Persistent Perversity On Jews and Slavery

Ainsley Henriques

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.

Pontius Pilate

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African Explorers Came Before Columbus

Several years ago, on a visit to the magnificent National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, I had a little catch-up with our tour guide.  We were in the Gulf of Mexico Hall, looking at Olmec artefacts.  The most famous works of the Olmecs are gigantic stone heads, some of which weigh 40 tons and are over two and half metres tall.

In 1862, the first Olmec head was unearthed in the state of Tabasco.  Almost a century later, the American archaeologist Matthew Stirling began excavations in 1942 in the ancient city of La Venta.  He discovered even more Olmec heads and found evidence of a civilization much older than the Mayan, Incan or Aztec, dating from about 1200 BC to 400 BC.

I knew a bit about the Olmec heads but I wanted to hear the official story. I asked the tour guide how he accounted for the African appearance of the heads.  It’s a long time ago so I can’t recall his exact words.  But it was something to this effect:  “Oh no!  It’s not African; it’s a jaguar”.  “A jaguar?” I asked in amazement.  “It looks much more like me than any jaguar.  Don’t you know that Africans were in the Americas long before Columbus?”

‘Jaguar’

The tour guide caved in:  “Yes, yes the lady is right”.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  If you look at head number 6 from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, there is no way you could mistake this decidedly human face for a jaguar.  But since it’s so obviously African, it had to mutate supernaturally into a non-human form.  The Mexican fairy tale of origins apparently could not accommodate an African genesis.

GAPS IN THE STORY

Sculptures from the Parthenon sold in 1816 to the British Museum

Museums are peculiar places, full of art and politics.  Their curators lock up pieces of the past in pretty cages and tell stories about them that are true or false to varying degrees. Many of these objects are stolen goods.  But that’s a whole other story.  Let’s just say that if the Greeks, for example, were to be properly paid for their cultural artefacts now imprisoned in the museums of their far more affluent neighbours, the proceeds would go a long way to help balance the national budget.

Acropolis museum

Better yet, if the artefacts were liberated and repatriated, the Greeks could make even bigger bucks in heritage tourism.  Museums are an essential component of the creative/cultural industries across the globe.  In non-Olympic years, one of London’s biggest attractions is the city’s network of museums and art galleries, some of which were funded, ultimately, from the bloody proceeds of plantation slavery.

Tate Gallery

Henry Tate, who made his millions in sugar refining, founded the Tate Gallery in 1897.  Tate started off rather modestly as a grocer’s apprentice in Liverpool in 1832 when he was only 13 years old.  True, slavery was abolished two years later in the British colonies in the Caribbean.  But Liverpool had been a major slaving port and, according to the website of the International Slavery Museum, “its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the 18th century.  The town and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth from the trade”.

On a related note, I ran into Ainsley Henriques, leader of the Jewish community in Jamaica, at the elegant launch of Diana McCaulay’s new novel, Huracan, two Fridays ago.

huracantrailer.htm

Ainsley and I  had a nice chat and he told me that several people had asked if he wasn’t going to respond to my column, published two weeks ago, on “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”.  He’d decided not to.  Like my Mexican tour guide, Ainsley seems to have conceded the accuracy of my account of the gaps in the story told by the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History.

AFRICA IN ANCIENT AMERICA

I discovered the Olmec civilisation in a book by the Guyanese linguist and anthropologist, Ivan Van Sertima, published in 1976.  The title makes a startling claim:  They Came Before Columbus:  The African Presence in Ancient America.  In addition to the spectacular Olmec heads, there was more evidence.

Peruvian portrait vessel

Von Wuthenau, an art historian and archaeologist at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, had unearthed many terracotta sculptures of ‘Negroid’ heads in clay, gold, copper and copal.  Van Sertima notes that the layers of soil in which these African sculptures were found “ranged from the earliest American civilizations right through to the Columbian contact period”.

Then Leo Wiener, a linguist at Harvard University, had earlier “stumbled upon a body of linguistic phenomena that indicated clearly to him the presence of an African and Arabic influence on some medieval Mexican and South American languages before the European contact period”.

Traditional pirogue

There was also the evidence of the boat-building skills and seafaring knowledge of Africans.  Small open boats could, in fact, cross the Atlantic, particularly with the assistance of the fast-flowing Guinea and Canaries currents. And the evidence kept piling up.  You just have to read Van Sertima’s book to get the whole story.  Closer to home, it makes you wonder who really discovered Discovery Bay and who had to run away from Runaway Bay.

Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean

Two Sundays ago, when I visited the Shaare Shalom synagogue for the Kingston on the Edge (KOTE) concert, ‘Music Is Sacred’, I got a grand tour of the Museum of Jamaican Jewish history that is located next door.  My distinguished guide was Mr Ainsley Henriques, leader of the Jewish community in Jamaica.

