The Tainos were the original inhabitants of Jamaica . Next came the Jews.
Arriving soon after Columbus encountered the island on his second voyage to the New World in 1494, Jamaica's Jews are honored today as the island's first permanent settlers
The first Jamaican Jews were among the original settlers sent by Diego Columbus when he colonized the island in 1511. But no large contingent arrived until immediately after 1530 when Christopher Columbus' granddaughter married into the Royal House of Portugal . In 1536, the Spanish Crown ceded the island to the Columbus family.
During the Spanish occupation that lasted until 1655, an intermittent stream of Jewish continued to settle. To conceal their identity, they called themselves " Portugals ." Also known as marranos, they practiced their religion clandestinely, congregating in one another's homes.
When England invaded in 1655, the marranos, fearful that the Inquisition which heretofore had been kept out of the island, would expose their true identity, did more than just welcome the British, they helped them. The principal pilot who led the English ships into the harbor was a marrano from Nevis and the two Jamaicans who negotiated the surrender terms and signed the peace treaty were also marranos.
The English expelled the Spaniards but allowed the Portugals to stay. As soon as the British flag was raised the Portugals threw off all disguise and practiced their religion openly. Soon they were joined by Jews from Brazil , Surinam , Curacao , Barbados , Holland and England .
Charles II, eager to participate in the highly profitable West Indian trade, and hoping to encourage foreigners to settle, granted them rights of English citizens. The Windsor Proclamation of December 1661 provided that henceforth, children born in Jamaica should be "free denizens" of England and should enjoy "the same privileges to all intents and purposes as our free borne subjects" of England .
But though the king could issue commands, it was another story when it came to enforcing his will on a dissident population more than 3,000 miles away. The government of Jamaica had come under the control of a white aristocracy of merchants and planters who chose to ignore the Windsor Proclamation and excluded Jews and free Negroes from a voice in the government.
That Jewish survival required accommodation was a fact of life with which the Jews in Jamaica , having escaped the Inquisition, were well acquainted. Having found an island sanctuary where they could not only practice their religion openly but were free to join the business community, the Jews were not about to antagonize the aristocracy by pressing for political rights as well.
Since the Christian policy makers viewed themselves as "civilized" men, the manifestations of anti Semitism were few: Jews were denied the vote, couldn't hold public office, but they could be taxed. In 1700, the Jewish community, though numbering only 80, bore the bulk of the island's taxes.
By the middle of the 18th century, the discriminatory taxes had been abolished, and members of the Jewish community, being economically secure, sought to end the stigma of second class citizenship. In 1750, they petitioned the Assembly for the same "rights and privileges" as enjoyed by the other "of His Majesty's subjects." In rejecting the petition, the Assembly, feeling its political ascendancy threatened, declared if Jews were permitted political power, a religious war would ensue. The Jews had to wait another 80 years before they secured equal rights.
In the early 1800's, there was a clamor in England for an end to slavery. In 1807 the slave trade was outlawed and by the 1820's the abolitionist forces in Parliament held sway. Jamaica*s ruling class, pressured to grant voting rights to Free Negroes, reasoned they would also have to include the Jews or upset the premises of the society's power structure which was based on racial superiority. Thus, at long last, both groups Jews and free Nergoes were awarded full rights in 1830.
Once the barrier had been breached, the Jews and Free Negroes formed a town party to oppose the planters. In 1849, eight of the 47 members of the Legislative Assembly were Jewish, and in 1866, 13 or its members were Jewish. During that period, Jamaica was the world's only legislative body to adjourn for Yom Kippur.
Ever since, Jamaica's Jews have been well integrated in the island's multi-ethnic society and have been one of the most highly respected, prosperous and socially active people therein. They have enjoyed a measure of economic prosperity, religious toleration and civil rights they had not known since ancient times. Not that their problems as a community were over, but henceforth the problems would be internal. No longer pressured to band together, Jamaica's Jews, while striving for recognition in a society that had just been pried open, were urged by the gentile friends to drop their "foreign ways." And many did.
Except for an activist minority that started a Jewish publication, a Hebrew school, set up a Beth Din, Jewish charities and the like, many of Jamaica's Jews during this period followed their religion more out of respect for tradition than out of conviction. Intermarriage, dissension between the Sephardim and Ashkenazim sects, and the erosion of identity the assimilation process wrought, were now the major problems facing Jamaica's Jewish leaders.
Through emigration and inter-marriage, the Jewish community shrunk from 2,400 at the turn of the 20th century to 1,487 in 1911 and continued to drop to its present total of about 200 Jews. Larger and richer lands, particularly the United States , replaced Jamaica as a haven for Jews seeking refuge and fortune.
Not surprisingly, the Jews that hadn't emigrated were the established families that trace their ancestry back to the first marranos to settle in the New World . These are by and large members of the upper class who have both a social and economic stake in their island home.
Although the Jewish community is the smallest it has been in hundreds of years, it is a unified one. The differences between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim congregations were settled back in 1921 when the synagogues united in Kingston to form the United Congregation of Israelites. With 90 per cent of Jamaica's Jews living in Kingston , the United Congregation's Shaare Shalom Synagogue is the only one in the island.
The future of Jamaica's Jewish community is a future of dwindling numbers but of continued influence in every segment of Jamaican life. Just as the Jews have been good for Jamaica , so has Jamaica been good to the Jews. "Out of Many, One People" is the island's national motto that since 1830 has included her Jewish community.