Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library
‘Pas-kaart vande Rivieren Commewini Suriname en Cupanama,’ 1720.Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library
Navigate to News section

Regaining Jerusalem

Jewish slaveowners celebrate Passover in 17th-century Suriname

by
Natalie Zemon Davis
April 21, 2016
Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library
'Pas-kaart vande Rivieren Commewini Suriname en Cupanama,' 1720.Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library

Not long ago, I was telling a historian friend, himself a specialist on Puerto Rico and the post-emancipation Caribbean, about the Jewish settlers of Suriname, with their sugar and coffee plantations and slaves. “What did they do at Passover?” he asked. I told him that I had asked myself the same question, and that was one of the reasons that back in 1995 I had started to study the Jews of Suriname, including the Nassys, who had been among the founding families of the colony. I had asked myself that question even though I knew well that in Leviticus [25:39-46], after the Lord had brought forth the people of Israel, his servants, out of the land of Egypt, he had instructed Moses that they were not to buy or sell each other (“And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee, thou shall not make him to serve as a bondservant”), but only those of the “nations” around them, “children of the strangers that do sojourn among you.” I had asked myself the Passover question even though I recalled the demonstration by David Brion Davis, one of our greatest historians, that acceptance of the institution of slavery—if not of one’s own kind, then of others—was so widespread and enduring that the emergence of abolition movements in the eighteenth century was a “momentous turning point in the evolution of man’s moral perception.”

In the past, the Passover conundrum has often been ignored. For classic Jewish historiography, the drama of the early modern period was the gradual move toward Jewish emancipation, not Jewish participation with Christians in oppressive colonial regimes. Indeed, a pioneering 1991 book on the Jews of Suriname described the demography, political structure, and social tensions within the Jewish community, including the contested status of the free Jews of color, but simply did not address the role of Jews as owners of slaves and directors of work by enslaved persons. Impatient with such silence, or as he put it, with “the unwillingness of Jewish scholarship to engage Black-Jewish relations in the colonial period,” Jonathan Schorsch produced his learned and wide-ranging 2004 book Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World. Now a younger generation of historians in North America and the Netherlands (Aviva Ben-Ur, Rachel Franklin, H. A. Oron, and Wieke Vink among others) are making in-depth studies of the Portuguese Jews of Suriname where slaves are part of the story.

My essay explores the formative moment in the relation between Africans and Jews and between Jews and Christians in Suriname through the person of the seventeenth-century ex-converso David Nassy and his family. A cluster of connections in Nassy’s life strike me as significant in understanding how Portuguese Jews were seeking emancipation at the same time they were enslaving others. Nassy was both an entrepreneur and a learned practitioner of geography and other sciences, and his hopes for Jewish colonization were both economic and eschatological.

***

David Nassy was born in 1612 in Portugal and was known to the Christian world at times by the prestigious name “Cristóvão da Tavera” and at other times as “Joseph de Nunes da Fonseca.” He began his life as a converso, a Marrano, that is, as a descendant of a Portuguese Jewish family seemingly converted to Christianity, like the father of Baruch Spinoza and like the eminent Amsterdam rabbi Menassah ben Israel. By 1634, the young Nassy and his wife, Rebecca Drago—also from a converso family—were living as Jews in Amsterdam, where they celebrated the birth of their daughter Sara, the first of many children.

By then, too, David Nassy had been circumcised and had started the process of education in Jewish belief, law (halakah), and liturgy to which the former crypto-Jews in seventeenth-century Amsterdam were being urgently exhorted by the rabbis. Fluent in his native Portuguese and in Spanish, Nassy undoubtedly knew something of the Bible in Latin, but Hebrew was essential for true understanding and prayer. Since Nassy had retained the family memory that he was a Cohen, that is, in the priestly line of men descended from the biblical Aaron, he had a special calling here. For those still learning the holy tongue, the Bible had been translated into Spanish, and prayer books came off the presses in Spanish or in Spanish and Hebrew columns side by side. (Several such editions, published in Amsterdam in the early or mid-seventeenth century, are found in the library of David Nassy’s great-great-grandson in Suriname, David de Isaac Cohen Nassy.)

To guide him, the seventeenth-century David Nassy would have sought instruction from a rabbi, in all likelihood Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. Brought to Amsterdam as a boy by his ex-converso parents, Aboab da Fonseca had become the favored pupil of a great cabbalist, Abraham Cohen Herrera. Then in 1629, his learning and eloquent preaching won Aboab da Fonseca appointment as hakham (rabbi) of Congregation Talmud Torah, even though he was only twenty-one. From him, Nassy would have heard the belief that the Jews were a “holy people,” chosen by God among other peoples, and ex-conversos were included. As the cabbala taught, the transmigration of souls allowed for purification after death for the periods in which they had not lived fully by the Law. In Aboab da Fonseca, Nassy would also have seen a young book collector whose interests went beyond cabbala and Hebrew scholarship to classical texts in Latin and Greek and books of history, geography, political thought and literature in Spanish, Portuguese, and French.

