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Leslie Desmangles delivers the annual Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in McCook Auditorium at Trinity College. Photo by John Marinelli.

While many people are familiar with the persecution of Jews by the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s, fewer know about the cruelty and oppression Jews faced in 15th century Spain and later in Portugal. During a Catholic Inquisition that lasted for centuries, thousands of Jews were burned at the stake or imprisoned. This prompted many Jews and conversos ― those who practiced their faith in secret ― to flee to the Caribbean in search of personal safety and greater economic opportunity.

On April 25, Leslie Desmangles, Trinity College professor of religion and international studies, traced the migration of Sephardic Jews in Spain, Portugal, and other parts of Europe to the Spanish colonies of the New World as he delivered the 19th annual Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture, and History on campus.

The story of Jews in the Caribbean is largely unknown, he said, “but the historical importance of Jewish contributions cannot be overlooked, primarily because of their impact on the economy and culture.”

Desmangles described the changing fortunes of European Jews in their new home. In the lush beauty of Brazil and the Caribbean islands, Jewish settlers initially thrived, becoming involved in the sugar trade and building modest synagogues. Historical records reveal that they preserved their cherished religious traditions, including weekly worship.

Dutch colonies such as Curaçao not only welcomed Jews but also recognized them as citizens while requiring them to farm the land. Many Jews became active in import-export businesses, while others became influential politicians, plantation owners, and bankers. By the end of the 17th century, their riches allowed them to pay off the mortgages of synagogues in the Caribbean, New York, South Carolina, and Rhode Island.

But as certain territories changed hands over the years, Jews once again became the target of religious persecution, which curtailed their ability to own land and conduct business and forced many to conceal their faith. In 1685, France ordered the expulsion of all Jews from French colonies.

Desmangles likened Jewish settlers’ nomadic movement among the sandy islands, in a quest for safer havens, to the biblical story of Jews wandering in the desert.

While Jewish congregations continue to flourish on some islands to this day, much of the Caribbean’s once-thriving population has disappeared over the past 50 years, due in part to interfaith marriages, erosion of customs, and the out-migration of young people. “Jewish children go abroad to study and don’t come back,” Desmangles said.

Immediately following the lecture, Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney took the podium with Dario Euraque, Trinity professor of history and international studies, and Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity, to make two announcements. The first was of a new Honors Day award: the Leslie Desmangles Prize in Caribbean Studies. The second was that Desmangles ― co-founder of the Haitian Studies Association and founder of the Journal of Haitian Studies ― would be the first director of the College’s new Center for Caribbean Studies, to be launched in November 2016.

Desmangles was clearly shocked and overwhelmed. Said Euraque with a laugh, “I think we surprised him.”

The Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture Fund, which supports an annual lecture on the themes of European and American art, culture, and history, was established in 1996 in loving memory of Shirley Wassong by friends, family, and her husband, Joseph F. Wassong, Jr. Trinity Class of ’59. The annual lecture features members of Trinity’s faculty and guest scholars in alternating years. The lecturers are from various academic disciplines, and their topics range from antiquity to the present day. This year’s event marks the 19th Wassong Memorial Lecture.

Written by Carol Latter

To see more photos from this event, please click here.