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.
Based on hitherto unpublished records of the period, Isaac Mendes Belisario’s story unfolds as he lived it – his privileged youth in Kingston, Jamaica; the sudden exile to England; his father’s flight to Tortola and the fight against slavery; his own triumphant early exhibits at the Royal Academy and the Old Water Colour Society overshadowed by his life as a stockbroker until he returns to the land of his birth where his art finds full flow on the eve of Emancipation with his Sketches of Character, In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica.
Against the lively backdrop of nineteenth-century Jamaica, with all its splendours and squalors, Belisario produces works of rare distinction – impressive both as a portrait of the less celebrated of Jamaica’s inhabitants and in their depiction of the turbulent age in which he lived.
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