Whites and Freedom

Essays in this section:
Overview Essay on Whites and Freedom
Plantation Owners and Apprenticeship: The Dawn of Emancipation
Missionaries in Jamaica during Emancipation
A Brief History of the Jamaican Jewish Communities of the Slavery and Emancipation Period

The story of the Jewish diaspora has been one of relentless endurance. Throughout the past two millennia, millions of Jews were killed in the names of foreign G-ds. Religious, political, and economic pressures forced them to travel the world in search of freedom. No corner of the earth remains unseen by Semitic eyes. The history of the Jewish Jamaicans begins well before the periods of western exploration and colonial imperialism, although many of their struggles are rooted in the 14th and 15th century, during the mighty trials of the Iberian inquisitions.

Throughout the 1400's the Inquistion attempted to raze the Jewish populations of Spain and Portugal. They were forced underground; Great riots broke out, and mobs killed thousands in the Spanish riots of 1391 and 1392. Many gave way to the dominant Catholic Church, and participated in large public baptisms where they were forced to renounce their faith. These converts became known as “Conversos”. In time, the Catholic-dominated societies became displeased with the ambiguous Conversos, many of whom continued to practice as Jews in the privacy of their homes. As Anti-Semitic feelings reached their climax in the late 15th century, the Conversos soon became the “Marranos” meaning swine. The office of the Inquisition had once again been resurrected in 1480, again placing the Jews in a constant light of suspicion. By August of 1492 millions of Jews would suffer the racial cleansing practiced by the angry rulers of Spain. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered the Jews to convert or face expulsion; many were burned alive. Many others fled by way of Portugal to more hospitable lands in both the Old World and the New.

Jamaica was first reached by Christopher Columbus, a man of ambiguous origins.  Some claim he was Italian, some, a Basque, and others assert that he was a Marrano Jew. Columbus had contracted the right to governorship of all lands he claimed for Spain in the New World, and the laws of the Inquisition were not included in his territories. Unfortunately disputes with the crown arose, challenging the terms of his proprietorship; restrictions were also created to help the Spanish and Portuguese control the migration of the Jews to the west. Jamaica was eventually acquired by Columbus’s son, and then subsequently passed on to his granddaughter who would marry into the house of Braganza and unify the island with the rest of the Portuguese colonies. This brought about the first migration of Jewish Sephardim to the island, coming from Portugal around 1530. [1]

Jamaica passed into the hands of the Spanish when the Iberian crowns were unified, but in 1655 the English gained control of the island. A Marrano named Acosta was the chief negotiator in the surrender. [2]   Jamaica had always been more of a strategic location rather than an economic prospect in the eyes of the Spanish. The British had already learned how lucrative the plantations could be, through their trials in earlier colonies. Oliver Cromwell received Simon de Caceres, an openly practicing Jew, as his West Indian advisor. [3] De Caceres had earlier been in exile in Amsterdam, awaiting the changes that the British Civil War would bring about. In late 1660 the Sephardim petitioned for the right to remain in Jamaica, and the British permitted them willingly, thinking of them as good for establishing business and trade. The presence and tolerance of the colonial British government brought Jamaica’s first wave of Ashkenazi Jews from England and Germany in 1663, along with more Portuguese Sephardim from the recently fallen Dutch colonies. [4] By 1665 the Jews were greatly involved in commerce, and had nearly monopolized the vanilla industry. The success of the industrious Sephardic community created a disturbance among the wealthy, white elite of Jamaica. The Jews would then face a period of economic oppression that would last until 1826.

By the turn of the 18th century, sources indicate that there were nearly 80 heads of Jewish households, among a population of 7,000 whites. [5] The Sephardim had openly established cemeteries and synagogues in the Port Royal area upon the British arrival, and by this time the different customs had combined into a new “Jewmaican” culture. The big businessmen of the Island began their campaign against the Jews by trying to pass a “wholesale only” restriction upon Jewish commerce, thus restricting them from participating in retail transactions. By 1700 the Jewish population bore an amazing tax load. Still, through their persistence, Jews flourished as shopkeepers, traders, mariners, and slave traders. Research of property records show that few Jews actually had plantations. [6] The Jews had a stake in the slave auctioning system, because it was trade oriented in nature. They managed to gain considerable control of the import industries through networking with other Marrano and Sephardic Jews in the Carribean; consequently, they all lived in Port Royal on the southern side of the island where heavy trade and commerce flourished. The great earthquake of 1692 sent the Sephardim to next-door Kingston after their synagogue was destroyed.

The Sephardim formed the congregation of Kol Kadosh Shahar Hashamayim in 1693, and managed to purchase large areas of property in Kingston’s newly forming commercial district. In 1744 the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community would consecrate a two-story synagogue which embodied the new Jewmaican culture that had arisen. They decorated it with colorful eastern style rugs, Jamaican woodwork and six large silver candelabra. They also practiced a Sephardic custom of strewing sand all over the floor in remembrance of the Tabernacle. By 1730, Jews composed nearly 20 percent of Kingston’s white population. [7] The Ashkenazi community later created their own congregation in 1789.

