Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1494, on his second voyage. Some historians believe that he was a Jew fleeing the Inquisition; today, members of Jamaica’s tiny remaining Jewish community claim Columbus as a forebear. The Columbus family gained ownership of Jamaica and control over the Church there, making Jamaica a safe haven from the Inquisition. The Jews of Jamaica no longer had to live in fear of being tortured or burned at the stake.
That situation lasted for over a century, until the Spanish government found an excuse to send the Inquisition to Jamaica. By that time, the island was ripe for conquest, and Jews played a pivotal role in liberating Jamaica from Spanish rule.
In 1655, a Jewish pilot named Campoe Sabada navigated an English invasion fleet into Jamaica’s harbor, to wrest the island from Spain. The Spanish soon surrendered Jamaica to England. Under English rule, Jamaica’s Jews were able to live openly as Jews. Spanish and Portuguese Jews from all over the New World immigrated to Jamaica, as well; there, they could live freely and prosper.
Jamaica also became a home for pirates. The island’s Port Royal attracted French and English buccaneers, who found in that town many customers for their loot stolen from Spain, in addition to the sensuous pleasures that they craved and the ability to repair their ships.
As the pirates prospered, so did Jamaica’s Jewish community. Between 1666 and 1670, led by the famed English pirate Henry Morgan, the buccaneers repeatedly invaded the Spanish colonies of the New World and forcibly robbed the Spaniards of their wealth. They were backed by the Jewish merchants of Port Royal. Morgan carried out six raids on Spanish ports, and finally in brought the Spanish Empire to its knees. Spain’s dominance in the New World came to an end.
Throughout Jamaica’s history, there were rumors that Christopher Columbus had discovered a secret gold mine while on the island. In 1663, three wealthy Dutch Jewish men and their sons trekked into the mountains of Jamaica to search for the mine. They claimed that Jamaica’s secret Jews had told them about the mine during the era of Spanish rule, and convinced the English King Charles to back their two-year expedition. Charles’s patience only lasted one year, though; due to their failure to locate the mine, Charles accused them of fraud and expelled them from Jamaica. However, by the time the king’s ordered reached Jamaica in 1664, the gold-seeking Jews from Holland were already gone.
One of those Dutch Jews, Abraham Cohen Henriques, may have returned to Jamaica to continue his search. In 1670, he secretly staked his claim to a large piece of property near the mouth of northern Jamaica’s Oracabessa River. Others, too, have tried to locate the mine, but it still has never been found. Does Columbus’s legendary mine actually exist? Ainsley Henriques, Abraham Cohen Henriques’s descendant and the current leader of Jamaica’s Jewish community, is quite skeptical. “The gold is in the story,” he has asserted. (1) However, one can never be too sure.
Despite numerous difficulties, the Jamaican Jewish community continued to thrive after its liberation from Spanish rule. The Jewish population has dwindled to fewer than 200 persons. Still, the aged Sha’are Shalom synagogue continues to function in Kingston, near the southern coast. An Israeli-born caterer named Vered Maoz runs a kosher food business in Kingston, as well. (2) In addition, Chabad has recently established a presence in Montego Bay, at the island’s north side, to provide visitors with opportunities to engage in Jewish practice. (3) Ainsley Henriques hosts Jewish history conferences, and opened a museum near Sha’re Shalom. Henriques aims to inform the public about Jamaica’s once-flourishing Jewish life. (4)
Pirate combat, a lost gold mine, stunning scenery, and a rich history spanning more than five centuries: Jamaica remains a fascinating locale, still ripe for new discovery…and adventure novels. Stay tuned!