The Lost Jews of Suriname: Archaeology at Cassipora Creek and Jodensavanne
PhD Candidate, Anthropology (Kugelmass)
Gary Gerson Graduate Scholar, 2020.
Not far from Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, in an overgrown section of jungle lie the remains of an unlikely community: a 17th-century settlement established by Sephardic Crypto-Jews. Forced to convert and live as Christians in Iberia during the Inquisition, these migrants came to the Caribbean seeking to reassert their Jewish religious and cultural heritage, which they had been practicing in secret for generations. These conversos found their opportunity for religious freedom in the Dutch colony of Suriname, where Jewish migrants were granted unprecedented rights by the colonial government, including: freedom of religion, freedom of ownership, control over their own judicial and education systems, and the right to form their own militia. In the 1650s, they settled along the Cassipora Creek, a tributary of the Suriname river, and established one of the earliest Jewish settlements in the Americas that included both a synagogue and cemetery. Thirty years later, this Jewish community moved approximately one mile upriver and established a town they named Jodensavanne, or Jew’s Savannah, which flourished in the interior of Suriname for almost 150 years. These two colonies, Cassipora Creek and Jodensavanne, represent the first and only examples of early modern Jews being granted the freedom to construct their community on a virgin landscape per their needs and beliefs.
Figure 1: Jewish Cemetery at Jodensavanne, established in 1685.
Figure 2: Ruins of Synagogue Beraha VeShalom at Jodensavanne, established in 1685.
But Jews were not the only people to shape and occupy this landscape. Alongside the hundreds of Jewish families who lived in Cassipora Creek and Jodensavanne were thousands of indigenous Surinamese and enslaved Africans who lived and worked on the Jewish-owned plantations. Just as the Jews had brought their cultural and religious practices with them to the Americas, so did the Africans who had been brought there in bondage. As such, Cassipora Creek and Jodensavanne became points of intersection for three distinct populations, one local (indigenous Amerindians) and two diasporic (Jews and enslaved Africans). The convergence of these two extra-local groups in an unfamiliar environment, interacting with both each other and the local community, led to new cultural and religious forms and the creation of a unique society which flourished in the Surinamese jungle for over a century.
Figure 3: The African Cemetery at Jodensavanne, where free Africans were buried.
My research is aimed at studying the lives of the Jewish, African, and indigenous habitants of this community by analyzing the archaeological remains of these settlements. Today, the only visible remains of the Cassipora Creek community are the headstones of its cemetery. They are co-managed by the Jodensavanne Foundation (JSF) and the local indigenous villagers of Redi Doti, who oversees the site’s preservation. An important part of their continued conservation efforts is identifying and assessing the condition of archaeological remains on their property. In the summer of 2018, my colleague Dr. David M. Markus (Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Clemson University) and I performed archaeological excavations at the Cassipora Creek site in collaboration with JSF and Anton de Kom University, located in Paramaribo, Suriname. During this survey, we recovered hundreds of historical artifacts related to the Jewish community, including European ceramics, indigenous pottery, bottle glass, agricultural tools, structural artifacts like bricks and nails, and materials related to the shipping and storing of goods such as iron barrel hoops. Additionally, we located the remains of a man-made inlet along the Suriname River and a road leading from that inlet to the Cassipora Creek cemetery. Importantly, we also uncovered the remains of a potential house along the old road.
Figure 4: Archaeological excavation unit at Cassipora Creek containing a clay roof tile (bottom), brick (center right), ceramic (center left), and shovel fragments (top).
In the coming months, we plan to continue excavations at Cassipora Creek, focusing primarily on the potential house to verify that it was used as a domestic space and to get a better understanding of daily life in this community. It is also hoped that further surveying along the road will uncover the location of the community’s first synagogue located at Cassipora. Through this research, we want to answer questions about how Jewish practices changed in this new environment and through contact with a mosaic of cultures. Additionally, the results of this project will also help to establish a comprehensive plan for future research and long-term preservation at the Cassipora Creek site. Currently, JSF is working on submitting a nomination dossier for the inclusion of Cassipora Creek and Jodensavanne on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and hopefully our research will help contribute to their nomination. This project offers an opportunity to shed light on a frequently overlooked Jewish community who attained unprecedented freedoms on the margins of the New World. Thanks to the Center for Jewish Studies and the Gerson Jewish Studies Scholarship, new light will be shed on this chapter of Jewish History.