The presence of Jews in Jamaica can be traced back to the island’s early days as a Spanish colony. A number of Portuguese Crypto-Jews fleeing the Inquisition began arriving on the island around 1530 and settled in Spanish Town. The Inquisition was not allowed to operate in the new colony of Jamaica, enabling these settlers to practice Judaism, albeit only in secret, but without fear of being tortured or worse. The Jamaican Jewish poet Daniel Lopes Laguna came to the island in the 1660s after escaping from imprisonment by the Inquisition.
In 1665, the British gained control of Jamaica and shortly thereafter permitted Jews to worship in public and later granted them citizenship. An influx of Jewish immigration (mainly Sephardic) to Jamaica from England, Brazil, and other South American colonies followed, and Jewish life began to take off in Jamaica with the development of synagogues, Jewish schools, and Jewish markets. Interestingly, there were some Jewish pirates of Sephardic origin, such as Moses Cohen Henriques, marauding the Caribbean and particularly Port Royal, Jamaica during this time.
However, the non-Jewish citizens of Jamaica petitioned British authorities to expel Jews from the island in 1671. Though this was not enacted, anti-Jewish sentiments persisted in Jamaica and a series of anti-Jewish measures were implemented. In 1693, the island’s officials imposed a special tax on the Jewish community and by the turn of the century, they were considered second-class citizens in Jamaica due to their status as “Jews.” They were forbidden from using Christian servants, required to work on the Sabbath, and were later prohibited from holding public office. Yet, despite such barriers, 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. Jewish immigration at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century from Curaçao and Germany further bolstered the community.
Though Jewish immigration subsided for the time being, the Jewish community in Jamaica was quite successful in the early 19th century, despite its official legal status. Isaac Mendes Belisario, considered the first Jamaican artist, was of Jewish origin and began working during this period, taking a Jamaican-oriented approach to his work. 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. 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. The House even adjourned for Yom Kippur at one point.
At the turn of the 20th century, Jews from Syria, Egypt, and Germany arrived in Jamaica. However, Jewish life in Jamaica began to take a downturn, as emigration and assimilation began to reduce the practicing population of Jews in Jamaica. As the economic prosperity that the community had experienced in the previous century began to falter, many Jamaican Jews began to leave 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.
Jamaica achieved independence in 1962, and many Jews began to leave Jamaica due to the political unrest that rocked the island in the 1970s. Today, Jamaican Jewry is small and concentrated. It is estimated that nearly 424,000 Jamaicans are descendants of the Sephardic Jewish immigrants who came to the island throughout its history.