Cov­er image: Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia Press, Copy­right © 2020.

Fire­crack­ers burst into the air and zigzagged errat­i­cal­ly across the ground. Masked rev­el­ers poured into the streets. Men, women, Chris­tians, Jews, enslaved and free, filled the air with the chaot­ic sounds of shout­ing and singing. Adults and chil­dren donned inde­cent” cos­tumes, some beat­ing drums. The pun­gency of intox­i­ca­tion waft­ed through the trop­i­cal breezes. No, this was not the com­mem­o­ra­tion of nation­al inde­pen­dence, a mark­ing of the end of war, or New Year’s Eve in a plea­sure gar­den. This was the Jew­ish hol­i­day of Purim, as cel­e­brat­ed in the Dutch Caribbean two cen­turies ago.[1]

Purim is a minor hol­i­day that com­mem­o­rates the over­turn of a decree of geno­cide against the Jews of Per­sia in the fifth or fourth cen­tu­ry BCE, plot­ted by the vil­lain­ous Haman. Drawn from the bib­li­cal Book of Esther (the only vol­ume of the Hebrew Bible that does not con­tain the name of God), the hol­i­day falls on the four­teenth day of the Hebrew month Adar, vari­ably coin­cid­ing with late Feb­ru­ary, March, or April of the Chris­t­ian cal­en­dar. Pre­ced­ed by the Fast of Esther,” Purim is com­mon­ly observed for one day through­out the Jew­ish dias­po­ra and is typ­i­cal­ly marked by spir­it­ed mer­ri­ment that encour­ages ine­bri­a­tion and mas­quer­ade. In the Dutch colonies of Curaçao and Suri­name, how­ev­er, Purim last­ed up to two weeks. It cre­at­ed so much ruckus among its mul­ti­eth­nic cel­e­brants that both syn­a­gogue author­i­ties and the local gov­ern­ment cur­tailed its cel­e­bra­tion start­ing in 1775.

The ecu­meni­cal cel­e­bra­tion of Purim is not whol­ly unusu­al in Jew­ish dias­poric his­to­ry. In ear­ly mod­ern Ital­ian cities, for exam­ple, Chris­tians and Jews danced the night away in the world’s first ghet­tos, their masks and mixed danc­ing flout­ing church-imposed sep­a­ra­tion between the two faiths. But unlike else­where, most Purim carousers in the Dutch Caribbean were enslaved peo­ple of African ances­try. Both Suri­name, locat­ed on the South Amer­i­can main­land just north of Brazil, and Curaçao, an island off the coast of Venezuela, were slave societies.

A slave soci­ety, as opposed to a soci­ety with slaves, was fun­da­men­tal­ly reliant on unfree labor. Were slav­ery to have been abol­ished or slaves sud­den­ly expelled, killed, or freed, the entire econ­o­my would have col­lapsed. In such soci­eties, slav­ery informed every aspect of life, from reli­gion and lan­guage to sar­to­r­i­al norms and leisure activ­i­ties. Both Suri­name and Curaçao were overqual­i­fied for the label of slave soci­ety, with upwards of nine­ty and six­ty per­cent of their pop­u­la­tions, respec­tive­ly, in chains.[2] In each of these colonies, Jews formed from one to two thirds of the white pop­u­la­tion and enjoyed polit­i­cal priv­i­leges col­lec­tive­ly unpar­al­leled in the Jew­ish dias­po­ra, includ­ing the lib­er­ty to con­vert select slaves to Judaism. If slav­ery was an unavoid­able fact in these Dutch colonies, so was Jewishness.

Purim is a vivid exam­ple of the entan­gle­ment of Jews with the major­i­ty pop­u­la­tion. Purim in these two colonies rivaled all major hol­i­days of the Jew­ish cal­en­dar, includ­ing the Day of Atone­ment. In Suriname’s two Por­tuguese syn­a­gogues, more can­dles were illu­mi­nat­ed on that hol­i­day than on an ordi­nary Fri­day night — a bril­liant dis­play of forty-eight lamps and four tapers. The colony’s annu­al almanac, pub­lished begin­ning in 1789, frames Purim as the most promi­nent Jew­ish cel­e­bra­tion, cit­ing it first in a list of Jew­ish hol­i­days. Aside from Tisha B’Av, it is the only minor Jew­ish hol­i­day con­sis­tent­ly men­tioned in that peri­od­i­cal. Among the colony’s Jews, pri­vate­ly owned bib­li­cal scrolls were invari­ably the Pen­ta­teuch, but the Book of Esther was a notable excep­tion. Among their own­ers was a Eurafrican Jew­ess called Roza Mendes Meza. Born a slave, the wealthy Meza list­ed in her 1771 inven­to­ry a His­to­rie van Hes­ter.

