Over the last nine years, seventy-seven-year-old Ainsley Henriques (“Stocking the Embers of Jamaican Jewry,” 6-26-2015), community leader and Jewish Jamaican genealogist, has been working with Rachel Frankel, coordinator of volunteers from the Caribbean Volunteer Expedition (a non-profit organization that recruits people from the United States to work on historic conservation projects) to catalogue Jamaica’s thirteen remaining Jewish cemeteries in an effort to preserve the island’s rich Jewish history. Their current project is the restoration of the White Church Street Cemetery in Spanish Town, Jamaica’s former capital. This is the last Jewish cemetery to be catalogued. The plot, which had been a veritable junkyard filled with broken glass, bricks, rusted metal, plastic bags, and rubble, now resembles a dignified burial site thanks to their efforts. Once the restoration has been completed, hopefully within the year, Jamaicans and tourists will be invited to visit the island’s “newest” Jewish heritage site.
Where did Jamaican Jews Come From?
The first Jews came to Spanish-occupied Jamaica between 1494 to1655. Fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, they arrived from Spain and Portugal and settled mainly near and in Spanish Town, reportedly bringing the technique to produce sugar with them. Here, disguised as Portuguese, they maintained their faith. When the British conquered the island in 1655, General Venables recorded the presence of many “Portuguese” or Portugals. With their skills in finance and trade, and the network they naturally shared with European Jews, they played an important economic role in the sugar trade and the shipping industry.
On the darker side of things, a negligible minority of Jews took part in the slave trade. Some Jews followed an equally un-Jewish career path and became pirates – more accurately, “privateers,” state-sponsored pirates working for the British, motivated by economic reasons and a desire to usurp Spanish rule.
When Port Royal, a hustling and bustling commercial center, sank into the ocean after a massive earthquake in 1692 and then suffered terrible fires in 1704 and 1815, the thriving Jewish community moved to Spanish Town. By that time there were more Jews in Jamaica than in all of North America. Ashkenazi Jews began arriving from England and Germany to join the Sephardi resident Jews. The burgeoning Jewish community saw a drop in numbers, however, when the British abolished slavery in 1838. The result of that decision was the decline of the sugar industry and many Jews left for Australia or to take part in California’s gold rush.
In 1872, Kingston Harbor, the seventh-largest natural harbor in the world, was designated the island’s capital and the Jewish community moved there. The community continued to shrink as more Jews emigrated; the influx of Jewish immigrants was minimal. In the early 20th century, some Jews arrived in Jamaica after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. However, very few Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe chose to make Jamaica their homeland. Similarly, except for Gibraltar Camp, which the British government set up as a temporary haven for a few hundred Jews from 1941 until the end of the war, Jamaica was not a destination for those escaping the Holocaust.
A Genealogist Discovers His Roots
With few records of Jamaican Jewry, Henriques, who remembers over one hundred guests at his family Seder when he was a child, set out to catalogue its history. “It’s important to leave a legacy for our children so that they know where they come from,” he explains. Today, he has compiled over 20,000 names spanning 350 years. “I was very excited when I discovered that I was related to Rabbi Isaac Belinfante of Amsterdam and Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes of Shearith Israel of New York,” says Henriques. “Since then, I haven’t stopped researching.”