Jamaica’s Pre-emancipation Culture

Bridge over the Rio Cobre | Drawn by James Hakewill, engraved by J. Cartwright

In the next few essays, I’ll describe some of what life was like in colonial Jamaica before the British parliament passed the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833. In this essay, we’ll look at how some essential ingredients of European and African cultures coalesced into what became Jamaican.

The period covered is one of increasing prosperity for the British colony and its White and near-White inhabitants. However, for most dark-skinned people, this was a dark time filled with misery and endless toil. I will be covering a broad timeframe, and some of what I say might have been more prevalent at one time period than another, or one part of the island than another. Conditions and traditions also varied from one estate, plantation, etc., to another.

Before continuing, I’ll deal with some housekeeping, namely credit for some of the images used here, an explanation of dates, and a definition of some terms.

  • Some images on this and related pages are from Hakewill, James. A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica. London: Hurst and Robinson, etc., 1825. The drawings were made in 1820/21 by Hakewill. Well worth the read and available with a Google search.
  • While most continental Europeans began using the newer and more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1582, England stuck stubbornly with the old Julian version for another 170 years. The Gregorian calendar added ten days to correct the old version, and it is the Gregorian that we use today. As a result, English records covering much of this story do not coincide with other European powers’ dates.
  • Another potential difference in dates could result from the English habit of sometimes beginning each new year as of 25 March rather than 1 January. This practice led to confusing dating such as “28 February 1654/55,” which is “28 February 1655.” The Canadian government continues this tradition by ending its financial year on 31 March rather than 31 December.
  • In colonial times in Jamaica, Sugar was grown on “estates,” cattle raised on “pens,” coffee was grown on “mountains,” and other staples like cotton and pimento were grown on “plantations.” The terms estates and plantations referred to the substantial landholdings. Smaller holdings were called “settlements” and their owners, “settlers.”
  • Creole applied initially to Europeans and Africans (mixed-race or full-blood) born overseas, and it had nothing to do with skin colour. However, many, especially Americans, use the word to refer to mixed-race people, especially those in Louisiana and Haiti. In Jamaica and some other colonies, the term was used to denote African slaves born on the island. I use this term in its original form, i.e., to denote anyone born in Jamaica who was not a member or descendant of the indigenous race such as Taíno.


From the time the English invaded Jamaica in 1655 until 1660, when the Convention Parliament restored Charles II to England’s throne, hostilities with Spain and internal conflict marked their occupation. During this period, the colony was lead by Edward D’Oyley (1617–1675). D’Oyley was a Parliamentarian who had served in Cromwell’s New Model Army. He sailed to the West Indies as a lieutenant-colonel in General Robert Venables’ regiment. Before quitting the island, Venables appointed D’Oyley as colonel of a regiment he left behind to defend Jamaica. And, by September 1657, D’Oyley had become commander-in-chief of all Jamaican forces. In 1660, King Charles II confirmed D’Oyley as the first Governor of the Colony of Jamaica. D’Oyley held this post until 1662, when the Royalist Thomas Hickman-Windsor, 1st Earl of Plymouth, replaced him.

Under D’Oyley’s leadership, the English invaders successfully beat off Spanish attempts to retake the island. At the same time, they had to contend with remnants of the former Spanish colony who continued to fight a guerilla war on the island's north side. D’Oyley also put down a rebellion in 1660. Nevertheless, in the decades following the Restoration and establishment of a civil government, Jamaica’s economic and strategic importance increased steadily.

In the early days, Jamaicans raised and cultivated various livestock and tropical crops, including cattle, hogs, coffee, ginger, pimento, cotton, cocoa, and logging. In time, though, Jamaicans noticed the success Barbados enjoyed from its cultivation of sugarcane. So it was not long before sugar became “king” in Jamaica. 

Profits from the sugar trade brought enormous wealth to the island. Over the next several decades, Jamaica had so expanded its production that, by the 1740s, Jamaica joined Saint Domingue (Haiti) as the world’s primary sugar producers. As well, Jamaica, because of its location at the centre of the Caribbean, became of great strategical importance as a British naval base.


During the pre-emancipation years, and for many decades afterwards, the White upper class ruled supreme. These were the British and other European occupants. They tended to cling to their European customs and habits. They considered themselves English, Scottish, Irish, etc. This Europe-centric-identity continued for generations after their forefathers had settled in Jamaica. “Going home,” to those early Jamaicans, meant going to England or perhaps Scotland—sometimes for the first time in their lives. Their culture was British with a few concessions to accommodate the distance from the homeland and the tropical nature of the island on which they lived and, increasingly, were born.

The Whites held power but were a minority. Even when the island’s population was about 2.5-million in the mid-1900s, it is unlikely there were ever more than about 50,000 Whites.

George Robertson (1778), “A View in the Island of Jamaica, of Fort William Estate, With Part of the Roaring River Belonging to William Beckford Esq., Near Savannah La Marr

At the bottom of the social scale were, of course, the slaves. White indentured servants also occupied a low social status, but they, at least, could look forward to their eventual release from bondage and perhaps a few acres of land or a few pounds as compensation for their past service. The slaves were both African-born and Creoles. The proportion of African-born remained high until the end of the Slave Trade in 1807. For example, between 1801 and 1807, about 63,000 Africans arrived. This forced migration of newcomers consistently reinforced memories of the old country. 

Though the Africans came mainly from the west side of the same continent, they did not share a single set of traditions. Instead, they came from different tribal or national groups in Africa. Chief among these were the (British-misnamed), Coromantyn, Akan people from today’s republics of Ghana and Ivory Coast in West Africa. They are predominantly Ashanti-Fanti and the Ibo of the Niger delta.