Then in the early 1640s, both men were to find themselves in the Jewish community in Pernambuco, Brazil. Having wrested the sugar-producing regions of Brazil from the Portuguese, the Dutch West India Company had appointed Prince Johan Maurits van Nassau in 1636 as governor and military commander of the colony. While continuing the fight against the Portuguese in Brazil, the Prince sent successful expeditions to Africa from 1637 to 1642 to seize from the Portuguese the Gold Coast port of Elmina and the Central African port of Luanda, thereby giving the Dutch West India Company the chance to enter the slave trade directly. Already in 1635, the ex-conversos in Amsterdam were seeking permission to settle in Brazil; by 1641, Portuguese Jewish congregations were so firmly established that hakham Isaac Aboab da Fonseca was sent by Talmud Torah to serve with another rabbi as their religious leaders. David Nassy and his family and some of his Drago in-laws took a boat over at the same time.

***

They came to a land of verdant forests and beautiful mountains. Its sugar mills, left vacant when their Portuguese Old Christian owners fled, were snapped up by Dutch Reformed and Portuguese Jewish settlers. Many of the Jews went into the commercial side of sugar-making, buying slaves as the West India Company boats brought them in to the Recife slave market, selling them to the plantations on credit for sugar, and shipping the precious product back to the refineries in the Netherlands. David Nassy bought property and got a sugar mill going; as his descendant David de Isaac Cohen Nassy put it, [my forebear] became “accustomed to [tropical] climate and agricultural production.”

The Africans arriving in Pernambuco in the late 1630s and early 1640s, almost 20,000 in all, were half from Angola and half from the Guinea Coast kingdoms. They came with their diverse Gbe and Bantu-Kikongo languages, though some may have known the Portuguese pidgin current in port towns along the African coasts. They came with their diverse facial markings, though the Jewish buyers would have been struck by one commonality they themselves had with most of the West African men: circumcision. The circumcision of boys was widespread, whether or not there were any Muslims in the region. Interestingly enough, Christian visitors to Africa, observing circumcision, menstrual taboos, and other family customs, often noted their similarity to the customs of the Jews, while the ex-slave Gustavus Vassa, remembering such practices from his Ibo youth when he was known as Olaudah Equiano, was “induce[d] … to think that the one people had sprung from the other.”

Jews like David Nassy would have doubted that their slaves descended from one of the Ten Lost Tribes: the African Lost Tribe, as Menasseh ben Israel was to remind them, was located way east in Ethiopia, not amidst the kingdoms and polities of the Guinea Coast and Angola. But Portuguese-Jewish merchants along the Senegambia coast in the early seventeenth century had noticed that their African trading partners, both Muslim and non-Muslim, were circumcised. The Jews appealed to this common practice in dealing with Senegambian traders in order to protect their status against the Catholic priests who were seeking their exclusion: “we are circumcised like your King … and other Black people.” Later in Brazil, the presence of circumcision among so many of the African-born men must have eased the worry of those Jews who took seriously the biblical and halakhic requirement of circumcision and ritual immersion “for the sake of enslavement.”

The pull of Brazil was not just economic. Another goal was to bring the New Christians—that is, the converses—of Pernambuco, now free of their Portuguese Catholic masters, back fully into the Jewish fold. The story passed down in David Nassy’s family and was recaptured by his great-great-grandson:

[Many New Christians] had families already established in Holland, who sighed for their absent brothers, exposed to the terrors of the Inquisition. The bravest among them resolved to go to Brazil with the Dutch fleet to conquer the land. … Meeting their brothers in Brazil, they persuaded them to lift the veil that hid their Judaism.

Indeed, the hakham Aboab da Fonseca and other Jewish settlers sought out the New Christians, a goodly number of whom declared themselves openly to be Jews. Circumcision ceremonies were held for the men at night, by torchlight. According to Willem Piso, Prince Johan Maurits’ physician in Pernambuco, the Jews made use of the oil of copaiba, the bark of a local tree, to limit bleeding and reduce pain after circumcision.

