Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

28 February 2024

Reframing Dominant Narratives: Jewish History on the Island of Jamaica

Marina Delfos Harris is a native Jamaican and community historian; she was a 2023 Eccles Institute Visiting Fellow at the British Library. 

Jamaica’s Jewish heritage has intrigued me for over 20 years and was the focus of my Master’s Thesis at the London Metropolitan University back in 2005. Over the last 12 years, I have become more involved in researching and preserving this rich heritage, particularly through Jewish cemeteries. However, this work has been mainly voluntary and not as consistent as I would have liked. Two years ago, I made a commitment to myself to find a way to dedicate the rest of my working life to what I consider a vital, albeit forgotten aspect of Jamaican history and culture. 

Lifelong learning is a thing, a thing so powerful that we underestimate its importance when it comes to mature students and researchers who can contribute to world knowledge in powerful ways. The Eccles Institute for the Americas supports this concept of lifelong learning. Their Visiting Fellowships offer a brilliant opportunity for independent researchers such as me to engage in original research at a world-class institution. They are especially beneficial to those of us who need that jumpstart to further our research.   

In applying for the Fellowship my goal was and is still to expand our knowledge of Jamaica’s Jewish history so that the overall historical narrative of Jamaica can be more inclusive and accurate. One of the ways I wanted to pursue this goal was to start filling in the gaps in original community records that have been destroyed by fire, hurricanes and earthquakes on the island over the last three and a half centuries. The collection of Jewish cemetery archives that remain in Jamaica has, like many other historic cemeteries around the world, been compromised by vandalism and neglect. Yet, what I discovered while in London, was that Jamaica’s oldest Jewish cemetery, the 17th century Hunts Bay burial ground, has a much larger percentage of legible tombstones than the oldest Jewish cemetery in the UK, the 17th-century Velho ‘Old Cemetery’ established by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in London’s East End. What this realization reinforced for me was that the work that my colleagues and I do through the Jamaican Jewish Cemeteries Preservation Fund (JJCPF), has value and that the documentation we are creating is significant. My research findings at the British Library will supplement this work and contribute to a repository that other researchers and genealogists can access. 

Initially my research plan was focused on searching for maps confirming the locations of Jewish cemeteries in Jamaica, plus scanning for death announcements in newspapers and other publications. I spent my first week in Maps Reading Room and and had assumed there must be detailed plans of the key port towns like Port Royal and the old Capital of St. Jago de La Vega (Spanish Town) as Jamaica was a former British colony, and a significant one at that in the 18th century. Frustratingly this was not the case. I found maps of interest but not that “aha!” moment I had expected. But this is research, as one of the other Fellows commiserated with the rest of us at one of our bi-monthly Researchers Packed Lunch.  

A map of Kingston showing the streets and location of properties for insurance purposes.
C.E. Goad, Insurance Plan of Kingston, 1894. British Library shelfmark: 145.b.3(5.)

From there I moved on to the Newsroom where I could have spent my entire four weeks! The data was rich and broad and my plan to scan only for obituaries quickly went out the window. I was giddy with excitement when I found numerous references to the Jewish population: business ads, court cases, gaol lists, juror lists, lists of passengers departing and arriving, and committee memberships. One page of ads from the 19 February 1840 edition of The St. Jago De La Vega Gazette, for example, mentions the following Jamaican Jews: Depass, Dias, Spyers and Sanguinetti - Liquor Licenses; Deleon and Lyon - Tavern Licenses; Lyon, Fuertado and Sanguinetti – Goods for Sale; De LaMotta – Deputy Marshall’s Office; Court Cases – Moss vs Lazarus and Levison vs Lyon. 

Image of two pages of a newspaper, with four columns on text on each page.
St. Jago De La Vega Gazette, 19 February 1840. British Library shelfmark: MFM.MMisc1070 

Scanning microfilm was tedious but rewarding. One of the bits of helpful advice I received before I embarked on my Fellowship, was to gather as much information as possible while I was there and save the analyzing for later. The ability to scan and email a newspaper page from microfilm allowed me this luxury and is one of the best tools offered by the British Library. 

The final two weeks of my research were dedicated to the Manuscripts and Rare Books Reading Rooms. This is when I started to hone my research skills and build confidence with my approach to the materials. I became more adept at sifting through documents to determine what information was valuable and what wasn’t. It was essential to get a feel of what else was held within the various collections at the British Library, as undoubtedly there are treasures to be discovered in the most obscure of manuscripts. It could be a telling entry in meticulously kept government records, or a sentence that gives pause, challenging what you thought you understood. My research also benefited from access to online journals during my Fellowship.  Jstor is an incredible resource that connected me with multiple articles and references to Jamaica’s Jewish community.  

One of my finds The Natural, Moral and Political History of Jamaica... by James Knight, included commentary on Jamaica’s Jews; some of which was derogatory. The ‘List of Landowners in Jamaica etc. about 1750’ was a gem of a record, however, and I was surprised to see the number of Jews who owned land, many of them occupying over 500 acres.  It will be constructive comparing it to the ‘List of Jewish Persons Endenizened and Naturalized 1609-1799' compiled by Samuel, Barnett & Diamond that I viewed on Jstor, as 141 Jews were naturalized in Jamaica during the period 1741-1751. 

All in all, I collected a significant amount of information, although at the time I thought I hadn’t, and it has taken me several weeks to compile and label 48 pages of typed notes and tables, 94 pages of newspaper scans, 43 images of maps and 69 images of manuscripts and books.  There were many maps and documents that didn’t reveal anything useful, but for me the absence of information is just as telling as the presence of information.   

My role now, as I see it, is to analyze, write and present my findings, add to the knowledge base and continue research. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity that the Eccles Institute Fellowship offered me and the sense of purpose it gave me to continue with my goal of learning and sharing research about Jamaican Jewish history. 

As I reflect on my Fellowship and the data I collected, I am encouraged by Heidi Kaufman’s “Strangers in the Archive,” where she asserts that archives have the power to shape and produce meaning, and in turn, I believe, to reframe marginalized narratives like that of Jamaica’s Jewish community.