I hope you took the time to watch the movie Life and debt by Stephanie Black, two postings ago. I want to continue with a little mystory of that small but influential little Island.

Jamaica… say it again!

The name seems to roll of the tongue.

The name invokes two very strong reaction, on one hand you may think vibrant, dynamic, hard working (thanks to the living color skit), ganja, Rasta, producers of one of the greatest musical expressions in the 20th century and “cool runnings”. On the other hand you may think, aggressive, violent, rude, ganja, Rasta. With Jamaica and Jamaicans, there is no middle ground.  You either like them or don’t.




Jamaica is a small little island in the Caribbean Sea, located 140 kilometres south of Cuba. The island stretches 10,990 square kilometres or 4,111 Sq. Miles has a largely mountainous landscape that poses formidable challenges for farming and inland transportation. While lush vegetation, white sand beaches, the sea, and sunshine have established Jamaica’s reputation as a tourist mecca. Jamaica has a population of 2.5 million people. It is predominantly English speaking with Spanish a secondary language. However, there is currently a movement in place to change “Jamaican patois” to an official language called… Jamaican.

Jamaica lies south of Cuba, about 90 % of the population is of African ancestry, the rest a mixture of, 7.3 % of mixed race, and 2.2 % South Asians, Chinese, Lebanese, and European. Despite their small numbers, European Khazaars (both Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal and English and German Jews), Chinese, and Lebanese have had an especially strong influence on Jamaica’s commerce, industry, and the professions. This was and is similar to any other part of the post colonial world where the world caste system has been enacted by the former Eurocentric and imperialist elite. No chronology of Jamaica can be told without beginning from the beginning.


The begining

Prior to the arrival of Christoph Colon (Christopher Columbus) in 1494, Xaymaca (Arawak name) was inhabited by the native inhabitants called Arawaks, who lived in simple communities based on fishing, hunting, and small scale cultivation of cassava. The impact of the contact with the Spanish was traumatic, and these communities disappeared in 70-80 years. Plunder, disruption of economic activities, new diseases, and migration decimated the indigenous population. Currently there is no Arawak influence on the development of life on the island.

During the years 1494-1655, the Spanish were so disappointed by the absence of gold on the island they decided to use Jamaica as a jump off point for the conquest of the Americas, particularly Mexico with its treasures of gold and silver. At that time the population of the Spanish settlement, including their enslaved Africans, were not that large.

The settlement was administered from the Town of Santiago de la Vega, now called Spanish Town, and much of the architecture of the original buildings is still evident today in the town square. Economic activity consisted primarily of production for domestic consumption, and to a lesser extent the supply of Spanish ships.

During the years 1655-1838, after the failed experiment with indentured European labor, the British turned to large scale importation of captured Africans to be used as forced labor (slaves) on the sugar plantations. In that period, Jamaica was one of “the jewels in the English crown” because of the fabulous prosperity it brought to the English plantation owners directly, and indirectly to those cities, such as Liverpool and Bristol, which serviced the trade with Jamaica and the rest of the British Caribbean (West Indies).

The Peculiar Economy 

By the early decades of the nineteenth century an estimated 750,000 Africans had forcibly been brought to work as slave labour on the sugar plantations of Jamaica. The British government, especially during the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the second half of the seventeenth century, also used Jamaica as a dumping ground for Anglo-Saxon criminals, prisoners of war, prostitutes, and other undesirables (lawyers, Politicians etc), but this had only a minimal impact on the island’s demographic structure.

By the time of emancipation in 1807, the African population outnumbered Anglo-Saxons by a ratio of ten to one. The “black gold” of Plantation enslavement was based on the triangular trade among England (manufactured goods), Africa (captured Africans), and the Caribbean (sugar), which itself was the basis for what later emerged as the international economy. International trade was so important to the Jamaican economy that when the American war of independence disrupted trade between what was then the “North American colonies” and the Caribbean, 15,000 of the enslaved died of starvation in Jamaica alone.