That intimate information must have come to Willem Piso from a Jew, and he was in all likelihood David Nassy, whom Piso referred to after they had both returned from Brazil to Amsterdam, as “a most learned and most cultivated Jew.” And Piso reported, too, that Nassy had in his possession a specimen of Cassia Caryophyllata, a Brazilian clove bark, which had both medicinal and culinary uses. This leads us to a third feature of Nassy’s Brazilian years, a learned interest in natural history not evidently shared with many of his Portuguese Jewish compatriots there. In pursuit of this interest, he seems to have had contact with the remarkable group of physician-naturalists like Piso and his fellow naturalist Georg Margraf, whom Johan Maurits had brought to Brazil to study its peoples, plants, and animals.

Such associations may help explain why Nassy decided to leave Brazil in 1644 about the same time that Johan Maurits was called back to the Netherlands. Rabbi Aboab da Fonseca and many other Jews from Amsterdam stayed on and continued to build institutions around the synagogue, but according to David de Isaac Cohen Nassy, his ancestor feared that without the prince’s leadership, the colony would founder. Indeed, by 1654, the Portuguese had recaptured Brazil, and most of the Jews left for Amsterdam, Livorno, New Amsterdam, and other havens; those who remained had to become New Christians once again.

***

David Nassy took from his Brazil years an exhilarating hope for the possibility of Jewish settlements in a colonial world, transformative settlements which would be economically viable and infused with moral fervor, like that which had inspired the return to Judaism of the Brazilian New Christians and, indeed, inspired his own return to his ancestral religion. This vision was not compromised for him by the presence of slavery. His intellectual energy was also attracted by the far-away, the strange, and the lessons of travel and maps.

Nassy’s mood and aspirations make interesting comparison with those of the celebrated rabbi, printer, biblical scholar and publicist Menasseh ben Israel. To supplement the family income, Menasseh had dispatched his younger brother to Pernambuco, where we have just met him purchasing Africans in the slave market. Menasseh was carrying on the Amsterdam end of the trade, while “with our fortune slightly bettered, I am able to devote myself more freely to divine letters.” He had been planning to go to Brazil himself had he not suddenly been appointed head rabbi of Talmud Torah congregation in 1641 in replacement of Aboab da Fonseca.

Thus, when Menasseh ben Israel came to write on the destiny of the “Jewish Nation,” he had not only Messianic perspectives, fueled in part by a report from the ex-converso Antonio de Montezinos of having met one of the Lost Tribes in the mountains of Peru, but had practical perspectives as well. In his 1650 Hope of Israel and his 1655 Humble Address to Oliver Cromwell to admit the Jews to England, Menasseh proclaimed the necessary dispersal of the Jews to all countries of the world, including America, before their final return to the Holy Land as a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy of the Last Days. But he also saw the Jews as bringing “profit” to the lands in which they dwell: “they do abundantly enrich the Lands and Countrys of strangers, where they live.”

David Nassy acted as a go-between in Menasseh Ben Israel’s efforts to seek the readmission of the Jews into England, writing letters to Manuel Martínez Dormido, who was the first to petition the Lord Protector Cromwell on the matter. Nassy would have known Dormido’s sons in Brazil, and in 1654 he assured Dormido that the Portuguese Jewish dignitaries of Amsterdam warmly supported the establishment of a Jewish congregation in England: “no small profit [would] arise” both to the Netherlands and to England from trade between the two Sephardic communities. Furthermore, it would encourage more conversos to leave France, Spain, and Portugal and return to their Jewish faith.

As important as Jewish advancement in Europe was to Nassy, the pull of the Caribbean and Guiana was the stronger. In 1652, he obtained a patent for ten years from the Dutch West India Company to bring fifty colonists to Curaçao. Nothing came of this, perhaps because Nassy had received discouraging news from his wife’s kinsman Abraham Drago about the failure of his own colonizing efforts there. Undaunted, Nassy and some other former residents of Brazil signed a contract in 1657 with the Estates of Zeeland to send settlers “of the Hebrew Nation” to the colony of Nova Zeelandia along the Essequibo River in Guiana, a region whose abundant sugar cane was touted in geography books. This settlement got off the ground, with the arrival of Jewish colonists and African slaves, though Nassy and his family remained in Amsterdam.

Then in late 1659, Nassy and several Jewish partners won from the Dutch West India Company the right to establish a settlement in the colony of Cayenne: they could own property, bring in slaves, and exploit mineral resources; they were free to practice their religion openly, build synagogues and schools, and enjoy the exemptions and liberties of any other burger in the colony. Menassah ben Israel died in 1657 so did not live to hear of this contract, but he certainly would have applauded it.