As explained earlier, Jamaicans coined the term Coromantyn to refer to slaves of Akan ethnicity. However, they derived the word from a fort, Fort Kormantine, in Ghana. This fort was a trading post where African captives awaited the dreadful Middle Passage voyage between Africa and the Americas. It was not the name of any African nation or tribe.

Europeans were quick to recognize the personality traits of slaves and grouped them based on their ethnicity. They determined the market price of each group based on various characteristics. On the one hand, Europeans considered the Coromantyn stronger workers but more prone to rebellion. On the other hand, they supposed the Ibo to be more manageable but given to suicide if ill-treated. Of the large numbers of the West-African Mandingo tribe who arrived in Jamaica, many were Moslems or, at least, had been exposed to Moslem teaching. They were considered more peaceable than the Coromantyn but less industrious than the Ibo. There were several other groups, but they had less influence on Jamaican culture because of their smaller numbers.

Because the White planters made such minimal effort to Europeanize or educate them, slaves were left to educate their own children and thereby passed on their African customs and traditions. Those traditions were not purely African, however. Despite the vast social disparity between masters and slaves, each group found themselves influenced by the other. 

From this diversity, from this milieu of African-mixed-with-European, an early Jamaican culture evolved.


By the 1830s, customs and habits, unique—or nearly so—to Jamaicans, had become solidly established. This local culture differed from its British-European and African origins in several norms and practices. We’ll identify a few in the following paragraphs.

Perhaps first to emerge in this new Creole culture was a unique dialect. It formed when enough English vocabulary was added to common West African grammatical forms to allow communication between African-born and Creole slaves and European-born and native-born  Jamaicans.

The institution of marriage also took on a distinctive Jamaican flavour. Black men typically took one or more “wives.” These unions were usually more permanent than simple promiscuity but had no legal basis or blessing of an established church. Women cooked the meals and cared for the children but were often unwilling to accept the Christian concept of marriage. They considered such a union a mark of subordination and slavery to a husband—one slave master at a time was enough for them. And, by the time European missionaries began taking an interest in the slaves’ lot, this Jamaican attitude towards marriage was too well-entrenched to be easily changed.

Religion always has been a vital part of life in Jamaica. Regardless of social or economic conditions, a high percentage of Jamaicans have found a way to practice some form of religion, even inventing their own.

Although they did not discourage music and dancing, the planters did suppress anything connected to religion or magic. However, during the Christmas season, three days were set aside by law for a “Negro festival.” During this time, planters relaxed plantation discipline and allowed slaves to visit from one estate to another—under the watchful eyes of the militia, of course, which they called into active duty to “prevent trouble.”

The Christmas festival included the John Canoe (Junkanoo) dance that, unknown to the British, had its origin in African religion and magic. Figures represented by costumed dancers, together with songs and musical instruments, were similar to African cults that Jamaican authorities had driven underground. Other remnants of African religions survived as obeah and myalism alongside a preoccupation with the spirit world. Traces of other African cultures survive in Jamaica’s folklore, including stories of “duppies” (ghosts) and that wily spider, Anansi.

Peasant woman in Sunday (front) and working dress | Engraving from Phillipo, James M. (1843) Jamaica: Its Past and Present State London: John Snow, Paternoster Row

Before emancipation, slaves (with few exceptions) were not welcome in the Church of England. And although that Church baptized many as a formality, they were not given the benefit of instruction. However, after the American Revolution, Jamaican slaves were exposed to new forms of Christianity when several hundred United Empire Loyalists emigrated from the Thirteen Colonies, bringing their slaves with them. Those British colonists had converted some of their slaves to Christianity, for in North America, there had been less prejudice against the religious instruction of slaves.

Some of these North Americans became unofficial missionaries, and their teaching spread to many parts of the island. In the process, a combination of orthodox Christianity and African cults emerged, leading to the beginning of the Native Baptist movement.


Jamaica’s national motto is Out of Many One People, based on the country’s multiracial roots. One by-product of Jamaica’s pre-emancipation colonial milieu was the emergence of a “free coloured” class. These were Jamaicans who carried the blood of Europeans (mainly Anglo-Saxons and Celts) and Africans. They outnumbered Whites by a wide margin and were themselves outnumbered by Blacks by an even wider margin. Many were free under the law but could not vote and did not otherwise enjoy the full rights and benefits of citizenship.

Free people of colour before the emancipation of the slaves were a true middle-class existing between the White upper class and the lowly slave class. Many of those free people of colour were born into slavery and later freed by their fathers. Some, though, remained slaves throughout their lives. The free people of colour class was itself stratified socially based on skin tone and financial means.

Free women of colour tended to “marry up.” However, this might mean cohabitation as “housekeepers” without the legal status of marriage. They lived with men who were White or, at least, closer to White than they were. Free men of colour, though, tended to marry/cohabitate with Black women or those closer to Black than they. That the men were at a social disadvantage should not be surprising. Since—in a society built around White-superiority—women who had the benefit of choice would want to “better” themselves, this left few options for the men of their class.

Some free people of colour manufactured furniture and cabinets. Others were artisans, merchants, or newspaper writers and publishers. Some became wealthy. However, they were never fully equal to Whites. Those who were planters or owned businesses had irksome limits imposed on them. People of colour sometimes inherited large fortunes from their fathers. These Jamaicans and their descendants often went abroad for their education. They lived in as grand a style as any but the most privileged Whites.

While they overwhelmingly followed European customs and were mostly Christians, free people of colour blended in African cultural elements they had learned from their mothers and grandmothers. Theirs was a European culture influenced by African features that, in decades to come, would blend further with the post-emancipation African-slave culture influenced by European aspects. 

And there you have it: the unique social environment that in time we called Jamaican.