Rediscovering an Important Link to American Jewish History: Field Notes from the Nidhe Israel Synagogue Complex in Barbados

November 4, 2021
by Laura Leibman

An Interview with Karl Watson

Figure 1. View of Section A of Nidhe Israel Synagogue Complex Cemetery with synagogue in rear. Photo by and courtesy of Laura Leibman, 2010.

Constructed in the 1650s, the Nidhe Israel Synagogue and museum complex in Bridgetown, Barbados is one of the oldest in the Americas (Figure 1). It is currently being restored to closer to its original size in order to create a more welcoming space for visitors. During the process of renovations, several key objects were found that augment our understanding not only of the community, but also of its relationship to other groups within Bridgetown. Here, Karl Watson, professor emeritus of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies in Barbados and former president of the Barbados National Trust, answers questions from Laura Leibman about what the renovations have uncovered in recent months. Watson is the leading expert on the history of the Barbados Jewish community.

Laura Leibman: Can you explain for readers why the Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados is of interest for people working in American Jewish history?

Karl Watson: The links between Barbados and the British North American colonies are many and varied. The two principal variables here are economic and demographic. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, sugar made Barbados very wealthy and attracted many settlers, including Sephardic refugees from Recife in Brazil and from Holland as well. [English military and political leader] Oliver Cromwell opened Barbados to permanent Jewish settlement before the ban on Jewish settlement in England was lifted.

Figure 2. Plat dated 1664 of Nidhe Israel Synagogue and surrounding area. Photo courtesy of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, 1948.

The Nidhe Israel Synagogue therefore is of considerable antiquity, dating from circa 1654 (Figure 2). In some respects, it can be seen as the parent synagogue of several synagogues in the United States of America. The records of the Mahamad (synagogue board) of Nidhe Israel show requests for financial assistance coming from a number of Jewish communities in America wishing to establish synagogues of their own. Among these were the synagogues in Newport, South Carolina, New York, and Philadelphia. For example, the minutes of March 7, 1819, record a request from Philadelphia for assistance in building a synagogue. Five hundred dollars was granted.

Many Barbadian Jews had property or business interests in the northern colonies prior to the American War of Independence. An illustration of this can be seen in the 13 September, 1764, freehold transfer of 1 ¾ acres of land in Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina, which is recorded in the Nidhe Israel Mahamad minutes. The transaction was between Isaac da Costa of Charles Town and Isaac de Pisa, Benjamin Messias, David Castello, David Lindo, and Isaac Pinheiro of Nidhe Israel, Barbados. There was also considerable trade between the two areas and movement of people. After the establishment of the United States of America, many Barbadian Jewish families moved there, [with] New York and Philadelphia being the most often selected points of settlement. Therefore, the Nidhe Israel Synagogue and its congregation are of importance to American Jewish history because of the links that existed between the two regions. This shared past is apparent, not only from the viewpoint of socioeconomic history, but also from the aspect of genealogy.

Estimates for the size of the Sephardic community of Barbados vary, ranging from 500 to 700 individuals at the peak point in the mid-eighteenth century.

LL: How large was the community at its peak?

KW: Estimates for the size of the Sephardic community of Barbados vary, ranging from 500 to 700 individuals at the peak point in the mid-eighteenth century. Initially in the seventeenth century, there were two communities established. The larger, parent community was at Bridgetown, with a much smaller community at the northern port of Speightstown. There are two very good censuses that give us a pretty good picture of the composition of the Barbadian Jewish population. The first was conducted in 1679 and the second in 1715. There are some present-day Barbadian families who can trace their ancestry back to these early-seventeenth-century settlers.

From this stable core, the process of migration and immigration altered the community. For example, after the English conquest of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, a conquest achieved largely by the use of an English fleet and an army of Barbadian foot soldiers, many Jewish settlers from Barbados removed to Jamaica. A small colony of Barbadian Jews settled in Nevis, though after a couple of generations, they moved back to Barbados. Jews, depending on prevailing economic circumstances, moved back and forth from Suriname to Barbados and other points in the West Indies, such as the Virgin Islands and Curacao or, conversely, from Barbados to England and to North America, especially to New York and Philadelphia.

