For JN Life magazine May 2023
There’s no denying, it’s a long old flight from London to the Caribbean island of Barbados. But the travel woes — if you have any — are instantly forgotten if you have the great good fortune to unwind in the understated luxury of Cobbler’s Cove, a boutique hotel on the west side of the island.
Here all is serene efficiency, a top-to-toe colour scheme of sugared-almond pink and white, suites rather than rooms, and the prettiest of gardens. Lit by torches in the evening, winding paths weave their way through dense foliage. And then you make your way to the dining area, where calm and smiling staff (also in pink and white uniforms) seat you at breakfast and approve of your utter joy as you take in the view.
And wow, what a view: just nothing, except miles of placid sea, occasionally broken by an early-morning swimmer making their way out to a moored pontoon, or a fishing vessel bumping gently in the distance. Even writing about it sends me into a palm-fronded reverie, imagining myself once more under the umbrellas, or taking a soothing dip in the small but perfectly formed pool.
But I digress. The truth is that I could easily have spent days and days at Cobbler’s Cove, drinking in the sunsets, enjoying the oh-so-English afternoon teas, or the delicious cocktails, or the great dining.
There was, however, a reason I had come to Barbados, other than an intense desire to loll about. For the island has a story to tell, and it’s a remarkable one: the story of how 17th century Jewish settlers transformed the fortunes of the island, making the existing sugar plantation owners rich and prosperous, and meaning that today many of the current population can point to descent from Sephardi Jews.
The first Westerners to take over the island were the Portuguese, who dropped in, en route to Brazil, in the early 17th century. The fig trees which grew all over the island led to explorer Pedro à Campos naming the place Los Barbados, or “bearded ones”, which is what he thought the fig trees looked like. In view of the future Jewish settlers, however, perhaps “bearded ones” had a different significance.
The first English ship reached the island on May 14 1625, under the command of Captain John Powell, and so Barbados was claimed on behalf of King James I. Two years later, on February 17 1627, Captain Henry Powell (yes, a different captain) landed with a party of 80 settlers and 10 slaves to occupy and settle the island.
And only a year after Henry Powell’s appearance — the Jews arrived. Around 300 of them came from Recife, in Brazil, where they had escaped from the Portuguese Inquisition — and, of course, many of those Jews had fled Spain, which had begun its own Inquisition in the previous century.
At the time of this first arrival, Recife was under Dutch rule, and the Jews were granted permission by the Dutch to settle in Barbados.
Nearly 30 years later, however, the Portuguese were back in Brazil. The Inquisition was by no means over and so more Recife Jews left again, first to Amsterdam and then to London, where they sought — and were successful — in getting a green light from none other than Oliver Cromwell to settle in Barbados.
The attraction was easy to explain: there was already a small community of Jews on the island, and Cromwell, who had his own quarrels with the Portuguese, was happy to allow the Jews in to bolster the economic profile of Barbados.
But as present-day Barbados resident Neal Rechtman explained, at a time when everyone wanted a piece of the action, the Recife Jews were making plans to leave — and they consulted Israel ben Manasseh, the chief rabbi of Amsterdam. “When Abraham di Mercado arrived in Barbados in 1654, he had a letter of safe passage from Cromwell —and that was obtained through the auspices of the Amsterdam Jewish community, which had been lending money to Cromwell when he was pursuing wars against the Portuguese and the Spanish”.
It was Abraham’s son, David Rafael di Mercado, who is buried in the Barbados Jewish community’s cemetery, who transformed the fortunes of the Jews and the island, says Neal Rechtman. “He invented a device to be put inside a Dutch windmill, a mechanism which turned the windmill into a sugar factory”. Sugar cane was grown all over the island but crushing it was previously a laborious process — until the Jews arrived with the 17th century equivalent of a souped-up racing car.
When the Jews landed in Barbados in February 1654 they had three such devices on their ships. Cromwell was aware that they could have taken their sugar windmills to other Dutch colonies such as Surinam or Curacao — but he wanted to compete in the sugar trade and that’s why he encouraged Jews to go to the British-ruled island.
The Jews had also invented new ways of planting sugar cane so that it would grow quicker. Soon, every plantation in Barbados had its own windmill. The by-product, molasses, became the foundation of the rum industry, spearheaded today by the Mount Gay distillery and the product for which Barbados is known internationally. Rum fans are recommended to take a trip to the Mount Gay visitor centre where lavish sampling takes place — but get someone else to drive.
