The Restoration Of Jewish Cemeteries In Jamaica
Over the last nine years, seventy-seven-year-old Ainsley Henriques (“Stocking the Embers of Jamaican Jewry,” 6-26-2015), community leader and Jewish Jamaican genealogist, has been working with Rachel Frankel, coordinator of volunteers from the Caribbean Volunteer Expedition (a non-profit organization that recruits people from the United States to work on historic conservation projects) to catalogue Jamaica’s thirteen remaining Jewish cemeteries in an effort to preserve the island’s rich Jewish history. Their current project is the restoration of the White Church Street Cemetery in Spanish Town, Jamaica’s former capital. This is the last Jewish cemetery to be catalogued. The plot, which had been a veritable junkyard filled with broken glass, bricks, rusted metal, plastic bags, and rubble, now resembles a dignified burial site thanks to their efforts. Once the restoration has been completed, hopefully within the year, Jamaicans and tourists will be invited to visit the island’s “newest” Jewish heritage site.
Where did Jamaican Jews Come From?
The first Jews came to Spanish-occupied Jamaica between 1494 to1655. Fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, they arrived from Spain and Portugal and settled mainly near and in Spanish Town, reportedly bringing the technique to produce sugar with them. Here, disguised as Portuguese, they maintained their faith. When the British conquered the island in 1655, General Venables recorded the presence of many “Portuguese” or Portugals. With their skills in finance and trade, and the network they naturally shared with European Jews, they played an important economic role in the sugar trade and the shipping industry.
On the darker side of things, a negligible minority of Jews took part in the slave trade. Some Jews followed an equally un-Jewish career path and became pirates – more accurately, “privateers,” state-sponsored pirates working for the British, motivated by economic reasons and a desire to usurp Spanish rule.
When Port Royal, a hustling and bustling commercial center, sank into the ocean after a massive earthquake in 1692 and then suffered terrible fires in 1704 and 1815, the thriving Jewish community moved to Spanish Town. By that time there were more Jews in Jamaica than in all of North America. Ashkenazi Jews began arriving from England and Germany to join the Sephardi resident Jews. The burgeoning Jewish community saw a drop in numbers, however, when the British abolished slavery in 1838. The result of that decision was the decline of the sugar industry and many Jews left for Australia or to take part in California’s gold rush.
In 1872, Kingston Harbor, the seventh-largest natural harbor in the world, was designated the island’s capital and the Jewish community moved there. The community continued to shrink as more Jews emigrated; the influx of Jewish immigrants was minimal. In the early 20thcentury, some Jews arrived in Jamaica after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. However, very few Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe chose to make Jamaica their homeland. Similarly, except for Gibraltar Camp, which the British government set up as a temporary haven for a few hundred Jews from 1941 until the end of the war, Jamaica was not a destination for those escaping the Holocaust.
A Genealogist Discovers His Roots
With few records of Jamaican Jewry, Henriques, who remembers over one hundred guests at his family Seder when he was a child, set out to catalogue its history. “It’s important to leave a legacy for our children so that they know where they come from,” he explains. Today, he has compiled over 20,000 names spanning 350 years. “I was very excited when I discovered that I was related to Rabbi Isaac Belinfante of Amsterdam and Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes of Shearith Israel of New York,” says Henriques. “Since then, I haven’t stopped researching.”
In the 1950s, researchers Richard Barnett and Philip Wright recorded markers in most of Jamaica’s Jewish cemeteries. The Ben Zvi Institute published their work. “Although we have found inaccuracies and some tombstones are missing, the book has helped considerably with my genealogical research and with our cataloguing,” says Henriques.
Restoration of the White Church Street Cemetery, Henriques’ current project, isn’t the first restoration project that he has headed. Beginning with Hunt’s Bay Cemetery in 2007, Henriques has worked on the restoration of the Falmouth, Lucea and Montego Bay cemeteries. The project typically begins with local workers clearing the undergrowth. “It’s important for the local people to become aware of what exists in their community, and to see how we treat our ancestors,” Henriques says. During one week every January, volunteers from the Caribbean Volunteer Expedition measure the graves, photograph them and record and translate all the information on the tombstones. These records will soon be digitized and made available online.
Small Jewish cemeteries are dotted throughout Jamaica. “As people moved away from Kingston for economic reasons, they were forced to open cemeteries in these outlying areas,” says Henriques. Jewish law requires that a person be buried as quickly as possible, preferably on the day of death. “Without cars for transport, there simply wasn’t enough time to bring the bodies to Kingston.” A small cemetery with thirteen graves in St. Anne’s Bay on the north coast near today’s tourist center is one example of these outlying cemeteries. The Montego Bay Cemetery contains 21 graves.
Hunt’s Bay Cemetery, west of Kingston, was the burial site for the Jewish community of Port Royal, where Jews fleeing the Inquisition first settled. But why didn’t the Jews bury their dead in Port Royal? The city was located at the end of the Palisadoes, a thin strip of sand that serves as a natural protection for Kingston Harbor. Digging deep enough for a grave meant striking water. The Jews were left with little choice – they had to row their boats across Kingston Harbor to bury their dead on the mainland in Hunt’s Bay Cemetery. Thus, this cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Jamaica, boasting the earliest gravestone: Jacob Gabay son of Avraham who died in 1672. Today, the bluestone, limestone and marble grave markers, with epitaphs in both Portuguese and Hebrew, once again bear dignified witness to the Jews buried here.
Information has been gathered from several other cemeteries in Jamaica. The Orange Street Cemetery, located near Congregation Shaare Shalom on Duke Street, contains stones from the early 18th century and is still used by the remaining Jewish population. The early grave markers are mostly of marble and are elevated almost three feet above ground on red brick bases. Here, the vast majority of the epitaphs are written in English, which reflects a change in the population’s makeup. In 2007, volunteers worked at the Falmouth Jewish Cemetery, where they measured and recorded the inscriptions on 113 graves. That same year, they also recorded the inscriptions on the tombstones of 21 graves in the Montego Bay Cemetery. “I’m fortunate to have done more than I ever believed I could,” says Henriques.
As noted above, Henriques’ current project is the White Church Street Cemetery in Spanish Town. In Spanish Town there were three Jewish cemeteries. One has become the site of a supermarket and there is no hope of any restoration. The second one, the Neveh Shalom cemetery, was sold but thankfully nothing has been built on it. Here, in the overgrown site, the tombstones were removed and bolted to the boundary wall where most still remain. The first of the Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions in Jamaica, in 1997, worked with Henriques to record the information, mainly in English, on these grave markers. The third cemetery, the White Church Street Cemetery, has about 50 graves.
This past January, with fifty people in attendance, Henriques held a dedication ceremony where prayers and Kaddish were recited. “It’s a real tear-jerker when you realize that this is possibly the first time in a hundred years that someone is reciting Kaddish for the deceased, he says. They will now have dignified slumber.