Purim in these two colonies rivaled all major hol­i­days of the Jew­ish cal­en­dar, includ­ing the Day of Atonement.

As her library sug­gests, the ancient nar­ra­tive was impor­tant to Suri­namese peo­ple of African descent. In 1759, a Jew­ish negro” belong­ing to the Por­tuguese Jew Joseph, son of Abra­ham de la Par­ra fled into the rain­for­est, car­ry­ing a so-called His­to­ry of Esther in Hebrew.” A gov­ern­ment expe­di­tionary force soon locat­ed the rolled parch­ment among the huts of Maroons, enslaved Africans who abscond­ed to the colony’s inte­ri­or and found­ed their own autonomous com­mu­ni­ties. Did this refugee regard the object as a tal­is­man to pro­tect him from cap­ture, or did he aim to inflict finan­cial and emo­tion­al dis­tress on his mas­ter? Per­haps he stole the scroll as a reminder to his own­er that the fates of per­pe­tra­tors and vic­tims were abrupt­ly invert­ed in the bib­li­cal narrative’s denouement.

Oth­er slaves of African descent could iden­ti­fy even more strong­ly with the Jew­ish hol­i­day. Purim was the only Jew­ish hol­i­day imposed as a slave name by Jew­ish mas­ters across the Caribbean. The most vis­i­ble of these Purims was a native of Suri­name who labored as a sawyer in the Jew­ish vil­lage of Joden­sa­vanne (“Jews’ Savan­na”), some thir­ty miles south of the cap­i­tal city of Para­mari­bo. In the 1770s, this man caused an uproar by attack­ing both fel­low slaves and mem­bers of the slave­hold­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. On one occa­sion, he mur­dered a bond­man charged with keep­ing order among slaves dur­ing the syn­a­gogue ser­vice. The fol­low­ing year, he phys­i­cal­ly and repeat­ed­ly threat­ened a Por­tuguese Jew named Jacob Cohen Nassy in the pres­ence of mul­ti­ple wit­ness­es. By all counts, Purim was acute­ly aware of the sig­nif­i­cance of his name. His actions coin­cid­ed with the week­long fes­tiv­i­ties of the Jew­ish hol­i­day. By then, most of the village’s res­i­dents had com­plained about him on var­i­ous occa­sions. Purim was ulti­mate­ly whipped and ban­ished from the Jew­ish vil­lage, only to return in 1782.

By all counts, Purim was acute­ly aware of the sig­nif­i­cance of his name. His actions coin­cid­ed with the week­long fes­tiv­i­ties of the Jew­ish holiday.

That year, Purim roiled the vil­lage once again. A res­i­dent dis­cov­ered the negro Purim” slaugh­ter­ing a goat, lat­er iden­ti­fied as the prop­er­ty of one Isaac Lopes Nunes. When Meza attempt­ed inter­ven­tion, Purim vio­lent­ly resist­ed. The com­mu­nal min­utes do not detail Purim’s moti­va­tion in killing the quadruped, but it is pos­si­ble that he was sac­ri­fic­ing the ani­mal to a god, or in ven­er­a­tion of one of his ances­tors, a prac­tice com­mon to many com­mu­ni­ties in Ango­la and oth­er regions of West Africa where Purim like­ly traced his ances­try. Purim would have had numer­ous occa­sions to appeal to high­er pow­ers for inter­ven­tion or pro­tec­tion, start­ing with his peri­od­ic sub­jec­tion to phys­i­cal dis­ci­pline. One Por­tuguese Jew, tasked with admin­is­ter­ing cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment, lat­er tes­ti­fied that he was exhaust­ed from” giv­ing Purim a severe beat­ing.” By this time, Purim had already wit­nessed sev­er­al slaves owned by his mis­tress released from bondage after her death and prob­a­bly real­ized how slim his own chances were as a negro” man, as opposed to the mulat­to” women and chil­dren so often favored in man­u­mis­sion cas­es. Purim must have under­stood the inevitabil­i­ty of severe cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment, as well as a sec­ond ban­ish­ment from the Jew­ish vil­lage that threat­ened to be worse than the first. Yet did not the hol­i­day of Purim teach one to hope for sud­den, unfore­seen salvation?

