From a Caribbean island to Rhode Island, ties that bind


I’d been planning my pilgrimage to the place where patriotism was born and bred: the bleak, black isle of Sint Eustatius.    

“Don’t go there, there’s nowhere to swim, nothing to see, nothing to do,” advised a pair of sophisticated travelers I sometimes see at the pool at the local Marriott.  

“Cruise ships avoid it altogether,” they claimed.  

The ruined pirates’ hidden rocky retreat held no charm for such summer seekers of surf and sunbeams. Of course, that is precisely what appealed to me.

I call my trip “patriotic” because this tiny island in the windward zone of the Caribbean, once renowned as “The Golden Rock,” was also once a treasure chest of goods to be imported and then exported to the New World: ours.

Gen. George Washington needed gunpowder in 1776 to win the war for our independence. Sint Eustatius, which is often called Statia, had been colonized by Holland and France, England and Spain, and had a jargon that worked like a code. The island, and its Jewish merchants in particular, supplied the Yankees with the weapons necessary to win the war for freedom and liberty from the authoritarian crown of England.  

Sint Eustatius was the first nation to salute the flag of the brand-spanking-new United States of America. Indeed, it says so on signs all over this strangely haunted place that few people besides me seem to care to visit.  

By a series of perhaps coincidences, I have met most of the scholars, diplomats and prizewinning authors who have preceded me in researching this intriguing island. I hoard letters from Harry Ezratty, writer of “500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean,” which I read and reread with pleasure and intellectual profit.  And one Derek Miller became a Touro National Heritage Trust Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library, at Brown University, which has led excavations in the synagogue compound on Sint Eustatius.  The Dutch government supports the restoration of the ancient synagogue and mikveh, and the explanatory plaques narrating the nostalgic, challenging, confrontational chapters of the island.

 Mostly, for my June sojourn in Statia, I relied on the superb Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The First Salute,” written by the renowned Barbara W. Tuchman. I found it at the Rochambeau Library, in Providence, and took it with me as my guidebook, not only for its information but also for its moral, political and philosophical interpretation of the facts of the American Revolution. 

With its broken binding, this copy is as neglected yet precious as the relics to be discovered on the island. The book also features color photographs of paintings of the important personages in the history of Sint Eustatius, especially the English Adm. George Rodney, who, enraged at his defeat, commanded the total destruction of the glamorous Golden Rock and the exile of its leaders. He even executed a Jewish octogenarian who represented the economy and its martial value. 

Tuchman’s book is a quite remarkable, almost overwhelmingly wise and astute close study of the circumstances by which “we” won the Revolutionary War (like our victory in World War II, it was not an inevitable triumph, but an earned and almost divinely-inspired one).

I read every rich paragraph, some of them aloud to my wife and travel companion, and many to myself, sighing in admiration over Tuchman’s eloquence and depth. I enjoyed her dedications and asides, but it is her final concluding statement I must choose to cite here: “The free and equal new human in a new world would be realized only in spots, although conditions would come nearer to being realized in America than they would ever come in the other overturns of society. 

“Revolutions produce other people, not new ones. Halfway ‘between truth and endless error’ the mold of the species is permanent. That is earth’s burden.” 

This mix of patriotism and philosophy is most impressive. 

I had made up my mind to learn from the experience of being in this tragic place where Jews first came to escape the Spanish Inquisition, established the very concept of religious liberty, overcame their separation from Ashkenazic fellow Jews during World War II, and even, in certain ways, experienced an “assimilation” not entirely separate from the mixing of Jewish immigrants into the economy and culture of North America. And so, race and religion, despite their distinct distances from each other, shared many struggles in common and together.  

   I have a very personal theory about what motivated the inhabitants of Statia: I like to believe that the Sephardim had heard about our Newport and its Touro Synagogue, that lamp unto the nations.  They supplied weapons to George Washington precisely because he had quoted an official of Touro’s congregation in saying that the new nation would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” 

Wherever I go, after some hesitation and with some courage, I feel that I have not truly left miniature Rhode Island.

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.