Keep This Classic Cemetery Open to the Public!

Beth Haim Ouderkerk is the most magnificent and important of the historic cemeteries in the Jewish Atlantic World. It is the birthplace of the unique Sephardic sepulchral tradition that spread throughout Hamburg, London, Newport, New York, and the Caribbean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The cemetery opened in 1614, and some of the oldest (and most famous) stones imitate the coffin-shaped style found in medieval Spanish Jewish cemeteries and Sephardic cemeteries in the Ottoman Empire. These stones have been memorialized in paintings and drawings by Dutch artists like Romeyn de Hooghe (1645–1708) and Jacob van Ruysdael (1628/9-1682). By the final quarter of the seventeenth century, a distinctive tradition emerged in the cemetery: flat table stones with a predilection for elaborate carvings that often include death’s heads, angels, biblical scenes, the hand of God cutting down the tree of life, and heraldic images. Members of the Sephardic elite in the colonies imitated these stones, and often even imported stones from Amsterdam before their death. This incredible cemetery has been open to the public and available as an important heritage site for travelers and scholars from around the world. The site is also a priceless resource for genealogists.

Gravestone featuring Daniel and the Lions, Beth Haim Ouderkerk (Photo by L. Leibman, 2009)

The recent economic crisis is also hitting Beth Haim Ouderkerk. The lack of donations have created a situation where the annual municipal subsidies may be withdrawn. The lack of these funds will halt maintenance work and make it difficult to keep the cemetery open to the public.

You can help! As this tax season ends and you consider making charitable donations, keep Beth Haim Ouderkerk in mind. You can also support the cemetery by purchasing books about the cemetery. All proceeds go to the Beth Haim.

To learn more about this classic cemetery, please enjoy the most recent newsletter (Thank you to Dennis Ouderdorp for being willing to share it!):
De Castro Newsletter 17-1

All photos from Beth Haim Ouderkerk by Laura Leibman, 2009.

Transcolonial Gravestone Trade

Occasionally there is a gravestone you having been waiting months to see. I just got back from a research trip in Barbados. One of the gravestones I had been most eager to visit while I was there was the stone of Samuel Hart (1773) in the Nidhe Israel Jewish Cemetery in Bridgetown. It was a classic New England stone displaced in a tropical paradise.

I had seen a tantalizing detail of Hart's stone on Evan Millner's Jewish Barbados blog and had recognized it as the work of William Stevens, a famous carver from Newport, Rhode Island. Many of Newport's early Jews came via Barbados, and throughout the eighteenth century, exchange between Newport and Barbados was crucial part of the circuits of the triangle trade. The triangle trade is usually thought of as focusing on sugar, rum, and slaves. Until my recent visit to Barbados, I hadn't fully appreciated to what extent that trade had also included gravestones. I knew that many Jews in the colonies imported tombstones from Amsterdam, London, and Venice. Hart's stone revealed that gravestones also traveled between the colonies.

Hart's stone is a wonderful example of the way in which colonial carvers tailored their stones to meet different markets. On the one hand, Hart's stone closely resembles the carvings made by Stevens on the 1775 table stone of Martha Malbone in Newport's Anglican cemetery. On the other hand, it also had some distinctively West Indian (and Jewish) features. Like some of the stones in Newport's Jewish cemetery, the inscription is in three languages: Hebrew, English, and Spanish. The way these languages were arranged on Hart's stone, however, had a distinctively West Indian flair. Like many Jewish gravestones in Barbados and Jamaica, the English inscription is used as a border around the stone, a feature not found in Newport's Jewish cemetery (see stone below from Jamaica that also uses the English border motif) .

Hart's stone highlights his membership in both the New England and West Indian Jewish communities. Although Hart died in Bridgetown Barbados of a "Purtrid Fever," Hart was a member of an important Newport Jewish family. The Spanish portion of the inscription underscores Hart's Newport connection: it tell us Hart is "de la Ciuda[d] de Newyork /Mercador quien havia Nuevamente Arrivado de New Port en la Colonia de Rhode - / Island en Nueva Inglaterra / America del Norte" [from the city of New York, Merchant who has recently arrived from Newport in the colony of Rhode Island in New England, North America]. When members of Newport's Jewish community died in Boston New York, or the Southern Colonies, their extended family often shipped their bodies back to Newport to be buried with their kin. Although Hart was not shipped home (probably to prevent the spread of whatever caused his putrid fever), his family drew connections to him through using a Newport carver. At the same time, the West Indian style of the English border embedded him within the funerary tradition of the community with which he was buried.

