Out of Many
From Innocence to Enslavement
The gentle, peace loving Arawaks, early co-habitants of the Caribbean who fled their more bloodthirsty cannibal brethren, the Caribs, arrived in Jamaica by canoe from South America around 650 AD. Even though they welcomed their new visitors with open arms, hospitality and great feasting, they were decimated to the point of extinction under the brutal conditions, forced labor and disease they encountered at the hands of the Spaniards when Christopher Columbus "discovered" in 1494 the island the Arawaks called "Xaymaca" meaning “land of wood and water.”
To replace the depleted Arawak workforce, the first Africans arrived in Jamaica in 1513 to serve the Spanish settlers. These Africans were freed by the Spanish when the British captured the island in 1655. They immediately fled to the mountains where they fought to retain their freedom and became the first Maroons. Under British rule, the island prospered. Great wealth was amassed by the buccaneers, pirates who operated mainly from Port Royal, by plundering Spanish ships which transported gold and silver from South America.
Blackbeard and Crew
The city of Port Royal, located across the harbor from Kingston, became the capital of Jamaica. Port Royal gained notoriety as the unofficial headquarters of Blackbeard the Pirate and others of his ilk where residents lived in decadent debauchery until 1692 when an earthquake struck, and the entire city was lost to the sea. Today, efforts are underway to uncover caches of buried treasure and other lost historical artifacts of what had been termed “the richest, wickedest city in Christendom.”
Out of Africa
The second half of the 17th Century ushered in the "sugar revolution". Slavery increased as sugar became a booming industry. Large parcels of land were planted in sugar cane. The whole process of making sugar required a huge labor force. The English planters sought various groups to provide the much needed labor. African slavery was not new to the West Indies and had been introduced by the Spanish and the Portuguese. Later, the Dutch supplied slaves from Africa, and they taught the English the techniques necessary for the production of sugar. The Africans brought in as slaves were from many tribes, although the majority were Coromantees from the Gold Coast, Ibos from Benin and Mandingoes. The Coromantees are described as being a strong, brave, proud and fierce race. Most of the slave revolts in Jamaica were led by Coromantee slaves. During these years, the English tried to tame an area of the island in the Blue Mountains that they nicknamed “the land of look behind.” In this little-traveled region of Jamaica’s interior, soldiers feared attack by the Maroons, descendants of slaves who had escaped from the Spanish. Soldiers always rode two to a horse, one looking forward and one backward, in order to protect themselves. In 1739, the British gave the Maroons autonomy, and even today they retain a separateness from Jamaican authority.
A result of the slave trade is that the majority of the Jamaican population is of African descent. From the time of the Africans arrival to the New World, there was miscegenation, leading to the rapid development of a racially mixed population.
The abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, however, did not mean that people of African origin no longer came to the island. In fact during the apprenticeship period (1834-1838) and in 1839, a number of persons of African descent came to Jamaica as free laborers. Also, in the following 25 years about 10, 000 free laborers of African origin came to the island. Even though slavery was abolished on the island In 1834 the sugar industry continued and Jamaica’s plantation owners looked for other sources of labor.
Far, Near, Middle East and Beyond
From approximately 1838 to 1917, over 30,000 East Indians immigrated to Jamaica as indentured laborers. The East Indians are the largest ethnic minority in Jamaica. At the end of the indentureship contract, many Indians reverted to their ancestral occupations. Some became farmers or fishermen, while others returned to their respective trades — barber, goldsmith, ironsmith, etc. Some became money lenders. Almost every Indian, regardless of his or her ancestral religion, has anglicized first and second names. Surnames too have been changed, with the exception of common names such as Singh. The Indians introduced several plants and trees in Jamaica, the most common being betel leaves, betel nut, coolie plum, mango, jackfruit, and tamarind. The food habits of Indians have a distinctly Indian flavor and taste. A typical Indian dinner consists of curried goat, roti, chutneys usually cooked with mangoes, curried potato, eggplant, bitter gourd and okra.
The Chinese represent a very small proportion of the Jamaican population, nevertheless, their impact has been great particularly in the area of commerce. The first Chinese arrived in 1849. The Chinese were also brought in as indentured laborers to work on the sugar estates following the emancipation of the African slaves. However they disliked the gruelling nature of the work and soon left the estates to set up small grocery shops all across the island. Eventually the small grocery shops grew into large enterprises embracing not only retailing, but also wholesaling and other ventures. Although some Chinese went back home to marry Chinese wives who they brought back to Jamaica, others inter-married with non-Chinese Jamaicans contributing to the island's racial mixture. Apart from the development of commerce, the popularity of Chinese food among Jamaicans is a lasting contribution to the island.
Many Germans migrated to and settled in Jamaica as indentured laborers under the Colonial Government's adopted program of settling European peasants on the island. It was hoped that they would create a thriving settlement and act as a model for the ex-slaves. It was also hoped that if the hills were settled by Europeans, the ex-slaves would continue to work on the large estates. The program was never a success. Between the years 1834 and 1838 about 1, 210 German immigrants arrived on the island. They were small trades people, a few farmers and disbanded militia. In 1835, Lord Seaford gave 500 acres of his 10, 000 acre estate in Westmoreland for the Seaford Town German settlement. Initially over 200 German immigrants settled in Seaford Town in Westmoreland. To survive the German settlers had to learn how to plant ground provisions to live off the land and to speak patois, the language of the slaves.
The first Jews came to the island during the Spanish occupation of the island, 1494-1655. These Jews came from Spain and Portugal. They fled because of the Spanish inquisition. To conceal their identity they referred to themselves as "Portuguese" and practiced their religion secretly. At the time of the British conquest of the island in 1655, General Venables recorded the presence of many "Portuguese" in Jamaica. The Jews were allowed to remain after the conquest and began to practice their religion openly. The Jews were granted British citizenship by Cromwell and this was confirmed in 1660 by King Charles. They attained full political rights in 1831. The status of British citizenship enabled ownership of property by the Jews. Jamaica's Jewish population was never large. However, their contribution to the economic and commercial life of the nation outstripped that of any other group of comparable size in Jamaica.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, immigrants from the Middle East began arriving in Jamaica. The majority came from Lebanon, the others from Syria and Palestine. At that time, these Middle Eastern territories were all known as Syria. When the territories were divided, the immigrants were also joined by others from Lebanon (although, in Jamaica, these residents are known as “Syrians”).
Turkish oppression was given as the main reason for the departure from the Middle East. When these immigrants arrived in Jamaica, many of them went into cultivating bananas or import/export businesses. Many of these immigrants eventually gave up the banana business and went into retail trading since hurricanes often upset the banana industry. Despite being a small percentage of the Jamaican population, this group has played a significant role in the commercial and industrial development of the economy. Through their influence as well, Syrian bread has become very popular among Jamaicans.
Out of Many, One People
Jamaica's rich cultural heritage is depicted by its national motto "Out of Many One People". Although over 90% of its population is comprised of individuals of African descent, the contribution of other ethnic groups such as the Indians, the Chinese, the Germans, the Jews, and the Syrians/Lebanese to the social and economic development of the country leaves a lasting legacy.
Jamaica has been an independent nation since 1962.