The emergence of the new Republic of the United States of America seems to have acted as a catalyst, pulling Barbadian Jews away from their island. In a letter of 31 April, 1797, Phineas Nunes refers to “our now very much reduced congregation.” By the middle of the nineteenth century, the minutes of the Mahamad openly lamented that the “ancient” Barbadian Jewish community was under the threat of extinction, fueled by the forces of migration and intermarriage with Christian families. In 1848, the shamash (warden), E.A. Moses, wrote poignantly to a friend about the declining fortunes of the Nidhe Israel community: “You are aware of the departure of my friend Lobo & family and also of S.E. Daniels & family for the United States. M. D’Azevedo and family will very soon follow. My anxieties & labour for our fallen Snoga (Snoga is the diminutive of esnoga, or synagogue) are necessarily increased. Heaven guard it. Amen.”

Figure 3. Plan of synagogue complex, dated 1806. Photo courtesy of George Godson, 2016.

LL: What would an early-nineteenth-century visitor have found at the synagogue complex before the 1831 hurricane?

KW: The synagogue complex of Barbados is best understood by examining the recently discovered 1806 survey of Nidhe Israel and its surroundings (Figure 3) in conjunction with references to the property in the Mahamad minutes. These documents show that there were several buildings within the complex.

The synagogue itself was a two-storied building of the same dimensions of the present synagogue rebuilt after the 1831 hurricane. From the minutes of the Mahamad, we know that it had a shingled roof as opposed to the present copper sheeted roof. In 1814, what was presumably a sand floor (a sand floor is customary in historic Sephardic synagogues) was replaced with the existing black and white marble tiled floor. The visitor would have found the synagogue in good shape as, in 1792, the doors and windows had been all replaced. The color of the walls of the synagogue, which were usually whitewashed, changed, “as paint was coming in and the question asked of the Mahamad, what colour they would have the Snoga painted, which was agreed to have it of a Stone Colour.” There was a block of four residences for the principal officers of the synagogue, including the hazzan (ritual leader). This block included the banadeira’s (ritual bath attendant’s) house, which communicated with the mikvah or bano (bath). The visitor would have seen the schoolhouse within the complex and had they visited before August 1812, a wooden structure “commonly called the Mess House.” This was used for meetings and meals but was subsequently dismantled and sold. On both sides of the synagogue, the visitor would have seen the numerous ledgers of the graveyards with their inscriptions in Hebrew, Portuguese, and English and beautiful iconography. The complex itself would have been a hive of activity, with the officers, their families, and slaves who lived on site — visitors and tradespeople coming and going, the noise of the busy nearby streets that encircled the synagogue complex and even, at times, the sounds of livestock, as fowls, sheep, and even cows were kept on the premises.

Figure 4: Ritual bath at Nidhe Israel Synagogue Complex. Photo by and courtesy of Stevan J. Arnold, 2010.

LL: What are the synagogue complex’s most unusual features?

KW: Certainly the most unusual feature of the synagogue complex is the presence of the Beth Haim[Cemetery] or graveyards adjacent to the synagogue itself and the bano (Figures 1 and 4). The historic complex is compact and almost self-contained, having historically contained four residences: one each for the hazzan, shamashbodek and banadeira . Another unusual feature is the beautifully constructed bano or mikvah. This was built in the mid-seventeenth century over a spring.

LL: What are the goals of the current restoration and expansion work that is being done at the synagogue complex?

KW: The present work being done extends beyond the synagogue complex. It is being funded through the generosity of an English family who own property in Barbados. The goals are to reclaim and reuse an extensive parking lot that lies adjacent to the synagogue. This will include the expansion of the area of the cemetery that has reached its capacity to receive burials, the building of a community center for the Jewish community, the restoration of the original entrance to the synagogue, and the restoration of four artisans’ shops located along Synagogue Lane (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Artisans’ shops in Synagogue Lane built in 1869 over the old Beth Haim Cemetery. Photo by and courtesy of Mark Watson, 2014.

