The small island of St. Eustatius [in Dutch: Sint Eustatius, and now named simply Statia] is one of the Netherlands Antilles islands, along with St Maarten, Saba, Cura?ao, and Bonaire. The Netherlands Antilles are located in the northern reaches of the Caribbean Sea.
The island enjoys a certain fame in the United States, because in 1776 the cannon of Statia’s Fort Orange fired off a salute to the Great Union Flag, the predecessor of the Stars and Stripes. It was the second time that the fort of a foreign power had saluted the flag of the new North American nation; a few weeks before Governor Johannes de Graaff of St. Eustatius ordered the Great Union Flag to be greeted, a similar salute took place on the island of St. Croix, which was then a Danish dependency. There was, however, a difference, for it was a merchantman flying the Great Union Flag that the Danes had saluted, while the Dutch on St. Eustatius greeted a vessel belonging to the navy of the new United States.
There is no Jewish community left in St. Eustatius today. During the years of the American Revolution, however, the island was the home of a flourishing Jewish congregation named Honen Dalim (The One Who is merciful to the poor). It is not known precisely when Jews first settled on this island. However, we do know that many of the Jews who left Recife in 1654 as a result of the Portuguese reconquest of Brazil went to Amsterdam and then later came to the Caribbean.
Some probably settled on St. Eustatius, and there are records which indicate that the Amsterdam Jew Jacob Loew had relatives on the island. Later, in 1711, two Jewish merchants, Juda Obediente and Salomon Nunez Netto, visited “Statia,” though they did not live there. The registrar’s lists and the parish registers suggest that, in 1722, St. Eustatius had 1,204 inhabitants, of which four families – twenty-two persons – were Jewish. Six of the Jews were adult men, five were adult women, and there were five boys and six girls.
There were several periods of immigration after 1730. Most Jews came from Amsterdam, and many were descended from distinguished Sephardic families. In 1737 the Jews of Statia sought permission to build a synagogue, but it was not until two years later that their petition was granted. Even so, the Dutch authorities saw to it that the synagogue would be situated so that “the divine service of the Jews would not hinder the one of the Christians.”
The synagogue was constructed on the site where present-day visitors still find the ruins of the house of prayer in the center of Oranjestad, the capital of St. Eustatius. Built of yellow bricks, the building measures 12.75 meters by 8.50 meters and is situated on a street known to this day as “Synagogue Pad” – Synagogue Path. The walls of the synagogue are about 6o centimeters thick and some 7 meters high; the floor and roof have disappeared, but a flight of stairs leads one to conclude that the synagogue was a two-storied building. Elsewhere on the island is the Jewish cemetery, in which sixteen beautifully carved tombstones have been preserved.
Two of Britain’s most redoubtable military figures, Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney and Major-General Sir John Vaughan, were dispatched with a formidable fleet to raid and occupy the island. Rodney’s name “ranked with the names of the Royal navy’s most illustrious figures, Nelson, Blake and Hawke and it is honoured in St. Paul’s Cathedral…”
The lone Dutch frigate defending Statia could not even consider taking on the fifteen great British warships. Nor could a token garrison of sixty soldiers consider resisting the massive British force that debarked onto Statia.Rodney confiscated all the merchandise stuffing the warehouses, valued at three to four million pounds sterling. Vaughan wrote that “150 Sail of Ships and Vessels of all Sorts” in the harbor were likewise seized along with their cargos.The Jews were isolated, brutally beaten, and robbed of everything they had. “Rodney singled out the Jews… and ordered them stripped for cash or precious stones or whatever might be secreted in their clothing. Acting out a common antipathy with unnecessary zeal, he ordered the Jews expelled on one day’s notice, without notice to their families or access to their homes.”
Thirty Jewish men were deported to the island of St Kitts. “The rest were locked in a weighing house for three days when they were released just in time to witness the auction of their properties.”[i]
Rodney’s behavior indicates he was an anti-Semite. In Jamaica he had lashed out against the Jews who conducted a “Pernicious and Contraband Trade.” At Kingston he insisted that “particularly the Jews” traded illegally with the Spaniards. His hatred for Jews found expression in his letters.
So heinous was Rodney’s treatment of the Jews that he came under fire in Britain’s Parliament by the most prestigious voice of the Opposition, Edmund Burke. After denouncing his plundering of Statia’s citizens of various nationalities, Burke focused on the egregious manner in which Jews were separated and brutalized.[ii]
Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at email@example.com.
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