The Lindo family is and old Sephardic Jewish family originating in Medieval Spain, by then conquered by the Arabs. As Spain was taken back by the Catholic Kings most of the Jews fled Spain to avoid the Inquisition. The emigration pattern of the Lindo forefathers follows the ups and downs of Sephardic Jews along the way of history. The Lindos first tried to avoid persecution by pretending conversion, later they went to Portugal and then to Venice, London and Amsterdam where they practiced again their own religion. Two members of different branches of the family ended up in the West Indies. One of them was Alexandre Lindo, who was in Jamaica by 1765.
Alexandre Lindo was the son of Abraham Lindo (Amsterdam, 1711 – London, 1808) and his wife Marianne (died in London, 1779). He was born in 1742, probably in Paris or Bordeaux, France. He married for the first time in 1769 and had 7 children with his wife Hannah. After her death he married again in 1782. His second wife was Esther Salome, with whom he had 16 more children. Hannah Lindo was the first child in this marriage.
Alexandre started his successful career as a merchant in Jamaica purchasing and distributing the whole cargo of boats. Soon he began a credit business with the local merchants. As his wealth increased he bought large land properties. He managed or alternatively rented to great profit a coffee plantation. Furthermore, he invested in real estate buying strategic areas in Kingston. He had his own well equipped pier which was called “Lindo’s wharf”. He made a business buying and reselling the goods of captured boats in the Caribbean. In 1775 he entered the lucrative slave trade. By 1793 Lindo & Lake was the largest slave factoring company in Jamaica. By 1796 his house on Tower Street was the largest in Kingston, with 4 two-wheeled and 8 four- wheeled vehicles, and 30 servants. Besides he owned two transatlantic vessels and numerous properties.
In 1795 he moved to London confident that his living was assured by his operations in the West Indies. By 1802 began his turn of fortune. His partner Richard Lake run into enormous indebtness. Back in Jamaica in trying to save what was still to save he even was violently prevented the entrance to his own estate. The final blow was his support of the wrong side in the Napoleonic war. Perhaps out of sympathy for France, the country where he grew up, against odds he decided to finance the French in St. Dominique (Haiti). While Napoleon was losing in Europe the Caribbean colonies were abandoned and Britain easily took St. Dominique in 1803. Alexandre Lindo lost a fortune. He went back to London that year and never returned to Jamaica.
A pale resemblance of what he once was, Alexandre Lindo died in London in 1812. His estate (including 639 slaves) was appreciated at £ 63,881, his debts at £ 32,382. In his will and appended codicils his wife Esther, his father Abraham, and ten of his children are mentioned. There is speculation that Hannah Lindo, who married Daniel MacKinlay in 1802, may have been disowned for marrying a gentile. Certainly not all of the children who were not mentioned in his will were dead by then.
An Artist’s Legacy
by Jackie Ranston author of Belisario Sketches of Character
– A Historical Biography of a Jamaican Jewish Artist
Both Isaac Mendes Belisario and Chris Blackwell share a common ancestor in Lorenço Lindo who was imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition in 1656.
Belisario and Blackwell inherited their Lindo Jewish ancestry through their mothers: Belisario, through Esther Lindo, the daughter of Jewish émigré, Alexandre Lindo, who arrived in Jamaica in 1765 from the French seaport town of Bordeaux. And Blackwell through Blanche Lindo, who broke centuries of tradition when she married a non-Jew, Captain Joseph Blackwell — a direct descendent, incidentally, of the notorious sixteenth century Irish female pirate, Grace O’Malley, “a most feminine sea captain,” who sailed the high seas with her three galleys and 200 fighting men.
The previous paragraph took seconds to write but years to research. Biographers soon discover the reality of Dr. Johnson’s maxim that, “the greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading … a man [or woman] will turn over half a library to make a book”. And not only libraries, but museums, cemeteries and archives, especially the latter, for nothing beats the thrill of scrutinizing and touching a crusty old document which the subject of your research actually wrote and handled.
There are obvious, intellectual motives which drive some writers to spend years researching the lives of people long since vanished but for most, in-depth archival research provides an insight into events that have shaped our history by allowing individuals who lived ‘then and there’ to tell their stories in their own way and on their own terms.
A book devoted to the life and work of Isaac Mendes Belisario was not, however, my idea, but that of the publisher, Valerie Facey, of The Mill Press in Kingston. For many years, she had admired the series lithographs: Sketches of Character In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica which Belisario had produced and published from his house at 21 King Street, Kingston, between 1837-8. What caught Facey’s special attention, however, was the list of subscribers, notably one named James Malcolm Facey, who turned out to be a forebear of her husband, Dr. the Hon. Maurice William Facey, the well-known Kingston entrepreneur.