Hart was not the only New Englander to die in Barbados and be commemorated with a New England slate stone. While I obsessed over Hart's stone, Barbados historian Karl Watson pointed out that there were several other New England stones in the nearby Anglican cemetery of St. Michael's Cathedral. At St. Michael's, the oldest stones have been moved onto walkway that skirts the edge of the church. Once upright markers, the stones now lie flat with their once buried jagged edges exposed like the roots of teeth. Sometimes the tops of the stones are now buried partway under the church's thick walls. Like Hart's tombstone, these markers often explicitly emphasize the deceased's connection to the New England. They are also a poignant reminder of how family members sought to tie the dead to their homeland, even when they were buried thousands of miles away.

A Plan of Bridge Town Barbados (1766).
Synagogue with adjacent cemetery indicated by Red Star.
St. Michael's Cathedral is "The Church" Lower Right Corner.

Old Gravestones Used to Pave Pathways at the Cathedral, Including Imported Slate Stones from New England

New England Slate Markers At St. Michael's Cathedral (Bridgetown, Barbados)
William Pickman of Salem (1735)
George Lee of Boston (1733)

A Very Anglican Looking Stone for a Captain from New England

A Stone "Made in Charleston." Most Likely this is the Charleston near Boston, famous for the work of the "Charleston Carver." Although Barbados had important cultural and trade connections with Charleston, South Carolina during this era, New England slate stones were favored in that city during this era. The first long-term carver in Charleston SC was Thomas Walker (ca. 1790s), who favored marble (Nelson, Beauty in Holiness, p. 401)

All photos by Laura Leibman and Stevan Arnold with extreme gratitude to Karl Watson and Celso Brewster (Nidhe Israel Museum) for all their time and help at the Nidhe Israel Cemetery and Synagogue.

Home is Where the Heart is...

In the Hunts Bay Cemetery in Jamaica, there is a small fragment of a gravestone, belonging to Esther ("De Ester"). The rest of the fragment reads "fil...," probably filha, daughter in Portuguese. The size of the stone and the identification of the deceased as a daughter (rather than wife) suggests this was probably a child's gravestone. What intrigues me most about the fragment, however, is the house inside of the wreath at the top.

It is unusual to find gravestones with houses carved on them either in the Jewish Atlantic World or in colonial American cemeteries more broadly. On some level this is surprising. In Hebrew, the euphemism for a cemetery is "Beth Haim" (house of life). Also many scholars have noted that the traditional upright markers of colonial cemeteries look like doorways. Usually this is understood as a symbol of the grave as a portal into the afterlife. An actual house is a different matter, though, as it symbolizes the family and protection, not the world to come. Some argue that the house is an inherently feminine space: it is not only the domain of women, but also a place of security and shelter. It interests me that the house also appears on the stone of Esther de la Pena (Amsterdam 1697), a detail of which is shown below.

This exquisite stone from Beth Haim Ouderkerk features the family coat of arms at the top; below is an inscription and a depiction of the family's country estate shown above with sailing ships in the background. (Esther's husband Daniel was a shipping magnate, and surely it is trade that bought the beautiful estate.) At the very bottom of the stone is a reference: Psalm 128:3 ("Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine, in the innermost parts of thy house; / thy children like olive plants, round about thy table"). On one level, the country house seems like a status symbol; on another level, however, it is a moving metonym for the deceased wife: she is like the "innermost" part of the house, a private, familial space.

The house motif is more commonly found in American women's poetry than on gravestones; however, here too graves, houses, and women are conjoined. Emily Dickinson made analogies between poems and houses, not only because of the associations of houses with femininity and domesticity, but also because both are about enclosure or restriction. For Dickinson, being in the house was similar to the suffocating "constriction" of a tomb. Literary critic Leslie Wheeler argues that for Dickinson, possessing a body ultimately became so restrictive that death signified a welcome release, and that "the narrowness of the tomb yields a paradoxical freedom" (The Poetics of Enclosure 15). I somehow think this is not what the carvers of these stones meant: Both the Pena house and the house on young Ester's tomb face outward, windows open. The Pena house is surrounded by five vibrant trees (the children?); although it faces away from the bay (mercantile life) towards a more private vista, it hardly looks like a mausoleum. Rather it is a prosperous, sheltering space, reassuring in its solidity.

