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The Jewish Community of Early Colonial Nevis:
A Historical Archaeological Study

Michelle M. Terrell

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"This is an outstanding and absorbing piece of work. Terrell re-creates both the world of the 17th-century Sephardic diaspora and the process of archaeological research with skill."--Adrian Praetzellis, Sonoma State University

Two mysteries unfold in this unusual story of an archaeological investigation: What happened to the forgotten Sephardic Jews who existed 300 years ago on the island of Nevis in the eastern Caribbean? And how does an archaeologist deal with the frustrations, tribulations, and false leads of the evolving research process?

In the 1990s, Michelle Terrell set out to study the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in Charlestown, the capital of the former British West Indian colony of Nevis. Islanders led her to a spot that traditionally had been identified as the site of a 17th-century Jewish synagogue located near an alley named "Jews Walk," which led to a cemetery with headstones bearing inscriptions in Hebrew, English, and Portuguese. After four seasons of digging, Terrell had unearthed an ample number and intriguing assortment of archaeological remains--none of them ecclesiastical or characteristic of synagogues.

Terrell persisted in her efforts to pinpoint the true location of the vanished synagogue, working at odds with cherished oral traditions and with local political practices. Eventually, she was able to use archived land records to reconstruct the layout of the entire Jewish community and to identify her original excavation site as the location of a villa belonging to an English planter. As she reports here, she was also able to establish that the Nevis Jews were a vibrant and important enclave within the British West Indies, to compare their community to other colonial-period Jewish enclaves on other Caribbean islands, and to place them within the global context of the Sephardic diaspora. Her work challenges the views of past scholars who have portrayed the Caribbean islands as peaceful havens for Iberian Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition, suggesting instead that Jewish daily life in British colonial society was constantly challenged and under pressure.

Terrell's innovative account of her documentary expedition provides both an astute professional appraisal of a Jewish Caribbean community and a lively personal record of her pursuit of multiple lines of evidence. Readers who view this saga over her shoulder will discover a rich picture of how historical archaeologists do their jobs.

Michelle M. Terrell, a registered professional archaeologist who works in Minnesota, has received numerous awards for her scholarship, including the 2001 Society for Historical Archeology Dissertation Award and the 1996 Edwin S. and Ruth M. White Prize from the Boston University Humanities Foundation.

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…a welcome contribution to studies of Caribbean history…illustrat[es] how the processes of archaeological and archival research are linked to the present as much as they are to the past in the production of historical knowledge.
--New West Indian Guide

…an engaging discussion of the historical background for Jewish settlement on Nevis that ultimately turns into a cautionary tale.
--Post-Medieval Archaeology

" Important and well-needed perspective on the facinating and underrepresented populations of the Jewish Caribbean. "
--American Jewish Archives Journal

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