White Pete Wants to Forget What Is Not to Be Forgotten

18 Apr

Gouden Koets - Golden CarriageAmong Maroons: Discoveries of Color, Judaism and Slavery
The Jewish Community of Suriname
by Shai Fierst, 2008

As a new Peace Corps volunteer, I learned I would be living within the confines of the Amazon rainforest in Suriname in a village comprised of descendents of [Africans who freed themselves out of enslavement], known as Maroons in English and [Binnenlandbewoners] locally.

When I arrived in the village, one of the first questions asked of me was whether or not I had a woman. Creativity and instinct failed me. I contemplated lying about a beautiful fictitious woman. Who would check my background? In any case, I tried to be honest. I said that I was not in a relationship, but did not plan to take a wife back with me to the States. I explained that I was Jewish, and that my family insisted that I marry another Jew.

“We are Jews,” was the response.

‘What?!” I asked incredulously.

“You are a White Jew and we are Black Jews. You do not want to marry a Black Jew?”

“It’s not like that,” I replied. An awkward silence soon followed, as I failed to explain myself.

When I was invited to serve in Suriname, I knew very little about the country. Initial research showed me that Suriname was not in Africa or Southeast Asia, but in South America. I learned that it has a diverse population and an abundance of languages, that it is mostly covered by a tropical rain forest and has a low population density. I also found out that it had been both a Dutch and an English colony.

What particularly surprised me, however, was finding out about the history of the Jewish presence in Suriname. In the early years of the colony, Jews comprised a significant portion of the population and maintained a level of autonomy with little precedent in modern times. In fact, the Suriname Jewish community is one of the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the Americas. Though their numbers have dwindled, I wondered why I had never heard anything about this community.

After I arrived, a lecturer on local Suriname history described the Jews of Suriname as slave owners. I assumed that it was just a few isolated families. The information did not resonate with me. Historically, I was taught that we Jews were the persecuted, not the persecutors.

Later on, I discovered another Aukan clan with a connection to Jews. This group is called the Pinasi clan, apparently named after an Espinoza Jewish family. Although the names of some clans seemed to show a direct connection to Jewish residents of Suriname, other connections were more subtle. […]

Sephardic Jews were the largest group of Jews in Suriname, compared to later Ashkenazi immigrants. In total, Jews comprised one-third or more of the White population by the end of the 17th and into the 18th century. The simplified version of the migration of the main group of Jews to Suriname, made more complex and complicated by converso and exconverso periods, begins with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Many Spanish Jews then went to Portugal where there were subsequent orders of expulsion.

In 1497, Jews in Portugal were forcibly converted to Catholicism or emigrated. Those who emigrated scattered to many parts of the world. One important destination for Jewish settlement was Dutch Brazil. However, when the Portuguese took control of Dutch Brazil in 1654, Jews were once again imperiled. A large number left for the Netherlands. In 1659, some of Brazil’s Jewish refugees were given the right to settle in Cayenne, where they lived until 1664. In that year, the French conquered Cayenne and the group resettled in Suriname.

The Saramaccan language, called Saramacca Tongo, appears to be heavily influenced by Portuguese, the mother tongue of many of the Jews. In fact, on the [slave] plantations, Saramacca Tongo was known as Dyu Tongo, meaning Jew language. Five out of their twelve clans are named after Jewish families: Biitu clan – Britto family, Kadosu clan – Cardoso family, Kasitu clan – Castilho family, and Nasi clan – Nassy family. […]

It is of interest that a small percentage of mulatto slaves who ran away from Jewish-owned plantations had Jewish fathers. It is also of interest to know that some runaways from these plantations became Maroon leaders, both for Aukans and Saramaccans.

In Price’s Alabi’s World, he includes information about a mulatto runaway slave named Paanza, the daughter of Moses Nunez Henriquez, who escaped from the Castilho Plantation and became the matriarch of the Kasitu Saramaccan clan. Her brother was a distinguished Aukan leader. From discussion with another Maroon historian, I was told that, according to oral history, two prominent leaders of the Dyu clan had Jewish fathers.

During the early years of the colony, a Jewish militia was formed to protect the plantations. […]

Regardless of the unnerving information on Jewish slave ownership that I discovered, I did my best to represent the United States and my own heritage as a secular Jew and the son of kibbutz founders in a positive light. I worked with the villagers to complete a large-scale water project enabling three villages to have access to cleaner rain water as opposed to drinking from the local river.

When researching the purchase of rain-collecting durotanks, I eventually found the main distributor of durotanks in Suriname. When we eventually met at his warehouse, I found out that he was in fact Jewish and had previously been the president of the local synagogue. We exchanged words in Hebrew, listened to classical music, discussed Israeli politics, and the importance of Shabbat and family. The prices for the durotanks and his help throughout the project ensured its success.

When I left the bush and was able to go to the capital of Paramaribo, I attended services at the Neve Shalom Synagogue. The other synagogue in Paramaribo, called Zedek Ve Shalom, is now used as an internet cafe’, its furnishings currently located at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Some of the existing members of the Suriname Jewish community, those who have not left or completely assimilated into the local population, go to synagogue Saturday morning and Friday nights two times a month. They fill a few rows of the majestic synagogue, which one can imagine used to be filled with hundreds of Jews observing holidays and spiritedly praying, as small children played on the sand floor and mothers looked on from the balcony.

Certain leaders of the congregation are descendents of the Abarbanel family, one of the most esteemed Jewish families from Spain. The Abarbanels believe they are descended from King David. The family chose to emigrate from Spain during the Inquisition rather than to convert to Catholicism. […]

Nowadays at Jodensavanne, which means Jews Savanna and was also known as “Jerusalem by the river-side,” amidst the bush spilling into the river, a dock and steps lead up to the remains of a large red brick synagogue. Behind the synagogue are hills of Jewish graves surrounded by the rain forest. Estimates are that by the end of the 17th century, Jodensavanne was home to 40 plantations, 600 Jews, and more than 9000 [enslaved Africans].

Source: Kulanu .org



2 Responses to “White Pete Wants to Forget What Is Not to Be Forgotten”

  1. diaryofanegress April 23, 2013 at 3:38 am #

    When I learned of the Khazar empire and what they did throughout history, steal, rape and bankrupt EVERY country they were in, I was no longer shocked to discover their continued role in our bondage.

    • No Black Pete April 23, 2013 at 10:21 am #

      It is quite a ‘gift’ that they got. But, we are stronger than they are. They can only conquer through dividing and cutting up. Once we re-member ourselves, they will only be able to turn their cruelty onto themselves again and (near) self-destruct. That is the Nature of things. But, I just do not want to just hang around to wait for that.

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