American Revolution – St. Eustatius Island

There are three kinds of history – history that happened, history that didn’t happen, and history that might have happened. Many history buffs enjoy the third category. What if Hitler hadn’t attacked Russia, what if the Zionists had accepted the Uganda offer? What if 110 Jews hadn’t lived on the Golden Rock?

By a complicated string of what-ifs, a theory has been constructed that if not for a tiny group of Jews on a miniscule Caribbean Island, England would have squashed the American Revolution; North Americans would be driving on the left side of the road like their British compatriots.

The backdrop of this drama is the three by six mile St. Eustatius Island (nowadays Statia Island) that Christopher Columbus stumbled across in 5353/1493. Barely sizeable enough to house a modern airport, the island’s strategic position on trans-Atlantic trade routes turned it into a Walmart of the seas. Known as the Golden Rock, it changed nationality 22 times within 150 years.

At the time of our story it was under Dutch rule and home to the third oldest Jewish settlement in the New World. In 1499/1739 the community had built the beautiful Chonen Dalim Shul, the second shul of the western hemisphere, and by 5536/1776 the island had about 110 Jews floundering in a sea of 8,000 Dutch and English merchants.

Then the island became the lynchpin of the American Revolution, which was direly short of military supplies as is evident from the famous order shouted during its Battle of Bunker Hill – “Do not fire until you see the white of their eyes!” Although it’s uncertain who yelled this order or whether it was yelled at all, it does illustrate a salient point – the revolutionary forces were very short of gunpowder and couldn’t afford to waste it on long range potshots. So it was useful for America to have a convenient island run by the friendly, neutral Dutch. During the early years of the American Revolution, St. Eustatius was the busiest port in the world where supplies and weaponry from Europe were unloaded and sent on to the fledgling USA.

As an English admiral wrote, “This rock only six miles in length and three in width has done England more harm that all the arms of her most potent enemies, and alone supported this infamous rebellion.” Another letter complained that “had it not been for that nest of vipers… this infamous island, the American rebellion could not possibly have subsisted.” This went on for five years and there was little England could do about it.

Then England declared war against Holland after intercepting a letter that intimated that Holland was in cahoots with the revolutionaries. Now was her chance to get rid of pesky St. Eustatius Island.

The man chosen for the job was Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney who sailed from England with thirteen warships and arrived off the island on Shabbos morning in February 5541/1781. This was classic overkill; with only three small warships to defend his island the St. Eustatius governor gave up without a fight, sending a message “that being utterly incapable of making any defense against the force which invested the Island, he must of necessity surrender it, only recommending the town and its inhabitants to the known and usual clemency of British commanders.” “RODNEY FOR EVER,” proclaims the copper medal minted to commemorate this great naval victory.

English soldiers and sailors began pillaging the storehouses and confiscating people’s possessions. Admiral Rodney had never had a great liking for Jews and now something purportedly happened that stoked his dislike into an inferno – the tiny Jewish community seemed to be having a disproportionate number of funerals, which was surprising as the island had been captured without bloodshed.

Determined to get to the bottom of this enigma his men stopped a funeral procession and pried open the sealed coffin. Inside, they found not a pale corpse but a glittering pile of cash and jewels, and subsequent excavations in the beis hakevaros revealed that the recent funerals had been enacted for the same purpose.

In revenge, Rodney rounded up the islands approximately 110 Jews, strip searched them, and exiled thirty of them from the island. The Chonen Dalim Shul was incinerated together with some Jewish homes.

As a contemporary account reports, “They were ordered to give up the keys of their stores, to leave their wealth and merchandize behind them, and to depart the island without knowing the place of their destination. From a natural wish to be furnished with the means of supplying their wants, in the place of their future residence, they secreted in their wearing apparel, gold, silver and other articles of great value and small bulk. The policy of these unfortunate Hebrews did not avail them. The avarice of the conquerors, effectually counteracted their ingenuity. They were stripped, searched and despoiled of their money and jewels.”

The remaining Jews had their homes and fields ransacked. As Rodney wrote to one of his commanders, “One of my officers will wait upon you upon a very good affair. A Rascal of a Jew has his chest with 5000 Joes (gold coins) in a cane patch; a negro will shew the place upon a promise of Freedom and reward.”

