Jamaican History & Culture – The People


From 1655 to 1807, hundreds of thousands of Africans arrived in Jamaica along with a steady, though much smaller, flow of European immigrants primarily from the British Isles. From these founding races came Jamaica’s Afro-Europeans, “coloured” people, who were a product of interracial relationships.

By the early nineteenth century, Jamaicans were divided into three separate legal castes: 

  • free whites;
  • free Negroes and coloured people with limited privileges; and
  • slaves. (Coloured people could also be slaves as coloured people of mixed ancestry could be white by law only after four generations of mating with whites.)

In 1830 the separate legal caste of coloured people was eliminated when all free men were declared equal in civil and political rights regardless of racial origin.

Prior to emancipation, the legal distinctions within the coloured caste in the early eighteenth century were: white with black produces mulatto, mulatto with white produces quadroon, quadroon with white produces mestee, mestee with white is legally white and free by law, mulatto with black produces sambo.

Most of the first immigrants following the English conquest of Jamaica in 1655 were young Irish men and women. They were indentured servants—effectively slaves—victims of Oliver Cromwell’s suppression of the Irish Rebellion. However, a significant difference in their servitude was that their status could not be passed on to their offspring. Africans were slaves for life, and so were their descendants. Another source of early immigration was 1,200 Scots who arrived in 1656. They were prisoners of war deported by Cromwell. 

There was also a later Scottish migration at the turn of the 18th century. These were survivors of the failed Darien colony in Panama. After the 1707 Act of Union, Scots gained access to England’s colonies and the implied trade opportunities. Consequently, strong economic and family ties developed between Scotland and Jamaica.

In areas of Jamaica such as St. Elizabeth parish, blue eyes and Caucasian features combined with coffee-coloured skins attest to Scottish and Irish ancestry.

Two groups of Whites not of British extraction also settled on the island in the early days. French Catholic creoles came from St. Dominique (Haiti) as refugees from the slave uprising at the end of the eighteenth century. And Jews who, as mentioned earlier, were already there in small numbers when the English captured the island in 1655, and whose numbers were augmented by others seeking freedom to practice their religion.

The English had welcomed the Jews and had granted them citizenship by 1660. This, among other things, entitled Jamaican Jews to own property and to practice their religion openly. By 1671, however, anti-Semitic sentiment had grown to the point that some colonists petitioned the government to expel all Jewish community members. Governor of the day, Sir Thomas Lynch, however, opposed the petition, and it was never enacted. But, in 1693, a special tax was levied on the Jewish community, and a decade later, Jews were banned from using indentured Christian servants. Furthermore, in 1783 the Jews were taxed again, and other restrictions were placed on members of their community. It was not until 1831 that Jamaican Jews finally attained full political rights. Notwithstanding these early impediments, Jamaica’s small Jewish population’s contribution to Jamaica's economic and commercial life was substantial and lasting.

In 1838, after the period of “Apprenticeship” that followed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, former slaves deserted the plantations in large numbers, and the supply of plantation workers dropped precipitously. In response, landowners brought in hundreds of German, Scottish and Irish labourers. By the way, thousands of Africans also immigrated to Jamaica at that time, including former Maroons, who had settled in Sierra Leone. As a result, contrary to what seems to be commonly believed, not all Jamaican Black people descend from former slaves.

Around 350 Germans from Hanover, Germany immigrated to Jamaica between 1835 and 1850 and settled on land provided by Lord Seaford—the “Germans” included several Poles due to the Partitions of Poland. Apparently, these Europeans were brought to Jamaica by landowner Charles Rose Ellis, 1st Baron Seaford to work on his estates. Their influence can still be seen at Seaford Town in Westmoreland parish. East Indians began to arrive about 1838 to work as indentured servants. Chinese immigration began in 1860. Arab shopkeepers and peddlers also arrived in significant numbers. Jamaicans tended to call all Arabs “Syrians,” but most, in fact, came from Lebanon, a Syrian province at that time. A trickle of immigrants from Britain continued into the twentieth century, mainly business managers, government officials and police officers. And, after completing their terms, some settled on the island.

So much more can be said about the enormous contributions these people made to virtually every aspect of Jamaican life. However, I’ll have to leave it to others to expand on their contribution, as I have yet to do much research in those areas.

According to the 1844 census, there were 293,128 black, 68,549 coloured and 15,776 white people living in Jamaica. In the 1990s, there were estimated to be about 4.5 million Jamaicans, 2.5 million of which lived in Jamaica and about 2 million elsewhere, chiefly in England, the United States and Canada. Descendants of Jamaicans also live in communities in Panama and Belize. And, of course, there are the descendants of Maroons who were transported to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. All these people have roots on an island of about 4,400 sq. miles in size.

From Britain, Jamaica inherited a sound system of government and justice, Christianity and forms of architecture. From Africa came a tradition that was rich in folklore, music, magic and strong religious beliefs. The rest of Jamaica’s rich and varied culture is all its own. Unique religions, music, foods and art forms have developed on the island and, in some cases, spread overseas to influence other cultures.

Jamaicans have their own language, a dialect of English with African influences. Many Jamaican words passed from common usage in main-stream English over a hundred years ago. Because of most Jamaicans' African origin, there is a widespread avoidance of constructions like “th.” Th at the beginning of a word is therefore substituted with a “d.” Thus the becomes de, them becomes dem, and that becomes dat. Th at the end of a word is simply reduced to “t,” so teeth becomes teet. Stress is placed differently than in main-stream English, so mattress becomes “mat-rass.” The pronoun, him, is a substitute for most other pronouns regardless of gender or case. Plurals are often expressed by adding “dem” (them) to the singular form, so two or more cars become de car dem, which means the cars. In recent years, Rastafarian influence has added the use of “I” (and the plural, “I and I”) to emphasize the importance of the individual. Words of African origin also pepper the language.

Then, of course, there is the accent and rhythm of the language, probably a mixture of African forms and English speech patterns used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in British seaports. Some hear echoes of Welsh. Others are too busy trying to figure out how the language could possibly be related to any form of English.

In these early decades of the twenty-first century, Jamaicans have many concerns about their future. These concerns should not, however, be allowed to blind them to all they have accomplished. Theirs is a heritage of which they can be very proud.