On the face of it, Suriname is not much to talk about. North of Brazil, this pint sized state is the smallest country of South America. In addition to being tiny, it’s also sparsely populated with a 430,000 population spread so thin that after Mongolia, Namibia, Australia, Mauritania, and Botswana you won’t find an emptier country anywhere in the world. But that’s a good thing. Lack of human intervention has left Suriname as one of the world’s last unspoiled paradises – especially since modern science found efficient means of dealing with its vicious bugs. Suriname is home to unique birds and flowers; its forests sing with unspoiled rivers and waterfalls. Ninety percent of its rainforests are pristine and untouched.
Another distinction of this country is that in the 17th and 18th century it had the highest world proportion of Jews in the world; at one point they comprised a half of Suriname’s population. Most of them lived in plantations centered round the town of Jodin Savanne (Jewish Savanna), also known as Jerusalem on the Riverside.
Suriname was permanently settled in 1652 by the English. By then, many Jews were already farming the soil that was rich they never bothered to fertilize it. In 1665, to encourage more Jews to immigrate, the British governor issued a “Grant of Privileges” that gave the Jews full equality and the right to run their own affairs. Joden Savanne became a place of unparalleled Jewish autonomy.
The governor’s document stated that it was based on the “good and sound policy to encourage as much as possible whatever may tend to the increase of a new colony and to invite persons of whatever country and religion to come here and traffic with us,” for “the Hebrew nation now already resident here, have with their persons and property proved themselves useful and beneficial to this colony.”
In light of these considerations, it said, all Jews would “possess and enjoy every privilege and liberty possessed by and granted to the citizens and inhabitants of this colony and shall be considered as English born, etc.”
In addition, the Jews were also granted full freedom “to practice and perform all ceremonies and customs of their religion according to their usages,” given full rights to observe their Sabbath and festivals, and, the document warned, “those who shall trouble them on that account shall be considered the disturbers of the public peace and punished accordingly.”
Furthermore, the Jews also did not need to appear on the said days before any court or magistrate nor pay any monetary claim on those days. Most significant of all, permission was also granted them “to have a tribunal of their own and that in cases so litigated, the deputies of their nation may pronounce sentence in all cases not exceeding the value of ten thousand pounds of sugar.” Oaths too, were to be delivered in conformity with the customs of the Jewish people.
Describing these generous Jewish rights a Dutch soldier wrote in 1796, “Such are these privileges I never knew Jews to possess in any other part of the world whatever.”
On 21 July 1667 Suriname changed hands. In one of the worst deals in history, England and Holland agreed, after an Anglo-Dutch war, that each nation could keep whatever it had grabbed from its opponent up to that point. In consequence, Suriname went to the Dutch in exchange for English control of New Amsterdam, whose name was now changed to New York. At that time it must have seemed a generous swap. One measly town in exchange for a whole country.
In 1685, the Jews built the Berachah Veshalom shul out of Italian made bricks on a hill overlooking the river. At that time, the kehillah was run in strict conformity to halachah under the supreme authority of the Chief Rabbanite of Istanbul. The kehillah tried to obtain chachamim to guide their behavior from Istanbul, Izmir, or Salonica. Customs were zealously adhered to and people guilty of more heinous offenses were placed in cherem.
Agriculture skyrocketed after the Dutch takeover. Dealing in sugar, coffee, cocoa, and cotton, the Jews owned 40 sugar estates by 1700. During the 18th century, the 2,000 Jews worked 115 plantations out of the country’s 401 plantations. A memorial to their astounding wealth is the cemetery of Jodden Savanne with many headstones elaborately carved in Amsterdam out of marble slabs imported from Italy. Some of the tombstones are engraved with skull and crossbones, not because the interred were pirates, but because it signified the passing of time and death.
The wealthy kehillah became a target of tzedakah appeals. In 1729, we find the tiny New York kehillah appealing to the wealthy Suriname Jews to contribute funds “for the building of a holy synagogue which we decided to erect with the help of G-d… The Jews here being but few, we have not been able to carry out our intention, etc.” Jewish Savanne donated three hundred florins for the cause. In 1789, New York Jews appealed once again for funds to help preserve their beis Hakevaros. Until today, the Shearith Yisrael Shul of New York recites a blessing for the welfare of Joden Sevanne’s Berachah and Shalom Shul after Kol Nidrei each year.
