Jamaica’s first Jews, mostly of Iberian origin, settled on the narrow peninsula of Port Royal under English rule beginning in the mid 17th century. Likely due to the high water table, the Jews established their cemetery across the bay on the mainland. The burial ground became known as The Hunt’s Bay Cemetery and its earliest extant graves date to 1672. The cemetery is the oldest on the island and is a Jamaican National Historic Site. It closed for burials in the early 1800’s.
After the destruction of much of Port Royal by the earthquake of 1692 many Jews relocated across the harbor to Spanish Town and Kingston, the emerging political and commercial capitals, respectively, of the colony. Jewish settlements also existed in many of the small sea port towns. While some of Jamaica’s Jews were planters most were merchants. By the beginning of the 18th century at least 80 of Jamaica’s families were Jewish. By 1730 their numbers had climbed to close to 1000 persons and by the 1800’s Jews and their communities and cemeteries ringed the island.
In 2007, United Congregation of Israelites of Jamaica (UCIJ) asked Rachel Frankel, Vice-President of The International Survey of Jewish Monuments, to initiate documentation of the island’s Jewish cemeteries. In doing so, she leads teams of volunteers from Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions (CVE) and supervises Jamaican crews hired by UCIJ. The work is ongoing.
Under Frankel’s leadership, the cemeteries, ranging in size and historic period, are surveyed and plans are drafted. Additionally, we collect data on stone type, orientation, and condition for each gravestone. This data forms the basis of future conservation management plans and specifications. We photograph each grave marker using both digital and 35mm film. The team also transcribes and translates multi-lingual epitaphs. The data and results of the work are in the process of being digitized to comprise the Jamaican Jewish Archive: http://dloc.com/judaica/results/?t=hunts bay cemetery. The original materials are housed in the American Jewish Archives.
Frankel’s article, "Testimonial Terrain: The Cemeteries of New World Sephardim," includes an analysis of the Hunt’s Bay Cemetery and is published in Jews in Jamaica by Littman Library for Jewish Civilization in Oxford.