Gravestone of Esther de la Pena (Amsterdam 1697), Beth Haim Ouderkerk

All photos by Laura Leibman, 2009-2010.

Graveyard Cats

This post is dedicated to the felines of the Atlantic World: those sun-loving souls who spend their days (and nights) lounging in the cemeteries that grace the Atlantic Rim. This week I feature two cemetery cats: Wunzie (Newport) and Iyar (Ouderkerk aan de Amstel) as well as their sepulchral companions, the lions carved onto Beth Haim Ouderkerk gravestones.

Cat Number One: Wunzie. Officially, Wunzie lives down the street from the Trinity Church Cemetery in Newport, RI. Last time I was in Newport, however, Wunzie spent most of her time sunning herself on table stones and chasing bugs among the upright markers. A black and white DSH (domestic short hair: veterinary speak for "cat mutt") with a sparkling personality, Wunzie likes to ham it up for the camera. Here are a few shots of her in her favorite haunt. If anyone in Newport knows how Wunzie is doing, let me know!

Wunzie Modeling a "Table Stone," Trinity Church (Anglican) Cemetery, Newport RI

Wunzie Catching a Bug, Trinity Church (Anglican) Cemetery, Newport RI

Cat Number Two: Iyar. Iyar is an official graveyard cat of the historic Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel in the Netherlands. She lives in the Caretaker's House with her younger cat companion and her master, Dennis Ouderdorp, who knows more about Jewish Cemeteries than anyone I have ever met. (Because I lack social graces, I only have a picture of Dennis's cat, and not Dennis himself.) Named for the Hebrew month of Iyar (meaning "Rosette" or "blossom"), Iyar is the matriarch of the cemetery. You will notice that like Wunzie, Iyar is a black and white DSH. Coincidence? I think so. The day I was in Ouderkerk ann de Amstel it was pouring rain, so I don't have quite as many photos of Iyar as I'd like, but here is another of her on one of the flat Sephardic table stones.

Iyar on an unidentified Table Stone, Beth Haim Ouderkerk

Iyar and her companion aren't the only cats in Beth Haim Ouderkerk. Although the earliest gravestones at Beth Haim Ouderkerk are free of images of living things, by the 1650s the use of vegetation appears, followed by death’s heads and human hands in the 1660s. By the 1680s animals, angels and biblical scenes with humans appear. One of the most popular animals to grace the stones are lions, several styles of which can be found in the cemetery. Lions are an important Jewish symbol, and often appear on Jewish ceremonial art, such Arks, Torah crowns, and menorot. The JHOM speculates that, "It is possible..that these lions, particularly those on many Torah Ark doors and curtains, are symbolic replacements of the original cherubim that once adorned the Ark of the Tabernacle in the Mishkan (portable Temple in the wilderness) and the Temple in Jerusalem." Lions—associated with the tribe of Judah and the Davidic monarchy—evoked the messiah and hence are an important eschatological reference. Lions are also associated with the Spanish-Portuguese name "Leon" (literally "lion") and are a common heraldic symbol (for example they are found on the coat of arms for "Castile and Leon," Spain and the Netherlands). Many of the lions in Beth Haim Ouderkerk are on heraldic lions (for example above right, gravestone of Benjamin Senior Teixeira, 1744). They can also be found, however, in biblical scenes, such as the one below depicting Daniel and the lions.

Detail of Gravestone Depicting Daniel and the Lions, Beth Haim Ouderkerk

Photo Credits: All Photos Laura Leibman, 2007-2009. Courtesy of Beth Haim Ouderkerk aan de Amstel.

Gravestone Symbols: the Hand of God

According to Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, belief in the corporeality of God is a heresy. Why then do gravestones from the Jewish Atlantic World often feature the hand of God cutting down the tree of life? In even more extreme cases, God was presented on gravestones as a fully anthropomorphized figure, such as on the gravestone of Samuel Senior Teixeria (Amsterdam 1717), and the gravestones of Yosiyahu Raphael Castillo (Barbados, 1698) and Esther Hana de Meza (Cassipora Cemetery, Suriname 1745).