Slave par­tic­i­pa­tion in Jew­ish reli­gious life in the colony was like­ly a con­stant — as leg­is­la­tion attempt­ing to curb such involve­ment sug­gests. Slaves owned by Jews some­times incor­po­rat­ed a Por­tuguese Jew­ish cul­tur­al world­view into their own. Nowhere is this more appar­ent than in the cel­e­bra­tion of the Purim hol­i­day itself. As ear­ly as 1711, Suriname’s colo­nial leg­is­la­tors com­plained of the great num­bers of slaves in Joden­sa­vane who gath­ered on Jew­ish hol­i­days to drum, dance, and play,” activ­i­ties that caused many dis­or­ders.” But in the cap­i­tal city of Para­mari­bo, these cel­e­bra­tions were much more exposed to the pub­lic than down­riv­er in the Jew­ish vil­lage of Joden­sa­vanne. Start­ing in 1775, the colo­nial gov­ern­ment issued suc­ces­sive edicts ban­ning out­door cel­e­bra­tions of Purim in the city. By 1807, these decrees had entire­ly lost their effi­ca­cy and the dis­rup­tion was worse than ever. Not only had the mer­ry­mak­ers walked up and down the avenues very inde­cent­ly with masks,” but they had also parad­ed in dec­o­rat­ed mil­i­tary cos­tumes, to the beat of drums, sound­ing an alarm, an act for­bid­den by a colo­nial plac­ard. More­over, some male Jews donned inap­pro­pri­ate and inde­cent cos­tumes,” parad­ing almost naked and in the form of Indi­ans and Bush Negroes” through the streets. The enslaved were among the most enthu­si­as­tic par­tic­i­pants, cir­cling the Jew­ish cel­e­bra­tors and pulling wag­ons laden with cos­tumed Jews and their domes­tic bond­men, their shouts and singing rever­ber­at­ing through the city.

Le Dou, ou grande fête des esclaves” (“The Dou, or Great Fes­ti­val of the Slaves”), fig­ure 38 in Pierre Jacques Benoit, Voy­age à Suri­nam; descrip­tion des pos­ses­sions néer­landais­es dans la Guyane (Brux­elles: Société des Beaux-Arts de Wasme et Lau­rent, 1839). 

What, then, did Purim cel­e­bra­tions mean to Suriname’s mul­ti­eth­nic enslaved pop­u­la­tion? In ear­ly mod­ern West Africa, mas­quer­ades and com­mu­nal dances con­sti­tut­ed cru­cial life-cycle rit­u­als, includ­ing ini­ti­a­tions. Tak­ing part in masked Purim cel­e­bra­tions may have been a means by which slaves could incul­cate ances­tral val­ues to their imme­di­ate com­mu­ni­ty and trans­mit those to their descen­dants. Until it was out­lawed, Purim carous­ing may have served as a sanc­tioned out­let through which slaves could invoke or refash­ion their ances­tral mas­quer­ade and com­mu­nal dance tra­di­tions. Alas, com­mu­nal records do not record the moti­va­tions of African-descend­ed rois­ter­ers. But it is clear that by the last quar­ter of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, Purim had become a joint cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion with strong West African over­tones, an Afro-Suri­namese fes­ti­val akin in many ways to what schol­ars and sev­er­al con­tem­po­rary observers in the Caribbean have under­stood as local vari­eties of Car­ni­val. By the 1800s, Purim in Suri­name had become the pat­ri­mo­ny of Suriname’s eth­ni­cal­ly diverse pop­u­la­tion. Its denounc­ers could do lit­tle more than reis­sue ordi­nances that had been inef­fec­tu­al since the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, when the joy­ful cel­e­bra­tions of Jews and African-ori­gin slaves first began to converge.

[1] On the social func­tion of fire­works in ear­ly mod­ern Europe and its colonies see Simon Wer­rett, Fire­works: Pyrotech­nic Arts and Sci­ences in Euro­pean His­to­ry (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2010).

[2] Ben-Ur, Jew­ish Auton­o­my in a Slave Soci­ety, 5, 335n159 (late eigh­teenth century).

Copy­right © 2021 Avi­va Ben-Ur.

This syn­op­sis is gen­er­al­ized for read­abil­i­ty. For spe­cif­ic details see chap­ter 6 of Avi­va Ben-Ur, Jew­ish Auton­o­my in a Slave Soci­ety: Suri­name in the Atlantic World, 1651 – 1825 (Philadel­phia: Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia Press, 2020) and Purim in the Pub­lic Eye: Leisure, Vio­lence, and Cul­tur­al Con­ver­gence in the Dutch Atlantic,” Jew­ish Social Stud­ies 20: 1 (Fall 2014): 32 – 76. This syn­op­sis is pub­lished with per­mis­sion of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia Press, Jew­ish Social Stud­ies, and Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Avi­va Ben-Ur is Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Juda­ic and Near East­ern Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst, where she holds adjunct sta­tus in the Depart­ment of His­to­ry and in the Pro­grams of Span­ish and Por­tuguese, and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture. She is the author of Jew­ish Auton­o­my in a Slave Soci­ety: Suri­name in the Atlantic World (Philadel­phia: Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia Press, 2020).