Thirteen years ago, Yale’s Center for British Art, in collaboration with the Institute of Jamaica Museum, commemorated the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade with an exhibition focused on the 1834 emancipation of slaves. The exhibit centered on the work of the Jamaican artist Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795–1849). Belisario’s lithographs and watercolors, especially his 1837 Sketches of Character, which depict people of color participating in vibrant masquerade scenes, were likely intended as a celebration of Black creole culture. These lithographs would later help inform a distinct postcolonial Jamaican identity in the mid-twentieth century, making Belisario an inseparable part of Jamaican national heritage to this very day.
Belisario was also a Portuguese Jew. The artist was the scion of two Portuguese Jamaican Jewish families who profiteered on the exploitation of the enslaved. But when Belisario set out to preserve Black creole culture for posterity in 1837, his own people, the Jews of Jamaica, had only just achieved their own “emancipation”—as the process of political enfranchisement is referred to in Jewish Studies—by securing the right to vote in 1831. Jewish suffrage came directly on the heels of similar rights for free people of color and preceded the emancipation of slaves by only three years.
How is it that Belisario, a Jew, came to be so intrinsically woven into the fabric of Jamaican society and identity? And, how is it that the experiences of Jews and people of color had become so deeply enmeshed in Jamaica, while also being so very different?
Jewish communal life in English-ruled Jamaica began in the 1670s. Throughout the eighteenth century, the vast majority of Jewish settlers were Portuguese. Most were poor. They were the first, second, or third generation of former Iberian conversos—“New Christians” with Jewish ancestry—to openly identify as Jewish. Jamaica’s Portuguese Jews formed but a single node within a vast network of similar diasporic satellite communities throughout the Atlantic World, and beyond, sometimes referred to as the “Western Sephardic Diaspora.”
As part of this Diaspora that transcended state, imperial, and confessional borders, the Jews of Jamaica were entangled within multiple layers of political, communal, and religious authority. As part of an ethnically defined Portuguese Jewish Diaspora they looked to Amsterdam for religious patronage, as part of the English Empire they looked to London for political support, and as part of a colonial locality, they negotiated the divided political interests of the competing Jamaican Assembly and the crown-appointed Governor.
Like so many other immigrant and diasporic groups, Jewish alienation from their Jamaican host-land, despite the colony’s noteworthy ethnic and religious diversity, inspired aggressive lobbying efforts for greater social inclusion. Jews existed politically within Jamaica’s highly racialized social hierarchy on the same level—with the same civic disabilities—as free people of color: denied the right to vote, practice law, serve on juries, or join the militia officer corps.
In terms of civic status, Jews and free people of color had parallel experiences. In several instances, White Christian colonists even derogatorily described European-descendent Jews as Black or “Mulatto,” thus expressly equating the two groups. And, over the course of the eighteenth century, a growing number of people of color, both with and without Jewish ancestry, also identified as Jewish, complicating colonial attempts to neatly taxonomize the racial, religious, and ethnic divisions of the population. Furthermore, Jews and free people of color were both slave owners in their own right.
Like free people of color, Jewish social exclusion from White eighteenth-century Jamaican society ran deep. Jews were frequently targeted by hostile Christian merchants in antisemitic petitions to England. Between 1692 and 1740 the Jamaican Assembly required a discriminatory collective Jewish surtax. Jews were often wrongfully accused by White colonial elites of treasonous collaborations with the Spanish, the French, and autonomous Maroon communities. Anti-Jewish stereotypes, canards, and ethnographic polemics proliferated in late eighteenth-century periodicals and pamphlets. In 1783, a mob threatened to destroy the synagogue in Kingston on Yom Kippur along with the Jews congregated within.
Jews, like free people of color, vigorously campaigned for the amelioration of their status. They consistently, if futilely, lobbied the hostile Assembly to remove the discriminatory Jewish tax, initiating a dynamic trans-Atlantic lobbying campaign. In 1750, the Jamaican Jew Abraham Sanches Morao defiantly cast a vote for his representative to the Jamaican Assembly, a provocative gesture that sparked a swell of printed anti-Jewish sentiments on the island.
These self-determined efforts helped lay the groundwork for the hotly contested but ultimately successful campaign to secure Jewish suffrage in 1831—just six months after free people of color achieved the same rights. On the eve of the abolition of slavery, Jews and free people of color had just entered Jamaican civic society together. This shared cause manifested in the 1840s when many newly enfranchised Jewish voters and elected officials allied with propertied people of color against the entrenched interests of the White plantocracy.
Despite their political alliance, European-descendent Jews and people of color in Jamaica had a deep gulf of experiential difference between them. Although they both owned slaves, free people of color had not forgotten that they or their ancestors had once been owned, dehumanized, bequeathed, exploited, raped, and physically abused. Some of those owners were also Jews. But, of course, many of the newly enfranchised people of color in the 1830s identified as Jewish themselves.
Solidarity between Jews and people of color, along with all its ambiguities and contradictions, is perhaps most profoundly embodied in the art of Isaac Mendes Belisario, a Jewish voice of appreciation for Black creole culture expressed at the moment when both groups had begun to actualize their enfranchisement. Yet, Belisario was also the beneficiary of family wealth generated through oppression. It is suspected that his many landscapes depict a Jewish-owned plantation wherein hundreds of people were denied freedom and dignity. And, many parts of his Sketches of Character, an inherently racist genre, are essentializing and perpetuate discriminatory notions of racial difference. Belisario’s work, however, belongs to a historical moment defined by a sense of hope and shared cause—a moment of parallel emancipations.
Stanley Mirvis is an assistant professor of history in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, and the Harold and Jean Grossman Chair of Jewish Studies, at Arizona State University.