Through out the 18th century, Jews were disproportionately taxed, were not allowed to participate in government, and did not enjoy the rights of legal citizens.  The heavy disabilities were accompanied by suspicion. Many accused Jews of transacting with the Maroons, and it was also rumored that they bought stolen goods from the slaves in exchange for certain contraband items. At the turn of the 19th century the sugar market in Jamaica became destabilized, and the Haitian revolution had spread public fear of slave revolt. The Jamaican government found that it was in their best interest to propagate a relationship with the Jewish community. The early 1800’s brought about more recognition and religious freedom for the Sephardim of Kingston. In 1826, after several civil rights related cases, the discriminatory taxes were lifted, followed by full citizen rights in 1831, 27 years before the English. The Jamaican parliament presented a silver tankard to Moses Delgado, in a public display of acceptance. Delgado was an intelligent businessman, a leader in the Sephardic community, and a generous friend of the governorship. [8] The Jews quickly involved themselves in the Jamaican government. By 1849 they held 8 of 49 seats in the Parliament.

The Sephardim were also quick to establish welfare foundations during the immediate post-emancipation era. The Hebrew National Institution was founded in 1847 followed by the Hebrew Benevolent Institution in 1851. Their mission was to “help Jews become stimulated to self dependence and industry.” A Hebrew Alms House was established to provide care for those in struggle, the group even provided a small scale industrial loan department. During this period, two men from prominent Sephardic families, Michael DeCordova and Benjamin A. Franklin, led the Jewish community while becoming seriously involved in the local and national government. This was a trend of many young professional Sephardic men.

Michael DeCordova was one of the most important people of the emancipation era, and at the same time a most unknown character. His family was among the original Portugese immigrants, and they had a long record of community involvement. DeCordova had an extremely developed career. During his lifetime his accomplishments included director and founding member of the Hebrew Benevolent Institution, Secretary of the Commercial Assembly of the Kingston Chamber of Commerce, founding member and treasurer of the Hebrew National Institution, manager of the Jamaican news room and commercial exchange, Vestryman at Kol Kadosh Shahar Hashamayim, and founder of his own printing company.  Finally, he was the editor and proprietor of “The Gleaner” (est. 1834), Jamaica’s “oldest and most widely circulated newspaper.  The paper was so successful it was offered in both daily and semi-weekly editions, and is still the foremost newspaper on the island. DeCordova had presence in the economic markets through his “most extensive advertising sheet.” Several years after the founding of “The Gleaner” another Jew named George Levy had founded the “Colonial Standard Daily”. [9] This effectively gave the Jews considerable control over the news media and printing presses.

The Jews also made their way into public office, and expanded into over 24 cities around the island.  Men with heavily Jewish names, such as Salomon, DeCordova, Salom, Altman, Levy, Franklin, Delgado, and Stines became justices of the Peace.  They became clerks of the municipal boards, and active among the fire wardens.  Jews also took a serious interest in the office of petty debt collection, with Henry Salomon in office. Salomon was also on the municipal board of commerce, the treasurer of the St. Ann’s Bay industrial board, and the son of a respected magistrate.  The rosters of legal attorneys in the 1860's included names such as Cohen and Levy. [10]  

It seems that very few people could have been more involved than Benjamin A. Franklin. He holds a remarkable record of service. His credentials include consulate of Denmark, member of the Kingston chamber of commerce, Kingston commissioner of roads, justice of the peace, founding member and president of the Hebrew National Institution, founding member and president of the Hebrew Benevolent Institution, treasurer of the Royal Incorporation Society of Art and Agriculture, city councilman, vestryman at Kol Kadosh Shahar Hashamayim, and treasurer of the commercial assembly of Kingston. [11]

With the efforts of leaders such as DeCordova and Franklin, the Jews of Jamaica have been able to sustain a steady population of nearly 1700 families since the mid-19th century. After the abolition of the constitution in 1866, the Jews took an even greater interest in the Jamaican government, and help to steer the country through the economic turmoil of the post-emancipation era. The Jews helped many blacks by lending them money and credit as they became free. Still today, the Jew or “Israelite” is viewed differently in Jamaica than in any other part of the Carribean.  The story of the Jews of Jamaica parallels, in some ways, that of those who came to the U.S.A. in the early 1900's in search of freedom from the persecution of the Russians and other Europeans. The remarkable capability to adapt and persist is what the “Jewmaicans” represent. While the plight of the Spanish and Portugese Sephardim seems buried under the tragedies of black slavery and emancipation, the significance of their later involvement with Jamaican politics and economics is still evident. The survival instincts of the Jews truly helped them to flourish in Jamaica.


[1] Mordechai Arbell, The Portugese Jews of Jamaica,(Kingston, 2000,) 7.

[2] Rabbi Bernard Hooker, United Congregation of Israelites Pamphlet (Kingston, Jamaica,) 1961; Carol Holzberg, Minorities and Power in a Black Society, (Lanham, Maryland,) 1987.

[3] Hooker, United Congregation of Israelites.

[4] Holzberg, Minorities and Power, 16.

[5] Hooker, United Congregation of Israelites; Holzberg, Minorities and Power, 20.

[6] Holzberg, Minorities and Power,21.

[7] Holzberg, Minorities and Power,24.

[8] Hooker, United Congregation of Israelites.

[9]  Decordova’s Almanac and Jamaican Pocket Book; (Kingston Jamaica. 1869 and 1871 editions.)

[10] Arbell, Portuguese Jews; Decordova’s Almanac.

[11] Decordova’s Almanac




Arbell, Mordechai. The Portugese Jews of Jamaica. Kingston: Canoe Press, 2000.

Faber, Eli. Jews, Slaves, and The Slave Trade.  New York University Press. New York, New York. 1998.

Holzberg, Carol. Minorities and Power in a Black Society.  North-South Publishing Company. Lanham, Maryland. 1987.

Loker, Zvi. Jews in the Caribbean.  Misgav Yerushalayim Press. Jerusalem, Israel. 1991.