The Hand of God has a long history in Jewish art. One of the earliest examples has been found in the wall paintings of the Synagogue at Dura Europos. Created around 244 CE, the synagogue at Dura Europos (Syria) was uncovered by archaeologists in 1932. The rich wall paintings were remarkably well preserved, because the synagogue had been filled in with dirt in an effort to protect the town from a Persian attack in 256 CE. Although at first the artwork made archaeologists skeptical skeptical that the structure was Jewish, today the wall decorations are considered one of the most famous examples of early synagogue art. Many of the frescoes are widely reprinted, particularly a Purim Procession featuring Mordechai. Less commonly reprinted, and perhaps more troubling, is the Akeidah (binding of Isaac) scene from above the Torah niche which features the hand of God staying the sacrifice (figure above at right).

Whereas the hand in the Dura Europos fresco prevents a death, the hands featured on the tombstones from the Jewish Atlantic World usually represent a life being ended. The motif can also be found in Kabbalistically-influenced Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe from the same era, though more commonly a flower is being picked, rather than a tree cut down. This is probably an illustration of the verse from Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) 6:2, “My beloved has gone down into his garden…to gather lilies.” Ruth Ellen Gruber provides an example from the Sadagora Cemetery in the Ukraine of the flower motif. The cut flower motif can also be found on gravestones in the Jewish Atlantic World, usually for those who died young, and occasionally the hand of God is replaced either by a putto (as in the example at the left from the gravestone of Marius Penso (1889, Beit Haim Berg Altena, Curacao; photograph Laura Leibman) or the angel of death (see example below)

Although cut flowers also represent a life cut short, the cutting of the tree has a slightly different resonance. As scholar Aviva Ben-Ur notes, the tree of life has particular importance in Jewish mysticism. As "an ancient, widespread symbol representing the `promise of immortality and everlasting youth,'" the tree of life "variably signifies in Jewish tradition Judgment, the return to Edenic paradise, the future Temple, and Messianic Jerusalem" (Still Life: Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and West African Art and Form in Suriname’s Jewish Cemeteries, 56).

Detail of Gravestone of David Raphael Hoheb (1756)
Old Sephardi Cemetery, Paramaribo, Suriname.
Photo by Laura Leibman.

Scholars have offered several explanations for the hand of God motif including Kabbalism, conversos' Catholic upbringing, the antinomian ("against the law") influence of the messianism practiced by Sabbatai Tzvi, and the lack of religious rigor in the colonies. I am curious what explanation seems most likely to readers of this blog.

Book Review: Houses of Life

I have a new favorite book: Joachim Jacobs' Houses of Life: Jewish Cemeteries of Europe. This book is a must have for anyone interested in either Jewish History, Genealogy, or Gravestone Art. Several things make this book fantastic: one, it provides a history of European Jewish cemeteries from the early Roman period through today. Two, it is beautifully illustrated: in addition to featuring some of the most important artwork created about these cemeteries (including the cover illustration by Chagal and the Prague Cycle), it is richly illuminated by the photographs of Hans Dietrich Beyer. I also appreciated the range of cemeteries they uncovered: although I own a book by Minna Rosen on the Haskoy Cemetery in Istanbul, I liked being able to see the photographs of that cemetery next to ones from the same era from elsewhere in Europe and hearing how it differed stylistically from other Sephardic cemeteries. The city maps with the cemeteries highlighted are awesome, as are the archival photographs.

Although some of the ground covered in this book has also been explored by Hannelore Kunzl in Judische Grabkunst von der Antike bis heute, Jacobs' book will have the strong advantage for most American readers of being in English. Given the large number of color photographs and images and the large number of communities and cemeteries it covers, this book is extremely well priced at $65 USD. Several communities in the Jewish Atlantic World are covered in the work including London, Sepharad (Iberia), Amsterdam, and modern Portugal.

My favorite piece of trivia from the book is that several European Jewish cemeteries had a stable or fenced-in pen for the bechorim (first-born kosher animals that couldn't be eaten except by Cohenim). What a great solution to a vexing problem!

