Jamaica and the Jews

The first Europeans to land on Jamaica were the members of the crew of Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the New World. The year was 1494 and the Europeans included Spanish Jews (such as Luis de Torres), recently expelled from their homeland or forced to give up their religion. (Whether Columbus himself was of Jewish ancestry is another question, too complicated for this posting.) The 1494 visit was brief, but Columbus returned to the island on his fourth visit to the New World, in 1503, and remained there for a year or more.

Jamaica became a Spanish possession, as did other Caribbean islands, but uniquely, and after the death of Columbus, the island was granted to his son Diego Colon, who – in order to keep his title certain – provided for the establishment of a permanent colony in the the north of Jamaica, called New Seville.

Diego’s heir was his son and then his daughter, who had married into a noble Portuguese family. After the expulsion of the Spanish Jews in 1492, a significant number of them had migrated to Portugal, where they were first welcomed but within five years (due primarily to a pending marriage between the Spanish and Portuguese royal families) were all automatically converted to Catholicism. As in Spain, many “New Christians” (as they were called) remained underground Jews, and it appears that some of them asked the now Spanish-Portuguese Colon family for permission to live on Jamaica. Permission was granted, and these “Portugals”, some of whom were quite affluent, as early as 1530, ventured to the New World and Jamaica. While they were welcomed by the Colon family’s administrators, they were told to keep their beliefs hidden, which they apparently did. In return, the Colon family apparently assured that the Inquisition would not make its way to Jamaica (the Inquisition concentrating on New Christians who backslided into Judaic habits), making Jamaica unique in this regard in the Spanish world.

Thus started the saga of a Jewish presence in Jamaica, which continues to this day.

For the next 150 years, Jamaica remained Spanish. During this time, many Portuguese New Christians had migrated to the Netherlands, where they were allowed to rediscover their Jewish identities, and during the mid-1600s, Jews were finally allowed to return to England, from which they had been expelled in 1290.

At the same time, increasing tensions between Spain and England (in the New World as well as the Old) led to the English invasion and takeover of Jamaica in 1655, the devastation of the capital (now called Spanish Town) and the establishment of the first capital of English Jamaica at Port Royal. The underground Jewish community of Jamaica welcomed the English, as they were allowed to become visible, build synagogues and cemeteries, and practice their religion openly, in Spanish Town, Port Royal and elsewhere.

While Spanish Town is located inland (with river access to the sea), Port Royal was located on the edge of a long spit of land now forming the southern side of Kingston Harbor, on the south side of the island. Port Royal’s prominence was a relatively short one, as a massive earthquake destroyed the city in 1690 (much of it, with the exception of the military installation at Fort Charles, is even today under water), and Spanish Town again became the capital of Jamaica, a position it retained until the 1870s, when the capital was moved to the city of Kingston, on the southern coast. Kingston, with close to 1 million inhabitants, remains Jamaica’s capital and major city today.

Our tour visited Ft. Charles, the only remaining relic of 17th century Port Royal, but we arrived late and missed it. We did, however, get to visit the old Jewish cemetery at Hunts Bay, which served the 17th century Port Royal Community. A little known spot, it could easily be considered one of the [Pick a Number] Wonders of the Old Jewish World.

As Port Royal was built at the entrance to the harbor on the narrowest of peninsulas (actually, at the time, I believe it may have been a small island, not connected by the lengthy causeway that today leads to the Kingston airport and eventually the city, and wraps around the harbor (one of the largest natural harbors of the world). There was no place to build a cemetery in Port Royal, so the Jewish community acquired ground for burials north of Port Royal, just north of the harbor, on the mainland. Bodies were transported to the cemetery by boat, across wide Kingston Harbor (of course they call it Kingston Harbour) and brought to the cemetery, along with the mourners.

This part of the north side of the harbor is today an industrial area, part of the Port of Kingston, but in a secluded part of this area, cordoned off from industrial sites, by green vegetation, so that you feel you are worlds away from intensive civilization, lies the Hunts Bay cemetery. There is no sign leading to the cemetery. There is no road leading to the cemetery – you can walk from the narrow road, leading from a commercial main road through a poor residential area filled with wood and corrugated metal shacks, or you can turn your vehicle off this road and hope that the tires last as you drive over a somewhat visible track across an open field. When you arrive at the cemetery, you also see there is no visible security.

