The Jews of British Colonial America

06 March 2015

Empire and Globalism | History

With an academic background in British-Jewish studies, I am naturally drawn to archival material on Jewish life and culture. Whilst examining documents sourced from the Colonial Office for Adam Matthew’s forthcoming resource Colonial America (first instalment publishing in autumn 2015), I found some intriguing material relating to early Jewish settlers in the New World.

Jewish history in colonial America commenced in the sixteenth century as a result of the infamous Spanish Inquisition, an event which led to the expulsion of Jews from Catholic Spain and Portugal and set off a period of intense Jewish migration. Seeking to escape the clutches of the inquisition, hundreds of Sephardic Jews (Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin) crossed the ocean and sought refuge in the New World. Many settled in South America, but the first Jewish community in North America was not established until 1654 when Jewish migrants settled in the Dutch port of New Amsterdam (now New York). Over the next century they were joined by other Jewish migrants, primarily Sephardic, who settled in British colonial ports such as Newport, Rhode Island, and Charleston, South Carolina. Like their predecessors, many came to escape persecution in Catholic Europe, whilst others sought economic opportunities in the New World.


 Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island. Constructed in 1763 it is the oldest surviving purpose-built synagogue in North America. Image licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Each British colony in America had its own history of Jewish settlement and of granting rights to Jews. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, for instance, boasted vibrant and early Jewish communities partly because their founders, Roger Williams and William Penn, were nonconformists who set out to form societies that welcomed and embraced religious diversity. Other colonies were less welcoming, however. In the British colony of Jamaica, for instance, anti-Jewish sentiment soon emerged when Jewish merchants and traders were deemed to be ‘too successful’. In 1672, for instance, a petition by seventy-two non-Jewish merchants in Port Royal claimed that Jews ‘eat us and our children out of all trade and make the town of Port Royal their Goshen’. In 1695, the Jamaican assembly passed an additional tax on Jews, which, according to a letter sent to the Colonial Office in 1737, ‘imposed...great hardships...on the Jews residing there’.  

Order of council for the governor of Jamaica not to suffer the Jews to be taxed higher than His Majesty's other subjects. Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The colony of Georgia was equally as unwelcoming. In 1733, for instance, the Georgia Trustees in London voted to ban Jews from settling in the colony, not because of their religion (a Protestant colony, Georgia’s charter guaranteed religious liberty to all but Catholics), but because they were ‘generally...not cultivators of land’. They also feared that Sephardic Jews, with their Spanish origins, would ‘keep private correspondence with’ the Spanish enemy. The ban never came to fruition, however, and in July 1733, 42 Jews—primarily Sephardic, but some were Ashkenazi (of Eastern European descent)—landed in Georgia from London. James Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia, allowed them to settle as many possessed skills that were considered useful. One of the Jewish migrants, Samuel Nunes, was a doctor, for instance. The Jews also mainly consisted of young men, desirable since they could serve in the colony’s defence, while others such as the merchant Abraham Minis (c.1696-1757) possessed extensive commercial networks. Indeed, Minis proved to be a great asset during the conflict between Spain and Britain in 1742, when he travelled to New York to source supplies for Oglethorpe’s forces at Fort Frederica.


 Document detailing payment from a Mr Causton to Jewish merchants Abraham Minis and Coleman Salamons. Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The story of Jews in Colonial America forms just one aspect of the history of religious minorities and migrants that can be discovered in the first instalment of Adam Matthew’s forthcoming resource Colonial America.*

*Sourced from the National Archives, Kew. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.

About the Author

Cai Parry-Jones

Cai Parry-Jones

I am an Editorial Assistant at Adam Matthew and my academic background lies in modern British-Jewish history. Since joining the editorial team in April 2014 I have had the opportunity to work on a number of exciting and diverse projects, including part one of ‘Colonial America' and our recently published resource 'African American Communities'.

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