***

In these same years, Nassy was expanding his mental universe even farther. Not only was he in touch with the naturalist Willem Piso, now a major figure at the Amsterdam Medical College, but he was also collaborating with Joan Blaeu, the celebrated publisher and cartographer of Amsterdam and mapmaker for the Dutch East and West India Companies. He prepared with Blaeu and translated into Spanish the first volumes of Blaeu’s celebrated Grand Atlas. We know of Nassy’s role from a contemporary account by ex-converso Daniel Levi de Barrios on “Spanish poets and writers of the Jewish Nation of Amsterdam”: “David Nasi wrote the first Spanish volumes of the Geographia Blaeuiana with great erudition.” In May 1660, Joan Blaeu sent Philip IV of Spain ten volumes of the atlas, which he had published in Spanish the year before, and promised the king more in the future. Entitled Nuevo Atlas o Teatro del Mundo, those volumes devoted to Northern Europe, Scotland, China, Russia and eastern Europe, and England had been translated by Nassy.

Especially interesting are Nassy’s reactions to the kidnapping by Europeans of indigenous people (the Kalaallit) of Greenland. (Blaeu and Nassy were following closely here Isaac La Peyrère’s recent Relation de Groenlande.) Nassy translated the description of encounters in 1605 and 1606 between Danish seamen and local inhabitants of Greenland, which ended in the Danes seizing twelve men to take back to Copenhagen with them. On the 1606 voyage, the captives resisted fiercely, so much so that one of them was beaten to death with musket blows. In 1606, one captive cast himself in despair into the sea. Meanwhile their clansmen threw stones and shot arrows from shore, but were frightened away by cannon fire. The Europeans departed and presented their captives as gifts to King Christian IV. About all this, Nassy exclaimed, “Oh, tyrannical ambition. … Oh, execrable inhumanity. … Oh, the insolence of great power,” and evoked the terror felt by someone of free birth taken captive or even made a slave and exiled from his own land.

The Atlas text then went on to recount the longing of the “savages” (los selvajes) for their homeland, of their melancholy (one of them would weep every time he saw a woman with a child in her arms), and their languishing. For Nassy, the desperate and unsuccessful efforts of several of them to escape in their little boats were an expression of “an ardent love of country, a generous venture to recover lost liberty,” sentiments before which all risks and difficulties paled. Nassy’s empathy here came from his identifying the tyrannical persecution of the Jews by the Spanish and Portuguese with the Danish captivity of the Greenlanders. He did not apply to his own 1657 contract to bring several hundred African slaves to the new Essequibo River colony the judgment of “execrable inhumanity” that he made of the Danish kidnappers.

***

In 1660, David Nassy’s whole family departed for the Wild Coast, they and their fellow settlers establishing themselves on the island of Cayenne under the charter granted by the Dutch West India Company. Nassy himself was often in the Netherlands, purchasing more land and slaves for the colony. As in Brazil, however, religious and other liberties were as important as economic interests.In 1664, Cayenne fell to the French, and Nassy’s settlers prepared to leave with their slaves: the freedom to practice their religion was not going to be recognized by the government of Louis XIV, whose Code Noir some years later not only forbade the public practice of any religion but the Catholic, but also ordered the expulsion of Jews from the French colonies.

David Nassy shepherded his people eventually to neighboring Suriname, where they joined Portuguese Jews who had settled earlier under English auspices and where the English governor granted them the right to practice their religion openly. Then in 1667, as part of the Anglo-Dutch war, Suriname fell to the Dutch and was formally accorded to them by the Treaty of Breda. Many English settlers eventually left Suriname with their slaves for Jamaica and Antigua, but Nassy’s group and some of the other Portuguese Jews had sunk roots along the Suriname River.

Henceforth, they would be part of a colony subject to authorities in the Netherlands: for a time to the Estates of Zeeland, and after 1682 to the Society of Suriname chartered by the States-General. The new Dutch governor promptly issued articles promising to “all persons … of whatsoever Nation … free liberty of conscience in matters of religion. … All present inhabitants of whatsoever Nation shall have and enjoy all equal privileges as the Netherlanders that shall cohabit with them.” In approving these articles in 1668, the Estates of Zeeland specified, “the Jews will be regarded as if they were Dutch born.” This phrase held a strong place in Jewish memory, David Nassy’s great-great-grandson rejoicing a century later that the Jews “[had been thus] placed without distinction on the same level as the other inhabitants.”

An expression of that equal status was immediately apparent in 1667 when David Nassy’s son Joseph was given a military charge by the governor: to protect the rivers bordering the colony of Cayenne against French incursion. Further, a burgher militia unit was formed made up of Jews, whose captain and lieutenant had administrative responsibilities over other planters, just as did the officers of the Christian units. In 1671, in front of a small wooden synagogue off the Suriname River, fifty-five Jewish men were sworn in, including David Nassy, now in his early sixties, and his five sons, Samuel, Moses, Joseph, Jacob, and Joshua. Though some cities in seventeenth-century Poland had Jewish guard units or drew upon Jews for other military action, nowhere in Western Europe at this date could the Nassy men have been part of such a militia.

