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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Leeward Islands’

Colonial Jewish Businesswomen

Monday, March 29th, 2010

There is a stereotype that many may have regarding women of the past – namely, that their place was in the home. But this was not necessarily the case for Jewish women during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indeed, there were some women during this period who were engaged in a variety of commercial endeavors. Things did begin to change at about the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the attitude that a woman’s place is in the home became prevalent.

 

     A working woman of – say – 1760 was considered simply on her own merits. After 1800 or thereabouts, such a woman was self-conscious, and her neighbors critical. She was no longer just an individual trying to earn a living; she was a female who had stepped out of the “graceful and dignified retirement” which so well became her sex. Her emergence might be praised or blamed; it could not be taken as a matter of course.1

 

     At home most eighteenth-century women were “manufacturers” of cloth and clothing, soap and candles, and the processed food that carried the family through the winter. In the absence of husband, father, or brother they sometimes managed sizable properties and farms, especially in the South, where white female supervision of black men was more socially acceptable than women’s directing of white men might have been. Outside the home Colonial women engaged in many occupations that were later to be regarded as “men’s work,” including the skilled trades and a variety of mercantile activities. The impression persists that most of these women were spinsters or widows, perhaps because the work of wives, and there must have been many of them, who shared their husband’s business and interests was little noted.2

 

Esther and Isaac Pinheiro were married in Amsterdam in 1656. After coming to the New World, the couple lived in New York but eventually settled on the West Indian Island of Nevis,3 which, at one time, was a bustling center of shipping and trade.

 

     For a period during the late seventeenth century this small town [Charlestown, Nevis] served as the point of embarkation not only for the products of Nevis, but for all English goods being shipped out of the Leeward Islands. At the same time Charlestown also functioned as the slave depot of the Royal African Company in the Leeward Islands. All of this commercial activity made Charlestown a major port of the late-seventeenth-century British Caribbean, and it was during this period that the first Jewish merchants began to arrive on the island.4

 

Isaac Pinheiro passed away while in New York on February 17, 1710. In his will he designated Esther as his sole executrix and left much of his property and other holdings to her. She took on the responsibility of running her husband’s far-flung and rather extensive business interests after his death.

 

     Some sixty years before the American Revolution, Esther Pinheiro, a Jewish woman from the British colony of Nevis in the West Indies, was a familiar figure in the commercial communities of New York and Boston. The widow of Isaac Pinheiro Esther had inherited her husband’s business and fortune, both of unknown dimensions, upon his death in 1710. From 1716 to 1718, if not before and after those dates, the Widow Pinheiro “was a not infrequent visitor” to the mainland colonies. She sailed from her home in Charlestown, the capital of Nevis, to the ports of Boston and New York in what was presumably her own small sloop, the Neptune, but whether or not she was in command of the five-man crew is not clear. She may, rather, have been the supercargo [the officer on this merchant ship in charge of the commercial concerns of the voyage], as well as owner of all or part of the West Indian produce, principally sugar and molasses, with which the vessel was laden. Whether as captain or supercargo, she would have managed the sale of the cargo and assembled a return load of flour, lumber, fish, and goods from Europe.5

 

In Newport, Rhode Island, Frances Polock, with the assistance of her son Jacob, continued running her husband’s substantial import-export business after his passing in the 1760s. Mrs. Nathan Simson, who had spent her childhood in America, ran her deceased husband’s extensive commercial business from London.

 

Abraham and Abigail Minis were early residents of Savannah, Georgia. Abraham developed a fairly extensive mercantile business that Abigail took over after his death on January 13, 1757. In addition, she ran a plantation to which she eventually added more than a thousand acres.

 

And then there was a New Yorker named Rachel Pinto (1722-1815), “whose precise business is unknown, but whose tombstone records that ‘by means of industry’ she ‘supported her relatives who looked up to her for aid.’ She was also one of the chief benefactors of the Polonies Talmud Torah School of Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish school in the United States.”6

 

Most colonial women were, of course, not involved in such extensive business endeavors. However, many of them, both gentile and Jewish, were shopkeepers. The first recourse of a widowed woman forced to support herself and her children was to open a small store in the front room of her home. These female shopkeepers usually purchased the items they sold from local merchants or had local merchants place orders for them with their suppliers. Such shops were to be found in virtually every settlement in colonial America.

 

Grace Levy, a widowed mother of seven children and five stepchildren, ran a small store in New York in the 1730s. Hannah Moses, who ran a shop in Philadelphia, was a customer of the Jewish merchants Bernard Gratz and Benjamin Clava while they were in business together from 1755 to 1769. She also took in boarders.

