Ainsley Henriques, honorary secretary of the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica, ought to know the African-Jamaican proverb, ‘Cock mouth kill cock’. If he doesn’t, I’d be very surprised. After all, we’re one people. We all know each other’s cultures intimately. In any case, there must be a Jewish equivalent of this proverbial warning. It’s not only black people in Jamaica who know that sometimes words have to be eaten. And they can be very, very bitter, even toxic.
In a Gleaner article headlined, “Jews The Victims of Slavery, Too”, published on Friday, August 3, Ainsley gives a most peculiar response to my column, “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”, published on July 8. In his opening sentences, Ainsley launches a childish attack on the messenger, not the message:
“Your columnist Professor Carolyn Cooper reminds me of the lines often given to recalcitrant school boys. I quote, ‘Persistent perversity provokes patient pedagogue producing particularly painful punishment’”. Once you get past the tongue-twisting alliteration, what Ainsley seems to be saying is this: my insistence that Jews played a major role in plantation slavery in Jamaica is ‘persistent perversity’. Apparently, I’m a recalcitrant schoolgirl who doesn’t know how to behave.
Having been provoked, Ainsley, the ‘patient pedagogue’, threatens to produce ‘particularly painful punishment’. It all sounds rather sadomasochistic. Telling the whole story of Jewish history in Jamaica is a dangerous business. Truth doesn’t always set you free. It sometimes imprisons you in other people’s fictions. Next thing you know, I’m going to be labelled as ‘anti-Semitic’.
It’s not kosher
Oddly enough, having tried to use schoolboy tactics to discredit the messenger, Ainsley does concede the truth of the message. He admits that I’m “correct” in asserting that the Museum of Jewish Jamaican History gives “an incomplete history of the Jews of Jamaica”. Surprisingly, Ainsley justifies the gaps in the story with the bogus argument that “no history is ever complete”.
It is true that many histories are partial – in both senses of the word: incomplete and one-sided. But some histories are more complete than others. There is a lot of historical evidence to support the claim that Jews played a major role in plantation slavery in the Caribbean. In the case of the incomplete history in the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History, it seems as if the truth has been deliberately concealed. To what end?
Ainsley serves up a big red herring in an attempt to explain why “no mention is made of the role of the Jews in Jamaica in the horror of enslavement”. And it’s not kosher: “this is because their history with enslavement is much more than just that – too much for a poster board”. But how is this history different from the other long stories that are compressed and told on those same poster boards?
Furthermore, Ainsley shamelessly switches the topic from the role of Jews as agents in the enslavement of African people. Instead, he rehearses the story of Jews as victims of slavery, as if that was ever in question. And, again, Ainsley resorts to attacking the messenger. He dismisses my call for the whole story to be told on the specious basis that I am ignorant of the history of Jews in Jamaica and I need to read the “eminent historians at places like the University of the West Indians”. The same scholars, I suppose, who all fail to write ‘complete’ histories.
Setting the Record Straight?
I’m quite sure there are Jamaican Jews who are prepared to admit the truth about their history of participation in the slave trade. I got an email from one of them. He sent me looking for Eli Faber’s book Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight which was published in 2000 by the New York University Press. I haven’t read the book as yet. But I’ve seen a most intriguing summary of its thesis posted on Amazon:
“Focusing on the British empire, Faber assesses the extent to which Jews participated in the institution of slavery through investment in slave trading companies, ownership of slave ships, commercial activity as merchants who sold slaves upon their arrival from Africa, and direct ownership of slaves. His unprecedented original research utilizing shipping and tax records, stock-transfer ledgers, censuses, slave registers, and synagogue records reveals, once and for all, the minimal nature of Jews’ involvement in the subjugation of Africans in the Americas”.
How, in Jehovah’s name, could the word ‘minimal’ be appropriate in this context? Having sold their human ‘cargo’ and counted the profit, Jewish traders simply washed their hands of the whole sordid affair, just like Pontius Pilate. And then there were those Jews who did own slave plantations.
‘Playing Fool Fi Ketch Wise’
The final paragraph of Ainsley Henriques’ response to my column is rather disturbing. Its smugness suggests a complete failure to acknowledge the complexity of our history on this rock: “We must not wring our hands in despair nor hang our heads in shame, but hold them high and rejoice in the chance that we have been given in this life to redeem ourselves in the present and create a future for the generations to come”.
Who is the “we” for whom Ainsley speaks with such rhetorical flourish? The enslaved or the enslavers? The naked mad people in Emancipation Park? Or the distinguished panel of judges, clothed in their right mind, who selected that bestial image to brand black people? And how can we really ‘redeem ourselves in the present and create a future for the generations to come’ if we can’t manage to speak the truth about our past?
‘Cock mouth kill cock’. Ainsley’s own words produce ‘persistent perversity’. Like the Jewish trickster Joha, a distant relative of Anansi, Ainsley is desperately ‘playing fool fi ketch wise’. It would be so much easier for him to just speak the plain truth about Jews and plantation slavery in the Caribbean.