James Malcolm Facey had been born a slave and, in 1817, at the age of two, was manumitted along with his mother and elder brother. Thus, it was the discovery of the link between Belisario’s works and her husband’s family that sparked Facey’s quest for Belisario in earnest. After purging herself, she infected me, and I accepted the challenge to research and write a biography of this artist of whom, little, if anything, was known. But research unfolds in expected ways. Who would have thought, for example, that I would find not one, but two men, named, Isaac Mendes Belisario, living in Kingston, in the same place, at the same time, in 1834? It was in the process of unravelling the lives of these two men, that a wider story began to emerge, which gave to Isaac Mendes Belisario, the artist, and his family, a far greater claim to the history of Jamaica, and elsewhere, than was previously thought. And the subsequent narrative developed into a full-length family history spanning some five hundred years.
That’s why I kept the title — Sketches of Character — not only for Belisario’s work of the same name – but for the many characters we meet in this book, all of whom are related to Belisario in one way or another.
And so we meet Catalina. Who was Catalina? She was a domestic slave in the Lindo household in the Canary Islands. One morning in February 1655 she appeared before the Spanish inquisitors and denounced Lorenço Lindo and his family because she had never seen them carry a rosary or pray and they refused to eat pork. She suspected them of being Jews. Lorenço and his wife were incarcerated in the secret cells by the Inquisition but escaped its clutches and fled to London with subsequent generations marking time in the ghettos of Venice, Amsterdam, and Bordeaux before Alexandre Lindo settled in Jamaica. Meanwhile, we find another, and more fortunate Jewish ancestor by the name of Mendes, appearing on stage in the opera Belisarius, for none other than the King of Spain.
Then there’s Jacob Mendes Belisario. Who was Jacob? He was Isaac’s uncle, a London art dealer and stockbroker. Today, we hear a lot in the news about worldwide recession, the troubled world of investment and fraudulent escapades. But in 1822, Jacob Mendes Belisario became involved in the most audacious fraud in history when he became the agent for Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish adventurer, who managed to raise some 200,000 pounds sterling on the London market, at 6 % interest, as he beguiled London society and the man-in-the-street alike to invest in Poyais, a new republic on the Caribbean coast of Central America. The only problem was Poyais didn’t exist! The bond issues, land sales, and trumped-up currency of the imaginary territory of Poyais, were all part of a brilliant scam.
Another member of the Belisario family was involved with Central America, and that was Sgt. Edward Belizario [sic] of the West India Regiment. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for bravery, but his colour prevented him from being promoted above the rank of sergeant. In latter years, however, his name was immortalized in the military Camp Belizario in Belize.
Elections too, have been dominating the news recently, especially in the United States, but the election held in Jamaica in April 1886, was also significant for us as a nation. I’m not talking here about candidates or for whom people voted, but the racial breakdown of the registered voters themselves, who were classified in those days, as four groups: ‘African’, of ‘Mixed Race’, ‘European’, and ‘Indian’.
Jamaica was (and still is) divided into fourteen parishes. You might be interested to know which parishes had the highest number of African voters in 1886. It was twelve out of the fourteen. You might be interested also to know which parish had the greater number of European voters in 1886. The answer is none. The African sector of Jamaican society in 1886 formed the majority of the electorate in all parishes except two: Kingston and St Andrew, where persons of Mixed Race formed the majority.
So what does all this have to do with Isaac Mendes Belisario? The man who worked to extend the franchise to include greater participation by the African and Mixed Race populations in Jamaica, was Belisario’s cousin – Abraham Lindo of Falmouth. It just goes to show how much can be learned about an entire society by following the trajectory of a single life, in this case, Isaac Mendes Belisario.
Born in Kingston in 1794, Belisario was named after his grandfather, the Rabbi Isaac Mendes Belisario (1719-1791), one of the rubissim or teachers at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. One of the Rabbi’s sons, Abraham Mendes Belisario came to Jamaica in 1786 where he was employed by Alexandre Lindo, who was by now one of the wealthiest Jews in the island. When Abraham married Alexandre’s daughter, Esther Lindo, fortune favoured him and he was made a partner in Lindo’s business which included the successful negotiation for a whopping loan of some half-a-million pounds sterling to the French government to equip the French troops in neighbouring St. Domingue (Haiti). But in the game that fortune never ceases to play, the wheel began its downward turn when Napoleon decided that he needed all his men in Europe and virtually abandoned St. Domingue and … repayment of the loan! Adding insult to injury, Napoleon ordered the arrest of both Belisario’s father and grandfather, immediate-ment, and the nine-year-old Isaac was scooped up with the rest of the family as they fled Kingston for London.
