Mordechai Arbell



The Michelin guide book's description of Bayonne in southern France, one of the two main centers of Portuguese Jews in France (the other is Bordeaux), sketches the rue du Port-Neuf ("the street of the New Port") as follows:

It is a pedestrian street with low arcades on its two sides, full of shops selling cakes, pastry, and sweets, famous for its first-class chocolate. Cocoa was introduced in Bayonne from the 17th century by Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal.1

A special guide told us that this city was the birthplace of "La patisserie française" (The French pastries), owing to the Portuguese Jews of America sending their relatives in Bayonne, sugar, cocoa, and vanilla.

The first Jews who settled in the Americas were mostly, if not all, of Portuguese Jewish origin. They excelled in good relations with the Indian tribes they found there.

When the English missionary John Oxenbridge joined a group of a hundred English settlers in the 1650s, who then came to the unknown territory of Surinam to establish a settlement, he found a Jew, Jacob Enoch, living peacefully with his family among the Indians.2 His real family name was Mendes Enoch.

When the French tried several times to settle the island of Cayenne (today in French Guyana), beginning in 1631, their attitude towards the Indians was so tyrannical and cruel that the Indians clashed with them, dispersed them, and drove them out. The Dutch, who replaced them, also suffered from Indian enmity. When a group of Jewish colonists, composed mainly of Jewish refugees from Dutch Brazil and a number of Jews from Amsterdam, reached Cayenne in September 1660 following a grant given to David Nassy to establish a Jewish settlement there, the Dutch governor Jan Classen Lagedijk prevented them from disembarking. The Indian inhabitants were the ones who pressed the governor to let the Jews settle. They declared that they knew the Jews were good people and that they were glad to have them come to settle.3 The Jews settled in the exclusive Jewish settlement of Remire, where they freely collaborated with the Indians.

Another example is the narrative of two Jews — Josua Nunez Netto and Joseph Pereira — who came in 1658 to settle on the banks of the Pomeroon River (today the republic of Guiana, at that time Dutch):

The country is covered by forest that is not too dense and there are some Indian villages upstream. The Indians are very gentle and peaceloving. There was a Jew in a boat with the Indians and we spoke to him in Spanish.4

A number of Jews specialized in the different Arawak dialects, and Jews usually served as translators between the English or Dutch authorities and the Indian tribes. Usually the Jews and Indians worked together.

The Indians who had their own systems of processing cacao and extracting vanilla kept them secret from the European settlers. They did, however, give the Jews the possibility to learn from them and to modernize the procedures.

Cocoa and vanilla were not well known in Europe, and the market for them was not assured. For that reason the Jews in America began exporting them to the Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Bayonne, and Bordeaux and had them promote this merchandise.

The real pioneer of cacao growing and processing was Benjamin d'Acosta de Andrade. Born as a converso in Portugal, he returned to Judaism in Dutch Brazil. Upon the Portuguese occupation of this Dutch colony, he reached Martinique in 1654 with a group of Jews. There he became the owner of two of the biggest sugar plants. He is known and remembered for establishing the first cacao processing plant in French territory with know-how acquired from the Indians. Cocoa production had begun in Spanish colonies in America, mainly in Mexico, and the drink derived there was called chocilate. But it was d'Acosta who advanced and modernized the process. He experimented in producing cacao pills, calling them chocolate.

At first the European public did not receive chocolate well, and the customs duties on it were very high. Over the years the use of chocolate grew and by 1684 more and more processing plants were erected in Martinique, mainly owned by Jews. Chocolate became the island's most important export. Benjamin d'Acosta, however, could not benefit from its development.

In 1664, with growing profits from the Caribbean colonies, Jean Baptiste Colbert, the French head of government, founded in Paris the "Company of the West Indies." According to the new rules all commerce had to be transferred to French hands and be conducted only with France, instead of with Amsterdam, the main contact of the Jews. The Jews had to take French partners as main owners.5 In 1685, the "Black Code," stipulating the expulsion of the Jews from all the French islands, came into force and the Jews of Martinique left for the Dutch island of Curaçao. The cocoa plants passed into French hands.

In general the Jews of the Caribbean and the Guianas concentrated in sugar growing, refining, and export. On the English islands of Barbados and Jamaica, the local English colons did everything possible to prevent the Jews from monopolizing the sugar production. So special local legislation was introduced:

— stipulating that Jews could not employ Christians, which meant they could not employ indentured servants (prisoners released from English prisons on the condition that they work in the colonies) nor employ slaves who were usually Christianized on arrival in America

— Jews could not have more than two slaves in Jamaica, nor more than one in Barbados (if they were not Christian).

This forced the Jews to look for less labor-intensive plantations, with more specialization in production. They turned to cacao and vanilla.

