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Jews of Curacao

Under the title “An American Island, Which Is Almost a Jewish State,” the Spanish periodical “Nuestra Raza” (Our Race) publishes an article on the history of the Jewish community on the island of Curacao.

The author of this article, I. A. Pinos, cites several examples to show that by the introduction of the Inquisition in the Spanish American possessions, the latter were impoverished; whereas the hospitality which the Dutch government, owner of the island of of the Jewish community there, has helped to make the island prosperous and an important trading center.

“Do you know,” the article asks, “that for 400 years, over the whole of the American continent where Spain reigned, the Spanish Inquisition reigned too, and that the Jews created on a lone island a stronghold to which the persecuted Jews looked up as the Jerusalem of Spanish America, where they went in order to follow their religion, free and unhindered?”

The island which today bears the name of Curacao was formerly also known under the Dutch name of Jodenwijk (Jew Borough). It lies to the north of Venezuela and is only seventy kilometers (about forty miles) long and twenty-two kilometers (about thirteen miles) wide.

In 1634 the Dutch took the island from the Spaniards. The governor intended to make the island a Jewish colony. Besides land, the Jews were offered cattle, horses and even slaves. Sixteen years later, a dozen Jewish families were already settled on the island. The plans to found a Jewish rural colony failed, however, as the Jewish settlers took to commerce and trading.

But in spite of this, the Dutch government in 1651 liberated the Jews of Curacao from all taxes for twelve years and offered them full religious liberty. This brought about Jewish immigration to this happy island, which was still further increased in 1659 when the Portuguese wrested Brazil from the Dutch.

The Jews who had settled in Brazil saw themselves forced to emigrate, and the majority of them went to Curacao.

In 1656 the community Tikve Israel was founded and a cemetery founded.

The article goes on to say that even today Jews occupy the leading positions in commerce and in governmental offices, and that all Consuls of foreign countries on the island are Jews.

Spain, on the other hand, was aware that the Jews, driven out of the country by the Inquisition, were perhaps seeking a new home in the newly-discovered territories of America. In order to avoid a “danger to the Austrian Empire,’ as the article puts it, one of the first steps of Spain was to institute the Inquisition in this part of her possessions. Thus, the first Tribunal of the Holy Office was established in 1533 at Cartagana (Columbia), and other courts, which repeated “all the cruelties of the Inquisition” all over Central and South America.

The main accusation was being a Jew, which was “proven” when the victim was seen to change his clothes on Friday, to wash his hands before eating, etc.

The Jews who had settled in these territories did not want to undergo once more the horrors they had witnessed in Spain; therefore, they looked for a new home.

“These Jews,” the article continues, “harbored a feeling of revenge, and thus helped in the course of the last centuries slowly to overthrow the reign of Spain on the American continent.”

Much to the disgust of the Inquisition, they went to Curacao. According to a letter dated April 1, 1622, the Inquisition Tribunal at Cartagana complains that Curacao has become “the nest of all heretics.”

A further complaint is contained in a letter of the frater Martin de Prato Rios, who says:

“At all coasts Jews arrive on board ships loaded with merchandise. They bring salt from the salt-coast of Curacao. They busy themselves not only with their commercial interests, they also have spiritual interests and are ready to mislead many souls by the false ideas in which they believe.”

The frater further accuses these Jewish sailor-merchants of distributing heretic literature. He laments the fact that other dioceses have been infected, too, and that a book entitled “The Rights of Man, Liberty of Religion,” had become very popular among Spanish settlers.

The Inquisition Tribunal, of course, ordered the confiscation and burning of the book.

The article states that this book, together with others of the same kind, were printed at Curacao; today still one of the greatest printing centers of Latin-America. Curacao prints the literature and text-books used in neighboring Spanish speaking countries. (The official language of the island is Dutch).

The fact that even in the past foreign powers appointed Jews as their consuls at Curacao made it possible for the latter to visit the countries where the Inquisition held sway, and to confess openly their religion. Even in cases where they were arrested by the Holy Office, they were acquitted.

In time Curacao became a port of refuge for those discontented with the Spanish rule. Simon Bolivar, the “Liberator of South America,” stayed for some time on the island, the article states, and it is proved that he had received important assistance from the Jews.

Today, the article concludes, the Jewish community — exclusively composed of Sephardim — in spite of the important positions its members hold, observes the orthodox religious laws.

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