 

Indeed, running a boardinghouse was another thing a woman could do to support herself and her family.

 

     In 1774, the widow Hetty Hays, who ran what was probably the first Jewish boarding house in New York, bought in the market a piece of meat which had been slaughtered and sealed properly, but which had not been properly examined. The shohet, the parnass and the assistants consulted a certain Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac, who had but lately arrived from London to visit New York, and who seems to have had rabbinical ordination. After due investigation, the shohet was completely cleared; the widow Hays was obliged to make her kitchen ware kosher so that her boarding house might not be considered a “Treffo house.”7

 

   The above examples illustrate the commercial industriousness of a number of colonial Jewish women. It should be considered no more than a sampling because there is no question many other Jewish women were involved in business activities.

 

1 Career Women of America 1776-1856 by Elizabeth Anthony Dexter, Marshall Jones, Francestown, NH, 1950, page 219.

2 “The Jewish Businesswoman in America” by Irene D. Neu, American Jewish Historical Quarterly(1961-1978);Sept. 1976-Jun 1977; 66, 1-4; AJHS Journal, page 137 ff. This article is available at no cost at www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm.

3 For information about the Jewish community of Nevis please see The Jews of Nevis and Alexander Hamiltonby this author, The Jewish Press, May 4, 2007, pages 28-29 available at www.jewishpress.com/content.cfm?contentid=21464.

4 The Jewish Community of Early Colonial Nevis, Michelle M. Terrell, University Press of Florida, 2005, page 41.

5 “The Jewish Businesswoman in America” by Irene D. Neu.

6 Ibid.

7 The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860 by Hyman B. Grinstein, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1945, page 299.

 

 

 

   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 llevine@stevens.edu.