Also included among the goals are the restoration of the now-dilapidated first fire station for Bridgetown (c.1840) and the creation of a monument to mark the spot where the now demolished Codd’s House stood. The commemorating of Codd’s House is very important, as it was from this building that the parliament of Barbados, the House of Assembly, met and announced the ending of the apprenticeship system in 1838. This marked the formal end of slavery in the British Empire. Though a section will continue to be used as a car park, it will be greened. The project also included the acquisition of a building on the opposite side of the road for demolition. This has been done so as to improve traffic visibility and provide another green space in the city. There is another small Jewish cemetery located at the rear of the now-demolished building, whose twenty-plus ledgers now need to be cleaned of superficial cement layers and exposed once again.

LL: What archeological finds have been uncovered during that restoration and expansion? How are these of interest for Jewish or Barbadian history?

KW: Regretfully no specific rescue archaeology was done during this current work being done on the expansion/rehabilitation of what is essentially an entire city block. However, workmen were required to keep any obvious artifacts of material culture. Most of these artifacts are historic ceramics. These have yet to be examined. Some ceramics recovered from the clearing of the artisans’ shops are primarily from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.

In previous University of the West Indies excavations within the synagogue complex, led by myself and my doctoral candidate Michael Stoner, many thousands of artifacts were recovered, cleaned, and catalogued (Figures 6 & 7). The geographical diversity of the ceramics points to and confirms the extensive trade that Barbados enjoyed with various European ports, Asia, and Africa, and underscores the role of the Jewish community in facilitating such trading links. One should bear in mind that Sephardic communities were based in such diverse ports as Hamburg, Amsterdam, Marseilles, London, Naples, and New York, with links to the Levant and ports in Asia. Among these artifacts was one that especially caught my attention. It was a stone jeweler’s mold that was used to make bracelets (Figure 8). A local jeweler was commissioned to use it to make a lady’s silver bracelet, which turned out to be quite a charming piece of jewelry. There were silversmiths and goldsmiths among the Barbadian Jewish community, so this object does speak to that fact.

Figure 6. Eighteenth-century kaolin smoking pipe excavated in the synagogue yard. Photo by and courtesy of Michael Stoner, 2008.

Figure 7. University of the West Indies students washing artifacts recovered from excavations in the synagogue complex. Photo by and courtesy of Michael Stoner, 2008.

Figure 8. Jeweler’s mold excavated by University of the West Indies students. Photo by and courtesy of Michael Stoner, 2008.

Figure 9. Headstones discovered below the floor of the artisans’ shops. Photo by and courtesy of Dr. Lennox Honychurch, 2016.

LL: Can you tell us more about the Jewish gravestones that were uncovered? Did anything surprise you about them?

KW: I was not surprised at the discovery of the gravestones when the floor of the shops was removed (Figures 9 and 10). Actually, I had told the contractors what to expect as, in reading a letter book from the last decades of the nineteenth century, I had found this note that “four shops were built on the synagogue burial ground.” This was confirmed in an indenture of May 6, 1869. Seventeen whole ledgers were uncovered, along with a truncated section that reads: “Here lieth the Body of David Son of Gabriel Israel and Leah Brandon who departed this life.” Several fragments of gravestones that were probably shattered during the construction process in 1869 were also exposed.

The ledgers are flat, as is customary in Sephardic graveyards, and cover the period 1752 to 1823. Half date from the late-eighteenth century and the other half date from the early-nineteenth century. The inscriptions and designs are typical of Sephardic funerary culture. The epitaphs are invariably in three languages: Hebrew, Spanish/Portuguese, and English. The epitaphs in English reflect the cultural norms of the Romantic period and tend to be exaggerated, flowery, and sentimental. Examples include this compliment to the deceased, David Brandon, “A Sure and Ready Friend To Sum up his Character in Few Words He was A Truly Honest Man.” The epitaph to the Reverend Israel Abaddy reads in part; “These truths divine by practice taught to soar/The Gazing million whom his life adore/And without pomp without pretensions grieve.”

Figure 10. Headstones discovered below the floor of the artisans’ shops. Photo by and courtesy of Dr. Lennox Honychurch, 2016.

These gravestones also provide interesting details of the occupations of the deceased and provide demographic details. Of the seventeen whole ledgers with specific details included, such as age at death, what is striking is the number of individuals who had reached advanced ages for the time period. Of the six females, one died at age 85 years, one at 82, and the other three at 72, 54, and 48 years, respectively, with one infant of 23 months. Of the males, one died an infant, another at age 12, three at 34, 47 and 56, respectively, and the remaining five died in their 60s.

