New Book: “The Jews of Eighteenth-Century Jamaica”

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] The Jews of Eighteenth-Century Jamaica: A Testamentary History of a Diaspora in Transition, by Stanley Mirvis, was published by Yale University Press in May 2020. Here is an excerpt from a review by Sarah Phillips Casteel (New West Indian Guide, October 14, 2021).

In The Jews of Eighteenth-Century Jamaica, Stanley Mirvis paints an admirably lucid and nuanced portrait of colonial Jamaica’s Jewish community during the period of Portuguese (Sephardic) dominance. Along with Aviva Ben-Ur’s Jewish Autonomy in a Slave Society (2020) and others, Mirvis’s book contributes to an emerging historiography that charts the deep history of Jewish settlement in the Caribbean as it was shaped by diasporic, imperial, and local dynamics. While works such as Jonathan Schorsch’s Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World and Jane Gerber’s edited volume The Jews in the Caribbean (to which Mirvis contributed) are pan-Caribbean in scope, Mirvis undertakes a microhistory. This approach enables him to draw out distinctive features of Jamaican Jews vis-à-vis not only their North American and European brethren but also other Caribbean Jews. Thus if eighteenth-century Jamaican Jews were distinguished from American Jewry by their greater retention of a Portuguese ethnic identity and (conversely) from European Jewry by their creolization, they also exhibited greater autonomy than other Caribbean Jewish communities.

The eighteenth-century Jewish communal records in Jamaica were lost to a major 1882 fire in Kingston and a 1907 earthquake. Mirvis turns this unique challenge for the historian into an opportunity by establishing the value of wills as an alternative source base—albeit one skewed (as he acknowledges) to the propertied classes. While subtitled a “testamentary history,” the book also draws productively on Jamaican print culture to debunk a series of myths about Jamaican Jewry. Mirvis establishes that the community was not exclusively made up of merchants and that the distinction between merchants and planters—or “port Jews” and “plantation Jews”—was much less stable than has been assumed. He challenges both the apologist narrative that Jews were benevolent enslavers and the anti-Jewish view that they were particularly brutal ones. Finally, he characterizes the relationship of Amsterdam and London to the Jewish Jamaican community as one of “cooperative partnership” rather than of dominance of metropole over colony (p. 152). By centering the perspective of the Caribbean “periphery” in the study of early modern Jewish history, Mirvis doubly decolonizes a field that has primarily been focused on Europe and the United States.

The book is divided into seven chapters that illustrate the contradictory pull of transatlantic and localizing forces on colonial Jamaican Jewry. Chapter 1 traces the seventeenth-century origins of the Port Royal Jewish community in emigration from Europe, Brazil, Suriname, and the French islands in the aftermath of the Iberian expulsion, the Portuguese reconquest of Brazil, and the Code noir. In Chapter 2, we learn how this early Port Royal community was marginalized through imported European anti-Jewish views, discriminatory taxation measures, and attempts to limit Jewish trade. Chapter 3 shifts focus from the city to the plantation, “bring[ing] into sharp relief the harsh reality of Jewish slave ownership on an industrialized scale” (p. 65). This chapter illuminates the reciprocal relationship of Jewishness to Jamaican creolization, as enslaved people became familiar with Jewish rituals and Jews integrated into Jamaican culture. Chapter 4 analyzes the construction of Jamaican Jews as racially ambiguous in ethnographic and literary texts. In Chapter 5, a close analysis of wills illuminates facets of Jewish communal life such as engagement with religious organizations, social control over women, and education. Chapter 6 shows how the community simultaneously preserved its ethnic continuity through endogamous marriage and embedded itself in Jamaican society through (largely exploitative) relationships with women of color. Chapter 7 examines concubinage and unofficial families of color, finding in the wills of Jewish men “a strong correlation between White paternity and manumission” (p. 177). Finally, the appendix assembles excerpts from wills organized according to the book’s central themes. [. . .]

For full review, see

The Jews of Eighteenth-Century Jamaica: A Testamentary History of a Diaspora in Transition (New Haven: Yale University Press, May 2020), 304 pages; ISBN: 978-030-023-881-5 (hc)

More reviews:

Michael Rom, Sephardic Horizons, Fall 2021

R. Grant Kleiser, New Books Network, August 23, 2021 [interview podcast]

Michael Hoberman, AJS Review, April 16, 2021

Stu Halpern, Jewish Book Council, August 27, 2020

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