Economic studies of that period show that the Jews of Jamaica had apparently secured a monopoly of the vanilla trade by 1655. This trade was closely connected with Jews of Amsterdam and Barbados.6

Chocolate gradually became one of the popular drinks of Restoration England,7 and cacao became the principal draw for the peopling of Jamaica by 1708.8 The main result was that by applying the right specialized methods, cacao and vanilla could be as lucrative as sugar.9 In the words of the historian of that period, Richard Blome, "It earned prodigious profit with little trouble."10

The Jews of Suriname, Cayenne, and Pomeroon followed suit, specially those who lacked the capital to invest in sugar growing and refining and were reluctant to employ manpower.

The extraction of vanilla was kept as a Jewish secret for quite a while. This we could see in the correspondence between the Dutch commander of Essequibo and Pomeroon and the Dutch West India Company. The letter by Commander Beekman of Essequibo and Pomeroon to Amsterdam, dated 31 March 1684, is very illustrative of the Jewish role in vanilla production:

The Jew Salomon de la Roche having died some 8 to 9 months ago, the trade in vanilla has come to an end, since no one here knows how to prepare it, so as to develop proper aroma and keep it from spoiling. I have not heard of any this whole year. Little is found here. Most of it is found in Pomeroon, whither this Jew frequently traveled, and he sometimes used to make me a present of a little. In navigating along the river, I have sometimes seen some on the trees and picked with my own hands, and it was prepared by the Jew....I shall do my best to obtain for the company as much as shall be feasible, but I am afraid it will spoil, since I do not know how to prepare it.

In response to this letter, Beekman received a reproof on 21 August 1684:

...As to the vanilla trade, which we recommend you carry on for the company, where you answer us saying this trade has come to an end through the death of a Jew, Salomon de la Roche...a meager and poor excuse.11

Another proof of the Jewish secret of vanilla preparation is seen through the writings of the French missionary in Martinique Jean Baptiste Labat, who recorded:

In the middle of 1699, a Jew who inherited Benjamin d'Acosta, who came from Curaçao to ask for the money due to his relative. He said that he had traveled on the coast of South America, and he knew how to prepare vanilla extract. I begged him to teach me how the Indians prepared the vanilla, how to dry it, and how to have the extract. I observed exactly the way he showed me and tried several times to prepare [it] with no results. I concluded that maybe the vanilla in Martinique was different from the one in Cayenne. But I think he had deluded me. It is not extraordinary to this sort of people.12

The expulsion of the Jews from the French islands Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1685 and the destruction of the settlement in Pomeroon by the English in 1666 led to a large concentration of Jews in Curaçao. Jewish knowledge of cacao processing made the island a center of cacao production. What was needed was cacao beans. The Spanish, Creole, and Indian inhabitants of Venezuela regularly crossed the narrow stretch of water to Curaçao to shop for supplies, paying with cacao beans. Even Spain itself, cut off from her overseas empire due to lack of ships, was purchasing the recently discovered delicacy of cocoa from Amsterdam, processed in Curaçao, where it had been acquired, in turn, from the northern coast of South America — Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador.13

The cantor of Curaçao, Joseph Corcos, wrote that "in 1693, a number of Israelites left Curaçao for Venezuela. The majority of these were from Leghorn. They went to Tucacas, where they established and formed themselves into a congregation."14 The strange thing was that the Jews set up a congregation, "Santa Irmandad ," in Spanish territory. Those Leghorn Jews were originally from Pomeroon, Spanish-speaking, and well aware of the danger of Spanish attacks. Tucacas was between two rivers forming a delta on each side of which was a Dutch warship guarding them. Their aim was to make large-scale purchases of cacao beans and to send them to Curaçao for processing.

The governor of Caracas, José Francisco de Canas reported to the king of Spain in 1720:

(Tucacas) became a major center of smuggling to the people in the valleys of Berquisimiento, Barinas, Turiano, Coro, and even including Santa Fe (Bogota) and Quito. The Jews participate actively in this settlement where they have built houses, raised cattle, constructed a fortress, and even a synagogue.15

The mayor of Coro, Juan Jacobo Montero de Espinos, wrote to the king about Tucacas commerce in 1711: "Twelve thousand bales of cacao grown in the Venezuelan valleys were exported...and the exporters come themselves to Tucacas to purchase what they need."16. He added, moreover, that he had arranged the attack and seizure of several mule trains carrying cacao beans to the Jews of Tucacas.

