The Forgotten Jews of St. Eustatius

By Dana Cohen Sprott

It is sad and ironic that St. Eustatius, the most important island in the Caribbean to the newly formed United States during the American Revolution, is a place that no one has ever heard of, yet it changed the course of history. During the American Revolution, Oranjested, St. Eustatius was the crossroads where goods, arms and gunpowder sailed through its calm turquoise waters.

St. Eustatius, which was affectionately nicknamed Statia, has 4,000 residents as of 2016 and is part of the BES (Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba), municipalities of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The island has more varieties of orchids than anywhere in the world; as you walk the cobblestone streets, ruins and relics are at every turn, transporting you back in time. The eight square mile island is the most unchanged island in the Caribbean. Indeed, the island has maintained its affection for the United States; its airport, the FDR International Airport, was named for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States.

St. Eustatius also has an important, but unfortunately little-known, Jewish history.
More than 100 Jewish families lived in St. Eustatius by the time the American Revolution began in 1765. Early settlers included Abraham Issac Henriquez, David Seraiva and Daniel and Aron Cohen, Mozes Henriquez, Samuel Hoheb and Judah Cappe, as well as the Pinheiro, Obedients, and Nunes families. The community had a synagogue, Honen Dolim (“He Who is Charitable to the Poor”).

Honen Dolim Dana Cohen Sprott 2010

Honen Dolim. Photo: Dana Cohen Sprott 2010

Statia’s waterfront was crammed with warehouses and docks that stretched into the sea, attracting an international, multilingual community of merchants, many of them Jews, who sold amazing varieties of merchandise and wares, along with gun powder and munitions. All told there were 20,000 people, both enslaved and free, who called the Golden Rock home.

ST. EUSTATIUS AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

In May of 1776, just six weeks before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the trading company Roderique Hortelez et Cie was formed and financed by the French King, Louis XVI and the Spanish King, Charles III, cousins who despised King George III of England. Each monarch invested one million livres in the trading company (one livre was worth around a pound of silver), which became the grubstake for America’s freedom. Those funds bought the critical ammunition, muskets, cannons and gunpowder that kept the fledgling republic alive.

Beloved Benjamin Franklin, America’s most clever and shrewd statesman, was the ambassador to Europe from the Continental Congress. His deft touch and subtle hand can be seen in the establishment of Roderique Hortelez et Cie. Franklin so esteemed the island that he would only send his letters through St. Eustatius, knowing that this was the best chance that they would eventually reach America’s European allies.

U.S. historians credit St. Eustatius with being the most consistent source of weapons and arms for the fledging American troops under the command of General George Washington throughout the five-year war. Later in life, President George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, discussed the important role that St. Eustatius played as a source of arms. They both recognized the war would have been lost without the steady supply of arms and munitions from the Caribbean.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, John Trumbull. Public Domain

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, John Trumbull. Public Domain

THE FIRST SALUTE

The very first time that the still-forming United States was recognized by a sovereign nation was by the island of St. Eustatius on November 16, 1776. The Andrew Doria, one of the four ships in the Continental Congress’ new navy, arrived in port flying a red, white, and blue flag with thirteen stripes and a circle of thirteen stars, as well as a copy of the Declaration of Independence. The thirteen-gun salute was first done on St. Eustatius in recognition of the thirteen original colonies, stretching from New Hampshire to Georgia.

ADMIRAL SIR GEORGE RODNEY’S ATTACK ON ST. EUSTATIUS

Because St. Eustatius played such an important role in supplying the American revolutionaries with arms, British soldiers essentially found themselves facing their own weapons in battle. At the heart of this flow of arms was the financial credits through Roderique et Cie and the Jewish merchants of St. Eustatius. This prompted anger among Britain’s leaders: “the nest of vipers had done more harm to Britain than her most potent enemies” wrote Admiral Rodney in a letter to General Vaughn. In response, a huge flotilla under the command of Admiral Rodney attacked the island in February of 1781.

German print of the island of St. Eustatius. By Gestochen von Johann Baptist Bergmüller. Library of Congress, Public Domain

German print of the island of St. Eustatius. By Gestochen von Johann Baptist Bergmüller. Library of Congress, Public Domain

In the history of the Jews of the Netherland Antilles, there is a telling story of how Admiral Rodney treated the local Jews. Admiral Rodney rounded up the Jewish male heads of household, looted their warehouses, took all their money and sent them on boats to St. Kitts, leaving their families behind without any means of survival.

This history would repeat itself in St. Eustatius, as evidenced by the heartfelt and tearful letter that the Jewish leader of the community of St. Eustatius wrote to Admiral Rodney:

“To permit us, in the name and on the behalf of ourselves and others of the people of the Hebrew nation…to give up the keys to our stores with an inventory thereof, and of our household plate and furniture, and to hold ourselves in readiness to depart this island, ignorant of our destination, leaving our beloved wives and helpless children behind us, and our property and effects liable to seizure and confiscation…”
(Excerpt of the Letter from the Jews of St. Eustatius to Admiral Rodney February 1781)

The Jewish communities of Surinam, Curacao and Barbados were devastated by the fate of their friends and families in St. Eustatius. Ultimately, however, St. Eustatius’ Jewish community rebounded once French forces defeated the British and returned the island to the Dutch in 1784. The community grew to a peak of 157 in the 1790s under the leadership of Cantor Jacob de Robles.

By 1783 the Jews from St. Eustatius joined the small community on the nearby island of St. Maarten; on November 16, 1783, there was a large enough community to prompt the need to request more prayer books. Among the more prominent and active families from St. Eustatius in St. Maarten was the Gomez-Mesquita family and the Pierrira family.

The end of the American Revolution, never-ending hostilities in Europe, and the declining economy, prompted most of the Jews from St. Maarten, Saint Domingue (Aux Caye, Haiti), and St. Eustatius to move to St. Thomas in the Danish Virgin Islands. There they established a new congregation, Beracha V’Shalom U’Gemilut Hasadim (“Blessings and Deeds of Lovingkindness”), and received permission from the Danish Colonial Government to form a congregation in 1796.

When the last Jew left St. Eustatius, he brought with him the menorah whose origins could be traced back to Spain. Jewish gravestones in British Honduras, St. Croix, St. Thomas, Barbados, and Curacao reference St. Eustatius as their birthplace. The last Jew died on St. Eustatius in 1826. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the island had slipped into obscurity, like Snow White going to sleep and never waking up.

Tombstone in Burial Ground of St. Eustatius. Photo: Dana Cohen Sprott 2010

Tombstone in Burial Ground of St. Eustatius. Photo: Dana Cohen Sprott 2010

Dana Cohen-Sprott has spent the last three decades living and working in the Caribbean. She worked for the Miami Herald travelling throughout the region where she found crumbling Jewish burial grounds that were older than Manhattan and evidence of the rich community of planters and pirates that thrived on the islands.

Cohen-Sprott has a BS in Economics from Russell Sage College and studied in Israel and London, England. She holds an MBA in International Business from the George Washington University and is a Wolcott Fellow recipient. She is a published writer, author, lecturer, and researcher, and discovered the lost Jewish synagogue and burial ground on the Island of St. Maarten.

Dana Cohen Sprott
Copyright 2016
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