The pure morning sun shines through the treetops to form a welcoming arch over a wide walkway that leads to Jodensavanne. This Portuguese-Jewish settlement on the Suriname River, about 50 kilometers south of Paramaribo, was a prosperous village between the 17th and 18th centuries, surrounded by 150 plantations where thousands of slaves worked. Now deserted, partly missed, with the ruins of a synagogue and the remains of ancient tombs nearby.
The silence is suddenly disturbed when a noisy SUV approaches from a distance. Marc Ponty (42), a historian from Amsterdam who specializes in (colonial) history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, directs. “It’s damp here from the rain,” he says, walking cautiously to the information board at the entrance.
Ponte’s research in the Amsterdam City Archives includes a search in the capital’s centuries-old documentary archive, which is now being digitized. He’s in Suriname in preparation for an exhibition in Alkmaar, later this year, about his namesake sugarcane plantation in the Commuijn region. He is involved in a planned collaboration between the City Archives of Amsterdam and the National Archives of Suriname, with which Mayor Vimek Halsema will make further agreements this week in Suriname.
Just before returning to Holland, Ponte, who had grown up partly in Suriname, paid a quick visit to Jodensavanne. A special place where people once lived, whom they saw and studied in their wills and documents, and sometimes handwritten notes. Ponte: “There was a lively network between the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam and here in Jodensavanne, but also with Brazil, Caen [hoofdstad van Frans-Guyana] and the rest of the Caribbean. Notarial wills and deeds provide a clear picture of the choices that were made, how relationships worked and what mattered to them.”
The dashboard reads the story of David Cohen Nasi, founder of Jodensavanne. He found a lot of documents about him in Amsterdam. Jodensavanne was unique to Sephardic Jews in colonial times. Fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and then being hunted down from Brazil and Cayenne, the colonial regime gave them the land to settle here, and the freedom to practice their religion. In this way the colonial government hoped to attract more farmers and that the colony would “thriving”. Freedom and opportunity for one means lack of freedom for the other. The plantation economy was based on slavery and the slave trade: thousands of slaves were exploited and abused in and around the village of Jodensavanne.
Ponte: “There was no place in South America where the Jews at that time had more freedom and privileges than here. The governor agreed to allow enslaved to work on Sundays and to take leave on the Sabbath. But it was never an equal society.”
He found in the archive the lists of orders from David Cohen Nasi for slaves, intended for plantations in Jodensavanne. “We know that Nasi arrived here via Caen, with the fleeing Sephardic Jews. Before that, the group ended up in northern Brazil, where the Dutch had temporary authority and there was religious freedom.”
Under Maurits van Nassau, governor-general of Dutch Brazil between 1636 and 1644, many Portuguese Jews moved from Amsterdam to Brazil to establish sugar cane plantations. In Recife, the first synagogue on the continent was built in 1636. When the Portuguese later invaded Brazil, Jewish farmers fled again.
Family ties remained between all these countries. David Cohen-Nassi lived here in Jodensavanne but maintained trade relations with Amsterdam, where many families live. And he had interests in plantations in Brazil through his wife, Rebecca Drago,” Ponte says.
Nasi had a black daughter, Deborah, with an African woman. “I found many works and documents from Debora Nassy. Sometimes it becomes Mulatta call. The daughter of David Cohen was a nasi and a black servant, but she was free in Amsterdam. She worked as a maid for the Belmonte family, one of the largest slave-trading families. When Deborah settled in Suriname with the Nasi family, she recorded it in a deed that she found a free woman. She was afraid that she would again be forced to work as a slave again in the colony.”
Ponte had previously discovered through his research in the city archives that there was a lively and small black community in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century to which Deborah Nasi also belonged. They lived at Jodenbreestraat, near Rembrandt, who painted and painted its black residents. Ponte presented the exhibition at the Rembrandt House in 2020 Here black in the time of Rembrandt together or together. “In it we showed marriage certificates, for example, of black sailors who sailed on WIC ships and ended up in Amsterdam, and married black women who came to Amsterdam with plantations from Brazil. There was no formal slavery in Amsterdam, they were given status servant or housekeeper.
Around an open area in Jodensavanne are just over thirty brown heartwood graves with heart-shaped symbols on top. Pointed roofs of red zinc sheets were placed over some of the grave sites to protect from the sun and rain. It Ninger Bear Black Cemetery. Here the children and grandchildren of Jewish slave owners who were carried by their enslaved African wives were buried. They were not full members of the Jewish community and were in a separate cemetery. Well-known Surinamese surnames such as Belliot, Druiventak, and Wijngaarde can be read.
Marc Ponte bows and reads: “Abraham Garcia Wegenaardi, born April 10, 1828 in slavery and died free in 1915. Son of Anatje van la Parra who was born into slavery as the daughter of a Jewish plantation owner.” In the last name: Anatje van la Barra, says Ponte, you can clearly see the balance of power. “It indicates that it belongs to someone, so ‘owned’ in this case by La Parra.”
The leaves rustle under his shoes as Ponte heads down the river to the Beit Chaim (Neighborhood House) cemetery, where Jewish farmers and their families are buried. It rained a lot in the last few days, the ground looks muddy but it’s dry in places. Below are the tombstones with names such as Del Castilho, Robles de Medina, and La Parra. Some are richly ornate, with inscriptions entirely clear in Portuguese or Spanish, Hebrew, Aramaic and Dutch. Sometimes with images of a tree of life, a vine branch, or two hands, or an engraved image of a circumcision.
Ponte is trying to decipher Portuguese inscriptions. “These tombstones were often ordered and made in Amsterdam. I recently came across a note in an eighteenth century document where the Jewish community grumbles about the Jewish girls of Jodensavanne. They spoke a lot in Sranan Tongo and less and less Portuguese or Dutch, because they grew up surrounded by slaves. People complained about it,” Ponte laughs.
Despite the distinctions identified, the Jodensavanne was above all a very mixed community in which the enslaved formed part of the Jewish community, and the lines were sometimes less black and white than previously thought.
The path becomes more hilly as the Suriname River appears. The ruins of the Beracha Ve Shalom (Blessing and Peace) synagogue, built at the end of the 17th century, are now clearly visible. The walls have partially collapsed and some columns are still standing. The Jodensavanne Foundation hopes the settlement will be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List this year.
Opposite the synagogue, archaeologists Yovan Samson and Sushmaita Ganesh assem the foundations of the old house of the Meza, who was once a prominent resident of Gudensavan. “We found much more than we thought: shards, bits of plates, more house remains,” Samson said to Ponte excitedly. “Have you also found tubes?” asks the historian. “A lot,” says Sushmita Ganesh, shoveling some sand from the crust.
There was no place in South America where Jews enjoyed more freedom and privileges. But it wasn’t equal at all
According to the two, the fossils provide a broader picture. “Trade also took place with the nearby native village of Ready Dottie. You had to maintain contact with your environment. Cultural exchange also took place as a result.”
Ponte recently made a discovery showing that the Nacis were on good terms with the natives. “These are two works that were signed in 1674 by the aboriginal chief Okereka of Rede Dute. He came to Holland with the grandson of Nasi, he was exhibited there and he was very enthusiastic. Studying such archives gives you a diverse picture of the history and the people who were part of it,” says Ponte, who struggles to pull the SUV out of the mud before it’s even real. Sippy Busy Tropical rain fall.