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.

2 Responses to “Transcolonial Gravestone Trade”:

  1. Susannah says:

    It's me again! Another terrific post, and another post that speaks to my interests! My Master's research is about a Barbadian enslaved African cemetery from one of the many sugar plantations there.

    Again, I'm so glad to have found your blog. I can't wait to go through this article and peruse the links!

  2. Susannah,
    I'd love to hear more about your master's research--what a great topic! If you go to my profile page there is a link to my regular email.

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