In spite of the lack of security, over 350 visible graves remain, many with their markers in tact and legible. The markers are all horizontal marble slabs sitting on raised brick foundations. The inscriptions are primarily in two languages, Portuguese and Hebrew. A few of the markers also have English inscriptions, although these are mainly in the form of decorations (written around the edges of the slabs, as a frame), showing that Portuguese was used as the language of these Jamaican Jews for centuries. Believe it or not, there are clearly marked gravestones that date from the 17th century (the oldest being from 1670), although the cemetery was used well into the 19th century. There are also decorative carvings on most of the stones: everything from a skull and crossbones (this apparently was what you would see then on Christian gravestones as well), pictorial representations of the Tree of Life being cut down in its prime, pictures of angelic faces. Some of the inscriptions are quite lengthy.

We visited one additional Jewish cemetery, in Falmouth, on the north side of the island, not far from Montego Bay, a cemetery also not in use today, but whose tombstones are more recent, extending up until the early 20th century. Here, the majority of the inscriptions are in English – there is relatively little Hebrew and of course no Portuguese. One of the sadder aspects of this cemetery is the abundance of graves of children, many of whom died in one single epidemic, which apparently led to many Falmouth Jews moving out of this city.

While we visited no other grave sites, there are apparently over 20 Jewish cemeteries still existing on Jamaica, and perhaps many more which are no longer visible. Two are still in use, I was told.

We also visited Spanish Town, still the second largest city in Jamaica. Although we saw no visible presence of the Jewish community, we did see the 18th century (I think) buildings at Emancipation Square, some of whom are in use and some protected, but awaiting restoration. A highly recommended, but not often visited site, this large square and its massive buildings, will allow you to feel you are in the colonial Jamaica of several centuries past, a feeling that is hard to replicate elsewhere. I understand that the archeological remains of an early 18th century synagogue have been located, but we did not visit this site. We did drive by a few historic churches, including the oldest Anglican church in the Caribbean.

Apparently, both Port Royal and Spanish Town were the centers of Jamaican trade and commerce, and it was trade and commerce that occupied many of the Jamaican Jews of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (fewer were plantation owners or, as they are called in Jamaica, the plantocracy). Thus, Jewish populations were centered in these locations.

The majority of Jamaican resorts, for which the island is undoubtedly best known today, are located on the north side of the island, stretching from Ocho Rios in the east, through St. Ann’s Bay (near where Columbus first landed), Falmouth, Montego Bay (the largest northern community), to Negril in the west. While this area once had a number of Jewish residents in communities such as Falmouth, there are very few Jews living in the north today, and there is no cemetery. (Of course, there are some Jews who have moved to the north coast of Jamaica from the United States and elsewhere to participate in the resort industry.)

We did visit the studio of David Pinto, a Jewish ceramicist, whose studio is on an old estate called Good Hope, not far from Falmouth. A Jamaican native, who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and spent time learning the trade in Japan, he has five different kilns in operation, including a wood fired kiln that creates a natural glaze on raw clay. A visit to his studio is also interesting because it is located on an evocative old sugar plantation, where several of the buildings are still in place – including the bookkeeper’s office, apparently a requirement at a plantation which shipped its products overseas, and a trading house built in 1790. One of Jamaica’s tourist companies also has its offices at Good Hope, and there is a “great house”, which serves as a hotel and I believe restaurant which we did not have an opportunity to see. We came home with two of Mr. Pinto’s coffee mugs, and had dinner that evening with his parents. His mother is a member of an old Jamaican Jewish family; his father came to Jamaica from England about 50 years ago.

Of course, the center of today’s Jewish presence in Jamaica is in Kingston. The only remaining active synagogue on the island, Shaare Shalom, has about 200 members and a new rabbi, Dana Kaplan, recently arrived from Albany, Georgia. Historically, all of Jamaica’s Jewish communities did not support synagogues. There were synagogues in Port Royal and Spanish Town (which had two synagogues until the beginning of the 2oth century) in the south, in Montego Bay in the north and of course in Kingston.

Although Kingston has only one functioning synagogue today, historically this was not the case. It had at least two functioning synagogues in the 18th century, although not much is known about their location or architecture, it appears. During the 19th century, there were at least six synagogues in Kingston. Because the majority of the Jamaican Jews were descendants of the early settlers of “Portugals”, most followed the Sephardic rites, although there was at least one Ashkenazic synagogue at the time.

In 1882, a large fire destroyed two of the synagogues, and the members of both decided to merge their congregations in order to rebuild. This led to the construction of the Shaare Shalom synagogue, completed in 1888, which at the time had about 2000 members. There were two other synagogues built at about the same time – a replacement Ashkenazic synagogue and (naturally) a Sephardic synagogue for those who did not agree with the post-fire merger. After a few years, these latter two synagogues merged and built a new sanctuary; they adopted the Sephardic rite for all of the services except for the Torah service, which was conducted in Asheknazic form.

