Shilstone and the Jews
In 1928, the Spanish and Portuguese Hebrew Community and Congregation, the Nidhe Israel’s parent congregation in London, recognized the Barbados community would soon disappear and gave Edmund Baeza power of attorney with authority to sell the synagogue.
Baeza sold the building and land on which it stood to Henry Graham Yearwood, a Bridgetown solicitor who intended to gift it to the Barbados Government for use as a law library. Apparently, the government’s response was less than enthusiastic as some parties did not like the idea of a library overlooking a graveyard. Baeza suggested to the London congregation that the graveyard be levelled and the broken stones removed but they refused and threatened to withdraw the original offer to sell.
When Shilstone became aware of this, he offered to purchase the synagogue and preserve it as “a national memorial to the Jews of Barbados because of its historical and antiquarian connections.” Baeza rejected his offer on the grounds it was less than the offer he had in hand -although he would not divulge to Shilstone the details of Yearwood’s offer.
The original sale agreement covered only the synagogue building and the land on which it stood. It excluded the graveyard and even included a covenant that the purchaser would maintain the burial ground and its surrounding wall, and not permit it to be used for any other purpose. The stipulation was not adhered to and the graveyard was eventually levelled.
In May 1934, Mr. Yearwood died after a short illness and in June of that year Baeza died. The synagogue building was subsequently acquired by Mr. W. St. C. Hutchinson, another Barbadian solicitor who made some alterations and rented it out as offices. He also repudiated the covenant to keep the burial ground in proper order and not long after, he also died!
Shilstone’s connection with the island’s Sephardi Jews actually goes back even earlier. In “Monumental Inscriptions….” he mentions being taken to visit the synagogue when he was eight years old by the daughter of the last leader of the congregation. He visited many times thereafter, intrigued by the stones in the graveyard and their English, Portuguese, Spanish and Hebrew inscriptions. In the 1930s, he began transcribing them the best he could given that he didn’t know a single character of the Hebrew alphabet.
In 1938, while visiting the United States, Shilstone met Edward Coleman, the Librarian of the American Jewish Historical Society and shared with him what he was doing. Coleman was very encouraging and Shilstone decided he needed to learn some basic Hebrew to do justice to the undertaking. With Coleman’s assistance (including multiple visits to the island to review the progress of Shilstone’s work), the project was completed and “Monumental Inscriptions…” was published by the American Jewish Historical Society in 1956. Although Shilstone’s book drew attention to the island’s rich Sephardic history, it would be another 20 years before the plight of the synagogue and its burial ground would do the same.
There was no functioning synagogue on the island when the Ashkenazi Jews began arriving from Europe in the 1930s. They initially worshipped at “Macabee,” the home of Moses and Hinda Altman and used the burial ground adjacent to the Nidhe Israel Synagogue to inter the deceased members of their congregation.
In 1977, the Barbados government announced plans to demolish the former Nidhe Israel Synagogue and clear the burial ground to make way for a new Hall of Justice (Supreme Court). The Ashkenazi community vigorously opposed the plan. Shilstone supported the community and was one of the signers of a petition they presented to the island’s governor. After prolonged negotiations, Prime Minister Tom Adams agreed to put the entire site in the hands of the Barbados National Trust and allow the community time to raise funds to restore it. In 1983, the government declared the synagogue and burial ground a site of special architectural and historic interest.
With the support of the World Jewish Congress and private donors worldwide, restoration of the synagogue complex was finally completed in 2017. It now includes a modern Jewish museum, new social hall, and the original 17th century mikva (ritual bath), uncovered during excavation. The grounds have been beautifully landscaped and include a memorial to Codd’s House, the site where the 1834 Emancipation Act was declared.
Although Eustace Shilstone did not live to see the restoration of the synagogue and graveyard, one cannot help but feel he would be very pleased with the way it looks like today.
Eustace Maxwell Shilstone (1889-1969), a Barbadian solicitor, historian, antiquarian, genealogist and founder of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society links the Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewish communities in Barbados in several important ways. In the introduction to his 1956 book, “Monumental Inscriptions in the Jewish Synagogue at Bridgetown Barbados,” Shilstone notes that by 1848, only 71 (Sephardi) Jews remained on the island. By the beginning of the 1900s there were less than 20 and in 1934, Edmund Baeza was the single remaining Sephardi.