An Abbreviated Timeline of the Jews in Barbados
In 1627, fifty English settlers arrived on Barbados on the ship "William & John" captained by Henry Powell. They claimed the island for England and started clearing the heavily-forested land in order to grow crops.
In its first decade of colonization, the island's economy depended primarily on tobacco but by the late 1630s tobacco prices had collapsed and it was replaced by cotton brought in from Brazil. Other staple crops such as ginger and indigo had some initial success but everything changed with the arrival of sugarcane - brought to the island from Brazil by a Dutch sea captain, Peter Brouwer.
From shortly after the first settlers arrived on the island, Dutch merchants, including Dutch Sephardim, were providing them with essential supplies; loaning them money; and arranging shipment of their produce to Europe.
In the mid 1600s, sugar cane was growing on only two or three of the island's plantations. Four years later, it was widespread and had become the main source of payment for goods and services.
James Drax was one of the early English settlers. He built one of the island's first sugarcane plantations, was the first to build a factory in his sugarcane field, and erected the island's first windmill to grind the cane. He became wealthy and before returning to live in England, built Drax Hall House, the oldest surviving Jacobean mansion in the Americas. After he died in 1662, his son, Henry, continued operating the Barbados estate which is still owned by the Drax family.
In 1654, the Portuguese re-conquered Brazil and its sugar assets from the Dutch who had occupied "New Holland" for the preceding twenty four years. Dutch Sephardim left Brazil and came to Barbados very soon after. Although they had acquired considerable expertise in sugar cultivation and production in Brazil, the Barbados planters did not want them as competitors and did not permit them to own land. The Sephardim therefore got involved in providing equipment and financing to the planters and in shipping their sugar to Europe's refineries.
About the mid 1600s, the Sephardim bought a piece of land in Bridgetown and built a synagogue, Nidhe Israel (the Scattered of Israel). By the late 1600s, there were about 350 of them living on, or close to, Swan Street, just steps away from the synagogue. By the mid 1700s, the community peaked at an estimated 500-700 individuals.
In the 1700s, a combination of punitive anti-Semitic taxation, falling sugar prices, and repeated droughts/fires caused the Sephardim to start emigrating. Some returned to Amsterdam and others relocated to America. The Great Hurricane of 1831 seriously damaged the synagogue and caused additional losses of property. Although the Sephardim rebuilt the synagogue, emigration continued. As their numbers declined, the synagogue fell into disrepair and the adjacent graveyard was left untended. Before the last surviving member of the community died in 1934, the Synagogue has been emptied of its contents and it and the adjacent graveyard sold.
In 1932, the first three Ashkenazi Jews arrived on Barbados. Others followed and by the 1950s, there was a community of about forty families. Their stories and the stories of their children fill the pages of "Peddlers All....." Also included is the story of the Nidhe Israel Synagogue's rescue from the threat of demolition and its restoration to its former grandeur. Today it is the centrepiece of Bridgetown's Historic Synagogue District and a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.