LL: What is the most interesting design on the newly recovered gravestones? How does that design compare to other designs used in the larger cemetery?

KW: For me, the most interesting design is the mise en scene commemorating the death of 12-year-old David P. Nunes, who died April 23, 1802. This is a beautifully carved winged angel that is depicted taking the dead youth by the hand. (Figure 11) Many of the ledgers are finely carved, mostly imported from Europe. They are of marble or granite. The only signed ledger in the newly discovered cemetery is that of Mrs. Sarah Barrow, who died in 1814. At the bottom right-hand corner is the inscription “D. Ancona Fecit.” Ancona is a port in Central Italy. It is possible that D. Ancona was an Italian stone carver, but the records do not confirm this assumption. Though absent in the newly revealed graveyard, the most common motif in the adjoining graveyards is the Tree of Life being cut (Figure 12). There are some set scenes similar to the one on the Nunes gravestone. Examples are from the grave of David Nunes Castello, which depicts an armed skeleton attacking a castle, or the panel from the ledger of Jacob Hizquiau Gomes Henriques, which depicts the deceased being approached by four angels who have descended a ladder from Heaven.

Figure 11. Detail from the gravestone of David Nunes, Nidhe Israel Synagogue Complex. Photo by and courtesy of Celso Brewster, 2016.

Figure 12. Tree of Life being cut — detail from an eighteenth-century tombstone in the Nidhe Israel Synagogue Complex. Photo by and courtesy of Karl Watson, 2004.

LL: Can you tell us a story about one or two of the people buried in that newly discovered section of the cemetery?

KW: The family names of those buried in the newly exposed cemetery are as follows: Abarbanel, Nunes, Pinheiro, Israel, Brandon, de Piza Massiah, Barrow, Burges Massiah, Buzaglo, Abaddy. The earliest stone is that of an infant, his epitaph reading in Spanish: “Del Anjel Yehued Semuel hijo de Moseh y Leah Nunes fo en 2 de Tisry 5513 que corresponde a 31 Agosto 1752 de edad de 8 meses y 13 dias.” (“Of the infant Judah Samuel, son of Moses and Leah Nunes on the 2nd of Tishrei 5531, which corresponds to 21 August, 1752, at the age of 8 months and 13 days”).

Early death always evokes a sense of empathy for the acute loss suffered by the parents and family of the deceased. So, when we look down at the gravestone of 12-year-old David Nunes, the passage of 214 years does not diminish the poignancy of these lines that resonate from his resting place: “The bud promised, but the fruit ripened not. Had he lived, the virtues of his infancy would have flourished in his manhood. Though his years were few, his friends were many, his gentleness endeared him, & he will not be forgotten.”

Two notable burials are those of Isaac de Piza Massiah, who died in 1824, as his gravestone says, “Being at the Time Warden (Shamash) of this Congregation,” and of Israel Abaddy, whose tombstone, in part, reads: “Sacred to the memory of the Reverend Mr. Israel Abaddy.” At the time of his death, Abaddy was the hazzanof the congregation. At this point in time (1797), the Nidhe Israel congregation was undergoing some Anglicanization and the Spanish terms normally used by a Sephardic community were being replaced by English terms. The other notable burial was that of Aaron Pinheiro, whose 1795 tombstone commemorates him as “Ruler of our Congregation and a Merchant of this Island.” The appellation of “Ruler” makes him seem almost akin to a despot. In reality, this refers to a position held by Pinheiro on the Mahamad. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, members of the Pinheiro family got themselves into trouble with their community. The catalyst for this specific instance of what were habitual, ongoing internal conflicts among the Jewish community of Barbados was the refusal by the outgoing gabay (treasurer), Joseph Pinheiro, to return various records to the synagogue. Acrimonious accusations heightened the discord and, as the minutes of the Mahamad of September 30, 1794, point out, led to the “Snoga having been so severely pelted Kipur night.” Even after Aaron Pinheiro’s death, there was no resolution and the conflict escalated to the point where the Presidente, Joseph Barrow, turned the proceedings over to the civil authorities because the Mahamad seemed incapable of dealing with the situation. In 1796, three Pinheiro relatives, Jacob, Isaac, and Joseph were bound over by the magistrate for the next Court of Sessions, accused of starting a riot. This did not deter the Pinheiros in their vendetta against the Mahamad and, by 1798, their names had disappeared from the list of yedahims (voting members of the congregation), presumably stuck off, though the minutes do not confirm this assumption.

