Life at the Corner of Swan and Prince William Henry Streets: A Snapshot from Bridgetown, Barbados
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Life at the Corner of Swan and Prince William Henry Streets:
A Snapshot from Bridgetown, Barbados

The photograph titled "Swan Street (formerly called 'Jew Street')" at the American Jewish Historical Society archives is a copy of a lost original; however, what is portrayed is informative. If a picture is worth a thousand words, we can ascertain a substantial amount of information about Swan Street in Bridgetown, Barbados, beginning with the precise whereabouts. To the right of the photograph's center, a street sign reading "PR WM Henry" gives us a specific location. According to city maps of Bridgetown, Swan Street is an east-west thoroughfare that dead-ends at High Street, its eastern terminus shortly after the Prince William Henry Street intersection. Considering that we do not see the High Street terminus, the photographer must be facing west, with High Street toward his or her back. If one were to visit Swan Street at this intersection today, facing in the same direction, either through travel or remote sensing (the author used Google Earth) the built environment that is extant today is entirely different, given the changes that have accrued over time. The buildings and streets today are modern, in contrast to the historic buildings that date from the nineteenth century and earlier, according to the visible architectural styles and details in the photograph. So, this picture provides a valuable snapshot of what Swan Street once was, but no longer is today.

From the way people are dressed, the photograph was likely taken sometime around the 1940s. Recall that the subtitle of the photograph is "formerly called Jew Street." During the 1940s, few if any practicing Jews lived on the island, having officially left in 1928 when the synagogue building, Nidhe Israel, was sold because of lack of membership (however, the synagogue was repurchased and reopened in 1987 following the resettlement of a sufficient number of Jews on the island later in the twentieth century). A synagogue has stood at this location since the mid- or late-seventeenth century, but the current building dates from 1833, the former building having been lost to a hurricane two years earlier.1 From where the photographer is standing, if one were to make [End Page 241] a right turn at the Prince William Henry Street intersection, one would arrive at the synagogue within one and a half city blocks—a relatively short distance.

The Jewish presence in Barbados dates from the mid-seventeenth century, when Jews settled on the island and took economic advantage of the growing sugarcane industry there. Jews also played a pivotal role in mercantile trade and retail commerce in Bridgetown well into the nineteenth century. The term "Jew Street" for what is now called Swan Street came from the number of Jewish-owned shops and residences that once lined this street. While most of what is depicted is gone today, these historic buildings of the past could be considered a former, lasting vestige of Barbadian Jewish built environment, since it was created by and for Jews. So, this picture depicts a historical aspect of Barbadian Jewish vernacular material culture, where Jews lived and worked. Obviously, these buildings and streets were not used for formal Jewish rituals—those took place primarily at the synagogue—but this was where many Barbadian Jews made their livelihood and homes on a regular basis.

To get more information about the Jews who once lived there, one could cross-reference this photograph with Bridgetown property records regarding where Jewish families and businesses were along Swan Street, and when. One could thus have an idea of their geographic spacing and social interaction with one another along the street landscape in relation to the depicted built environment. Public electrification of Barbados did not begin until 1911, so, historically, only the last practicing Jews on the island would have used electricity or encountered the protrusive utility poles lining the streets with their crisscrossing wires.

Architectural historians, preservationists, and archaeologists use photographs such as this one for gauging how buildings and built environments have evolved over time, but usually a single photograph needs to be complemented with additional material. For example, a researcher might compare this...