A fire at the historic Hunts Bay Jewish Cemetery highlights negligence for Jamaica’s cultural heritage

There are some Jamaican habits and attitudes that make me very sad. I am very late in reporting this* First of all, let me tell you about the fire at Hunts Bay Cemetery, which exemplifies two aspects of Jamaican life that I find depressing.

*(This summer has turned my life a little upside down, or rather knocked it sideways, but I am gradually righting myself).

The Jamaican Jewish community is deeply hurt by the carelessness of persons unknown, who decided to set fire to the historic Hunts Bay Cemetery on June 6, 2022. It is not only a historic site, it is a sacred one to the Jamaican Jewish community, at home and abroad. This is not to be taken lightly, although apparently it is not of any great consequence to anyone else, and has not (so far as I know) been reported in the local media.

Here are comments from the Jamaican Jewish Cemeteries Preservation Fund – consisting of individuals who have traveled mostly from the US, working with local community members, over several years; and who have been painstakingly and lovingly documenting, measuring and recording each individual grave for the benefit of future generations and their families. All of this is being compiled on an online database (link below). Their diligent work and sincere devotion to and respect for their ancestors in Jamaica has been disrespected, in my view.

Architect and Jewish volunteer Rachel Frankel measures the grave of “Isaac Espedes, Esq., Late Merchant of this City” at the Orange Street Jewish Cemetery in 2014. (My photo)

What makes the Hunts Bay cemetery an historic site ?

Located in St. Andrew Parish, the Hunts Bay Cemetery is the country’s oldest extant denominational graveyard and one of the oldest Jewish burial grounds in the Americas.   Beginning in 1661 with the English conquest, Jews, most identifying as Spanish Portuguese, took up residence in Port Royal and involved themselves mostly in commerce. The narrow peninsula and high water table led the community to establish their cemetery across the harbour at Hunts Bay. The earthquake of 1692 destroyed much of Port Royal and many Jews left to form and join emerging congregations elsewhere across the island. Nonetheless, Hunts Bay continued to receive burials into the early 1800s. Over three hundred and fifty tombstones remain at Hunts Bay and roughly half bear markers with legible epitaphic information. No burial registers remain.

Beginning in 1661 with the English conquest, Jews, most identifying as Spanish Portuguese, took up residence in Port Royal and involved themselves mostly in commerce. The narrow peninsula and high water table led the community to establish their cemetery across the harbour at Hunts Bay. The earthquake of 1692 destroyed much of Port Royal and many Jews left to form and join emerging congregations elsewhere across the island. Nonetheless, Hunt’s Bay continued to receive burials into the early 1800s. Over three hundred and fifty tombstones remain at Hunts Bay and roughly half bear markers with legible epitaphic information. No burial registers remain.

Hunts Bay Jewish Cemetery (Photo by Kimari McCalla Shaw, taken in February 2021). From the “Jewish Jamaican Journeys” Facebook page.

The cemetery is now a Jamaica National Heritage Trust Site and like Jamaica’s latter historic Jewish cemeteries, which ring this Caribbean island, Hunt’s Bay cemetery is not wholly preserved, accessible, or undisturbed; yet it contains a century and a half of gravestone imagery and epitaphic language. Two hundred years since it was closed for burials, its distinctive burial pattern and cemetery site design remain apparent. 

A sad cherub on a gravestone, Orange Street Jewish cemetery, Kingston, where volunteers documented many graves. (My photo)

Hunts Bay’s oldest legible grave dates to 1672. The cemetery served the local colonial Sephardi community for well over one hundred years with family names that include Aguilar, Baruh Alvares, da Costa Alveranga, de Lucena, de Leon, Gabay, Nunes and Lopes Torres. It incorporates versatility as evidenced by multi-lingual epitaphs in Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, and English; Jewish and Christian calendar systems; and fused artistry. The burial ground reveals burial practices and identities of the first generations of New World Israelites in the specific context of Jamaica. 

How did the fire start ?

On Wednesday June 6th someone not familiar with the methods and procedures for clearing historic sites, initiated a brush clearing of the cemetery. This was undertaken against advice and without permission either from Jamaica National Heritage Trust, which owns the site, or the United Congregation of Israelites, the site’s stewards.

Fire was utilized to clear the brush and it unsurprisingly got out of control. The fire department was called to put out the fire. An assessment is required to determine the extent of the damage to the structures. It is concerning and unsettling, that someone, however well meaning, without expertise or permission, would execute so dangerous an intervention on this sacred and historic site.

