Little Children

January 20th, 2015

The great boxer (he is so much more than a boxer) Muhammad Ali once said: “Children make you want to start life over.”

Thoughts about life and death and family and children ran through my head as I walked in the Jewish Cemetery on Orange Street today. From this large open space, I could see hot morning clouds crawling over the hills beyond. Close at hand, and just over the brick wall surrounding this space, there were small factories, an infant school, some small apartment blocks, a fire station. When I arrived, Monday morning was just accelerating: Horns blasting, voices shouting, and the fire trucks busying themselves. A bell rang at intervals, from somewhere. Orange Street, Kingston.

A Jewish volunteer with Jamaican heritage photographs a child's gravestone.

A Jewish volunteer of Jamaican heritage photographs a child’s gravestone.

I was with a group of volunteers from the United States – some with Jamaican heritage, some not – and mostly Jewish, who were here under the umbrella of Caribbean Volunteer Exhibitions. The group is engaged in conducting an ongoing inventory of Jamaica’s historic Jewish cemeteries, at the request of the United Congregation of Israelites Shaare Shalom Synagogue of Jamaica.  The volunteers were completing their documentation of the nineteenth century children’s section of the cemetery, which has been in continuous use from the 1820’s up to the present day.

American and Jamaican volunteers working in the children's cemetery.

American and Jamaican volunteers working among the children’s graves at Orange Street. A small moringa tree in the foreground was the only one in the cemetery.

The old children’s section, separate from the adults, is a collection of low box-shaped graves. Many are built of red brick; a number of them are now small piles of bricks – scattered, disconnected. Others are cemented over at the top, so there is no indication whose grave it is. Amongst these are carved marble graves and discarded, often broken headstones that tell poignant stories. One little boy named Abraham was “born at sea” but did not live beyond infancy. Little Daniel only saw his first birthday and died a month later in 1882. It appears that his father died before he was born. One side of his well-preserved marble grave is inscribed, “My sweet darling, We do miss you.” Then, “Dear little Jerry” died at age seven in 1883.

I wondered how these children spent their short lives with their families. At seven years old, Jerry must have been running up and down the house, shouting and playing. He must have made friends with other children; his character was developing. The “beloved” Stella Constantia died just short of her tenth birthday. Jerry and Stella, Abraham and Daniel, Judith and Felecia… I try to imagine their young faces, and the faces of their parents, who loved them and who came to Orange Street to mourn their loss.

"Our little pet."

“Our little pet.”

On the other side of the cemetery are the more modern children’s graves, fringed by pink oleander bushes. And here, remarkably, we found the artistically carved memorial stones of Jamaican Jews dating back to the early eighteenth century, lying flat on the ground. Just the stones, not the remains, which had been transposed from various former burial grounds for safe-keeping. One of the most beautiful was that of a fourteen-year-old girl, Sarah. Inscribed in Portuguese, English and Hebrew, her large marble gravestone is exquisitely carved with two winged figures holding tree fronds in their hands at the top; and at the base, the traditional depiction of a life taken away too soon: an arm holding an axe, descending from curly clouds to chop down a young tree. Children (angels? cherubs?) with sombre expressions were carved in the corners. We had to sweep away the dust and dirt to reveal its beauty.

A detail from Sarah's gravestone, 1717.

A detail from Sarah’s gravestone, 1717.

Sarah, not yet a grown-up, died in 1717 in Jamaica. Now, almost three hundred years later, how are our children faring? In Kenya today, police teargassed schoolchildren as young as eight years old who were protesting the closure of their playground. In Nigeria, the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls has traumatized the nation and shocked the world; but no action has been taken. Children in developing countries struggle with poverty, ignorance and – yes, disease remains a great danger for the youngest ones. Here in Jamaica, the rate of infant mortality, though declining in recent years, was 14.9 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011, with an under-five mortality rate of 17 deaths per 1,000 live births. This does not come close to meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for 2015. In Jamaica, children are often the victims – even perpetrators – of crime. The Jamaica Constabulary Force reported last year that between January 2013 and May 2014 sixty children were murdered and forty-four were charged with murder.

Stumbling across the broken ground on Orange Street, amongst the detritus of centuries and the debris of rum drinkers from the week before, I pondered these things.

A tree, cut down too soon. A flower picked too early, to wither away.

Students of the Tivoli Gardens High School look at the names of children who died under tragic/violent circumstances at the Secret Gardens, downtown Kingston, on Tuesday as they commemorate Peace Day. - PHOTO BY ERROL CROSBY/Gleaner

Students of the Tivoli Gardens High School look at the names of children who died under tragic/violent circumstances at the Secret Gardens, downtown Kingston as they commemorated Peace Day, 2013. – PHOTO BY ERROL CROSBY/Gleaner



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3 Responses to “Little Children”

  1. Giovanni says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to show us the history of our Jewmaican Heritage!

  2. […] Dead children: Yes, I am sorry to put this so starkly, but a five-year-old girl was found murdered today; she is the youngest murder victim so far this year, to my knowledge. At least seven teenagers have already been killed this month. Our youth are an endangered species. On that topic, I wrote about our vulnerable small children after visiting the Jewish Cemetery on Orange Street this week. Here is my article: […]

  3. EmmaLewis says:

    You are so welcome, Giovanni! I believe it is important to fill in some of the gaps – and to try to bring Jamaica’s rich heritage to life, in a sense. Make it real!