Book Review: Unearthing Jewish Legacy in Jamaica
Delevante, Marilyn. The Knell of Parting Day – A History of the Jews of Port Royal and The Hunts Bay Cemetery. Jamaica: Marilyn Delevante, 2008.
Reviewed by Alfred Sangster
Those of literary bent will immediately recognise the title of this splendid book as coming from the distinguished English poet Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.’
The title is appropriate for the book, for it digs deep into the past and brings to light the story of those of the Jewish faith who passed on many centuries ago, but who are now remembered.
The search and restoration of heritage and historical sites is more often, not only a labour of love, but also one that often brings pain at the memories that emerge from that search. In this case it is a personal and loving search for ancestors from a distant past.
Dr Delevante who spent over 30 years in medical practice in Jamaica ended up as the senior medical officer for Kingston before retiring from the government service. She helped to develop many new approaches to the practice of public health. She has authored and produced a well-researched and a fascinating portrayal of the life and times of the Jews of Port Royal.
The book goes far beyond the limitations of the title and demonstrates how an obvious deep commitment to her Jewish roots has led to a restoration programme for a historical site that had lain largely neglected in the bushes of Hunt’s Bay though the first efforts at restoration began about 1937. Her first visit to the cemetery in 2004 has led to a passionate desire for the preservation of this unique historical site and the story of those buried there. The burial site lies behind the Red Stripe factory plant and a rough road runs from the plant to the cemetery.
The author points out in the preface that:
“Hunt’s Bay is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the Western world with tombstones dating back to 1672 and for that reason alone deserves to be treated as a historically significant site.
Many members of the Jamaican Jewish community can trace their family line to those buried in the cemetery, but there are thousands of Jamaicans who bear the name DaCosta, deLeon, Gabay, Henriques, Levy, and Nunes, for example, who have ancestors buried in this old, but forgotten cemetery even though their families are no loner practising Jews.” The site is protected as one of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) sites but the JNHT has done nothing to restore, secure or maintain it. There are worries about the upkeep of the site and there is evidence of the re-growth of ‘bush’ in the cemetery after some clearing had been done.
This excellently illustrated table-top book of over 200 pages with its 13 chapters provides the reader with very important background information.
The introduction describes the early initiatives at a significant restoration programme beginning in 1937 to uncover and unearth the cemetery. The author’s grandfather was part of that team. Recent visits of overseas scholars and researchers as well as locals have worked in the process of restoration.
The evidence which has been unearthed by the research speaks to the fact that the Jewish colony in Port Royal was significant and prosperous. Hunt’s Bay across the channel from Port Royal was an ideal place for the Jews to bury their dead. The last recorded burial is dated 1819.
The gravestones that have been discovered were made of costly materials imported from England. Not all Jews were wealthy so the question that remains is where were the poor Jews buried? There is some evidence of wooden caskets and markers which have long since rotted away. The costly marble from many of the graves has been removed and one theory is that these stolen pieces were turned over and used in items of furniture by cabinet makers.
An important early chapter describes the migration patterns of Jews to the Caribbean and Latin America. The migrations were often of Jews escaping from the Catholic inquisition in Europe, and Jewish settlements are found in mainland countries such as Brazil, Surinam, French Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama and in many of the Caribbean islands as well. There are many excellent reproductions of early historical maps of the region and many of the cemeteries and synagogues of the Caribbean region are also pictured.
The chapter on Port Royal traces much of the history of that famous pirate base and later English fortified stronghold, used for the defence of the island of Jamaica as well as being the base for the defence of a growing Caribbean empire. Henry Morgan and Horatio Nelson are the heroes of the past. A record of the great earthquake of 1692 and the aftermath add an expanded and important historical touch to the story. Modern Port Royal features the fishing village, Gloria’s Seafood Restaurant and the landing for trips to Lime Cay.
The longest chapter is entitled, ‘Inscriptions, Translations and Photographs’. It has a collection of 163 detailed photographs of individual tombstones with the inscriptions and translations into English from the original Hebrew, Portuguese and Spanish epithets. The chapter represents a permanent memorial to those buried in the Hunt’s Bay Cemetery and represents a significant archival collection.
Closely associated with the listing of individual graves are the chapters on ‘Stones, Masons and Cemetery Art and Genealogy in the Hunt’s Bay Cemetery’. The former chapter discusses the fact that some Jewish graves are adorned with a skull and crossbones, a typical pirate symbol. One suggestion is that these symbols may well have been part of the symbolism of the times without specific identification with the pirate philosophy.
The latter chapter, describes the genealogy of a number of families and illustrates how significant the research has been into the publication,
The Jews of Port Royal practised their faith in traditional ways and there were a series of rabbis who ministered to the population.
A question that remains is what is the future of the cemetery and its environs? The author records excellent and positive relations with the local community. Aerial photographs identify the site in the context of the local neighbourhood community. There is an expressed desire to open appropriate businesses which would cater to the needs of visitors to the site. The sale of artifacts, postcards, refreshments and gift items would be an excellent development.
The book has an extensive bibliography and a useful index. It clearly belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who is anxious to have in his or her possession another publication on Jamaica’s history.