese colony one of the richest in the Americas. During the days of fortune the population of Jodensavanne in part financed the synagogue from The Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan, New York (United States of America). In 1674 they shipped 8,000 pounds of sugar, destined to serve as the dowry for the daughters of a certain J. Brandon in Amsterdam. The wealth and knowledge of the Surinamese Jews made them cornerstones of society.

The Jewish nation in Suriname had its own defense division or civil militia which was led by a Civil Captain. While in the whole world in the 18th century members of the Jewish communities where forbidden to bear arms, in Jodensavanne existed a Jewish army and civil guard, which defended the people against revolting former slave bands that regularly attacked Jewish owned plantations. All male adult colonists were expected to participate.

Most divisions in the country were ineffective. Of all militia divisions in the country the Jewish militia functioned best. This was related to the fact that they had the intensions to stay and their commitment to the Jewish nation, which they had to defend. After rebelling slaves had killed Immanuel Machado in 1690, Governor Scharphuysen left the revenge to the Jewish militia. David Cohen Nassy (n.b. not the founding father) had led more than 30 expeditions as civil militia captain against the Maroons during the 18th century.

The raid by the infamous French buccaneer Cassard in 1712 was devastating to all plantation owners, so as well to the prosperous Jews who had to pay the greater part of it. Enormous quantities of sugar, hard cash, entire sugar mills and many slaves formed the pirate’s loot. Also the bankruptcy of the bank house Deutz in Amsterdam in 1773 left some plantation owners completely ruined. The second half of the 18th century brought more trouble: anti-Semitism, slave revolts, loans that were sky-high, a gamble with exchange letters and the substitution of cane sugar by beet sugar during the days of Napoleon I. For the Jewish colonists who mainly owned properties in the old coastal plain, close to the dense forests, two important issues accelerated their migration to Paramaribo: the depletion of the agricultural soils and their unsafe situation caused by Maroon attacks.

The brutal slavery system inevitably led to the rise of the Maroons, communities of runaway slaves living high upriver in the dense jungle. They had their own militia that raided the estates. Until 1760, the Jewish community was at war with them; a merciless guerrilla war with attacks and counter attacks that no party could win. The construction of two defense bridle paths in 1749, Oranjepad (26 km from the military Post Rama at the Suriname River, South from Cassiporacreek, to the Saramacca River) and in 1776, Cordonpad, could not stop the “exodus” of many Jews to Paramaribo. By 1787 meetings of the Mahamad were no longer held at Jodensavanne but in Paramaribo. Already in 1788, only 26% of the Sephardim lived outside Paramaribo, while in 1817 this was dropped to 18%.

At the beginning of the 19th century, exactly on April 2, 1825, the 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. At that time only fifteen poor families were living at Jodensavanne. In 1827 there were only eight families. Most of them earned their money by trading with the military occupation of the Cordon Path. Only on the Jewish high holy days did a lot of people visit Jodensavanne. In 1832 a big fire burned down many houses. They were never rebuilt. The village fell into oblivion and nature took its course. One of these houses was the De Meza house across the Synagogue, which has been researched by archaeologists in 2020.

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