You might think, given their superiority in the sugar trade, that Jews would have become powerful plantation owners, too. But a law was passed in 1688 prohibiting Jews from owning more than three acres of land — and crucially, from having more than three slaves. So while such a law may have been restrictive for the 17th century Jews, today we can relax, because they were not slave owners in the same way as the British settlers.
At one point, according to Dawn Lisa, one of the delightful Characters of Town tour guides on the island — complete with 17th century costume and an artillery of facts and figures — Jews had to present “an annual Jewish Pie— filled with gold and covered in pastry” to the island’s governing authorities. This was a kind of local tax for Jews, she tells me, adding that Barbadian Jews, whose population reached a maximum of around 800 in the 18th and 19th century, had an odd relationship with the rest of the society. They looked different, but at the same time they were marrying in to the local population, in order to assimilate rather than integrate.
Just the same, it is fascinating to walk through the rumbustious Swan Street in Bridgetown, a riot of market stalls and shops. Our guide tells us that the street was known all over the island as “Jew Street” from the 17th century onwards, as 90 per cent of the businesses in the street were Jewish-owned. Today, in contrast, most of the enterprises are Muslim. (If you are looking for Barbados souvenirs, scoop up a few packets of fresh spices at one of the stalls).
Glimpses of the rich life of Jews in Barbados can be seen mainly in two places today — the island’s state archives, housed in a former leper hospital, and the extremely beautiful Jewish museum in the Synagogue Historic District in the capital, Bridgetown. The state archives, as the staff are the first to admit, are not in the best condition. Urgent work is taking place to digitise the ancient and crumbling documents, but it’s an uphill task.
The Jewish museum was opened in 2020 and was funded by five wealthy families with links to Barbados — the Tabor, Altman, Gavron, Oran, and Simpson families. Next door is the oldest working synagogue in the Caribbean, the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, now affiliated to the American Conservative movement, and offering regular Friday night services. King Charles saw it for himself when he visited in 2019.
And on the complex, just near the cemetery with its tumbledown headstones, there is a mikvah — only discovered during an archaeological search for the rabbi’s house. The mikvah, Neal Rechtman reports, is kosher and is due to be used for a conversion taking place in June. There is, inevitably, Chabad on Barbados, headed by Eli Chaikin, but the two communities — Nidhe Israel is about 50 people, without a rabbi, while the Chabad website seems primarily devoted to supplying kosher food for visitors — don’t have much to do with each other.
While the first Jews in Barbados were Sephardi, today’s community is primarily Ashkenazi, many of whom are descendants of a group of Jews who fled for sanctuary on the island when the Second World War broke out. And Neal Rechtman says that the community thrives on “destination weddings and barmitzvahs” and says such simchas, in gorgeous sun-drenched surroundings, are becoming more and more popular.
Meanwhile it is possible to eat your own weight in the island’s best-known fish, mahi-mahi, which is kosher and widely available. There are some stunning restaurants if you eat out: Local and Co; Tapas Restaurant; Champers; and the gorgeous “Death In Paradise”-style beach diner, La Cabane, where you can walk straight from your table right into the sea — perhaps sipping on a custom-made cocktail, or even a rum special like the Barbadians do. Everywhere, incidentally, now does vegetarian food and some places even have vegan menus.
And finally, no trip to any Caribbean island would be complete without taking yourself on a boat. The Cool Runnings company in Bridgetown has big catamarans which zip out into the bay and moor in the truly turquoise waters so that you can snorkel and try to catch a glimpse of turtles. And this being Barbados, there is plenty to eat and drink on board. Stick to rum and mahi-mahi and lashings of sun cream, and you will wonder why you didn’t come here sooner.
Barbados Synagogue and Historic District
Contact details: Tell +1-246-435-8146 email email@example.com
High season for visiting Barbados — the sunniest and driest part of the year is from December to April, which is Barbados’s high season – during this time, temperatures reach a maximum of 29-30°C on average.
Cobblers Cove Images HERE
Please ensure all images marked Soane Britain and Miguel Flores-Vianna are credited to them both
HOW: Rates at Cobblers Cove start from $420 (currently approx. £307) per room per night on B&B basis. www.cobblerscove.com
Cool Runnings: https://www.coolrunningsbarbados.com/
Mount Gay Rum tour: https://www.mountgayrum.com/tour-mount-gay/