These new gravestones add to our understanding of the spatial dynamics of the synagogue complex. Also, they are poignant reminders of a once flourishing Sephardic community whose members had spent five or six generations on the island.

LL: What do the new gravestones add to our understanding of the synagogue complex?

KW: I believe that the confirmation that four artisans’ shops were commissioned to be built over a Jewish graveyard by members of the Barbadian Jewish community provides insight into the difficult circumstances faced by a rapidly dwindling community. Given the religious proscriptions against building or interfering with a Jewish cemetery, such a decision must have been agonized over. However, for those members of the community in 1869, the choice was stark: Either they could adhere to religious conformity, face bankruptcy and lose the entire synagogue complex, or they could be flexible, make economic use of their assets, and survive.

Also of interest was the relationship between the Jewish community and the Quaker community. Barbados had an exceptionally large Quaker community. Relationships between the two communities were not always harmonious. In fact, in the seventeenth century, George Fox, the famous Quaker leader, visited Barbados and attempted to convert Bridgetown’s Jews to Christianity. He had various religious pamphlets translated into Spanish and circulated them to Jews, who angrily rejected these unwanted advances. A major Quaker cemetery abutted the lands of Nidhe Israel, and, during excavations, the gravestone of a Quaker leader, Rowland Gibson, was uncovered. These new gravestones add to our understanding of the spatial dynamics of the synagogue complex. Also, they are poignant reminders of a once flourishing Sephardic community whose members had spent five or six generations on the island. Over this period of time, as all newcomers to the island discovered, a process of creolization took place, during which an identity emerged that was both Sephardic and Barbadian at the same time.

Works Cited

Minutes of the Mahamad. All extant documents relating to the Nidhe Israel synagogue were sent to the Bevis Marks synagogue in London for safekeeping after the synagogue in Barbados was closed and sold. They are presently housed at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). They include various minute books of the Mahamad, letter books, accounts, vital records and marriage contracts.

  • LMA, Ms 343, Minute book of mahamad of Nidhe Israel synagogue, September 13, 1764
  • LMA, Ms 336, Letter book, E.A. Moses to Hart Lyon, June 27, 1848, 255 & 256.
  • LMA, Ms 328,  Minute book of  Mahamad of Nidhe Israel 
  • LMA, Ms 336, Letter book, E.A.,Moses to Hart Lyon, June 27 1848, 255 & 256.
  • LMA, Ms 331, Minute book of Mahamad of Nidhe Israel synagogue, October 9, 1814.
  • LMA, Ms 327A, Minute book of Mahamad of Nidhe Israel synagogue April 2, 1770
  • LMA, Ms 340, Minute book of Mahamad of  Nidhe Israel synagogue, 289.
  • LMA, Ms 328, Minute book of Nidhe Israel synagogue, 30 Menahem 5565 (1804)
  • LMA, Ms 328, Minute book of Mahamad of Nidhe Israel, September 30, 1794.
  • Phineas Nunes to Jacob Barrow April 31, 1797, 33

The originals of both of the 1679 and 1715 censuses are housed in the UK National Archives. The 1679-980 census is in C.O. 1/44 No 47 i-xxii, the 1715 census is in C.O. 28/16 No 2. Copies are also housed at the Barbados Department of Archives. They have been published and are available on line.


Dr. Karl Watson is retired Senior Lecturer of the University of the West Indies, the former editor of the Journal of the Barbados Museum & Historical Society, and former President of the National Trust of Barbados. He is the author of The Civilised Island, Barbados: a Social History, 1750-1816 (1979), Barbados First: the Years of Change 1920 to 1970 (2003), and numerous articles on the Jews of Barbados and Barbados history.

Laura Leibman is a Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.  Her most recent book Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life (Vallentine Mitchell, 2012) won a National Jewish Book Award, a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award, and was selected as one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013.