Jamaica Fiwi Roots

The Settlement of the Jews in Jamaica

The earliest Jews in Jamaica can be traced back to the early days of the Spanish colonization of the island, when a number of Portuguese Crypto-Jews, fleeing the Inquisition, began arriving on the island in the early 1530's and settled in Spanish Town.

In 1478, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella with the cooperation of the Pope, reinstituted the Inquisition, a brutal organization established in the 1100's to rid to the country of heretics. For over a century, acts of violence against Jews had been practiced by the Catholics in Spain, which greatly reduced Spain's Jewish population. Having already forced much of Spain's Jewish population to convert, the Church began rooting out those who were suspected of practicing Judaism in secret, oftentimes by extremely violent methods.

Throughout the 1400s, Spain was made up of several kingdoms. Aragon, Castile and Navarre were controlled by Christians, but the kingdom of Granada was ruled by the Moors (Muslims from North Africa). In 1492, the year Columbus embarked on his first voyage, Ferdinand and Isabella successfully captured the kingdom of Granada thereby restoring all of Spain to Christian rule. On March 31st of the same year, the monarchs issued the Alhambra Decree mandating that all Jews be expelled from the country. According to the decree, Jews were to be banished from all the realms under the joint crowns of Isabella and Ferdinand.

The opening words of Columbus' diary...

"In the same month in which their Majesties [Ferdinand and Isabella] issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies."

The results of the decree were catastrophic for the Jews. They were given four months to leave the country, resulting in the hasty selling of their assets at deflated prices to Catholics. Many converted in order to remain in Spain (aka "Conversos"), while others gave the appearance of conversion while continuing to secretly practice their religion. Modern historians believe around 40,000 Jews emigrated, with older estimates putting the number at several hundred thousand. Communities established by Spanish Jews, known as Sephardim in Hebrew, formed the foundation of the Sephardic communities that now make up a significant percentage of the world's Jewish population.

The Jews Under Spanish Rule

Defying the Spanish Inquisition, the grandson of Columbus, Portugallo Colon in 1530 allowed Jews to settle in Jamaica, and in that same year, the first ship load of Portuguese-Spanish Jews landed on the island. Many were Conversos, fleeing Europe to openly practice Judaism, who, despite the Inquisition, had continued to practice Jewish rituals in secret at great personal peril. In many other colonies of Spain and Portugal, Catholicism was stringently enforced and jews continued to be persecuted if found practicing Jewish traditions, but in the new colony of Jamaica, Colon turned a blind eye, enabling these settlers to practice Judaism, albeit only in secret, but without fear of being tortured.

The relationship between the Columbus family and the Spain had been strained throughout the early 1500s. In settlement of some legal disputes, Spain had given Jamaica to the Columbus family in the early 1500s, and it was Columbus's son, Diego Columbus who had sent the first settlers tp the island [see 1506-08 Timeline].

The Jews under British Rule

After the British gained control of Jamaica, Jews were allowed to worship in public and gain citizenship. This led to an influx of mainly Sephardic Jews immigrating to Jamaica from England, Brazil and other South American colonies. The community grew with synagogues, Jewish schools, and Jewish markets being developed. There were even Jewish pirates, such as Moses Cohen Henriques, a Dutch pirate of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish origin, operating in the Caribbean and particularly Port Royal in Jamaica during this time.

There were however, some resistance to the expansion of the Jewish community in Jamaica. The British authorities were petitioned in 1671, by other citizens to expel the Jews from the island. This was never enacted, but continued anti-Jewish sentiments did result in a series of measures that were were implemented in 1693, when a special tax was levied on the Jewish community. They were forbidden from using Christian servants, required to work on the Sabbath, and were later prohibited from holding public office. But despite this, the Jamaican Jewish community continued to thrive, increasing in population and commercial success. Jamaican Jews were particularly influential in the sugar and vanilla industries and began to play a leading role in the country's foreign trade and shipping enterprises.

The Jewish population further expanded in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with an influx of immigration from Curacao and Germany. In 1831, Jews on the island were granted full political rights and equal legal status, allowing them to vote in elections and attain property. Brothers Jacob and Joshua de Cordova founded the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper in 1834. It was also during this time that the Schloss brothers, cousins of George Stiebel, Jamaica's first black millionaire and builder and owner of Devon House , moved to the island on the encouragement of George's father, Sigismund Stiebel. The brothers, later joined by two younger brothers, established a family business with trade links in Kingston, Bogota, Frankfurt, Manchester and London.

At the turn of the 20th century, Jews from Syria, Egypt, and Germany arrived in Jamaica. By 1949, Jamaica had a notable Jewish political presence, with eight Jewish members of the House of the Assembly, including the Speaker of the House. Jewish life in Jamaica, however, began to take a downturn, as emigration and assimilation began to reduce the practicing population of Jews on the island. As the economic prosperity experienced in the previous century began to falter, many Jamaican Jews began leaving the island for countries such as England and the United States. As a result of this decline, the Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues were eventually forced to merge in 1921.

Compared to other minority groups like the East Indians and the Chinese, Jamaica's Jewish community has dwindled considerably. Today, it is a small and concentrated group. It is estimated that nearly 424,000 Jamaicans are descendants of the Sephardic Jewish immigrants who came to the island throughout its history.