Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, but mainly Portugal, settled in Jamaica beginning about 1530 to avoid the Inquisition. At this time, the island was a Spanish territory. In Jamaica they continued to profess being Catholic, but they were able more easily to continue their Jewish observances in secret than on the Iberian Peninsula.
Irwin Berg provides more details: in 1655, the British navy sailed into Kingston, Jamaica, led by an Anousim pilot, Campoe Sabbatha. Once the British conquered the island from Spain, the Jews were able to more openly practice their religion. Over time Jews from other Spanish colonies made their way to Jamaica and their numbers grew.
Although most Jews settled in Spanish Town and Kingston (on the southwest shore of the island), they lived everywhere in Jamaica. Their numbers were surprisingly large until recent times.
Year (and Jewish population)
In 1671, the citizens of Jamaica petitioned the British government to expel all members of the local Jewish community. Governor Lynch, the colonial governor in Jamaica, opposed the petition and it was not enacted. However, the citizens did manage to get a special tax decreed against Jews in 1693.
In 1703, Jews were banned from using indentured Christian servants, and in 1783, they were again taxed, previous exemptions of duty on the Sabbath were taken away, and they were prohibited from holding any public positions. The Jewish communities flourished despite these restrictions and, when the British Empire declared equal rights for Jews living in any colony in the early 19th century, ten percent of the whites in Jamaica it was claimed were Jews (this according to Ralph Bennett who researched the subject after discovering that his wife had Jewish roots in the Caribbean).
Historian Edward Long described the Jews in 17th century Spanish Town as follows:
The Jews here are remarkably healthy and long-lived….I think they owe their good health and longevity, as well as their fertility, to a very sparing use of strong liquors, their early rising, their indulgence on garlic and fish, Mosaic Laws, sugar, chocolate.
The oldest Jewish cemetery in Jamaica is located at Hunts Bay, midway between Kingston and Spanish Town. It was opened shortly after the British conquered the island in 1655. According to Mordecai Arbell in The Portuguese Jews of Jamaica, the tombstone inscriptions in the Port Royal cemetery are in Hebrew and Portuguese with some English.
Berg personally visited Jewish cemeteries in Falmouth and Montego Bay and noted that, by 1890, no readable tombstone in those two cemeteries contained any Hebrew. However, the number of graves in the Jewish cemetery suggest that there must have been a substantial Jewish community in Falmouth. The oldest readable inscription Berg found was of Isaac Simon, who died on January 17, 1815, at age 60.
In Spanish Town, the Neveh Shalom Synagogue was established in 1704. This place of worship largely serviced Jews of Sephardic descent and so another synagogue was built in 1796 to serve Jews of Ashkenazi descent. The two Spanish Town congregations united in 1844. Today, the site of the Sephardic Synagogue and its adjacent cemetery replete with gravestones featuring names such as Henriques, De Souza, de Pass, Melhado and Nunes, lie largely in ruins, but the Neveh Shalom Institute, a foundation that exists to preserve Jewish Remains in Colonial Jamaica, has plans for its restoration. Archival work is already under way.
In 1655, following the English Conquest, Amsterdam Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel visited Lord Protector Cromwell and requested permission for Jews to settle in England. The request was granted and the implied permission in English colonies led to another influx of Jewish settlers to Jamaica from places like Amsterdam. All Jewish settlers had to be naturalized as British citizens and as such they were entitled to own property, a right denied to Jews in Medieval Europe.
The town of Falmouth was founded sometime around 1770 and the Jews who came to live there were merchants and traders dependent upon the sugar plantations surrounding the city, as well as upon international trade.
Jews in the city of Port Royal worked primarily as merchants and money changers, rather than farmers and planters. Trade between commercial centres inhabited by Jews such as Amsterdam, the Dutch colonies of Curaçao, St. Eustatius and Saba, the Danish St. Thomas, Genoa, Venice, North America, London, Turkey and India was brisk. The ability of Jamaican Jews to speak Spanish also propelled their success in trade with Spanish America. Goods traded included pepper, cocoa, vanilla, pimento, cocoa and sugar.
By the 19th century, some Jewish merchant families in Port Royal moved into shipbuilding and construction. Jamaican Jews were limited by law to ownership of two slaves only, unless they owned plantations, and few did. In addition, they were charged with only using Jewish indentured servants although this restriction was loosely imposed and therefore largely ignored.
There is little documentation of Jewish life in Port Royal, but Edmund Heath, in a description of the 1692 earthquake, noted the existence of a “Jew’s street” and synagogue.
Most Jews who survived the 1692 disaster left Port Royal and joined their brethren in Spanish Town, Kingston, Montego Bay and other locations islandwide.
In the mid-1800s, Jamaican Jews were given the right to vote and they quickly began to acquire local political power. By 1849 eight of the 47 members of the Assembly were Jewish and, that year, the legislative body decided not to meet on Yom Kippur. (all of the above from Wikipedia)
The first synagogue in Kingston is said to have been built in 1744, but perished in the Great Kingston Fire of 1882. Another, an Ashkenazi Synagogue, appeared in 1787. It too, was lost in the fire of 1882 and replaced in 1887. In 1907, however, both synagogues and many other buildings were destroyed by the Great Kingston Earthquake.
Until late in the 19th century, Jamaican Jewish ritual and customs were Orthodox. In 1884 the United Congregation of Israelites was formed from a union of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations, and it continues to exist to this day. This congregation was an umbrella organization for Jamaican Jews from all sections of the island. In 1913, it introduced a prayer book which included an English transliteration of Hebrew prayers for a population that largely could no longer read Hebrew.
A synagogue was built in Montego Bay in 1845, but the congregation declined during the 20th century and, when the synagogue was destroyed by a hurricane in 1912, it was never rebuilt.
Most of Jamaica’s Jews left for Britain, the U.S. and Canada between 1962, when Jamaica became independent, and the 1970s, when political unrest was widespread. This sharply reduced the island’s Jewish population, which by 1978 had only 350 remaining (see the figures above).
This sharp reduction in so short a period seems to have lit a desire to survive among those remaining. In 1969 a Hillel School was founded by the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston as a secular private primary and secondary school.
As noted above, the Neveh Shalom Institute was founded in 1997 to preserve the sites of old Jewish synagogues and other remains. In 2006 the Jewish community celebrated the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in Jamaica by inaugurating a Jamaican Jewish Heritage Center.
The British periodical Jewish Renaissance has reported that, although the rate of intermarriage and interracial marriage is high in Jamaica, more families of mixed marriages today are choosing to bring up their children as Jews, whereas in the past Jamaican Jews who married out of the faith most often brought up their children as Christians.
An umbrella group called the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean has been formed; it includes Jewish communities in Costa Rica, EI Salvador, Bahamas, Jamaica, Aruba and Panama, among others. The group helps the communities maintain their Jewish identity as members migrate out or marry non-Jews.
An article in Wikipedia claims that an estimated 420,000 Jamaicans have Sephardi Jewish ancestry, due to the Spanish Inquisition.
A general site for conducting Jamaican genealogical searches can be found here.
Another site has an interesting collection of Jamaican Jewish history, including profiles of leading Jews in Jamaica, newspaper clippings and even a list of those killed during the Inquisition years in Jamaica dated from 1691.
A comprehensive set of links to Jewish Jamaican history can be found here.
Dr. Rebecca Tortello writes a history of the Jews of Jamaica.
UPDATE: Debra Klein published an excellent personal account from her own trip to Jamaica. It’s on the DailyBeast website.