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07 September 2011

The Jews of French Guiana

As I have been going through the birth and marriage records of Suriname, the names of places from French Guiana have been appearing. If one studies the history of the area this is not at all surprising. French Guiana was first settled in 1604 by the French, and captured a few years later by the Dutch.
The original Jews in French Guiana arrived just as many others in the Caribbean did, with the help of the Dutch West India Company. This was a very beneficial relationship for all, as it gave the Dutch the settlers they needed and gave the Jews a new home.
The next group of settlers arrived on 12 September 1659, when a group of Portuguese Jews from Brazil, led by David Nassy arrived. Nassy came from the island of Cayenne, where he was a leader of that Jewish community. In the 1660's, 150 Jews arrived in Cayenne from Leghorn, Italy.
During this time life was good for the Jews, they were allowed to worship as they pleased. They were also developing their own sugarcane plantations and become successful in their work. This all changed in 1664, when a fleet of five ships arrived from France. They brought with them 1200 settlers who took control of the country. The Jews who were there surrendered on the condition they could continue to practice their religion. Even with these conditions, most of the Jews began to leave, making their way to Suriname. In 1667, British Forces captured what was left of the community and moved them to either Suriname or Barbados to work on their sugarcane plantations.
A search of the records of Suriname finds many of the families who started out in French Guiana, most notable the surname Nassy. These records from Suriname have been added to the Knowles Collection- Jews of the Caribbean database .
Today, the Jewish community in French Guiana is small, most likely less than 100, however they have been established for over 350 years in the Caribbean and because of the records they left, their footprints can still be seen.

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