Jamaica, Curaçao and Jews

A Brief History of Jamaica and Curaçao with emphasis on the part played by the Jews

Jamaica was discovered (from a European perspective) by Columbus in 1494. By 1509 it had passed to Spanish rule who established Spanish Town as its capital. The Spanish Inquisition coincided with the European colonisation of the New World and substantial numbers of Spanish and Portuguese Jews settled in the colonies in Brazil and the Caribbean including Surinam. In 1530 the first ship-load of Portuguese-Spanish Jews (Conversos) enterd Jamaica and settled in Spanish town. The Island was divided among eight noble Spanish families who discouraged immigration to such an extent that when the English took over in 1655 the population of whites and slaves was not more than 3000. A feature of the Spanish period of control was the annihilation of the gentle and peaceful Arawak Indian inhabitants. By 1658 the Spanish had been entirely expelled and their slaves (known as Maroons) had escaped to the mountains from where they caused continuous trouble. The Portuguese on the other hand were allowed to remain and along with them many Jews who had taken Portuguese citizenship.

Under Cromwell’s foreign policy, immigration was encouraged with special rights given to Jews because of their experience in trade. As a consequence of this policy by Cromwell Jews came from Brazil in 1662, from England in 1663, British Guiana in 1664 and from Surinam in 1673. By 1672 the sugar industry had been introduced into Jamaica. This required a large labour force and Jamaica became one of the greatest slave markets in the world.

The country reached its zenith of its prodigious prosperity just before the slave trade was abolished in the 1830s. This prosperity was built on the production of sugar, coffee, cocoa, pimento, ginger and indigo as well as being a depot for the lucrative trade with the Spanish Main. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Jews were involved in the sugar and vanilla industries as well as being leaders in trade and shipping. While there was official encouragement for the Jews because of their contribution to the economy of the island their non-Jewish competitors became jealous of their success and, accusing them of unfair trading practices, petitioned the government to introduce taxes against them or even have them expelled from the island. Some taxes were imposed but they were not expelled. Despite this the Jewish community continued to grow and prosper. Synagogues were built:

Sephardi K.K. Neveh Shalom (Habitation of Peace) (1704) and Ashkenazi K.K. Mikveh Yisrael (Hope of Israel) (1796) in Spanish Town. The Portuguese Synagogue Shaar Hashamayim was completed in 1744 in Kingston. By 1831 their condition improved when they were given equality and were able to vote. (See Notes).  In this they were successful and by 1849 a sixth of the colonial assembly was Jewish.

The slaves revolted in 1832 in anticipation of their emancipation in 1834 after which the island’s economy collapsed – not helped by the repeal of the differential duty on foreign sugar by the British government. By 1865 the country’s financial affairs were at their lowest ebb and in the same year the ex-slaves rose against the whites in Morant Bay murdering most of them. As a result of the cruel imposition of martial law the governor was eventually recalled and replaced. See Note

By this time Sarah Ann and her children had left the island.

Because of its importance in the Jewish history of the Caribbean I include a short note on Curaçao: Occupied by the Spanish in 1527, the Dutch took over in 1634 and have held it since except for 1798 and 1806 to 1814 when it was a British possession. Its main source of income, which was substantial, came from its position as a clearing house for the slave trade based on its safe anchorage at Willemstad where they were sold and shipped to various destinations in South America and the Caribbean. Because of the Island’s arid conditions agriculture was not possible. The people turned to an economy based on trading where they imported goods from Europe and sell them on to neighbouring communities buying in exchange sugar, cocoa beans, tobacco, hides and campeche wood which they exported to Europe (note). Most of the shipping was in Jewish hands as was the associated insurance to cover the risks associated with such trade in waters where pirates operated. In these circumstances the country prospered and the population grew so that by the end of the eighteenth century it numbered about 2000 and Jews constituted about half the white population of the colony. At that time it was the largest, wealthiest and most vibrant of all the Jewish settlements in the New World. This allowed it to support other Jewish communities and it acquired the title of ‘Mother Congregation of the Americas’  See Notes


The Neveh Salom Institute exists to support Jewish remains from Colonial Jamaica.

Neveh Shalom Institute, 58 Paddington Terrace, Kingston 6, Jamaica W.I. Article from the Internet by Ariel Scheib entitled ‘The Virtual Jewish History Tour, Jamaica’.

This has been based on the article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica eleventh edition, vol. 15 pp. 132-135, and on an article from the Caribbean Quarterly entitled ‘The Jews of Jamaica: A Historical View’. Author not recorded.]

Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edition, volume 7, p.636.

Much of this material has been extracted from an article entitled ‘A Brief History of the Sephardim of Curacao’ by Charles Gomes Casseres. Also from an article by Mordechai Arbell entitled ‘Early Relations between the Jewish Communities in the Caribbean and the Guianas and those of the Near East during the seventeenth and eighteenth Centuries’.