Jewish Death Rituals: the House of the Rounds

As my twin sister will attest, since an early age I have had an extreme fear of dead bodies. Once I was asked to be part of the women's Chevra Kaddisha (Jewish burial society) in Portland, and although I was (briefly) tempted, I had to decline, as I knew I would never sleep again. I am not sure why this is. When I say I am afraid of "dead bodies," I mean dead people. Although I like live animals much better, I am not completely freaked out by dead animals: when I worked as a veterinarian's assistant, I had to deal with dead pets all the time. Sure I cried a lot, but once when asked to do so, I had to lump it and wash and prepare a dead schnauzer for an open casket funeral. It made me sad (and I felt like I needed to be paid more), but I went home, tucked myself into bed, and slept just fine. Dead people, however, are something else. I don't even like to work in cemeteries with recent burials, which for some reason I find more "creepy." Conveniently my research is mainly before the civil war, so I can usually avoid this problem. Jewish mysticism would say I am right to be wary of recent graves: according to Kabblah, there are at least three parts of the soul (nefesh, ruach, and neshama). After death these three parts of the soul suffer different fates, and the nefesh remains in the grave with the body until the body turns to dust. While in the grave, the nefesh undergoes the “pangs of the grave” (hibbut ha-kever). This means as well as being ritually impure, Jewish cemeteries are unhappy places.

Research interests aside, my fear of dead bodies is unfortunate, as one of the most important duties in Jewish life is to take care of the dead and prepare them for burial. Judaism has many rituals to help transition the body and soul of the deceased. In the Jewish Atlantic World one of the important places where these rituals took place was the "House of the Rounds" (Casa de Rodeos or Rodeamentos). This building served the same purpose as the tahara house in Ashkenazi cemeteries: it is where the ritual washing of the body occurred. A good depiction of this washing ritual was memorialized by the Prague Burial Society, which commissioned a series of paintings that depicted the various rituals performed by the Chevra Kaddisha (burial society) from sickbed to burial. In the Spanish-Portuguese rite, the eighteen members of the burial society also made seven circuits (hakafot) around the coffin.

“The Seven Circuits,” Bernard Picart (1673-1733), c. Royal Library of the Hague

Picart's eighteenth-century drawing depicts one such ceremony in the House of the Rounds in Amsterdam's Beth Haim Ouderkerk. The original seventeenth century tahara house was replaced in 1705 by the current building which still stands and was renovated in 1966 (below). One of the thoughtful features of this house was the wooden extension for Cohenim. Although most Jews could visit the dead after burial, those descended from the priestly family (Cohenim) are not permitted to walk in cemeteries. As Joachim Jacobs notes in his fabulous book Houses of Life, the extension allowed the Cohenim to "follow the hakafot through a window, without being under the same roof as the dead person (69)" Near the house, and right next to the entrance to the cemetery by the canal, is the separate section for the Cohenim that allowed them to see their relatives' graves without entering the cemetery proper.
Exterior of the Beth Haim Ouderkerk House of the Rounds;
the Cohenim's wooden extension (black) is on the left
(Photo L. Leibman)

Interior of the House of the Rounds today with the
Death's head and washing stations shown in Picart's drawing (Photo L. Leibman)

New Cohenim Section near the House of the Rounds,
Beth Haim Ouderkerk (Photo L. Leibman)

Many other cemeteries in the Jewish Atlantic World used a House of the Rounds in the cemeteries. Few remain today, though two exquisite examples occur in Curaçao, one in the older Jewish cemetery (Beit Haim Bleinheim), and one in the newer Jewish cemetery (Beit Haim Berg Altena). Like Amsterdam's Beth Haim Ouderkerk, the older Jewish cemetery in Curaçao paid attention to the special needs of the Cohenim and even built a special house from which they could visit the dead and yet not violate Jewish law. The presence of the House of the Rounds is an important ritual element of the Jewish Atlantic World.
House of the Rounds, Beit Haim Bleinheim, Curaçao (Photo L. Leibman)
House of the Cohenim, Beit Haim Bleinheim, Curaçao (Photo L. Leibman)

House of the Rounds, Beit Haim Berg Altena, Curaçao (Photo L. Leibman)

Image at top of page: Benjamin Senior Godines, “Vanitas Picture: A Memento Mori,” (1681).