At a later stage, hordes of Americans, French and Dutch were also ordered off the island and reduced to poverty. Rodney even confiscated the possessions of Englishmen on the island claiming “that the island was Dutch, every thing in it was Dutch, was under the protection of the Dutch flag, and as Dutch it should be treated.” But it was Jews who had been picked on first and thrown off the island at a day’s notice.

As English Member of Commons Edmund Burk complained in Parliament when the news came to England:

“If Britons were so injured, Britons have armies and laws to fl y to for the protection and justice. But the Jews have no such power and no such friend to depend on. Humanity must become their protector!”

Rodney then spent months on the island collecting its riches and shipping them off to England. It has been theorized that his greed torpedoed the English struggle against the US because his ships could have served a more vital service than transporting loot to England. At the time disaster was brewing. The British army was holed up in Yorktown, Virginia, and enemy French warships were preventing English ships from bringing in supplies.

As the contemporary account reports, “While Admiral Rodney and his officers were bewildered (busy) in the sales of confiscated property at St. Eustatius, and especially while his fleet was weakened by a large detachment sent off to convoy their booty to Great Britain, the French were silently executing a well digested scheme, which assured them a naval superiority on the American coast, to the total ruin of the British interest in the United States.”

Unable to march on empty stomachs or shoot with empty muskets, the English forces under General Charles Cornwallis surrendered in October, the first of a chain of defeats that led to the end of the American Revolutionary War.

All this is the basis of a chain of “whatifs.” What if there were no wealthy Jews on the island? What if Admiral Rodney had not been kept busy looting their property? What if he had sent his ships to drive the French from Yorktown? What if the English had survived and gone to beat the revolutionaries?

However, this elegant chain has one fatal link – the St. Eustatius Jews constituted barely one percent of the island’s populace.

Two years later, the Jews of Statia briefly reappear in history when the Pennsylvania “Council of Censors” drafted a rule requiring its government members to declare belief in the New Testament.

The Philadelphia Synagogue immediately sent off the following petition:

“To the honourable the Council of Censors, assembled agreeable to the Constitution of the State of Pennsylvania. The Memorial of Rabbi Ger. Seixas of the Synagogue of the Jews at Philadelphia, Simon Nathan their Parnass or President, Asher Myers, Bernard Gratz and Haym Salomon the Mahamad, or Associates of their council in behalf of themselves and their brethren Jews, residing in Pennsylvania…

“Most respectfully showeth that by the tenth section of the Frame of Government of this Commonwealth, it is ordered that each member of the general assembly of representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe a declaration, which ends in these words, “I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the old and new Testament to be given by divine inspiration…”

“Your memorialists beg leave to observe, that this clause seems to limit the civil rights of your citizens… a clause in the constitution, which disables them to be elected by their fellow citizens to represent them in assembly, is a stigma upon their nation and religion.”

In the following paragraph, the Jews of Statia bow their way out of history: “… The conduct and behaviour of the Jews in this and the neighbouring States, has always tallied with the great design of the Revolution; that the Jews of Charlestown, New York, New-Port and other posts, occupied by the British troops, have distinguishedly suffered for their attachment to the Revolution principles; and their brethren at St. Eustatius, for the same cause, experienced the most severe resentments of the British commanders.

“And your memorialists humbly pray, that if your honours, from any consideration than the subject of this address, should think proper to call a convention for revising the constitution, you would be pleased to recommend this to the notice of that convention.” The Jewish population of the island dwindled together with its thinning population and ended with the passing of the widow Anna Vieira de Molina in 5606/1846.

Today, the yellow brick shell of the shul still stands in the island’s capital of Oranjestad in a street still known as Synagogue Pad (Synagogue Path), and plans are under way to restore it to its former beauty. Sixteen stately gravestones still stand guard in the Jewish cemetery – no gold or jewels are buried beneath them.

(Quotes from: Ramsay, David. The History of the American Revolution. vol. 2, 1789. Philadelphia letter: Stokes, Anton Phelps, ed. Church and State in the United States. New York: Harper & Bros., 1950.)

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