Jewish prosperity continued even after the French Admiral Jacques Cassard attacked Suriname with 15 ships and 300 men, captured the Zealandia Fortress of Jewish Savanna under the command of Captain Ishak Pinto, destroyed many plantations, and levied huge restitution payments in money, slaves, and sugar.
Many slaves fled during these disturbances. This worsened the problems caused by Maroons, as runaway slaves were called.
In most of the Americas, hard physical labor was generally performed by armies of slaves. This is why the 1683 Suriname population was comprised of 579 non-Jews owning 2,983 slaves, and 232 Jews with 1,298 slaves at their disposal. About eighty years afterwards, some 50,000 slaves were toiling in the capital city of Paramribo and in 591 plantations. Many of them found it easy to slip away into the swamps and rain forests surrounding the plantations. However, since the penalty for escape was death, the number of runaways was relatively small, something like 250 a year. Out of a population of 50,000 slaves this was an attrition level of only half-a-percent per annum. However, the numbers added up and by 1700 there were already about five to six thousand maroons wandering the wilderness.
As more slaves escaped they formed tribes and began raiding farms, kidnapping slaves to swell their numbers, and shedding blood. Jews suffered less from the phenomenon, perhaps due to their better treatment of slaves. When the government sent patrols into the jungles to destroy the slave settlements and fields, the maroons countered by planting crops far away from their villages and hiding their food stocks. They compensated for their weaker force by using guerrilla tactics and the “Maroon Wars” continued with no winner or loser until the government signed a treaty with some of the major Maroon tribes in 1760.
Some Maroons stuck to the terms of the treaty so firmly that a year later when sixty slaves fled from a Jewish plantation, a slave village of slaves included in the peace agreement treaty helped the owner, Salomon de la Parra recover the runaways. In a speech to his followers the village leader said the following:
“See, my children, what I have told you a thousand times about the Jewish people, my old masters. They are not like the other white people whom we have seen. They love G-d and will never do anything before praying to him and serving Him with respect. Let us try then, for the love of this G-d whom they worship, to employ the means to aid them in their enterprise.”
After the abolition of slavery in Suriname in 1863, huge numbers of Hindustani came from India as cheap labor to work the fields and they presently comprise a large proportion of Suriname’s population.
Jewish prosperity plundered during an economic crisis of the plantations that occurred between 1765-1795. This was largely due to exhaustion of the soil that no one ever bothered to fertilize and competition from Africa that was producing the same products as South America for cheaper. By 1788, the number of Jewish plantations had shrunk to 46 and most of the Jews had moved to the capital of Paramaribo and turned to trade and professions. In 1825, the Dutch abruptly ended “all privileges, concessions, and exceptions of any nature” enjoyed by the Jews until then. Jews continued visiting Joden Savanne on Yomim Tovim until 1832 when a huge fire burnt down most of the town, and the last residents left in the 1850s.
Today, there are very few Jews in Suriname. Most left when Suriname was granted independence in 1975 and after a brutal civil war erupted in the late 1980s. As a result, the community is struggling along with only about 130 members. They are the remnants of the oldest surviving Jewish community in the Americas.
The old Neveh Shalom synagogue of the capital built in 1835 is famous for its sand floor. As discussed in an earlier article, it is theorized that this is either a reminder of the Jews’ forty years in the desert, or a hangover from days when Marranos prayed secretly and spread sand on the floor to muffle their footsteps. No one really knows. Tragically, the synagogue changed from Orthodox to Liberal some years ago.
The ruins of Joden Savanne and its shul are presently being restored and in 2009 the government declared the town and its cemetery a National Monument. About 3 miles south lies the oldest known Jewish cemetery in the Western hemisphere whose oldest tombstone dates back to 1666. This is all that remains of the oldest semi-autonomous Jewish community in the Americas.
(Sources: Mordechai Arbell, The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean, Gefen Publishing House, Yerushalayim, 2002. Wim Hoogbergen, The Boni Marooni Wars in Suriname, J. Brill, the Netherlands, 1990.)