Diario Judío México - The island of Curaçao is situated in the southern Caribbean about 40 miles north of the coast of Venezuela. It was discovered in 1499 by Alonso de Ojeda, one of the captains of Christopher, soon after the latter’s third voyage to the Americas. Various historians have speculated that among the shipmates of Columbus there were a great number of marranos. There is no historical proof, however, that any professing Jew settled on Curaçao during the Spanish period. One of the island’s Spanish governors was Lazaro Bejarano, today a common Spehardic surname in Turkey, hence he could have been of marrano descent. He was, in fact, interrogated and subsequently punished by the Roman Catholic Church, not on the usual accusation of judaizing, but because he had not dedicated himself diligently to propagating the faith among the Indian population; he had not brought nay Catholic missionaries to the island and had been satisfied with constructing only a small chapel on the Santa Barbara estate.
First Jew on Curaçao
The very first openly professing Jew to set foot on Curaçao was Samuel Cohen, sometimes spelled Coheno. He was the interpreter for Johan van Walbeeck, the commander of the Dutch flotilla that in 1634 wrested the island from the Spanish. Samuel Cohen was born in Portugal, lived there as a marrano, then fled to Holland in the beginning of the 17th century. His name appears several times in the records of the Portuguese Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam. He had also fought alongside the Dutch in the conquest of Recife, Brazil. Moreover, in a testimony made by two Dutch soldiers captured by the Spaniards on Curaçao and brought to Caracas, Venezuela for interrogation, they declared that van Walbeeck had appointed a «little jewman» ‘un judihuelo) as supervisor over the Indian families the Dutch had permitted to stay on the island. The soldiers added that this man spoke Portuguese and did not eat pork. Hence, there can be little doubt about his being Jewish. Samuel Cohen remained on the island for about eight years, but did not found a Jewish congregation. There are indications though, that during his stay he had enticed a few more Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam to come and settle here.
First settlement of Sephardim
The first group of Jews that officially established a settlement on Curaçao, was under the patronage of man by name of Joao d’Yllan, another member of the Amsterdam Portuguese Congregation. He had obtained a Charter form the West India Company to bring 50 families to Curaçao to establish an agricultural colony. In the end, he succeeded in bringing only 10 families. Their date of arrival on the island was 1651. From a letter written by a travelling Jew in 1654 and addressed to the “«Mahamad of Kahal Kadosh Mikve Israel” of Curaçao it is evident that d’Yllan’s group had founded a religious congregation on the island, It is the very same that still exist to this day and thus has been in uninterrupted service for the last 346 years. This makes in the oldest Jewish Congregation in the Western Hemisphere in continuous and uninterrupted existence. On the land given to them they had built a simple wooden synagogue and they named their congregation MIKVE ISRAEL (The Hope of Israel). The name chosen is closely linked to the name they had given to their first plantation, «De Hoop» (The Hope). We find a similar case in Recife; there the Jewish colonist named their congregation TSUR ISRAEL, Rock of Israel, while «recife» is Portuguese for «rock».