Equal status, institutionalized “without distinction,” was not the whole story, however. On the one hand, when the Court of Policy and Criminal Justice was set up to advise the governor and judge cases, Jewish settlers were not eligible to serve on it. On the other hand, the “Jews of the Portuguese Nation,” as they called themselves, were granted certain privileges of self-government: the parnassim, or councilors, of the Mahamad could set rules for the community and judge disputes and non-criminal cases. If such a grant reproduced privileges found in Amsterdam and elsewhere in Europe, another demand made by David Nassy was more audacious. In October 1669, he led a delegation of sixteen Jewish men to see the governor, his group including old-time former conversos, his fellow veterans from Brazil, and also younger men, such as his son Samuel. “We ask that we be permitted to work on Sundays and our Blacks as well … and to go unmolested on the river [that day] with our persons and our goods.”

The current governor acceded to their request, but a new governor, egged on by Suriname’s Reformed preachers, issued an edict in 1674 reminding all settlers of the sanctity of Sunday: no one—“Dutch, English, French, the Jewish nation”—was to work on Sunday or transport cargo on the rivers. Thirty-six Jewish planters protested in a vigorous letter in Dutch, drawn up by David Nassy and especially by his son Samuel. They used socio-economic arguments: the Sunday prohibition would prevent Blacks from working on the Jewish plantations for more than two days, since Sabbath began on Friday afternoon. This would bring loss not just to the Jews but to the prosperity of the whole colony. And what of the dangerous discontent aroused among the slaves on the plantations of “other nations” when they learned of the extra days-off on the Jewish estates? (Indeed, some slave uprisings on plantations owned by Christians were inspired by demands for the Saturdays off enjoyed on nearby Jewish plantations.) Especially they used religious arguments, drawn from the past of ex-conversos in Portugal: compulsion in matters of religion was “a godless tyranny over free souls.”

It took some years for the Jews to win their case—Samuel Nassy had to threaten that the Jews would leave otherwise, and finally to appeal to the States-General. But the Christians had to recognize the importance of the Jewish settlers. The governor’s census in 1684 found 742 whites settled in the colony, of whom 232 (31%) were Jews, almost all Portuguese plus a few Germans; 3844 black slaves, 1158 (30%) of them owned by Jewish planters; and 134 indigenous slaves, twenty-nine (22%) of them serving as hunters or fishermen on the Jewish plantations.

Further, Samuel Nassy had now joined his father David and his brother Joseph as an important public figure. The Brazilian-born Samuel had quickly added Arawak to the four languages he had brought with him from Amsterdam. During the intense wars mounted by coastal indigenous tribes in the late 1670s and early 1680s to rid their land of the settlers, Nassy served as peacemaker, spending days among the Arawaks and arranging gifts to win them over. In 1684, Governor Sommelsdyk was able to make peace with the coastal Arawaks, Caribs, and Waroes, promising that none of them would henceforth be enslaved (the upland indigenous were not included). Of Samuel Nassy, the governor said, “[I have] not found in the colony a more able, sensible, and reasonable man.”

***

The plantations owned by Jews in the seventeeth century were clustered along the middle and upper reaches of the Suriname River. Their slaves could row them to the seaport town of Paramaribo in three to six hours, while the trip to their earliest synagogue and their first cemetery at Cassipora Creek was relatively short. The Jewish planters did not have the river entirely to themselves: Dominee Basseliers and a Suriname governor were among their neighbors. In 1686, when we have the first land map of Suriname, two Nassy plantations are located on the upper Suriname; a map a few years later shows seven family plantations scattered up and down the river.

On these lands, slaves were busy planting and harvesting sugar cane, supervising sugar water mills or, if the plantation was inland, horse-powered mills, stirring the boiling caldrons, and preparing the sugar for shipping—as well as all the other tasks of construction, barrel-making, spinning, sewing and cooking. In 1681, Samuel Nassy was master to eighty slaves, more than the seventy slaves owned that year by the deputy governor and the fifty-six by Dominee Bassiliers. In the next decade his holdings more than doubled.