The importance of historic site documentation

Since 2007, two organisations (CVE and JJCPF) have documented Jamaica’s remaining 14 Jewish cemeteries and are in the process of bringing them to public awareness via a searchable online database. Unfortunately, the fire at Hunt’s Bay points to the criticality of this work. The Hunt’s Bay cemetery was documented in 2008/2009 and is available on the database thanks to the Jamaican Jewish Cemeteries Preservation Fund (jjcpf.org) See Cemetery Database — Jamaican Jewish Cemeteries Preservation Fund (jjcpf.org)

A bush fire in 2014. (My photo)

Jamaicans have a cavalier approach to fire, in general. The “slash and burn” technique of clearing land for agriculture or housing in rural areas is still prevalent. On hot and windy days this has led to many a bush fire in the hills. If a street side looks messy, a good citizen will take up his/her broom, sweep the debris into a neat pile, and set fire to it (I always thought that “open burning” was against the law, but anyway, it is rarely, if ever enforced). In many communities, if a dog is struck down by a wayward motorist, its carcass is burned, too. Burning means cleaning up.

An old picture postcard – what May Pen Cemetery used to look like.

Another sad question is this: Why is there so little respect for our ancestors? Some of the most abandoned and ruinous areas of the island – overgrown, dirty, the depository of garbage and the home of stray dogs, homeless people and criminals – are our cemeteries (with a few exceptions). We pay lip service to our National Heroes, but we do not honor those ordinary Jamaicans – our families, our forefathers and mothers – who lived alongside them. Many are forgotten, nameless, and their graves are wrecked and broken. Those buried in the “family plot” in country areas are at least remembered; but the practice is now frowned upon. May Pen Cemetery is perhaps the most egregious example of deterioration, but there are others. Do we really care about the lives of those who went before us? I wrote about this in a previous blog post, after visiting some beautiful, cared-for cemeteries in the U.S. What a contrast.

A personal footnote: It has gradually dawned on me that the current political administration is not particularly concerned with preserving what is left of our cultural heritage. Our Prime Minister seems much more interested in shiny new objects (highways, high rises, mega-hotels and inexplicably, the latest idea – a new “Third City”) and “legacy projects.” He loves to break ground and cut ribbons, with photo ops and speeches galore. Fine, it’s the feel-good stuff. It’s “progress” and “development.”

The legacy left behind for us in previous centuries (no matter how painful that is at times, but it is our history) is ignored, irrelevant (and certainly not a tourist attraction). We prefer to allow old buildings fall down, then replace them with new buildings for the tourists, with fake new architectural detail. The government agency responsible for preserving our heritage is perpetually under-funded and generally ignored. Case in point: the three centuries old Vale Royal building, which is the sole responsibility of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and which is being allowed to literally fall down, before our eyes – a depressing spectacle. Numerous attempts at constructive dialogue on the matter with OPM have been flatly turned down. More to follow on that matter!

Vale Royal, the official residence of the Prime Minister, in happier days. It is a shadow of its former self, now (the porch is collapsing). If no longer used for official functions, this could be a museum, an extension of the Institute of Jamaica, an art gallery, a visitor attraction for Kingston, a public park. Grants are available for such initiatives. (Photo: Wikipedia)

I hope to bring happier news and happier thoughts, next time.

 


5 thoughts on “A fire at the historic Hunts Bay Jewish Cemetery highlights negligence for Jamaica’s cultural heritage

  1. Thank you for reporting on the Hunts Bay Cemetery fire. This historic cemetery is the oldest denominational cemetery in Jamaica and one of the oldest extant Jewish cemeteries in the new world. I’m hoping the damage caused by the fire is not severe. Sad.

    Best regards,
    Joe

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    1. Dear Joe: I hope it is not too severe either. Please keep me updated. I was so very sad to hear this news – sad and at the same time annoyed by this kind of carelessness. It is so unnecessary. But this kind of negligence is a feature of life in Jamaica these days, it seems. Nothing is important or has any value.

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  2. This is so sad. I’m really sorry to hear. This drives home the point for me that modern day media is mostly just about sensationalism, very little constructive reports. They’d quicker report a murder or missing person report for two weeks than a fire at a cemetery. Your assessment of the PM and his love for shiny new objects + Jamaica’s poor preservation of the past is spot on. We need to remember that heritage tourism sells and sets us apart! 100+ countries offer sun, sand and sea.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Rochelle. You make a good point about the media’s preoccupation with a quick, sensational story that will hold the reader’s attention for a day or two, and then move on to the next. A story like this might be considered “soft news”… although to me it has meaning and importance. I totally agree with you on heritage tourism, but it seems our tourism officials just don’t “get” it. Our history is unique, although often painful – but it can be portrayed in all kinds of captivating ways for visitors. Jamaica has some extraordinary stories to tell.

      Liked by 1 person

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