Rosa Smith – On A Mission To Help Others

From Australia’s Jewish Past:

Rosa Smith

On a Mission to help others

First published in J-Wire December 6, 2022

Rosa Smith was born Rosa Henriques in Port Maria, Jamaica, in 1853.

Many of Australia’s early settlers came from the United Kingdom, but Rosa’s family story begins in the late 1500s with the spread of the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal.

Many left for the New World of South America, with some converting to Christianity and having to practice their religion in secret. By the early 1600s, many of these Sephardi Jews, including Rosa’s ancestor Antonio Henriques, a merchant in Lisbon, had made their way to Holland, which was much more tolerant towards Jews.

It was there that Antonio changed his name to Antonio Cohen Henriques and named his sons Abraham and Moses. Abraham stayed on in Amsterdam as a merchant trading with Latin America.

Moses Cohen Henriques, however, turned to piracy, or ‘privateering’, as it was properly called. It involved Dutch ships attacking the enemy ships of Spain. Needless to say, Jews were more than happy to help out in this venture, and Jewish pirates of the Caribbean, like Moses Henriques, were prominent in the Dutch raids on Spanish galleons. Jamaica was a haven for pirates and Jews in the 1600s, a situation that continued after the English took control. Moses Henriques eventually retired from piracy and was forgiven for his past misdeeds. He became naturalised as a Jamaican by the English governor, Henry Morgan, interestingly enough, who had also been a pirate.

Fast forward 200 years to 1853, when Rosa was born into a thriving Jewish community in Port Maria, Jamaica. At the age of 22, life changed dramatically for her when she married a Scottish naval officer named Thomas Smith and two years later set sail for Scotland, eventually travelling to Australia and settling in Melbourne, where it is known that she had an uncle. She spent ten years in South Melbourne, very involved in helping the sick and poor around the docks, and especially working in the Sailor’s Rest in Port Melbourne.

Captain Smith was then appointed Inspector of Pearl Fisheries in West Australia, and, together with Rosa, they travelled around the North‐West Coast to Shark Bay, Dampier and Broome. She spent most of her time on one of her husband’s ships called ‘Mida’ and then set up home in a town called Cossack in the Pilbara region, a busy place in its day.

Rosa returned to Fremantle in 1890, and, for the next 31 years, she worked tirelessly for the Fremantle community. The Sailors’ Rest was founded mainly through the efforts of Rosa and was housed in a building at Port Lodge with a large hall seating up to 150 persons, as well as separate apartments and sitting rooms for officers and men and private quarters for the commissioner. It was designed to provide opportunities for seamen to spend their leisure hours in comfortable and inviting surroundings. Rosa took on the role of Superintendent and was instrumental in raising £2000 for the organisation on the Port Lodge site. This establishment was the forerunner of the ‘Flying Angels Club’ – an integral component of the nautical scene of the Port City – and still operating on Queen Victoria Street today. The Sailors Rest site now houses Notre Dame University.

Rosa visited every ship that came to Fremantle. It was not unusual for her to visit sick and injured seamen in Fremantle Hospital. Her hospitality extended to the seaman visiting her home. For her amazing achievements and hard work, she was presented with an acknowledgement by the Duchess of York on behalf of the British Seamen’s Society of London.

Rosa worked tirelessly with what she took on, and this included her being the first woman to sit on the Fremantle School Board. She even convinced the government to build an infant school in South Fremantle.

In 1921, after a bout of ill health, she and Captain Smith decided to return to Jamaica, where she died within the year.


From Australia's Jewish Past is written by Ruth Lilian OAM for AJHS and published weekly in J-Wire. ​