The Jews Of Nevis And Alexander Hamilton

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007
      The sister islands of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis lie about 225 miles southeast of Puerto Rico in the Leeward Islands in the Eastern Caribbean. Nevis, the smaller of the two islands, is elliptically shaped and has a land area of approximately five by seven miles. When Christopher Columbus spotted this eight-mile-long island on his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he mistook its cloud-shrouded mountains for icy peaks and named it Nuestra Se?ora de las Nieves (Our Lady of the Snows).
      ”St. Kitts and Nevis, like no other islands in the Caribbean, seem to embody a kind of lush tropical paradise usually associated with the South Pacific. The atmosphere here is palpably luxuriant, an intoxicating blend of sunlight, sea air and fantastically abundant vegetation. And yet nature is only a small part of the wonder of these small, relatively undiscovered destinations. Long ago, St. Kitts and Nevis were the pearls of the British Caribbean, rich and enormously important islands that were celebrated throughout Europe. Nevis, the ‘Queen of the Caribbees,’ possessed unimaginable wealth from its super-productive sugar industry, while on St. Kitts the impregnable fortress of Brimstone Hill stood as the Gibraltar of the West Indies.”[i]
      Both islands are rich in New World American history. Indeed, some readers may know that Alexander Hamilton, whose likeness appears on the ten-dollar bill and who was the first secretary of the treasury of the United States, was born on Nevis. Most readers, however, will probably be surprised to learn that Nevis at one time contained a vibrant Jewish community with a synagogue and Jewish cemetery.
      ”For a period during the late seventeenth century this small town [Charlestown, Nevis] served as the point of embarkation not only for the products of Nevis, but for all English goods being shipped out of the Leeward Islands. At the same time Charlestown also functioned as the slave depot of the Royal African Company in the Leeward Islands. All of this commercial activity made Charlestown a major port of the late-seventeenth-century British Caribbean, and it was during this period that the first Jewish merchants began to arrive on the island.”[ii]
      ”The earliest known reference to a Jewish presence on Nevis is a 1677-1678 muster roll for the island that identifies Isaac Senyor (Senior), Abraham Reysure (Levy Rezio), Solomon Israel, Daniel Mendez, Rachel Mendez, and three children as ‘Jewes.’ It is not certain when these individuals arrived on Nevis, but Sephardic Jews probably first came to the island as traders from Barbados sometime after the 1654 emigration from Portuguese Brazil.
      ”What is certain is that by the late 1670s the Nevis Jewish families recorded on the muster roll had created a community of permanence, as evidenced by their desire, and ability, to consecrate a piece of land for a separate burial ground. The oldest surviving grave marker in the cemetery is the stone of Ester Marache. Her stone indicates that she died on February 20 of 1679 in the Hebrew month and year of Adar 5439.
      ”By the end of the century at least twenty-seven Jewish individuals, representing approximately seventeen households, were recorded on Nevis. As seventeenth-century records for Nevis are scarce, the total number of individuals in the community at this time cannot be determined with certainty.” [iii]
      By today’s standards this number of Jewish households seems small indeed. “Nonetheless, the total of at least seventeen households is on par with the Jewish communities of the largest British colonies in the West Indies during this period. The 1680 census data for Port Royal, Jamaica, indicates twenty Jewish households, whereas Speightstown, Barbados, had fourteen, and the leading port of Bridgetown, Barbados, had fifty-four. While the number of Jewish individuals on Nevis paled in comparison to the total white population of the island (3,521 individuals in 1678), the number of Jewish households demonstrates that they were more than a minute Jewish presence.”[iv]
      By the late seventeenth century this Jewish community was an established enclave complete with the communal necessities of a cemetery, a synagogue and a Jewish school.
      ”It is unclear if the school was in the synagogue or in a separate building. Curiously enough, we know of the existence of a Jewish school through some of the biographies of Alexander Hamilton, born in Nevis. Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucett, after her separation from her Danish-Jewish husband John Michal Lavien, cohabited with a Scotsman, James Hamilton, in Nevis and gave birth to Alexander. ‘The Anglican Church could not offer full acceptance of the situation… (and) denied Alexander membership or education in the church school. He was enrolled in a private school on Nevis taught by a Jewish head mistress and … soon was fluent in Hebrew and French.’”[v]
      ”His son later related that ‘rarely as he alluded to his personal history, he mentioned with a smile his having been taught to repeat the Decalogue in Hebrew, at the school of a Jewess, when so small that he was placed standing by her side upon a table.’
      ”Perhaps from this exposure at an impressionable age, Hamilton harbored a lifelong reverence for Jews. In later years, he privately jotted on a sheet of paper that the ‘progress of the Jews … from their earliest history to the present time has been and is entirely out of the ordinary course of human affairs. Is it not then a fair conclusion that the cause also is an extraordinary one – in other words, that it is the effect of some great providential plan?’ Later on, in the heat of a renowned legal case, Hamilton challenged the opposing counsel: ‘Why distrust the evidence of the Jews? Discredit them and you destroy the Christian religion….’ “[vi]
      Nevis’s sugar-based economy and the merchant class that depended upon it collapsed during the eighteenth century for a variety of political and economic reasons. The white populace as well as the Jewish community dwindled as a result of this economic collapse. By the last half of the eighteenth century only three Jewish households remained.
      The existence of the Nevis Jewish community was virtually unknown to anyone save the inhabitants of Nevis and the surrounding islands until it was accidentally rediscovered in 1957 by the American Jewish historian Malcolm Stern. Stern happened to be on the first cruise ship to ever visit the island when it docked for a short time at Charlestown, the capital of the island. At the welcoming ceremony one of the officials mentioned that Nevis was the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. Stern recalled that earlier on the voyage he had heard that Hamilton had received his early education in a synagogue school.
      Based on this, Stern and his wife approached a Nevisian and asked if he might be shown the Jewish synagogue. They were then shown an almost unidentifiable ruin and told that this was the synagogue (although later archaeological investigations by Michelle Terrell have shown that the ruin was not in fact the Nevis synagogue).
      The Sterns were also taken to an overgrown Jewish burial ground. “The cemetery consisted of an open field in which goats grazed amongst the barely visible gravestones. The Sterns spent the remainder of their time ashore recording a total of sixteen epitaphs. Upon returning home, Rabbi Stern wrote a short article about the Nevis Jewish community, its cemetery, and the ruined synagogue for the American Jewish Archives[vii], thereby bringing the forgotten Sephardic community of Nevis to the attention of scholars of Jewish history.
      ”In response to Rabbi Stern’s article, a group of philanthropists led by Florence and Robert Abrahams of Philadelphia set about collecting funds to refurbish Nevis’ forgotten Jewish burial ground. Their work culminated in the rededication of the cemetery on February 25, 1971.”[viii]
      Today this well-maintained cemetery is one of the most popular historic sights on Nevis.

  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 atllevine@stevens.edu.

 

http://www.geographia.com/stkitts-nevis/

2 The Jewish Community of Early Colonial Nevis, Michelle M. Terrell, University Press of Florida, 2005, page 41.

3 Ibid., page 45.

4 Ibid., pages 47 – 48.

http://www.sefarad.org/publication/lm/035/15.html

http://www.wnyc.org/books/29537

7 Some Notes on the Jews of Nevis, Malcolm Stern, American Jewish Archives, 10 (2), 1958, pages 151-159.

8 The Jewish Community of Early Colonial Nevis, pages 3-4.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/the-jews-of-nevis-and-alexander-hamilton/2007/05/02/

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