Faced now with bankruptcy, Isaac Mendes Belisario’s father, looked for a job and soon found himself back in the West Indies, this time in Tortola, where he became the manager of seven sugar plantations, and was horrified to see how cruelly the slaves were treated, in particular, by one man, Arthur Hodge, a member no less of His Majesty’s Council for the Virgin Islands. Abraham, not only brought Hodge to trial and ensured that the guilty man hanged for his crime, but he kept copious notes of the trial and, at his own expense, published the report in London as grist to the mill of the abolitionists:
“The public will read this trial with horror,” said Abraham Mendes Belisario, “humanity still suffers,” and he spent the rest of his life working for the amelioration of the slaves throughout the British West Indies.
Abraham had left his family in London during his time in Tortola, and it was during these years of his father’s absence, that Isaac Mendes Belisario retreated into the world of art, unusual for a Jew with his background. He became a pupil of the English watercolourist, Robert Hills, and by 1812, Belisario had produced his now famous watercolour showing the interior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.
Between 1815-1818, Isaac Mendes Belisario exhibited landscapes at the Royal Academy, and the Society for Painters in Oils and Water-Colours. The first of his exhibits, ‘Road Scene with Cattle’, signed and dated 1815, is now owned by Baroness L.A. von Maltzahn of Oxfordshire, England, and hangs in a cosy, quiet, subdued corner of a sitting room away from the harsh light of day. I discovered that it was acquired by her husband, Baron Imre von Maltzahn, himself a lithographer of note, at a Watercolour Fair in 1986. Trying to locate the whereabouts of Belisario’s paintings, lost for nearly two centuries, was anything but easy. It’s basically old fashioned detective work and in this instance, a clue was found in the journal of another artist, John Linnell, a contemporary of Belisario. Any researcher learns early that you have to be flexible and accept dead ends, follow unanticipated leads and take advantage of the unexpected which was profound in this case, because when I finally tracked the painting down and met Maltzahn, I discovered that the Belisario watercolour was not the only connection he shared with Jamaica. His grandmother, Millicent von Maltzahn was a frequent visitor to the island in the 1920s, being the niece of the English musician, writer and philosopher, Walter Jekyll, who lived first in the Port Royal Mountains before retiring to the parish of Hanover. In 1907, Jekyll published his renowned Jamaica Song and Story, a collection of Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes as “a tribute to my love for Jamaica”. It was around this time also that Jekyll became the mentor of the Jamaican poet, Claude McKay (1889- 1948). Jekyll not only encouraged McKay to write in dialect verse but presented him with a financial gift that enabled McKay to move to the United States where he achieved international fame as a poet and fiction writer.
Apart from the characters and their stories, my book includes reproductions of the majority of Belisario’s known works – some escaped the net – but this has been compensated for by the inclusion of four previously unknown works by Belisario which are published here for the first time.
Isaac Mendes Belisario spent time as a broker on the London Stock Exchange with his wily uncle Jacob of Poyais fame, before returning home to Jamaica in December 1834. He set up his studio on the south-east corner of The Parade in Kingston where he painted landscapes and delicate watercolour portraits of colonial officials and their families. But as Isaac Mendes Belisario reintroduced himself to the city of his birth, he became fascinated by the Christmas masquerades known as ‘Jonkonnu’ which had been performed annually by the enslaved since at least the late seventeenth century.
It was during the Christmas of 1836 that Belisario started work on the preliminary drawings for what would become his pivotal work: Sketches of Character – a series of twelve lithographs, hand drawn on stone and printed by Adolphe Duperly, the French lithographer resident in Jamaica. The prints were hand tinted with the most popular being the seven Jonkonnu characters.
In tracing the West African roots of Jonkonnu and its evolution in Jamaica, I have supported the theory that it had its origins with Jon Konny, a celebrated Nzema chief who ruled over Prince’s Town in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in what is now Ghana. Konny had been the agent of the Brandenburgers who had built Fort Gross-Friedrichsburg at Prince’s Town in 1683. When the disillusioned Prussians sailed home in 1717, they left Konny in charge of the fort but three years later the Dutch arrived in three warships with the news that they had bought the fort from the Brandenburgers. Konny refused to hand over the fort, saying that even if the Europeans had bought the building and its contents, they hadn’t bought the land on which it sat; and that was not for sale. A war ensued for some years which cost the Dutch a great deal of blood and money while Konny, flushed with his victories, became a mortal enemy to the Dutch, having paved a little path from the outside gate to the inner apartment of his castle with the skulls of slain Dutchmen.