Anatomy of a Gravestone: Identifying Stone Carvers

At first glance, the gravestones of Redolphus Malbone (1767 LEFT) and Isaac Lopez (1762 RIGHT) look remarkably similar: their graves are marked by small upright markers with cherubs at the tops and vegetation images along the sides. While many children’s graves were marked either only by a plain marker or not at all, the parents of Redolphus and Isaac chose to mark these graves with well-carved stones made by the two of the most important carvers in Newport: William Stevens and John Stevens II (1702-1778), sons of the illustrious carver John Stevens I.

In addition being a physical reminder of the children, the stones present a important message about the parents’ hopes about the children's ability to live on after death. The stones vertical are carved in a shape associated with a curved doorway into the world to come. The side pillars (“borders”) were seen as analogous to the pillars in the third temple that harkened of the messianic era. The topmost portion of each stone (the lunette), bears an optimistic message of redemption conveyed by the simple straight-faced cherub: while the death’s heads common throughout other parts of New England reminded the living of the conflict between the mortal and immortal portions of the deceased, “cherub stones tend to stress resurrection and later heavenly reward” (Deetz and Dethlefsen 31).The cherub was a metaphor for the soul of the deceased: it was poised in flight between this world and the next (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992: 1974: 83). The stones’ borders reinforce this message of rejuvenation: the Malbone stone contains the fig border commonly used by William Stevens in the 1740s-1770s (Luti 134), while the Lopez stone contains a variant on the fig-lily pod theme used by John Stevens II. Figs were “believed to ward off the evil eye and offer general protection against hostile beings and powers” (Biedermann 129), and fruit and flowers are generally associated with fecundity and fertility. In an uncertain world, the stones were largely optimistic.

Vincent Luti argues that five areas are essential for identifying individual carvers for stones made in Newport: (1) Lettering, (2) Wings, (3) Mouths, (4) Eyes, and (5) Borders (Luti 26-27). Identifying characteristics of William Stevens during this era include (1) An off-center “e” in the “ye” and “full-bellied 5, with a flat-capped serif,” (2) scoop wings and pedestal bibs, (3) bow-mouths, (4) eyelids with lashes and an owlish and bulging eye and (5) fig or lily pod borders. Cherubs were bald or wigged. William Stevens stones from the 1760s-1770s that were wigged tend to have plain wigs, raked wigs, or scroll coil wigs (Luti 103-105, 134). William Stevens stones are easily confused stylistically with the early work of his brother-in-law and one-time apprentice John Bull who early on in his career imitated William Stevens’ style. Distinctive elements of John Bull’s stones that don’t appear on Stevens’ stones include (1) an onion fleur-de-lis, (2) a circular line undercutting the feather spray or “bib” under the cherub’s chin, and (3) the tail of the “g” is tucked into the loop (Luti 231, 244). The stone of Redolphus Malbone contains no John Bull markers, but does contain the following elements characteristic of William Stevens: (1) An off-center “e” in the “ye” (2) bow-mouths, (3) an owlish and bulging eye, and (4) fig or lily pod borders. Luti has attributed Isaac Lopez’s stone to John Stevens II (Gradwohl 39-40). Although it is very similar to William Steven’s stones, it bears several strong distinguishing features: a distinctive border and pupils that “look heavenward.” From 1745-1778 John also took up his brother’s previously distinctive of-center ye lettering (Luti 80).

During the 1770s, William Stevens shop and home was located on Long Wharf while John Stevens II’s home and shop were located at 29 and 30 Thames respectively (Luti 32, 99). Their father John Stevens (1646-1736) began the Stevens carving dynasty that continues until this day.

Image credits:
1. Gravestone of Redolphus Malbone (1767, Trinity Cemetery) Photograph by Eric Leibman, 2007.
2. Gravestone of Isaac Lopez (1762, Touro Cemetery) Photograph by Laura Leibman, 2007.
3. Gravestone Anatomy from Dean Eastman's "Tiptoeing Through the Tombstones" Common-Place. 2(2) January 2002.
4. Map of Newport by Laura Leibman based on A Plan of the Town of Newport in Rhode Island Surveyed by Charles Blaskowitz, engraved and publish'd by Willm. Faden Map. London: 1777. Map Collections 1500-2004. American Memory. Lib. of Congress 14 Aug. 2007

God's Little Acre: Slavery and Race in a Colonial Burial Ground

"God's Little Acre" has become one of the most talked about sections of Newport's famous Common Burial Ground. Although many Americans (particularly in the North and West) like to think of slavery as a "Southern problem," slavery was an important part of the northern economy well up until the time of the Revolution. Indeed in the colonial era, much of Newport's economy was based directly or indirectly on the triangle trade. For those who want to learn more about Northern slavery, Joanne Pope Melish's Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860 (Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1998) is an awesome resource and a good read. As the place where Newport's people of color went after they died, God's Little Acre has become an important resource for scholars interested in race in the colonies.