There is no sign that the Nassys and their fellow Jews saw a contradiction between their struggle for equal status as free people living “in their own manner” and their purchase of captive Africans. Nor did they extend to their slaves the full empathy David Nassy had expressed in the Blaeu Atlas for the kidnapped Greenlanders and their “venture to recover lost liberty.” The captivity and liberation of Exodus remained rather a metaphor for the captivity of Jewish conversos and their ultimate release. (At the same period, in his “On Slavery,” John Locke was defending the right of the free European person to resist the tyranny of political slavery, while affirming his right to hold the criminalized extra-European as a chattel slave.) Insofar as the Portuguese Jews saw this as a contradiction and sought to ease it, it was by subsuming the enslaved persons under themselves: “we ask that we be permitted to work on Sundays and our Blacks (“onze Neegers,” emphasis mine) as well.”

The biblical model for their life along the Suriname River was from Genesis: the patriarchal Abrahamic household. Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, teacher to both David and Samuel Nassy, evoked that image in his Spanish paraphrase of and commentaries on the Pentateuch, composed after his years as rabbi to slaveholders and slave traders in Brazil. God had honored Abraham through his covenant and promises, and Abraham had the obligation to circumcise all the male members of his house, “not only your own [sons] but also all your slaves born in your house and also those purchased at whatever age they be.” A book of benedictions in Spanish and Hebrew, approved by Aboab da Fonseca for publication in Amsterdam, included a blessing a Jew must say over a purchased slave:

Master of this slave, take kind pity and remember to rejoice in his works and to enslave him and his children after him, as it says [Lev 25:46], you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as bondsmen for all time. Blessed art Thou, Lord, who art good and doest good.

The book also gave a brief prayer for the circumcision of a male slave and the ritual immersion for men and women. For the many circumcised men, the Jewish planter who wanted to follow halakha simply took a drop of blood, without benediction, as prescribed in the Spanish compendium of Jewish law published in Amsterdam in 1689 by David Pardo, who would soon be hakham in Suriname.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the Abrahamic obligation to circumcise arose primarily with the small number of boys who had been captured so young in Africa that they had not been circumcised and with the male children born on the plantation. Practice must have varied. Ritual immersion for enslavement could be easily done in the flowing waters of the Suriname River. At least for the children born to African women and Portuguese Jewish men, we have clear signs that circumcision was performed. In the opening years of the eighteenth century, Isaac da Costa, kin to Samuel Nassy’s wife, had fathered five children by a slave woman or women. He gave them biblical names or names current among Portuguese Jews (Ismael—an appropriate name given Ismael’s biblical ancestry—Simcha, David, Hanna, and Rosa), instructed them in the Holy Law, and ultimately sought their freedom.

This naming practice for mulatto children, linked with circumcision for the boys and ritual immersion for both boys and girls, is regularly found on the Jewish plantations from the moment we have inventories: Ismael, Daniel, Tema, Simha, Marina, and Brandina, to give an example from La Confianza, owned by descendants of David Nassy. These men and women continued in their partial Jewish status for years, top craftsmen and house slaves, perhaps manumitted in their owner’s will, perhaps not.

As for the black slaves on the Jewish plantations—Cojo, Quaco, Leandro, Afiba, Esperance, Betina (to name a few from a Nassy plantation)—who made up the overwhelming mass of workers on the plantations, we have evidence that they were sometimes circumcised and given the associated ritual immersion for enslavement. It comes from Dominee Jan Willem Kals, who shocked his fellow Reformed pastors in the early 1730s by his wild hope to convert all of Suriname’s slaves and indigenous peoples to Christianity. (He was soon sent packing by his fellow pastors.) In 1732, he interviewed Trouble, born around 1700 and now the house slave of a Christian. When Kals asked him how he had come to knowledge of God and the biblical story of creation, Trouble answered, “I was born on a Jewish plantation and circumcised on the eighth day, and brought up in the Jewish religion till my eighteenth year, when my master died.”

Trouble’s African parents were in all likelihood glad to have him circumcised like his father. Such a practice must have been put in motion by the Jews of David Nassy’s day, and with support from many adult slaves. Indeed, in neighboring Brazil, as Christian authorities complained, women from Angola refused to have intercourse with enslaved men who were not circumcised. Rabbi Pardo’s law book even permitted a slave to perform circumcision, as had been authorized in the Shulkhan Arukh, the source for his compendium. (Female circumcision, in contrast, seems to have totally disappeared in Suriname, and we do not know how African-born slaves felt about this.)

Ritual immersion and circumcision “for the sake of enslavement” were by no means a full conversion, a status possible only for a free person. Rather the slave was, in Jonathan Schorsch’s words, “in a luminal status, neither in nor out.” Technically they were expected to follow the many negative commands of the Jewish law. Owners knew that this was impossible, starting with the first command, to believe exclusively in a God as defined in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish worship. And how were Jewish owners to manage the Sabbath if their house slaves—the ones most likely to have undergone such a ritual—did not light and stoke the fire, cook, carry, and bring them fruit from their orchards?

