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December 19: Jews of Jamaica

December 19, 2015

Sam_Sharpe_on_the__50_Jamacian_BankNoteEngland’s Privy Council granted full equality to Jews in the colony of Jamaica on this date in 1831 — at a time when the island was roiled by the largest slave rebellion in its history, with 200 plantations being seized by 20,000 enslaved people (under the leadership of Sam Sharpe, shown at right on Jamaican currency). The uprising was put down savagely in January, 1832, but that war prompted Great Britain to consider the costs of maintaining slavery in its colonies and to abolish it in 1834. Jamaica had been colonized by Spain in 1492 and conquered by Britain in 1655; many of the island’s Jews were Sephardim, many of converso background. According to the Jewish Virtual Library (which says nothing about slavery, for shame!), “a special tax was imposed on the Jews” in 1693, and by 1700, “Jews were considered second-class citizens because of their religion. In 1703, Jews were forbidden from using Christian servants. Finally, in 1783, Jews were prohibited from holding public office, they were required to work on the Sabbath, and again had to pay extra taxes.” Yet by 1849, less than two decades after being granted full equality, “eight of the 47 members of House of Assembly were Jewish, including the Speaker of the House. Jews became so prominent in society that in 1849, the House of Assembly did not gather on Yom Kippur. By 1881, the Jewish population reached 2,535.” They were involved in the sugar and vanilla industries, in shopkeeping, and in international commerce — including the slave trade.

“Jews were involved in the slave trade as traders, and though few owned plantations, those who worked as merchants and traders owned slaves to work in their households. It is said that Jewish emancipation was recommended at a time when the anti-slavery movement was increasing in power and white slave owners wanted the Jewish vote. But after gaining emancipation in 1831, many Jews voted with free coloreds against the ruling plantocracy.” —Joanna Newman, Jewish Renaissance