Another earthquake struck in 1907, this time in Kingston with extraordinary damage. Again rebuilding was required, and a new Shaare Shalom was built and dedicated in 1913. In 1921, the Ashkenazic synagogue merged to form a united synagogue and again detailed negotiations on the forms of worship followed and, and in addition, general reforms were introduced until the Congregation ceased referring to itself as orthodox and instead became what it is today, a Reform synagogue.

We visited the synagogue of course, first as tourists and then as Friday night congregants. The structure is centrally located in commercial Kingston (it was about 3 miles from our hotel – I know that because I with others walked it Friday night). It is a very attractive building, painted white on the outside, with the sanctuary Sephardic in design, with a reader’s desk separate from the area from which the majority of the service is conducted. The building is very fresh – it is filled with dark wood, probably mahogany, and the floor (like other synagogues in the Caribbean) is covered in a fine white sand. There are 11 Torah scrolls. The center of the synagogue is kept empty – the seats are in several rows along each of the long walls (On high holidays, I think more seats are brought into the center.) There is a balcony that overlooks the sanctuary and that was formerly for women, before the synagogue became egalitarian. The chazan chants from the balcony, where he stands near the congregation’s organ, which was original to the building. (I learned that organs and other musical instruments were not uncommon in western Sephardic synagogues, but they were not permitted in Sephardic congregations of the east, such as Ottomon or North African congregations.)

Next to the synagogue itself stands the community center, where the congregation hosted a kiddush and a supper for us. Inside, there are a number of exhibits on Jamaican Jewry including a significant poster exhibit, entitled “The Jewish Heritage Centre of Jamaica”; we purchased a book that replicates this exhibit.

Viewing historic and contemporary Jewish Jamaica, we learned a lot which we did not know about the history of Jews on this island, and how influential they have been and, even with reduced numbers, remain. We also met a number of Jewish Jamaicans – and found them to be white and black, and typically descended from long time resident families. Names kept reappearing – Henriques, Matalon, Bravo, de Souze, Mendes, Lindo. We learned that untold non-Jewish Jamaicans have Jewish ancestors. We learned that there is no demonstrable anti-Semitism in the country. And time and time again, we were told there was no overt racial prejudice.

We did get a chance to visit some of the residential areas of the city, particularly when we climbed the foothills to the Hillel Academy, pronounced to be the best K-12 private school in Jamaica, established by and maintained with the help of the Kingston Jewish community. This school, which has about 750 students, today only has about 20 Jewish students – but it is still strongly supported by the community. It provides no religious classes at all, but does have a “Stars” club for its Jewish students. It closes on Jewish holidays and clearly recognizes the Jewish commitment to and influence on the country.

Of course, we saw much more of Jamaica than Jewish Jamaica – we saw the National Gallery (which has a wonderful collection of art by Jamaicans, including sculptress Edna Manley, Isaac Mendes Bellisario, and others, as well as artists renditions of Jamaica), Coronation Market (probably the largest food market I have visited, that I was told is about one square mile in area, and is filled with farmer/vendors selling meat, fish, spices, and fruits and vegetables, many of which are unfamiliar to us), Devon House (a beautiful mansion in central Kingston built by a German Jewish gold merchant and his Jamaican wife), Heroes Park (with monuments to Marcus Garvey, Norman Manley and others), Bob Marley’s house (now a museum), the campuses of the University of the West Indies and the University of Technology, the beautiful Strawberry Hill resort and restaurant in the heart of the Blue Mountains, the Craighton Coffee Estate, the Dunns River Falls, and more. We even had dinner at the home of the American Ambassador to Jamaica, Pamela Bridgewater, who was very gracious, and even provided a reggae band for our (and her) entertainment.

We were a traveling group of about 40 people, and our trip was sponsored by American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. We were accompanied by two BGU faculty members, Zvi Ha-Cohen, university rector, and Dr.Eli Papo, specialist in Judeo-Spanish culture, as well as several AABGU staff members. We had the opportunity to meet many Jamaicans, including many warm and welcoming Jewish Jamaicans. We stayed in the new and well appointed Spanish Court Hotel in Kingston, and the Iberostar Rose Hill Hotel in Montego Bay. (And oh yes, we did see the beach, even though we didn’t even have time to stick our toes in. Next time.)

And a good time was had by all.


4 thoughts on “Jamaica and the Jews

  1. I just heard a story of a woman who came from central countryside in Jamaica. She is probably in her 40s and her father was a German Jew who came to Jamaica view Norway. She remembers a few of his brothers as well. And she told of a place called German Town which was settled by Germans coming in after a ship wreck. Her father socialized with them as they had culture in common but were not Jewish. He and his brothers were the only Jews. She was raised Christian yet still to this day celebrates Passover, Purim, Hanukah and knows some words and phrases which were Yiddish. She just told me the story today and then I came across this blog. Any information?

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