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Jamaica, Jews and Christopher Columbus: The Fascinating History of Jews in Jamaica

September 4, 2022 | by Rabbi Ken Spiro

What did Bob Marley have in common with Jews?

Jamaica! Reggae music, Bob Marley, beaches, palm trees, Usain Bolt and… Jews.

Jews!?

Surprisingly, the Jewish connection to Jamaica is very old and very interesting. In order to understand the Jewish connection to Jamaica, we need to go back to Spain, 1492.

The date 1492 usually conjures Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World. But 1492 is also the year of one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history – the expulsion of Jews from Spain. These two events are actually connected.

July 31st, 1492 was the date set by Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of Spain, for all Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. On that date the Jewish community of Spain, which had flourished for 780 years, came to an end. It is estimated that about half the Jews converted and stayed. Many secretly held onto their Jewish traditions, becoming Marranos, a derogatory term that means pigs, or Bnei Anusim (Hebrew for “the children who were forced”). At great risks, these secret Jews continued to practice Judaism, while an equal number left the country.

Many went to Portugal where they were forcibly baptized five years later. Immediately after the July 31st deadline, Columbus, who was possibly of Jewish ancestry, set sail on three ships with 88 crew (five of whom were Jewish) in search of a westerly route to the Far East. Two months later, on October 12th, 1492, he stumbled upon the Bahamas and opened up the Americas for European colonization.

Part of the reward that Columbus received for his discovery was the Island of Jamaica.

Columbus’s accidental discovery of the Americas opened up a massive new world for conquest, colonization and fierce competition, primarily between Catholic Spain, Portugal and France and Protestant England and Holland (which declared in dependence from Spain in 1581).

It also opened up a new port of refuge for the persecuted and exiled Jewish refugees of the Iberian Peninsula.

Today North America remains the largest Diaspora community in the Jewish world, overwhelming populated by the descendants of Eastern European, Ashkenazi Jews who fled by the millions from Czarist Russia between 1882 and 1914. Long before any Jews came to North America, they first settled in the West Indies and South America and Sephardic Jews (“Sephardic” meaning from Spain) got there centuries before any Ashkenazim showed up.

The expulsion of 1492 and the hardships that followed, for those who remained in Spain and Portugal, were the primary reasons for the arrival of these first Sephardic Jews to the new world.

Back in Spain and Portugal, in the early 16th century, thousands of Jewish forced-converts to Christianity, now known as “new Christians,” lived in constant terror of discovery at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition, which began in 1478, hunted down, arrested and often tortured and murdered tens of thousands of new Christians on suspicion of secretly practicing their old faith and negatively influencing other new Christians. It is estimated that more than 30,000 people, many of them Jews, were executed by the Inquisition, which did not officially end until 1834.

Shaare Shalom Synagogue

During the 16th century, fear of the Inquisition and a desire for a religious freedom led many of these crypto-Jews (forced converts who continue to secretly cling to their faith) to flee Spain and Portugal for North Africa, Holland, the Ottoman Empire and the New World.

The Americas proved to be an attractive option for crypto-Jewish refugees. Colonization opened up many economic opportunities and there was much greater freedom since these Spanish and Portuguese colonies were far away from the prying eyes of the Inquisition. The oldest of these communities were located in Brazil, Suriname, Curacao, St Domingo, Barbados and Jamaica.

Crypto-Jewish refugees from the Iberian Peninsula began to arrive in Jamaica soon after Columbus’s voyage, probably around 1494. They identified themselves as Spanish or Portuguese, not as Jews, and settle in Kingston, Port Royal, Montego Bay and other locations throughout the Island. Columbus, who controlled the island, did not allow the Inquisition into Jamaica, so while these crypto-Jews could not yet openly practice their faith, it was much easier and safer to practice in secret in Jamaica than back in Spain. Economic opportunities were also abundant, especially in trading in sugar, vanilla, tobacco, rum and gold. The community prospered and grew in relative freedom.

The situation for the Jews of Jamaica improved dramatically when England, which was Spain’s arch-enemy, conquered the Island in 1655. The timing was perfect as Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England at that time, had just allowed Jews back into England 365 years after they were expelled by Edward I in 1290. The Jews of Jamaica could finally openly practice their faith. After Cromwell, King Charles II confirmed the citizenship and the rights of the Jews of both Great Britain and the colonies including Jamaica.

The first synagogue in Jamaica was built in the later half of the 17th century, but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692. Synagogues in Jamaica and the West Indies have a very unique feature: wooden floors covered with sand. There is much speculation as to reason, ranging from a remembrance of the wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt to commemorating the attempts by crypto-Jews back in Spain, living in fear of the inquisition, to muffle the sound of their footsteps while they prayed in secret. As the population grew, so did the number of synagogues scattered throughout the island.

A floor of sand inside the Shaare Shalom synagogue.

The expanding Jewish population in the 17th century helped turn Jamaica into a thriving trading center in the Caribbean and also a major launching point for raids against Spanish and Portuguese shipping. Jews such as Abraham Blauvelt worked as privateers (legally sanctioned by the British government to raid enemy ships as part of maritime warfare) while other Jews, like Moses Cohen Enrique, were actual pirates.

The exact extent of Jewish pirate activity is much debated and likely exaggerated but it certainly would have been sweet revenge for the Jews of Jamaica whose ancestors were so abused in the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. In the Hunt’s Bay Cemetery (there are 22 known Jewish cemeteries in Jamaica) there are seven grave stones with skull and crossbones on them.

Skull and crossbones on a Jewish tombstone - Hunt's Bay Cemetery, Jamaica

Ashkenazi Jews began to arriving in Jamaica in the early 18th century and by 1710 approximately 20% of the population of Kingston, the largest city and today the capital, was Jewish. The Jewish population reached its peak in the 1880’s when 22,000 of the island’s 580,000 residence were Jewish, including four of Kingston’s mayors.

Jamaica achieved independence from Britain in 1962 and its first US ambassador, Neville Ashenheim, was Jewish. Political instability in the 1970s let to a mass exodus of Jews from the island and today only between 300 to 500 Jews remain. Besides a Chabad House, the only synagogue open is Shaare Shalom in Kingston, built in 1885.

A fascinating connection between Jews and Jamaica is Rastafarianism – a religion and social movement that appeared in Jamaica in the 1930s that was popularized by the Reggae musician Bob Marley. While Jews had nothing to do with the founding of Rastafarianism, there is no question that Judaism and Biblical themes and concepts like the Exodus narrative played a significant role in shaping Rastafarianism. The music of Bob Marley is laced with Biblical references and even direct quotes from the Bible.

So the next time you hear Marley singing “Zion train is coming our way”, you’ll know that it already made a stop in Jamaica more than 500 years ago.

Click here for more information about Jews and Jamaica.




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