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Contribution of Jews to Jamaica

  • TITLE: "The Portuguese Jews of Jamaica"
  • AUTHOR: Mordechai Arbell
  • PUBLISHER: Canoe Press, UWI
  • REVIEWED BY: Calvin Bowen

    OF ALL the people from other lands and other cultures who have come to Jamaica over the years and have contributed to the growth and development of the country, none have played a greater roke than the Jews

    History is replete with evidence of the beneficial influence on Jamaican life which resulted from the coming to the island in the distant past of members of the Jewish race, most of them fleeing from religious persecution in Europe.

    A new study by an Israeli historian and scholar, Mordechai Arbell, throws further light on the subject. The Portuguese Jews of Jamaica, published by Canoe Press of the University of the West Indies, is a meticulously researched record of the lives and times of these Jewish immigrants and of their involvement in the social, economic and political life of the country.

    A foreword by Ainsley Henriques the well-known Jamaican heritage trustee, writing in his capacity as director of the Neveh Shalom Institute of Spanish Town, places the book in the context of the historical development of Jamaica.

    Describing the book as "another important step forward for the retention of the history of the Jews in the Caribbean", Mr. Henriques pays tribute to the writer's "deep and wide knowledge" of the Jamaica Jewish settlement, practices and contribution to community - resulting in a very informative work.

    The Jewish history of Jamaica is one of the most important ones in the Caribbean area, according to the writer. On this basic premise, he traces the progress of the Portuguese asylum-seekers from the time of their arrival in Jamaica in 1530 through the Spanish period of the island's history, the English conquest, and subsequently.

    Great influence

    A fascinating chapter is "The Jews of Port Royal" which relates the great influence they exercised in that famous pirate stronghold, then one of the richest cities in the world. Although not buccaneers themselves, they participated in the activities and affluence of the era by virtue of their excellence in commercial ability.

    Also of absorbing interest is the chapter on Jewish settlements in Jamaica which shows how widespread was the presence of these new inhabitants throughout the island. From the existing Jewish cemeteries which the writer was able to study, including the famous one at Hunt's Bay in Kingston, it was evident that Jewish settlers had put down roots virtually all over Jamaica.

    Besides the main towns of Spanish Town, Kingston and Montego Bay, they also settled in Savanna-la-Mar, Lucea, Port Antonio, Falmouth, Brown's Town, Morant Bay, Linstead and Old Harbour, and, of course, Port Royal as well as in other towns in the parishes of St. Mary and St. Elizabeth.

    According to historical records, they mostly engaged in agriculture, notably the growing of sugarcane, coffee, cocoa and coconuts. There were very few Jewish plantations, but they were involved in the slave trade. Many of them also became shopkeepers, merchants and commercial traders.

    Over the years, they became assimilated into the Jamaican populace, mostly by marriage. While they retained aspects of their culture and continued to observe their religious practices, as evidenced by the existence of several synagogues throughout the island, they eventually became part of the rich mosaic that is the Jamaican people today.

    The Portuguese Jews of Jamaica can be regarded as a companion piece to a previous publication, The Jews of Jamaica, already reviewed in The Gleaner. Like the earlier work, this new study contributes to greater appreciation of the legacy of these European immigrants whose names like Alvaranga, Abrahams, Cardosa, Delgado, DeSouza, Gabay, Henriques, Isaacs, Mordecai and others are familiar ones in today's Jamaica, a significant reminder of the Jewish strands in the colourful fabric of Jamaica.

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