Although often touted as an "African American" burial ground, the occupants of God’s Little Acre were diverse economically, racially and religiously. The 1774 Rhode Island census asked for the number of “whites,” “blacks,” and “Indians” in each household. Members of each of these categories were buried in “God’s Little Acre.” Moreover, the categories themselves do not map precisely onto twenty-first century notions of race, as an advertisement for a runaway “Indian boy” from the Newport Mercury shows: this graphic of a dark-complexioned man had for years been used by the Mercury to signify fugitive (black) slaves, but suddenly it seemed to apply to Indians as well. Indian and black intermarriage was on the rise in New England in the 1770s, and increasingly white New Englanders began to image “Indians” and “blacks” in a combined category of “colored” people (Silverman Faith and Boundaries, 232-33). Not surprisingly then, members of each of these groups, as well as a few (usually poor) whites, were buried in God’s Little Acre.

Newport’s African American community was also tremendously diverse in the 1770s. Approximately thirty percent of Newport belonged to the fluid category of “black.” Around one third of the whites in Newport owned slaves, but according to the 1774 census, there were also 153 free blacks living in 64 black households during the colonial era. There was no section of town specifically designated for African Americans: whites and people of color often lived in close proximity to one another in colonial Newport. Freed blacks and slaves in Newport had a range of occupations and economic experiences. While many blacks in Newport had severely limited social and economic prospects, some did quite well: Newport Gardner (Occramar Mirycoo), slave of merchant Caleb Gardener, knew English, French, and African languages, and taught Western music; slave Caesar Lyndon was highly literate and served as a scribe; Charity “Duchess” Quamino, slave of William Channing, gained her freedom and was renowned as a pastry chef. A number of blacks owned property around Newport (Youngken African Americans in Newport, 17, 49-50; See Newport Gardner's House at left). Although the African Union Society held services in the Peter Bours house (47 Division Street, below) as early as 1781, African Americans belonged to a variety of congregations (Youngken African Americans in Newport, 62). The gravestones in God’s Little Acre reflect this economic and religious variety.
Peter Bours house (47 Division Street), Location of African Union Society as early as 1781

Peter Cranston Jr. fell somewhere in the middle of this range of this economic and social diversity. The inscription highlights what W.E.B. DuBois would call the “twoness” of Peter Cranston’s life: as Peter Cranston’s stone indicates, his parents were Peter Cranston and his wife Phylis Rivera. The stone also indicates, however, that Peter—like his father--was owned by Aaron Lopez, the uncle of Isaac Lopez. Peter Jr.’s mother Phylis, however, was a “servant” of Jacob Rodriquez Rivera, Aaron Lopez’s father-in-law (Stores). Since Peter Jr. belonged to Aaron Lopez, presumably Peter Jr. lived in the Lopez home along Thames Street, albeit in the attic. His mother Phylis would have lived several blocks away in Easton’s Point, at the corner of Washington and Bridge in the “Lantern,” the oversized home of Jacob Rodriguez Rivera. Other members of the Cranston-Rivera clan surround the stones of Phylis, Peter, and Peter Jr. In death then, the Cranston-Riveras were able to achieve what they could not in life: a unified family space, no longer torn apart by slavery. The Cranston-Rivera stones make up a small portion of the approximately 450 stones in God’s Little Acre that are still standing and are identified by name on the 1903 map of the cemetery (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992: 166). In turn, God’s Little Acre makes up only a small portion of the over 8,000 graves in the Common Burying Ground (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992: 163). To learn more about this portion of the cemetery, and to see more stones, go to African Slave Markers in Colonial Newport, a website by Keith Stokes and Theresa Guzman Stokes. .Theresa Guzman Stokes
Cranston-Rivera Family Stones, God's Little Acre (Newport)