***

At least as important as circumcision and ritual immersion in establishing the early culture on the Jewish plantations were language and the rhythms of body care, work, and leisure. Among the first generation of Africans on the Jewish plantations, a distinctive Creole developed to enable communication among men and women from diverse Gbe and Bantu-Kikongo language groups. With a lexicon of Portuguese, West African, and English words and an African grammatical structure, this language was called Dju-tongo, “the Jewish tongue,” (now known as Saramaccan), distinguishing it from the more fully English-based Ningre Tongo or Neger Engelsche (now known as Sranan) on the other plantations.

In Dju-tongo, the word for Saturday was “sabba”; in Neger Engelsche, it was satra. Sugar production and all work associated with it ceased on the Jewish plantations on sabba and on the six festivals of the year when similar prohibitions were in place, from Rosh Hashanah through Tisha B’Av. On these days, slaves not required at the big house or at the synagogue worked on their vegetable gardens next to their ningre hosso (slave house), and spent many hours in dance, both ceremonial and festive. In all cases, the Africans became familiar with the Jewish organization of time and could compare it with their own, also filled with special days. Meanwhile the cooks and house maids learned Jewish food prohibitions and compared them to those they had brought with them from Africa: each family had a special food, a kind of meat or fowl, which was forbidden and which, if it were eaten, brought dire consequences. Talking of this taboo in Dju-tongo, they used the Hebrew treff.

Likewise, as their Jewish women owners became unclean and practiced avoidance during their menstrual periods, so they, too, became unclean and practiced avoidance. Some of them even recalled menstrual huts in their African village. Serving their mistresses as they purified themselves monthly in the Suriname River, however, the slave women would have had mixed feelings. On the one hand, they bathed themselves and their children in the river as often as their crushing work schedule permitted; on the other hand, they knew that gods dwelled in the rivers of Suriname. The powerful Afro-Surinamese goddess Watramama was just emerging across all the plantations, and, if not pacified, she could make purification a dangerous business.

Some Africans settled as best they could into the rhythms of life and hardships on the Jewish plantations, improvising institutions and kin relations to survive. Others wanted, like David Nassy’s Greenlanders, “to recover lost liberty.” In January 1680, seventy slaves escaped from Samuel Nassy’s plantation. Arawaks friendly to Nassy captured and returned nine of them, but the rest made their way through the rain forest south to the Saramacca River, where they established a village. They became the founding core of the Nasi clan, one of the two great clans of Saramacca Maroons. Over the centuries, they preserved in Saramaccan stories of their escape, of relatives left behind, and of subsequent raids on Nassy and other plantations.

***

Despite such a rupture, David Nassy and his sons continued to see Suriname as a fulfillment of their hopes for colonization. Far from the busy printing shops and discussion halls of Amsterdam, David Nassy purchased a large collection of books from the Elsevier publishing house to be shipped across the ocean to him in the 1670s. He may well have continued his botanical interests amidst Suriname’s luxuriant and often strange diversity; he certainly passed them on to his son Samuel, who sent an arum plant to the director of the Amsterdam Botanical Garden, “adding that the Indians use the root to make bread.” Meanwhile back in 1665-1667, the boats from Amsterdam had brought first the news of the Messiah Sabbatai Sevi, which was thrilling Jews across Europe, followed by the devastating report of his conversion to Islam. The Nassys would have heard all this, perhaps in letters from Isaac Aboab da Fonseca himself, who initially supported then repudiated the Sabbatean movement. With hopes for an immediate return to the Holy Land dashed, the Portuguese Jews were willing to settle for a provisional Jerusalem in Suriname.

And why not? Their political liberties and privileges, though still needing some defense, were quite extensive. The Reformed pastors, though they had been enjoined in the Netherlands to proceed to the conversion of the Jews, pretty much left them alone. The dreams of the ex-converso David Nassy, now nearing seventy, were carried in new directions by his two sons Samuel, leader of the community, and rabbi Moses. The initial wooden synagogue and cemetery, on a creek tributary to the Suriname River, were unassuming and out of the way. Samuel donated to the community several acres of high savannah land he owned along the river itself, to be used for a new synagogue, cemetery, an Ets Haim school for boys, and houses for Jewish families and their slaves when they were not at their plantations. The adjacent valleys were supplied with crystalline streams, so the Jews liked to say, the sands nearby of the purest white. It was known on the early maps as “Joodsch Dorp” and later as Jodensavanne (the Savanna of the Jews), but the Portuguese Jews called it among themselves “Jerusalem by the riverside.”