The Tucacas enclave was under the command of Jorge Christian who held the title of "Marquis of Tucacas." He was replaced by the Jew Samuel Hebreo who had the title of "Señor de las Tucacas."17

After a number of unsuccessful attempts, the Jewish settlement was finally captured by the visitador Pedro José de Olivarriaga in November 1720. The Jews left before the arrival of the Spanish army. A witness, Captain Bacilio Antonio de Cuebas wrote: "On the coast were more than forty ships which left with the arrival of Olivarriaga. [The Jews] burned the houses they had built in Tucacas."18

Not withstanding, after the destruction of Tucacas, the Jews continued purchasing beans. Governor Portales, on a tour of the Venezuelan coast, reported in January 1722:

Jews are not only doing business on the coast, but they are present at the fairs in January and July, when cacao beans are collected, sleeping in farms and in valleys, and local women sleep with them. There is lack of textiles and other merchandise [which they bring].19

If landing on the coast was dangerous, commerce was carried out by sham battles in Venezuelan waters during which Curaçao "pirates" would "seize" the cacao from the Venezuelan captain, paying him in goods. The Spanish ambassador in The Hague complained in 1741 that Venezuelan cacao via Curaçao could be more cheaply obtained in Holland than in Spain.20 In the years 1750–1774 Amsterdam received from the West Indies 5,262,870 pounds of cacao. From the island of St. Eustatius alone, Jews exported in 1779:

To Netherlands 422,770 pounds of cacao

To North America 15,220 pounds of cacao.

Venezuela was not the only place where Jews purchased cacao beans. Jews from Jamaica frequented the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica from the end of the seventeenth century. The citizens of Cartago, then Costa Rica's main city, had cacao plantations in the region of Barra de Matina and twice a year held special fairs that coincided with the cacao harvest. A report from Cartago to the Capitan General in Guatemala describes the situation in 1744:

On the confluence of the Barra illegal commerce was carried out to such an extent that Jamaica Jews erected tents on the land and kept their merchandise in them, and the citizens of Cartago would come to the fair twice a year to sell cacao and went to the seashore to purchase textiles and then brought them to the city.21

By the end of the eighteenth century, competition from the African colonies prompted the Jews to turn to other occupations. The import from the Americas became too expensive.

What remains today of this Jewish specialization in vanille and cacao can be seen in Malvina Liebman's cook book, Jewish Cookery from Boston to Baghdad,22 in which we find the Pomeroon mousse pie prepared with chocolate, vanilla extract, and almonds.


1 1 Guide Michelin — Pyrénées, 3rd edition, Clermont Ferrand, p. 66.
2 John Oxbridge, A Reasonable Proposition of Propagating the Gospel by Christian Colonies in the Continent of Guiana, London 1667, p.
3 Jac Zwarts, "Een Episode mit de Joodsche Kolonisatie en Guyana 1660," in: West Indische Gids IX, The Hague 1928, pp. 519–530, and
Notarial Archives, Pieter Pathuysen, 1659, vol. 2888 and vol. 2899, fol. 3344–355 of 10.5.1660 (the deposition of the captain who
brought the Jews to Cayenne).
4 Dr. J. Meijer, Pioneers of Pauroma (Pomeroon), Paramaribo 1954, based on the compilation by R. Bjilsma, Archief der Nederlandische
Portageesh-Israelitische Gemeente in Suriname, pp. 23–24.
5 Jean Baptiste Labat, Nouveau voyage au Isles de l'Amerique," Paris 1722, vol. VI, p. 3.
6 Stephen Alexander Fortune, Merchants and Jews, the Struggle for British West Indian Commerce 1650–1750, Gainsville 1984, p. 84.
7 Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh, No Peace Beyond the Line. The English in the Caribbean 1624–1690, New York 1972, p.285.
8 Bridenbaugh, p. 286.
9 Fortune, p. 84.
10 Richard Blome, A Description of the Island of Jamaica, with other Isles and Territories in America in which English Are Related,
London 1672, pp. 15–21.
11 M. Arbell, "The Jewish Settlement in Pomeroon/Pauroma (Guyana) 1657–1666," in: Revue des Etude Juives, vol. CLIV, July–December
1995 (3–4), pp. 359–360. As published in Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, XVI, 1907, pp. 157–159.
12 Labat, vol. VI, p. 106.
13 Cornelius Goslinga, The Dutch in the Caribbean and the Guiana, 1630–1691, Assen 1985, p. 340.
14 Joseph Corcos, A Synopsis of the History of the Jews of Curaçao, Curaçao 1897, pp. 16–18.
15 Archivo General de Indias, Document 759 of 1720 (Santo Domingo).
16 Archivo General de Indias — Montero to the King, 9 April 1711 (Santo Domingo), Document 697.
17 Celestino Andres Arausz Munfante. El Contrabano Hollandes en el Caribe durante la primer mitad del siglo XVIII, Caracas 1984, p.
18 Archivo General de Indias, Document 179, 8 October 1727, pp. 656–668.
19 Archivo General de Indias, Portales to the King, 29 January 1722 (Santo Domingo), Document 759.
20 Goslinga, p. 202, citing OUD Archief, Curaçao 804, p. 60
21 Luis Diaz Navarro, "Informes sobre la Provincia de Costa Rica, presentado al Capitan General de Guatemala en 1744," in: Revista de
Archivos Nacionales (Costa Rica), 3.11–12 (Sept.–Oct. 1939), p. 583.
22 Malvina Liebman, Jewish Cookery from Boston to Baghdad, Miami, 1975, pp. 214–225.

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