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Rediscovering Jamaica's Jewish pirates

While these days Jamaica's Jewish population includes a mere 200 people, Jewish immigrants have played a major part in the island's cultural life for generations. A major travel magazine recently outlined the historical record of Jamaican buccaneers, plus efforts to preserve that history for generations of locals and visitors to come.

Rediscovering Jamaica's Jewish pirates

Once the destination of Jewish pirates, battling to control its waters and its island shores, much of this history of Jamaica is uncovered by stumbling across centuries-old graveyards. At least that’s how a recent article published in Travel + Leisure magazine presents “The Forgotten Jewish Pirates of Jamaica”.

Writer Ross Kenneth Urken unearths the varied tales of buccaneers, once prevalent on the island but now resigned to the stories told by tour operators and the recounts of cultural historians, hoping to bring renewed consideration of the role Jewish pirates and citizens played on the formation of the country today.

Urken describes how he first found Hunts Bay Cemetery in Kingston, existing in the midst of tall grass and a herd of cattle, not far from the Red Stripe brewery in a shantytown. Led to the site by a nonprofit called Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions (CVE), he and his group discovered seven grave markers, each displaying a skull and crossbones as well as Hebrew benedictions, the buried coffins likely taken by ferry across Cagway Bay from Port Royal.

It is one of nearly two-dozen Jewish burial grounds existing on the island, in stark contrast to the fewer than 200 Jamaicans who now list themselves as Jewish. While several of the centuries old citizens were sugar merchants and gold traders, others were buccaneers who plundered millions from Spanish ships.

Jewish pirates are said to have played a major part in the country’s early years as Port Royal inspired the Pirates of the Caribbean amusement park ride as well as the movie franchise carrying the same name. The city also once held the distinction of being known as “the wickedest city in the world”.

Urken suggests, though, there’s no mention of pirates in the country’s new tourism slogan “Jamaica - Get All Right”. Despite this, some believe Jewish immigrants first entered the island’s cultural life in 1655, but possibly as far back as the late 1400s when Columbus sailed to the Americas for the second time.

Led by a New York-based architect, organizations like CVE now seek to raise awareness of Jewish cemeteries in Jamaica, tallying the gravesites, transcribing epitaphs and focusing on cultural preservation in the region. Jamaica Jewish Tours is another group that tells Jamaica’s Semitic history, selling customized itineraries that take visitors to key Jewish historical locations, like Rowes Corner, another Jewish cemetery on the southeastern coast, plus to various sugar plantations and to Appleton rum distillery, formerly Jewish-owned. Falmouth Heritage Walks, a tour operator in Falmouth, also leads cruise ship passengers and other visitors on tours of the Jewish cemetery.

Developers of The Oceana Hotel, a landmark property close to an Ashkenazi burial ground and the Kingston waterfront hope to reopen the location in 2017 and are also working with local officials to return cruise ships to the area with tours of Jewish sites. This is something that proponents see as a viable option to entice visitors to Jamaica and to explore areas other than the beaches.

According to James Robertson, president of the Archeological Society of Jamaica:

"Heritage is one of the cards that Jamaica does actually have and can deploy. Sun, sand, sea, and whichever amount of Ss you want to add are not going to be enough to run the Jamaican tour board now that Cuba is shiny and available."

Still, there are other Jewish locations mentioned too, including the white sand sanctuary floor of the pilgrimage site of Shaare Shalom, the only synagogue in Jamaica, paying tribute to the muffled prayer footsteps of Iberian Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. The author notes The Jewish Heritage Center sits next door.

There is also the eco-resort of Great Huts, located on the northwestern shore near Port Antonio. Run by an American doctor of Jewish heritage, the resort includes a kosher kitchen, plus educational tours of Jewish pirates, the role the religion played in Rastafarianism, and the exodus of Jews in the Caribbean.

In addition, there is a concerted effort by some to advocate for making Jamaica a Caribbean Jewish homeland, an effort started in the 18th century but still gaining momentum with descendants today. Urken promotes that Port Royal served as the island’s center of Jewish life in the 17th century with the central thoroughfare of Jews Street and a synagogue.

With plans to someday return cruise ships to Kingston restoration efforts include the old Naval Hospital, on tap to be turned into a small theater, maritime museum, cafes and boutiques. There is also an effort underway to bring a facelift to Fort Charles; a historic area noted as the location the British defended their new colony from the Spanish, and one that the author maintains likely once protected pirates securing the entrance to Kingston Harbor.

Until that happens tour groups and nonprofits like CVE will continue their efforts, educating visitors on the island and documenting the country’s Jewish heritage along the way.

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