As we know from the beautiful studies of Rachel Frankel and Aviva Ben-Hur, the streets in front of the synagogue were laid out in a quadrilateral form that followed biblical prescription. The brick synagogue with its two pointed gables was named Beraha VeSalom, Blessing and Peace, a phrase associated with a cabbalistic commentary on the Zohar, where “Eden is found in the place of ‘the secrets of life, blessing and peace’” (and we recall that Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, teacher of Samuel and Moses, was a cabbalist). In 1685, Beraha VeSalom was dedicated with a sermon by the eloquent Isaac Netto, who had come from Amsterdam to join Moses Nassy as rabbi. As Netto had said at the dedication of Amsterdam’s new synagogue a decade before: “from his celestial Sanctuary, God directs the rays of his Divine providence to the temple below, established on earth.”

David Nassy was not in Beraha VeSalom for the dedication. He and his wife had returned not long before to Amsterdam, and there he died in 1685. His gravestone was carved with fingers stretched and palms outward in blessing, as befitted a kohan who had retrieved his priestly status from his crypto-Jewish past. The world he envisioned went on at the “Jerusalem by the riverside” and on the Jewish plantations. Around their dining tables, the Passover Seders were conducted.

Let us, then, imagine such a Seder, since I began with the Passover question. My sources are a Haggadah in Spanish, published in 1689 by the hakham David Pardo, who (as we’ve seen) came to Suriname, and an illustrated Haggadah in Hebrew and in Judeo-Spanish (Spanish in Hebrew characters), published in Venice in 1628/1629, much reprinted, and widely circulated.

The moving invocation at the display of the Matzoh includes an invitation, one of the two inclusive moments in the Seder: “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need, come and celebrate Passover” The prayer continues. “This year [we are] here, the year to come in the land of Israel; this year [we are] slaves; next year free people in the land of Israel.” The Israelites’ predicament is not universalized, as it is in the liberal Haggadahs since the mid-twentieth century (e.g., “Now many are still enslaved; next year may all men be free).” Rather the traditional prayer “Sh’foch chamascha” taken from Psalm 79, is chanted: “Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not, and upon the kingdoms that call not upon Thy name.” In the 1629 Haggadah the nations that do not call upon God’s name are depicted as both white and black: white necromancers raising the dead and black drummers guiding children in a dance.

Through such a prayer and image, a world hostile to God’s chosen people is still evoked in the provisional Jerusalem of the Savanna. A few moments later in the Seder, to be sure, “all people” and “all nations” are called upon to extol the Lord—“Alabad à Adonai todas gentes”. At the end of the Seder, in the Spanish Haggadah, the Jews around the Passover table ask the Lord “to take pity on thy people and thy city … and on Zion.” At this point in the service, the 1629 Haggadah pictures the Messiah leading the Jews back to Jerusalem, where the temple has been rebuilt. But “Next year in Jerusalem” had not yet been added to the ceremony as its final vigorous affirmation. And one wonders whether the Nassys and the Portuguese Jews of Suriname, with their newly constructed synagogue in their Jerusalem by the riverside, would have found it an unnecessarily pressing wish.

And the Africans in those Abrahamic households in seventeenth-century Suriname? Those carpenters and bricklayers who had built Beraha VeSalom and constructed the other buildings at the Savanna; who cleaned the synagogue for the shamas, threw fresh sand on its floor, and lit the candles on the Sabbath; who cleaned the Ets-Haim school after the boys, and kept the cemetery tidy; who grew the food consumed at the Seder table and, who, whether bathed for enslavement or left fully to their own gods, helped search for the hametz (the leavened foods that must be disposed of), and stoked the fire for the Seder meal. Some Jewish owners, reciting “The Egyptians treated us badly, they made us suffer,” may have resolved not to do the same to the slaves on their own lands. And what did those slaves think? “Next year free once again in Hueda, or Ardra or Anago or Congo.” Or “Next year escaped on the Saramacca River with the Nasi clan.” Or “One day free, fully Jewish, and at that Seder table.” Or “Soon back in my hosso with my family and waiting for the gods with my own kind.” I leave them with the last word.

An expanded version of this article was published in The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, Volume 3, Special Issue 01, January 2016, pp 11 – 38, © Cambridge University Press 2015. Reprinted with permission of Cambridge University Press.

Natalie Zemon Davis is a Canadian and American historian of the early modern period. She is currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto in Canada. She is the author of The Return of Martin Guerre, Women on the Margins, and Trickster Travels, among many others.

Support Our Podcasts

In addition to Unorthodox, the world’s No. 1 Jewish podcast, and Take One, our daily Talmud meditation, we’re hard at work on exciting new Jewish audio series.