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Jews and plantation slavery in the Caribbean

Published:Sunday | July 8, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Carolyn Cooper

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

Two Sundays ago, when I visited the Shaare Shalom synagogue for the Kingston on the Edge (KOTE) concert, 'Music Is Sacred', I got a grand tour of the Museum of Jamaican Jewish history that is located next door. My distinguished guide was Mr Ainsley Henriques, leader of the Jewish community in Jamaica.

The exhibits tell a captivating story of triumphant survival in exile. The display of sacred objects and cultural artefacts was supplemented by Ainsley's informative commentary. He's a historian and genealogist with a passion for heritage preservation. In fact, he's the current chairman of the board of trustees of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

I was somewhat surprised to see that the museum didn't tell the whole story of Jewish history in Jamaica. The role of Jews in plantation slavery is not documented at all. This silence is troubling, especially since so many students visit the museum each year. They end up getting a rather distorted account of Jamaican, not just Jewish, history.

In his prophetic song, Columbus, reggae philosopher Burning Spear warns that:

A whole heap a mix up, mix up

A whole heap a bend up, bend up

Go ha fi straighten out.

Burning Spear was, primarily, contesting the falsehood that Christopher Columbus 'discovered' Jamaica:

I an I all I know

I an I all I say

I an I reconsider

I an I an see upfully that

Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted


The reconsidering and 'upfull' revisioning that Burning Spear advocates can be applied as well to the many other partial histories we've inherited. Especially this year, as we celebrate 50 years of Independence, we must acknowledge Burning Spear's challenge to set the record straight.

Songs of lamentation

As it turns out, Jewish people played an undeniable role in plantation slavery in Jamaica. Ironically, Jewish exiles in the strange lands of the so-called 'New' World were complicit in the process of enslaving Africans. Forced to sing King Alpha's song, Africans in the diaspora found consolation in the sacred book of the Jews. They created their own dub version of Jewish songs of lamentation.

On that score, I got a rather stern response to last week's column, 'Rastafari reclaim Jewish roots', from Barbara Blake Hannah on Facebook: "'Reclaim' or 'share' Carolyn? 'Reclaim' would mean Rastafari originated from Judaism, not Christianity as I&I proclaim. And where were the Rastafari participating in the 'Nyabinghi'? Seems more like a Red Bones concert in the Synagogue with reggae Rasta artists! You mean to tell me that 'Selassie is God' was being chanted by those gathered? If so, sorry I missed the 'binghi'."

Of course, 'reclaim' does not imply a singular origin. The roots of Rastafari are rhizomatic, like ginger. And I was using binghi metaphorically. But, as I've learnt after almost three years of writing this column, some readers are quite suspicious of metaphors, preferring to take everything literally. Barbara insists on a 'correction'. So, to make her happy, I hereby renounce my use of the metaphor of the binghi. It was, literally, only a concert. And the roots of Rastafari really have nothing in common with ginger.

Movement of Jah people

How Jewish people came to be engaged in plantation slavery in the Caribbean is a rather long and complicated story. The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, more popularly known as the Spanish Inquisition, launched a holy war against non-Catholics in 1480. Jews and Muslims were the targets of attack. The tribunal was not abolished until 1834, the very same year that slavery was outlawed in the British Caribbean.

Muslims from North Africa, who were called Moors, had invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and occupied it for almost 600 years. The Spanish Inquisition was a belated attempt to purify the land of 'foreign' religions. Many Jews supposedly converted to Christianity but practised Judaism in secret. The Alhambra decree, issued in January 1492, put an end to the pretence. It demanded the expulsion of Jews.

Columbus' 'discovery' opened doors of opportunity for Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal. Many Sephardic Jews went to Brazil where they made fortunes in plantation slavery. According to Ralph Bennett in an essay, 'History of Jews in Brazil', "It is believed that the first sugar cane was brought by a Jewish farmer from Madeira to Brazil in 1532. Sugar cane became the foundation of the Caribbean economy for several centuries."

At the end of the 15th century, the Pope had imperiously divided the 'New' World between the Spanish and the Portuguese. The grasp of the Inquisition reached Jews in Brazil. Many were again forced to convert to Catholicism. But in 1630, the Dutch West India Company captured the city of Recife in the north of Brazil and the religious freedoms enjoyed in Holland were extended to the colony. Jews could now openly practise their religion.

But freedom was short-lived. In 1645, the Portuguese launched war against the Dutch and reclaimed Recife in 1654, round about the same time that Jamaica became a British colony. Jews expelled from Brazil made their way to the Caribbean, first to Barbados and then Jamaica, taking with them the capital and technology of sugar production.

Historian Karl Watson notes that: "Barbados presented opportunities for trade. By the mid-17th century, it was quite apparent that the English experiment in creating colonies in the West Indies for the export of tropical crops was working exceptionally well in Barbados. These newcomers were well placed to exploit this burgeoning sugar economy as part of their extensive Sephardic trading network extending from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean."

The Jewish exile in the Caribbean enabled the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and the migration of waves of indentured labourers from Europe and Asia. This is the other half of the Jamaican Jewish story that must be told. 'Jack Mandora, mi no choose none.'

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com/. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.