The Dutch retreated but returned in 1724, and this time drove Konny and his men out of Prince’s Town and captured the fort. I followed up this story with the present chief of Prince’s Town: Chief Nana Ndama Kundumuah IV and his oral historians who say that Konny later returned with his troops and, in an unsuccessful attempt to recapture both fort and town, he was captured and sold as a slave to Jamaica and the Jonkonnu celebrations had originated in his honour.
I was introduced to Chief Nana by Paula Royster, founder and president of both the Centre for African American Genealogical Research (CAAGRI) in Fredericksburg, Virgina and the Fredericksburg-Prince’s Town Sister City Association. In October 2007, Royster had conducted a series of DNA tests in Prince’s Town, Ghana, and the results returned a positive match between Chief Nana and Howard Robertson, a public relations executive from Memphis, Tennessee. The two men share a common female ancestor and “their connection may go back 28 generations, before families were separated by the slave trade,” says Royster, who organized their reunion in November 2008, an indoor pavilion at the home and studio of the renowned artist, Gary Melchers, at Belmont, Stafford County, Virginia, by the Rappahannock River. The location was strategic. During the Civil War this was the freedom river; any slave who managed to cross the Rappahannock and reach the other side – the Union side – would be free.
It was here that Chief Nana performed an atonement and reconciliation ceremony to reunite the two families and atone for the evils of slavery. Such rituals are often performed in Africa but never before had an African chief performed one in the United States. I was asked to participate by giving a history of Jonkonnu in Jamaica and presented Chief Nana with a copy of the book as a tribute to Jon Konny.
Over time, as we see from Belisario’s lithographs, the Jonkonnu masquerades became very elaborate, as they incorporated the traditions of other African peoples and even some European carnival traditions. If anything, Jonkonnu became a leveller of slave society. The great houses were opened and the slaves “drank with their masters and spoke with greater familiarity”; the distance between them appeared to be annihilated for a moment. By December 1835, “several females who would be termed ‘Genteel’ were found ‘going under the mask’,” one newspaper reported, and when two sets of boisterous masqueraders were arrested and told to unmask, they were found to be of “ALL COMPLEXIONS” another contemporary newspaper noted in capital letters.
As far as we know, Belisario never married; never had children. He was not a well man being the victim of tuberculosis, “that dreaded disease,” said Charles Dickens, “in which death takes the glow and hue of life, and life the gaunt and grisly form of death”. Nonetheless, Isaac Mendes Belisario still has collateral descendents in Jamaica and elsewhere, including Australia, all of whom are revealed to readers in a chapter entitled ‘Family Trees and Traits’.
Belisario’s direct descendants on the Lindo side, however, continue to thrive in Jamaica. When Alexandre Lindo left for London in 1803, his eldest son, Abraham Lindo, remained in the island and successfully subdivided lands he owned at Lindo’s Town in Kingston, by selling some two hundred and fifty lots of varying size to create a working-class township. It was inhabited by free artisans, both black and brown, and included a fair proportion of women, in addition to some white planters who bought up the larger lots.
Three of Abraham’s sons: Frederick, David, and Abraham, left Kingston to set up a store – Lindo Brothers – in the thriving seaport town of Falmouth. Frederick subsequently had a hearty brood of eight sons who found themselves out of work as the sailing ships were replaced by steam vessels which the Falmouth harbour was unable to handle. As more and more of the coastal trade was diverted to towns with good natural harbours or to Kingston itself, the eight Lindo brothers took off to Costa Rica where they tried their luck in planting bananas. Twenty years later, they owned 25,000 acres of land producing 5 million stems of the ‘green gold’. The brothers returned to Jamaica in 1914 to create another fortune when they turned 8,000 acres of marginal land at Vere into the most productive sugar estates in the country and followed this with becoming one of the world’s leading rum manufacturers when they bought out the Appleton Estate and J. Wray & Nephew. It was the youngest of the Lindo brothers, Percy, who ran J. Wray & Nephew and married his cousin, Hilda Lindo, giving their four children which include Blanche, a double dose of the Lindo spirit.
Blanche’s son, Chris Blackwell, initially set his own wheel of fortune spinning for his country and himself, promoting Jamaican music with Bob Marley among one of his early recording artistes. Some may argue that Blackwell and Marley were destined to meet. Marley’s success with Blackwell’s Island Records was crowned with a move from Trench Town – a government housing scheme – to a more palatial residence at 56 Hope Road, now a major Kingston tourist attraction. The entrance columns bear name plates telling visitors that this is now the Bob Marley Museum. They hide the original name of the house – Odnil – an inversion of Lindo, whose family home it once was. “In this great future,” Bob Marley reminds us in ‘Trench Town Roc’, “you cannot forget your past.”
© Jackie Ranston