As in many countries of the “New World,” the Jewish history of Jamaica begins with conversos, the secret Jews who fled Spain. They came to the New World seeking not only new opportunities, but also to distance themselves from the Inquisition. As in many countries of the “New World,” the conversos rejoiced when the British conquered the island from Spain in 1655. (A fascinating fact: the ship that led the British into Kingston, Jamaica, was piloted by one Compoe Sabbatha, who was, himself, a converso.)
With the island under British control, Jews felt safe coming to Jamaica, and many arrived from Spanish held territories. Just because the Inquisition was not in Jamaica, however, did not mean that the Jews were particularly welcome. As early as 1671, there was a failed petition to expel Jews, and, in 1693, a special tax was levied on the community. In the 1700s, Jews were banned from hiring Christian house-servants.
Still, the community flourished, and the Jews, who were often involved in the sugar and vanilla trades, prospered. It is apparent that the Jews were actually well-respected in Jamaica since, once they were granted equal status in 1831, they captured a decent percentage of the seats in the legislature. By 1849, eight of the forty-seven members of the colonial assembly were Jewish. In fact, that year the assembly voted to adjourn over Yom Kippur.
Both Sephardim and Ashkenazim settled in Jamaica. At one point there were synagogues in Kingston, Port Royal, Spanish Town and Montego Bay. Time, assimilation, and economic/political factors had their effect on the Jamaican Jewish community. By the 1980s, only a few hundred Jews remained. Today, one synagogue remains in Kingston, the Shaare Shalom, as well as a Jewish school (the Hillel Academy) and several other Jewish organizations.