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Portuguese-Spanish Jewish Journey to Jamaica

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  • Grace Levy (1694 - 1740)
    In 1718, Abigail Levy Franks’s father, Moses Raphael Levy, who was widowed in 1716, married Grace Mears, with whom he had seven children. Abigail despised her stepmother and spared no insult in her pro...
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  • Phineas Nunes Vaz (1800 - 1844)
  • H. G. de Lisser (1878 - 1944)
    George de Lisser CMG (9 December 1878 – 19 May 1944) was a Jamaican journalist and author. He has been called "one of the most conspicuous figures in the history of West Indian literature".[1]De Lisser...

This is sub-project of the Master Project for Jamaica: Jamaica Out Of many, One People"'.

In 1700, there were more Jews in Spanish Town than in all of North America, and by 1730, Jews represented 12 percent of the white population of Jamaica. In the 18th century, Ashkenazi Jews began arriving from England and Germany, joining the Sephardi Jews who had begun to arrive a century earlier. In the early 20th century, some Jews came to Jamaica after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. (Source).


The Portuguese - Spanish - Dutch Jews of Jamaica

14th Century Jewish Journey to Jamaica

Jews of Portuguese-Spanish ancestry first landed on the island some 40 years later in 1530. They made their homes in Spanish Town, then known as St. Jago de la Vega the only operating town on the island at the time.

After many years, groups of Jews approached their Spanish governor and requested permission to settle on the island. Permission was duly granted.

The 1530 - 1640 Portuguese Crypto Jewish Influx

Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, but mainly Portugal, settled in Jamaica beginning about 1530 CE to avoid the Inquisition that was making their secret lives miserable and dangerous. At this time, the island was a Spanish territory. In Jamaica they continued to profess being Catholic, but they were able more easily to continue their Jewish observances in secret than on the Iberian Peninsula. (Source).

Between 1530 and 1640, crypto Jews emigrating to the New World were nearly all Portuguese. In most Spanish colonies Portuguese was synonymous to "crypto Jews". (The Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415-1825," by C. R. Boxer.)

Influx of Jewish Settlers from Amsterdam - 1655 In 1655 the British navy sailed into Kingston, Jamaica, led by a Crypto-Jewish pilot, Campoe Sabbatha. Once the British conquered the island from Spain, the Jews came out of the closet and openly practiced their religion. Over time Jews from other Spanish colonies made their way to Jamaica and their numbers grew. Although most Jews settled in Spanish Town and Kingston (on the southwest shore of the island), they lived everywhere in Jamaica. Their numbers were surprisingly large until recent times. (Source).

In 1655, following the English Conquest, Amsterdam Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel visited Lord Protector Cromwell and requested permission for Jews to settle in England (which Cromwell welcomed in the hope that the Jews would bring capital and mercantile knowledge). This implied permission in English colonies, which led to another influx of Jewish settlers to Jamaica from places like Amsterdam. All Jewish settlers had to be naturalized as British citizens and as such they were entitled to own property, a right denied to Jews in Medieval Europe.

17th Century

Jamaica's revered historian Edward Long described the Jews in 17th century Spanish Town thus:

"The Jews here are remarkably healthy and long-lived....I think they owe their good health and longevity, as well as their fertility, to a very sparing use of strong liquors, their early rising, their indulgence on garlic and fish, Mosaic Laws, sugar, chocolate."

18th Century

1700 - 400 Jews

1735 - 800 Jews

19th Century

The two Spanish Town congregations united in 1844. Many families had begun to relocate to Kingston as that town grew in economic and political importance. Today, the site of the Sephardic Synagogue and its adjacent cemetery replete with gravestones featuring names such as,

  • De Souza,
  • de Pass,
  • Melhado
  • Nunes
  • Moses Cohen Henriques - Pirate, escapee from Spanish Inquisition (See Wikipedia).

1881 - 2535 Jews

In 1884 the United Congregation of Israelites was formed from a union of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations, and it continues to exist to this day. This congregation was an umbrella organization for Jamaican Jews from all sections of the island. Its purpose was to conform religious practice with a population that was no longer Orthodox and wished to adopt Conservative rituals and practices.

20th Century

1901 - about 2,400 Jews

1957 - 1600 Jews

Most of Jamaica's Jews left for Britain, the USA and Canada between 1962, when Jamaica became independent, and the 1970s, when political unrest was widespread.

1978 - 350 Jews

21st Century

2005 - 250 Jews

Jewish Cemeteries in Jamaica

(See The Jews of Jamaica -- Then and Now and the Jamaica Graves project for more indepth review).

  1. Hunt's Bay --- Across the harbor from Port Royal
  2. Kingston, Orange St. --- two cemeteries, Sephardic
  3. Kingston, Church and North St. --- Sephardic
  4. Kingston, Ellison Road --- Ashkenazi
  5. Buff Bay, Portland
  6. Spanish Town, White Church St. --- two cemeteries
  7. Spanish Town --- adjacent to "Neve Shalom".
  8. St. Anne Bay, St. Ann
  9. Annotto Bay, St. Mary
  10. Port Maria
  11. Clarendon
  12. Lacovia --- St. Elisabeth
  13. Glenmore --- two cemeteries
  14. Falmouth --- two cemeteries
  15. Lucea
  16. Rowe Corner