Performing Privilege: Jews and the Dutch Atlantic

Friday, January 7, 2022: 3:50 PM
Preservation Hall, Studio 9 (New Orleans Marriott)
Jessica Roitman, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
In the early 1740s, Governor Mauricius of Suriname remarked that most of the colony’s white population were “foreigners . . . and thus have no patriotic feelings, because the United Provinces are not their native country . . . they will always preserve the animus revertendi [impetus to return].” This was not the case of the Jews, either in Suriname or, to a lesser extent, in Curacao. Despite their strong ties with Jewish metropolitan communities, and ongoing migration, Suriname’s Jews did not regard their new home as a temporary abode. In the Dutch Republic, whose economy was booming, opportunities for Jews were narrow. In the Dutch metropole, Jews were collectively excluded from various guilds, as well as from industry, agriculture, shipping, the army, and navy. Certain cities even forbade them the right of residence. Thus, it’s little surprise that Jews did not relocate to these Caribbean colonies “to make their fortunes and then return to Europe.”

In fact, David Nassy noted in his Essai historique that “it is only the Jews who are indeed the true citizens and inhabitants of Suriname.” Self-portrayal as faithful colonists in both Suriname and Curacao was an important means through which Jewish leaders argued for the continuation and expansion of their privileges in these colonies.

This paper will examine the uses of a self-created and carefully curated image as ‘true settlers’ over and against the long-standing European Christian image of Jews as a wandering people who did not really belong in any civic society. The Jewish communities of Suriname and Curacao maintained communal documents for centuries and this presentation will show how they used this profusion of paper to argue for legally-binding precedents for privileges and to legitimize their citizenship over and against various challenges that arose.