Nevis’ Jewish Past a Tropical Treasure
Savvy travelers in need of a getaway come to the Caribbean island of Nevis to relax at restored sugar plantations, like the Montpelier Inn, or the opulent Four Seasons. Celebrity visitors have included Michael Douglas, Oprah Winfrey and Princess Diana, who immediately fled to the island to relax after her breakup with Prince Charles.
Tourists soak up the sun on the island’s beaches and watch for whales, snorkel in the crystal-clear turquoise sea and hike its lush hills listening to the chatter of green vervet monkeys. Nevis is home to 10,000 people, and charming Caribbean gingerbread-style buildings along downtown Charleston’s tiny main street evokes the feeling of “Gulliver’s Travels” as tourists visit area shops and restaurants.
This Leeward Island destination, known as the “Queen of the Caribbees,” was also once home to dozens of hard-working Jews whose story makes up a little-known chapter of Caribbean Jewish history. It’s been centuries since a Jewish community has called Nevis home, but references to the “Jews’ School” and the “Jewish Temple” remain a colorful part of island folklore.
“Nevis has a remarkable story to tell of a community that used to be,” said David Rollinson, a local historian who conducts Jewish tours of the island. “The cemetery is all that’s left now and it continues to give us valuable insight into the lives of the Jews of Nevis.”
Sitting southeast of Puerto Rico, Nevis is the smaller sister island to neighboring St. Kitts (a 20-minute ferry ride), which tends to be more rough and tumble. Nevis is nearly 7 miles in diameter and was first spotted by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. Columbus called the island Nieves, the Spanish word for “snows,” because the islands volcanic peaks reminded him of the snow-capped Pyrenees.
By the mid-1600s, Nevis’ sugarcane industry made it a Caribbean powerhouse. Sephardic Jews expelled from Brazil by the Portuguese were drawn to the island. And by the early 1700s, one-quarter of the Caucasian population in Charleston were Jewish.
The Colonial period brought about a synagogue, but the exact date of its construction is unknown. A school followed, which was attended by the non-Jewish son of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, who was born on the island in 1757.
By the end of the 18th century, the sugar industry went bust and the Jewish families moved away in search of new jobs, leaving behind their stores and homes. The synagogue and school were closed. Today, the only visible reminders of that once-vibrant community are the 19 surviving grave markers in the Nevis Jewish Cemetery.
Scholars and archaeologists from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have long been fascinated with Nevis’ Jewish history. Funds from various organizations, like the Commonwealth Jewish Council, have been able to piece together a picture of what Jewish life was like from the clues in the cemetery.
Located on Government Road, a few minutes from the pier in Charleston, the cemetery stands in the middle of what once was the Jewish neighborhood. Grave markers, inscribed in Portuguese, Hebrew and English, date from 1650 to 1768 and bear names like Marache, Pinheiro, Mendez, Lobatto and Cohen. However, on some the writing is barely legible. Forty more burial sites, without markers, were identified some 20 years ago by a survey done on the grounds.
Rededicated in 1971 after a Philadelphia couple organized the cleanup and restorations of the gravestones, today the cemetery’s sacred grounds are carefully manicured by the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society.
“It’s a very emotional experience for people who come here,” said Rollinson, who watches as tourists quietly place stones on the above ground tombstones as a show of respect. “It’s an emotional experience for me, too.”
Across the street is a narrow vine-covered laneway the locals still call “Jews Walk” or “Jews Alley” which may have led to the Jewish school and kitty-corner from the cemetery is a typical Caribbean clapboard house that was built on the land where the synagogue once stood. Details about the school are sketchy but Dutch archives indicate the synagogue was built in 1684. Sadly, not an artifact has been recovered; historians believe the congregants took the valuables with them when they left the island.
Nevis’ library features some of the best local history books, including books on the area’s Jewish history, and offers the cheapest Internet connections on the island.
To the Nevisians, this area will always be “the Jewish neighborhood.” Some old-timers even remember their great-great-grandparents talking about the Jews who used to live there.
“It’s important none of us forget about those families all those years ago,” said T.C. Claxton, a British expat who has been driving a taxi on the island for 30 years. “Future generations have a lot to learn from this past.”