Saving traces of the Jewish diaspora in Barbados

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2008

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados - If Baruch Spinoza were living today, he would have to eat his words.

"Nothing remained of them, not even the memory," said the 17th-century philosopher about the Jews from Spain and Portugal who during the Inquisition were expelled or forced to assume Christian identities.

But here in the capital, Michael Stoner, an archeologist from South Carolina, has been digging around the site of Nidhe Israel Synagogue, among the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere since its founding in 1654 by Sephardic Jews expelled from Portugal's colony Brazil. Expecting to recover a rabbi's house buried under the synagogue parking lot, Stoner found something else.

"It was Monday and I was working alone when two Israeli tourists walked right up to me," Stoner recalls. "They watched for a minute, then one of them said, 'Mikvah.' "

So it was. Mikvah, a ritual bath for purifying the body, was once so important to Jewish life that its construction was a higher priority than a synagogue's.

Over the next three weeks as tons of rubble were cleared away, an entire staircase of granite and marble emerged leading down to the 17th-century bath. Measuring roughly 8 feet by 4 feet, the space is floored with red granite tiles and flanked by alcoves where lamps would have been placed. The spring that fed the bath is still active, and the water still pure.

"I didn't expect this. Not at all. Not at all," says Stoner, a doctoral candidate at the University of the West Indies, one of whose three main campuses is in Barbados.

The excavation undertaken by the university's department of history was made possible by the local Jewish community and British tycoon Michael Tabor and his wife, Doreen, who have a home on the island. At the Barbados National Trust, jubilant memos hailed the discovery as "shattering."

While today's Barbadian Jewish community has dwindled to 16 families, a cemetery beside the archeological site attests to the Sephardic Jews' substantial presence here. The graves' inscriptions in Portuguese and Hebrew date to the early 1600s when Brazilian Jews skilled in the sugar trade were welcomed to the island as it was seeking a new export crop.

"The Sephardi provided a much-needed knowledge and capital base," says Karl Watson, a historical archeologist and UWI professor who directed the dig and has researched Jewish life on Barbados for a forthcoming book. "You can grow the grass, but unless you can process it into a good product, you're wasting your time." At the height of the sugar boom, some 800 Jews prospered in the shipping and trading hubs of Bridgetown and Speightstown. Yet by the 20th century, signs of their presence were all but lost.

"Written history privileges the powerful at the expense of political outsiders, but archeology is democratic," Watson suggests. "Everyone engages in material culture. Everyone leaves things on earth." He points to the mikvah, of which there was no written record. "Two months ago I was standing on this car park never dreaming what was under my feet."

The discovery comes just months after the Nidhe Israel museum opened in an early 18th-century coral stone building by the cemetery. Influenced by Boston's Dreams of Freedom pavilion, the museum uses interactive, multimedia displays to interpret Jewish life on the island from early settlement to the present day.

Meanwhile, the dig continues with the washing and cataloging of thousands of unearthed artifacts, including pieces of Staffordshire slipware and a jeweler's stone mold. (Reproduction bracelets cast from the mold will be sold in the museum gift shop.)

Sifting through the dirt, Stoner recalls an excavation he made in South Carolina that uncovered the first house of the Charleston settlement dated 1678. The Barbadian ceramics he found there drew him to the Caribbean island, where he's been digging ever since.

"I've worked on some cool projects, but this is the most important find I've ever made," he says.

Patricia Borns can be reached at

Nidhe Israel Museum
The museum, archeological site, and synagogue are located on Synagogue Lane, near the Bridgetown Harbor cruise terminal.

Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Adults $13, children under age 12 $6.50.

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