Magazine article Geographical

Migrants of the Caribbean: A Little-Known Jewish Community, Which Inhabited the Small East Caribbean Island of Nevis in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Played an Important Role in Shaping the United States and the Whole of the Modern World. Vitali Vitaliev Reports

Magazine article Geographical

Migrants of the Caribbean: A Little-Known Jewish Community, Which Inhabited the Small East Caribbean Island of Nevis in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Played an Important Role in Shaping the United States and the Whole of the Modern World. Vitali Vitaliev Reports

Article excerpt

It is hard to find a stone, let alone a pebble, on the sun-cracked patch of land which is the old Jewish cemetery in Charlestown, the tiny capital of Nevis, an East Caribbean island with a population of 10,000.

After several minutes of searching, I manage to spot a small piece of gravel, pick it up and, in accordance with an old Jewish custom, place it on the nearest tombstone as a token of respect for the once vibrant and important, but now-defunct Jewish community of Nevis whose records include the invention of Muscovado sugar and educating Alexander Hamilton, one of the USA's founding fathers. Hamilton was born on the island in 1755 and it's not a well-known fact that the creator of the USA's first bank and George Washington's closest aide, attended the West Indies' then only Jewish school - in Charlestown.

The history of the Jews of Nevis, who migrated to the island from Spain and Portugal while fleeing the Inquisition in the 1670s, is a fascinating real-life story of immigration and societal change. It is also a tale of exile, hardship and perseverance.

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A TROPICAL HEAVEN

'Paradise' was the wi-fi access password at Nisbet Plantation Resort, where I stayed while on Nevis. And tropical heaven it was indeed. A former sugar plantation and the only beach-side plantation property in the Caribbean, it was there that Admiral Nelson met the young widow Fanny Nisbet, who later became his wife.

Nowadays, the estate has 36 cottages, scattered over a coconut palm grove, and a colonial-style restaurant presided over by maitre d' Patterson Fleming, whose main duty is to make everyone feel welcome. On request, the ever-smiling Patterson (many first names of local men are derived from the last names of the former planters) would take you on a pub crawl around the island, or demonstrate his extraordinary collection of 3,000 outrageously bright ties that earned him the nickname of the island's 'Minister of Tie-rism'.

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It was my first visit to the Caribbean, and the resort, with its palm trees, monkeys, exotic birds, string bands playing on the beach during the day and replaced after dark by the orchestras of melodiously squeaking, as if flute-playing, crickets, was like a widely accepted notion of the Caribbean coming to life. It could be a cliche, yes, but stereotypes can be beautiful too.

'We are not quite in the 21st century here,' Tim Thuell, the resort's general manager, told me.

My favourite past-time on the beach was watching the abundant brown pelicans, locally known as boobies, fishing in the sea. With complete abandon, these large graceful birds, with powerful wings and aquiline profiles, would drop vertically - and often synchronically - in twos or threes - into the water, heads down, to emerge with a sparkling fish wriggling in their beaks. Never before had I seen such graceful creatures, fully immersed in their own mysterious reality.

Mystery was never far away in Nevis. Since 1628, when the island was colonised by the British, the latter used to refer to it as a jewel in the British Crown. By the onset of the 18th century, Nevis had become a centre of British social life rivalling many places in England itself. Some even claimed that Nevis was more important for Britain than the whole state of New Jersey. How could this tiny island manage to produce the best sugar in the whole of the Caribbean? How - for several centuries - had it been much more economically advanced and more upmarket that the neighbouring St Kitts, which is almost four times bigger, both in territory and in population?

Mark Brantley, Nevis's Deputy Premier, whom I met in Charlestown, told me about the island's impressive economic development and its ambitious plans to progress from relying mostly on tourism to being an exporter of renewable energy. He spoke of its toughening immigration policy, the island's good schools and social housing. …

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