22 October 2008

Jamaica: Belisario biography

Isaac Mendes Belisario (1794-1849) was a Jamaican-born Sephardic artist. His biography - "Belisario, Sketches of Character, A Historical Biography of a Jamaican Artist" - by Jackie Ranston and Valerie Facey, was just published by The Mill Press, in Jamaica.
Born in the Caribbean island of Jamaica in 1794 to a family of wealthy Jewish merchants and notorious slave traders, Isaac Mendes Belisario is paradoxically remembered for having preserved the culture of the slaves with his works of art.

In the first historical study of this little-known painter and lithographer, the author begins by tracing the dramatic lives of the old and distinguished Sephardic Jewish families from whom Belisario is descended.

On the distaff side is the family Lindo, living double lives as crypto-Jews until they are denounced by their household slaves and escape the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition to live in seventeenth-century London. Here they are joined by another émigré, Jacob Mendes Belisario and his family; the poor but proud aficionados of the opera who elude the prying, predatory eyes of the Inquisition but still display the emblems of the kings of Spain on their coat of arms and remain loyal to the legend of their family name.

From the chocolate-maker to the rabbi, each generation marks time in London before this swirling Jewish family history moves to the island of Jamaica where its members seize the opportunities offered by the New World; but their meteoric rise is thwarted by the actions of such historical figures as Napoleon and Toussaint L’Ouverture, whose exploits unknowingly combine to witness their downfall.

I became aware of this book through a story in the Jamaica Gleaner, by Laura Tanna, who writes

Every paragraph reveals something about our world and history, which we ought to have known and probably didn't. There's enough material in this book to provide substance for a score more, but she deftly weaves astonishing strands of material into a cohesive whole and this is the real brilliance of the book.

Because Belisario was Jewish, Ranston goes right back to the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem when Jews were first scattered throughout mankind. She provides the most comprehensive introduction to the horrors of the Roman Catholic Inquisition suffered by Jews and their 1492 expulsion from Spain, accelerating their migration to Morocco, Turkey, Germany, to settlements in London, Amsterdam, Tuscany and subsequently the West Indies. Juxtaposing this story with the horrors of slavery imposed on those from Africa, who also settled in the West Indies, Ranston enriches every reader's understanding of the complexities involved in the creation of our fascinating nation, Jamaica, and the Caribbean region.

Read the complete story at the link above, and learn about Belsario's artwork and much more on Jewish history.

The artist's father served on the jury of the first white man brought up on murder charges for killing a slave in Tortola, and then wrote a London-published report to influence public opinion. Another report he wrote called for protection for the treatment of Africans in the West Indies, to no avail. In addition, the artist's maternal grandfather Alexandre Lindo was involved in the finances of the Haitian revolution.

Included in the book are depictions of the Kingston fires of August 1843, by Belisario and Duperly, as well as reproductions of Belisario's original art work.

There is much more on the book here.

1 comment:

  1. Of interest -- You can see a clip of Toussaint's last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film "The Last Days of Toussaint L'Ouverture" at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2468184/ This film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.

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