Jewish Influences in the Dutch Caribbean, Suriname and Guyana

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A report by Asaf Shimoni for the Times of Israel.

Few people know that Portuguese Jews helped shape languages in the southeastern Caribbean, that the illegitimate children of Surinamese Jewish plantation owners helped seize control of 80 percent of the Dutch colony and that the mother of Guyana’s liberation movement was a US-born Jew.

Between one-half to two-thirds of the first settlers in Suriname and the islands of Curacao and Aruba were Portuguese Jews, mostly from the Netherlands. Today the languages spoken by the inhabitants of Curacao and Aruba (Papiamento) and the Maroons in the interior of Suriname are to an extent based on Portuguese.

Portuguese and English linguistic influences

Slaves in former Dutch colonies were forbidden to speak Dutch until they were freed in 1863. Dutch was viewed as a language spoken by superior people and Dutch colonists spoke pidgin English to slaves and indigenous peoples. This explains why the Netherlands is the only former colonial power which does not have millions of speakers outside the country.

The overwhelming majority of the population of the islands of Curacao and Aruba (which are still governed by the Netherlands) speak Papiamento, whose main component is Portuguese. The Maroons in the interior of Suriname speak languages such as Saramaccan, whose vocabulary is 20% Portuguese.

Suriname’s black Jews

Most escaped slaves in 17th and 18th century Suriname were from Jewish plantations and the leaders were often the illegitimate children of Jewish plantation owners. Within several generations they controlled 80 percent of the country and in the 1760s signed a treaty with the Dutch colonial authorities granting independence in exchange for a cessation of attacks on plantations. Today the Maroons still practise a number of Jewish customs and at times refer to themselves as black Jews; however not much is known about local traditions. Nor is all that much known about the illegitimate offspring of Jewish slaveholders in the capital Paramaribo, except for the fact that until the year 1800 they had their own synagogue.

Guyana and its two Jews

While researching the Surinamese Jewish community some years ago I came across the story of Leonie Ades, an elderly Jewish woman who lived in neighboring Guyana. When she was nearly 90 she contacted the Jewish community in the capital Paramaribo with the request that it send her matzes every Passover — there was no Jewish community in the former British colony. When she passed away in 2009, Suriname’s Jewish community buried her in its cemetery.

The only other known Jewish woman in Guyana was the country’s former prime minister and president Janet Rosenberg Jagan, who had passed away a month earlier at the age of 88.

Husband and wife political team

Born in Chicago in 1920, Janet Rosenberg married fellow Northeastern University student Cheddi Jagan in 1943 and followed her husband to his native Guyana (then British Guiana) later that year. The two turned into a political team and Cheddi became known as Father of the Nation while Janet was instrumental in helping found a political party, women’s movement, trade union and newspaper.

Janet first lady for 133 days

The political party established by the Jagans won an overwhelming victory in the British crown colony’s April 1953 elections and Cheddi Jagan was elected prime minister, However it was the era of McCarthyism and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill feared the country might fall prey to communism. Although there was no evidence to connect the couple with the Soviet Union, Churchill dispatched a warship to the capital Georgetown and Jagan was deposed after only 133 days in office.

Janet succeeds husband as president

Jagan was prime minister of British Guiana for three years in the 1960s and was elected president of an independent Guyana in the 1990s. He was succeeded by his wife Janet following his death in 1997.

In its blog ‘Jewesses with Attitude,’ the Jewish Women’s Archive describes Janet Rosenberg Jagan as one of the many Jewish women who successfully helped change society. In a new country she single-handedly achieved an enormous amount of tikkun olam.

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