The exhibits tell a captivating story of triumphant survival in exile.  The display of sacred objects and cultural artefacts was supplemented by Ainsley’s informative commentary.  He’s a historian and genealogist with a passion for heritage preservation.  In fact, he’s the current chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

Schroeter Watercolour of Richmond Estate, 1800

I was somewhat surprised to see that the museum didn’t tell the whole story of Jewish history in Jamaica.  The role of Jews in plantation slavery is not documented at all.  This silence is troubling especially since so many students visit the museum each year.  They end up getting a rather distorted account of Jamaican, not just Jewish, history.

In his prophetic song, “Columbus”, reggae philosopher Burning Spear warns that

“A whole heap a mix up, mix up

A whole heap a bend up, bend up

Go ha fi straighten out”.

Burning Spear was, primarily, contesting the falsehood that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ Jamaica:

“I an I all I know

I an I all I say

I an I reconsider

I an I an see upfully that

Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar”.

The reconsidering and upfull revisioning that Burning Spear advocates can be applied as well to the many other partial histories we’ve inherited.  Especially this year, as we celebrate 50 years of Independence, we must acknowledge Burning Spear’s challenge to set the record straight.

Songs of lamentation

Rembrandt painting of Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem

As it turns out, Jewish people played an undeniable role in plantation slavery in Jamaica.  Ironically, Jewish exiles in the strange lands of the so-called ‘New’ World were complicit in the process of enslaving Africans.  Forced to sing King Alpha’s song, Africans in the Diaspora found consolation in the sacred book of the Jews.  They created their own dub version of Jewish songs of lamentation.

On that score, I got a rather stern response on Facebook to last week’s column, “Rastafari Reclaim Jewish Roots”, from Barbara Blake Hannah:  “‎‘Reclaim’ or ‘share’ Carolyn? ‘Reclaim’ would mean Rastafari originated from Judaism, not Christianity as I&I proclaim. And where were the Rastafari participating in the ‘Nyabinghi’? Seems more like a Red Bones concert in the Synagogue with reggae Rasta artists! You mean to tell me that ‘Selassie is God’ was being chanted by those gathered? If so, sorry I missed the ‘binghi’”.

Of course, ‘reclaim’ does not imply a singular origin.  The roots of Rastafari are rhizomatic, like ginger.  And I was using binghi metaphorically.  But, as I’ve learnt after almost three years of writing this column, some readers are quite suspicious of metaphors, preferring to take everything literally.  Barbara insists on a ‘correction’.  So, to make her happy, I hereby renounce my use of the metaphor of the binghi.  It was, literally, only a concert.  And the roots of Rastafari really have nothing in common with ginger.

Movement of Jah people

How Jewish people came to be engaged in plantation slavery in the Caribbean is a rather long and complicated story. The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, more popularly known as the Spanish Inquisition, launched a holy war against non-Catholics in 1480.  Jews and Muslims were the targets of attack.  The tribunal was not abolished until 1834, the very same year that slavery was outlawed in the British Caribbean.

Muslims from North African, who were called Moors, had invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and occupied it for almost 600 years.

The Spanish Inquisition was a belated attempt to purify the land of ‘foreign’ religions.  Many Jews supposedly converted to Christianity but practiced Judaism in secret.  The Alhambra decree, issued in January 1492, put an end to the pretence.  It demanded the expulsion of Jews.

Human trafficking routes

Columbus’ ‘discovery’ opened doors of opportunity for Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal.  Many Sephardic Jews went to Brazil where they made fortunes in plantation slavery.  According to Ralph Bennett in an essay, “History of Jews in Brazil”,  “It is believed that the first sugar cane was brought by a Jewish farmer from Madeira to Brazil in 1532. Sugar cane became the foundation of the Caribbean economy for several centuries”.

First synagogue in the Americas, Recife (1636)

At the end of the fifteenth century, the Pope had imperiously divided the ‘New’ World between the Spanish and the Portuguese.  The grasp of the Inquisition reached Jews in Brazil.  Many were again forced to convert to Catholicism.  But in 1630, the Dutch West India Company captured the city of Recife in the north of Brazil and the religious freedoms enjoyed in Holland were extended to the colony.  Jews could now openly practice their religion.

But freedom was short-lived.  In 1645 the Portuguese launched war against the Dutch and reclaimed Recife in 1654, round about the same time that Jamaica became a British colony.  Jews expelled from Brazil made their way to the Caribbean, first to Barbados and then Jamaica, taking with them the capital and technology of sugar production.

Historian Karl Watson notes that, “Barbados presented opportunities for trade. By the mid-seventeenth century it was quite apparent that the English experiment in creating colonies in the West Indies for the export of tropical crops was working exceptionally well in Barbados. These newcomers were well placed to exploit this burgeoning sugar economy as part of their extensive Sephardic trading network extending from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean”.

The Jewish exile in the Caribbean enabled the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and the migration of waves of indentured labourers from Europe and Asia.  This is the other half of the Jamaican Jewish story that must be told.  ‘Jack Mandora mi no choose none’.