Emancipation Day Message 2020

David Lucas (1802 -1881) after Alexander Villiers Rippingille (c. 1790 – 1859) The First of August, 1834

The mezzotint The First of August was originally published in London to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. It depicts a recently emancipated family with the father triumphantly raising his hands to the sky in a gesture of freedom. He stands on a whip (the symbol of the cruelty and oppression of enslavement), his children bury the shackles which once restrained him and his wife holds their youngest child who will never know slavery aloft. The work contains all the signifiers of freedom and was meant to wordlessly communicate the ethos of that moment in colonial history. 

The 1st of August is an auspicious date in Jamaican history. It was on this day in 1834 that the Emancipation Proclamation was read in King’s Square Spanish Town; marking the abolition of the institution of slavery in the British Colony of Jamaica. The road to this event was a long one punctuated by the work of Abolitionists, the increased agitations of the enslaved for freedom – most famous among them Tacky’s 1760 revolt and Sam Sharpe’s 1830 Christmas Rebellion – as well as the continued reverberations of the successful revolution in the island of St Domingue (renamed Haiti and the Dominican Republic). 

This was not the end of the struggle however, as the formerly enslaved were then placed under a system of “Apprenticeship” which saw many of them, without viable options for making their livelihoods, maintaining their ties with the same plantations they had been “freed” from.  

It was exactly four years later on August 1st 1838 that “Full-Freedom” was granted to the black populace of Jamaica. As the struggle against the forces of imperialism, colonialism and white supremacy moved into the 20th Century, the names Marcus Garvey, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante were among the most prominent voices that helped to move the nation towards Independence and self-governance.  

As we reflect on the journey that has brought us to 2020, the unforeseen circumstances we have weathered and the new challenges ahead; let us focus on the strength, commitment and resilience of our ancestors that have brought us this far as we chart our path in the brave new world ahead. 

Happy Emancipation Day Jamaica!

Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795-1849)

Isaac Mendes Belisario was the first documented Jamaican-born artist. He was active in Kingston around Emancipation and his work, in paint and in print, provides a rich document of life in Jamaica, seen from the perspective of the Sephardic merchant class to which he belonged. Belisario’s work is well represented in the NGJ Collection and on permanent view in our historical galleries. The following overview of his life and work is adapted from the catalogue of “Isaac Mendes Belisario: Art & Emancipation in Jamaica” (2008).

I.M. Belisario, Cocoa Walk Estate (c1840), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica


Isaac Mendes Belisario was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1795 into a Sephardic Jewish family of Spanish or Portuguese origin. The family had close ties to the Sephardic community in London. His grandfather, Isaac Mendes Belisario, after whom he was named, taught children at the Bevis Marks synagogue in London. The older Isaac’s son Abraham was sent to Jamaica in 1786 to work for Alexandre Lindo, a wealthy merchant, plantation owner, and slave factor. Five years later Abraham married Alexandre’s daughter Esther, and in 1803 Abraham, Esther and their six children – the younger Isaac, Caroline, Lydia, Hannah, Rose and Maria – moved to London.

Belisario trained as an artist under Robert Hills, the landscape watercolourist and drawing master. He exhibited landscapes between 1815 and 1818 but put aside his artistic endeavours in the 1820s, when he worked as a stockbroker. In 1831 Belisario showed a portrait at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Belisario returned to Kingston in about 1832 and remained there for at least fifteen years.  The island had a significant Jewish population in the 1830s, concentrated in Kingston and Spanish Town, and the majority worked in retailing, merchandising, and wholesaling. Belisario may have felt encouraged to return by the Jamaica Assembly’s passing in 1831 of the Jewish Emancipation Act, which gave Jamaican Jews full civil liberties at a time when the rights of Jews in Britain were still being negotiated.

The few works that survive from this period in Belisario’s career show him to have been a versatile artist, capable of working in different media and in a range of genres to cater to his clientele’s demands. In addition to his portrait practice, which was based oat 21 King Street, in downtown Kingston, Belisario painted estate portraits in oils and collaborated with the French printmaker Adolphe Duperly on various print projects. In 1837-1838 Belisario produced his best-known work, Sketches of Character, a series of twelve handcoloured lithographs, which may reflect his desire to produce work of wider appeal and more lasting significance.

The Jamaica to which Belisario returned was on the eve of making its troubled transition from apprenticeship to full emancipation, and his works provide a fascinating portrait of a colony undergoing – and resisting – radical transformation. He did not publicize his personal views, however, perhaps out of concern not to alienate his clients and community.

Belisario’s last documented Kingston work is a lithograph of 1846, and he died in London in 1849. Continue reading