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Curaçao – The Caribbean’s Jewish Island

Shalom Says Hello


Even today, the signs are all still there. The Maduro and Curiel’s bank, the Senior Curacao Blue liquor, the Gomez store, the Penha building, and the Jewish year 5466 written above a shop. While today there are just a few hundred Jews living on this island of one hundred and fifty thousand people, in the eighteenth century more than a third (1500 persons) of the island’s European population was Jewish. And, of course, by Jewish I mean Portuguese Jewish.

At that time Curacao was home to the largest Jewish community in the Americas (click here to learn about the island’s historic Jewish cemeteries). Some even suggest that the local composite language Papiamento was in part influenced by all of these Jewish Portuguese speakers. Dutch Protestants controlled local government and most agriculture, but trade was primarily in the hands of the island’s Jewish population.

This Jewish concentration in commercial activity was exactly what Curacao’s then former governor Peter Stuyvesant counseled against in 1651 (he was there in the 1640s). That year, a small group of Jews was permitted to settle on the Dutch controlled island on the condition that they focused their efforts on cultivating the land. The Dutch wanted a sugar island, and Portuguese Jews, from their time in Portugal and Brazil, had the knowhow for how to do that.

However, Curacao is too arid for sugar cane cultivation, a fact that seems all too clear from the all of the cacti growing across the island! Portuguese Jews, the merchant class of Portugal, soon refocused their efforts towards what they knew best, international trade.

Read the full article, originally published on February 17, 2017, on Shalom Says Hello.