A Remnant of the Past: Suriname

Posted by Ann Rabinowitz

(Courtesy Geology.com)

Once upon a time, long long ago, there was a tropical paradise located on the Atlantic Ocean in South America inbetween what is now Guyana and French Guiana.  It is called Suriname and it was a colonial possession of the Dutch.  What makes it of interest to Jewish genealogists is that it had a substantial Jewish population that was quite prominent with a significant agricultural presence in sugar, cacao, and cotton production.  They were known for their self-ruled village of Jodensavanne and for the many Jewish institutions such as several synagogues, cemeteries, and schools that they nurtured.

NEVE SHALOM SYNAGOGUE, PARIMARIBO, SURINAME(Courtesy of http://www.suriname-jewish-community.com/)

When reading about the Jewish presence in the country, I saw mention of a burial of a Jewish child, David Rodrigues Monsanto, who had been killed in a slave rebellion.  This pricked my interest as I knew that Monsanto was a name not only known in Suriname, but it belonged also to the well-known Monsanto family of New Orleans.  In fact, another David Monsanto, was considered the first Jew to settle in New Orleans, Louisiana.  His family made a significant contribution to the City as well as the Jewish community.

Lingering on this topic on the Internet, I found that a remarkable book had been published in 2009 which detailed the tombstones in the Suriname cemeteries which was called “Remnant Stones The Jewish Cemeteries of Suriname Epitaphs” by Aviva Ben-Ur and Rachel Frankel (Hebrew Union College Press, ISBN-13: 9780878202249).  The book, which is the second volume of what was to be a two volume series, covers the burials in three of the Sephardic cemeteries and one Ashkenazic cemetery which approximate 1,700 tombstones etched in a variety of languages such as Aramaic, Dutch, French, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish.

(Courtesy of http://www.suriname-jewish-community.com/our-cemeteries.html)

In addition to the book,a listing of the tombstones can be found in a searchable database on the FamilySearch site, which is the online portal for the Mormon Family History Center.

Not only that, on the FamilySearch site, apart from the Suriname names, one can find a listing of thirty-eight burials for various members of the Monsanto family who had lived in locales throughout the Caribbean, the Netherlands, Suriname, Spain, and other places as well.

Whilst the FamilySearch database didn’t list the burial of the child David Rodrigues Monsanto, it has the burial of a possible relative by the name of David Monsanto.  The adult David Monsanto had been born in 1764 and died on May 27, 1797, and was buried in the old Sephardic Cemetery in Paramaribo, Suriname.

Another genealogically-related online database is GeneaNet where one can look up family names such as Monsanto and Rodrigues Monsanto and other such Dutch and/or Sephardic families.

A unique aspect of life in Suriname was the establishment of a mulatto Jewish congregation in the colony along with their burials in a Jewish cemetery.  This is mentioned quite a number of times in various historical resources and most appropriately in Chapter 7, Jewish Deathways, Pages 243-245, of “Death in the New World:  Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1792-1899” by Erik R. Seeman. This resource mentions the establishment of the Darhe Jesarim brotherhood in 1759 which was a mulatto community group.  One of the things it did was to tend to the burials within the Jewish mulatto community for over thirty years before controversy with the Sephardic Jewish community ended its privileges.

Further information on this topic can be found in the book “Jews in Another Environment: Surinam in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century” by Robert Cohen.  Among other things, this book details the intricacies of customs and interaction between the mulattos and the Portuguese Sephardic Jews.

A detailed narrative of life in Suriname during the years 1772-1777, is a book written by John Gabriel Stedman entitled The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. It was during those five years that Stedman lived in Suriname and experienced both the culture and the natural surroundings.  It gives a fascinating view of the life of that time particularly the status of the slaves and the economy.

John Gabriel Stedman(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

A further resource is an article by Ineke Phaf-Rhenberger entitled “The Portuguese Jewish Nation, an Enlightenment Essay on the Colony of Suriname,” on Pages 491-504, which appeared in the book “A History of Literature in the Caribbean:  English- and Dutch-Speaking Countries” by Albert James Arnold.  It provides a fascinating look at the life of Jews during the 18th Century and before and incorporates the views that non-Jews and blacks had of them.

Whilst many resources can be found on Google Books or directly online, a new aspect of doing genealogical research which I was able to test with my research on the Jewish community of Suriname is the ability to obtain free books through one’s e-reader.  In my case, I checked out the Barnes and Nobles site for my own e-reader, a Nook, and I was able to immediately get the following out-of-print books for free: 
  • Contributions to the History of the Jews in Surinam by Richard Gottheil which was published in 1901. 
  • An early Jewish colony in western Guiana, 1658-1666:  and its relation to the Jews in Surinam, Cayenne and Tobago by Samuel Oppenheim which was published in 1907. 
  • A narrative of a voyage to Surinam:  of a residence there during 1805, 1806, and 1807, and the author’s return to Europe by the way of North America by Albert Sack which was published in 1810.
What all this amounts to is that a researcher can now easily delve into the history of the Suriname Jewish community where many resources abound on the Internet.  It is a story of a once thriving self-governing community of mostly Sephardic origin which was unburdened with having any restrictions for many years.  This was quite unusual in a time when Jews were required to give up many freedoms or were withheld from obtaining many by the countries they lived in.  Additionally, these resources provide a glimpse into a world where despite these freedoms there were still anti-Semitic attempts to discredit and disparage the Jewish community which, in the end, along with a number of other reasons caused their disbursal to more favorable climes.

For those wishing to learn more about the present-day community, please visit
http://www.suriname-jewish-community.com or visit the Jodensavanne Foundation site which provides an historical context to the work being done to preserve the community: http://www.jodensavanne.sr.org/smartcms/default.asp?contentID=1. Another site is sponsored by Kulanu <http://www.kulanu.org/suriname/suriname.php>.

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