Anusha Parthasarathy traces Madras’ Jewish history and its close links with the city’s flourishing diamond trade

They lived in Madras for about 100 years and even as a small community, established quite a name for themselves as diamond and coral merchants. A cemetery in one part of the city and a road named after them in another part are perhaps the only stark reminders of their legacy. Gedalia Yogev, in her book, Diamonds and Coral, mentions the history of the Jews of Madras in the following lines; “In the century which elapsed between the arrival of the first Jewish merchant James de Paivia — at Madras in 1688, and the departure of the last one, Moses de Castro, in 1786, there were only short periods without at least one Anglo-Jewish diamond merchant at Madras.” In some ways, Madras’ Jewish history is intertwined with its diamond trading history.

Yogev also mentions that the movement of Jewish diamond merchants from Holland and Portugal to England in the late 1600s made London the centre of trade (especially for uncut diamonds). Therefore, more Jews began to move to Madras in order to trade diamonds from Golconda in exchange for silver, rough and polished coral and pearls.

Those who lived here were therefore, of Spanish and Portuguese origin, says Madras: Services, Education and The Economy. They were Sephardic Jews whose forefathers had fled to England and Holland and specialised in the sale of precious and semi-precious stones.

Vestiges of Old Madras by H.D. Love mentions that a single ship, the Lynn, carried upwards of 4,000 pounds worth of silver and 2,000 pounds worth of coral consignment from the five firms, Abraham Mendes, Abraham Franks, Moses Julian, Abraham and Jacod Franco and John Baptista, to Fort St. George.

For most of the 18th Century, Madras had almost complete monopoly over the diamond export. But in 1765, the scene changed and Madras began to lose its supremacy and Benaras became the diamond hub.

But the Madras story begins at the cemetery that the Jews once had in Mint. There, until it was shifted to Lloyds Road, lay the tomb of Jacques (or James) de Paivia, the first Jew to settle in Madras. De Paivia, originally from Amsterdam, settled at Fort St. George and grew to become the leader of the Jewish community in Madras. Before he passed away in 1687, he established with Antonio de Porto, Pedro Pereita and Fernando Mendes Henriques, ‘The Colony of Jewish Traders of Madraspatam’. His wife Heironima de Paivia, who survived him, did not continue his diamond trade and later took up residence with Governor Elihu Yale (Madras: Services, Education and the Economy).

Since de Paivia was on good terms with those in the Fort, more Portuguese Jews from London began to settle here. In fact, when the charter of the first town corporation in India, that of Madras, was implemented in 1688, the Jews were given residence in White Town and by then, around six diamond merchants lived inside the Fort. Most of the community, though, lived and worked in an area of George Town that is still called Coral Merchants’ Street (Pavazhakaarar Theru).

After Paivia, Bartolomeo Rodrigues, Domingo do Porto, and Alvaro da Fonseca arrived in Madras and eventually began the largest trading company in Madras which dealt in diamonds, rubies, coral, amber, sandalwood and traded in India and Burma, Indonesia, China, and the Philippines.

Bartolomeo Rodrigues, was the president of the company and became a prominent figure in the city. After his death, Alvaro da Fonseca, took over and the company prospered even more. It had its own ships to transport goods from Madras to Europe.

A specialist in dealing with precious stones was Isaac Sardo Abendana. From Holland, he grew to become a scientific advisor to most trading companies in Madras and a close friend of William Pitt, the Governor.

Towards the mid-1700s, the big Jewish companies in Madras began slowly to move to London, leaving their families in Madras. Alvaro da Fonseca too moved and became a specialist in diamond appraisal. Soon, there were almost no Portuguese Jews left in Madras. Moses de Castro, among the last, left in 1786.

In a corner of Lloyds Road, just across from the beach, is a cemetery that is now being taken care of by the last Jewish family of Madras. The Jews had a burial ground located at the north end of Mint Street and Madras: Services, Education and The Economy says that Bartolomeo Rodrigues, who died in 1692, was buried there and his giant tomb became a landmark in Peddanaickenpet till it was pulled down many decades later.

A municipal school was built on the grounds and so, the tombs were shifted to Kasimedu and in 1983, to a plot on Lloyds Road. The cemetery was last used in 1997, to bury Eileen Joshua.