Jamaica was also were the British sent the most rebellious of Africans to be broken. The fictitious Willie Lynch Letter details actual slave making techniques used to break the body, mind and spirit of the captured people in as brutal and as vicious ways imaginable. But the genes of the African rebelliousness even if it skips a generation never die.

From the very outset of British colonial rule, the captured Africans rejected their dehumanized status and rebelled against their owners. As early as the 1670s, several  inevitably ran away from the estates to live in small bands in the mountains where they created a fierce fighting force known as the Maroons. Eventually, they coalesced into two main regional groupings – the Trelawnys in the western part of the island, and the Windward or Nanny Town Maroons in the east.

The Trelawnys under Cudjoe, developed into a formidable guerilla force. The Maroon wars shook the Empire and for nearly four decades, inflicted heavy casualties on the British forces until both sides signed a peace treaty in 1739. Dissatisfied with the colonial administration that continued to whittle away their rights, the Maroons launched a full-scale revolt in 1795, but were forced to accept a dictated peace treaty that same year.

From there some Maroons first sailed to Nova Scotia Canada, and then to Liberia in Africa where, unfortunately, they displaced the native Africans and attempted to set up an American Inc. style of system.After their emancipation, the former slaves fled to the hills where they worked the land as small-scale independent farmers. The plantation dominated economic life in every sense. It occupied the best lands, the laws supported the slave system, and in general all commercial and other economic activity depended on the rhythm of activity of the plantation.

Years later some Maroons first sailed to Nova Scotia Canada, and then to Liberia in Africa where, unfortunately, they displaced the native Africans and attempted to set up an American Inc. style of system. Jamaica’s first National figure was Maroon leader and warrior priestess, Nanny was eventually named a national hero.

Agitating for independence

Jamaica’s political system consisted of a governor (another name for an over lord) and his executive council, and an assembly of representatives elected on a limited franchise determined by property ownership. The politics of this period was characterized by an uneasy alliance between the governor as the representative of the crown, and the Assembly of planters on one side and the captive and enslaved Africans on the others. Frequently, the alliance broke down, invariably over taxation of the plantations.

Another one of Jamaica‘s national figure was the Rev. Sam Sharpe, after whom Montego Bay‘s city square is named. He is celebrated for a leading role in the Christmas rebellion in 1831. In 1838, emancipation was declared and the plantations had to begin paying wages to its workers. Between 1838-1938 after Emancipation, many of the emancipated Africans settled down as small farmers in the mountains, cultivating steep hill slopes far away from the plantations.

Still others settled on marginal lands in the plains nearby the plantations on land leased or bought in various land settlement schemes organized and sponsored by Christian groups, as they built inroads in the heart and minds of new converts. On going struggles over land between the freed Africans and the Plantation sects were central themes in this period, culminating in the Morant Bay rebellion, for which two of Jamaica‘s national heroes, George William Gordon and Paul Bogle were hanged for their involvement.

In this period, sugar continued its secular decline, but peasant exports of logwood, coffee, and eventually bananas grew steadily. In this way, the economy began to be diversified away from its traditional dependence on sugar alone. The national movement for independence began in 1938 never slowing until after independence in 1962.  The spirit of the movement was there from the first captured African came to shore, but it became a force over the centuries more tellingly when it was inspired by the political ideas and agitation of Marcus Garvey, reaching a crescendo with the economic crisis spawned by the Great Depression.

Two major political parties, the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP), along with the labor unions affiliated to them, – the Bustamante Industrial Trades Union (BITU) and the National Workers Union (NWU) – were birthed by Jamaica’s independence struggle. The constitutional change that facilitated the emergence of these parties was the granting of adult suffrage and a measure of self-government in 1944.Under the pressure of these two parties, the British government finally granted in 1944 a limited form of self-government and adult suffrage known as the Westminster system.

The growth of the Peoples’ National and Jamaica Labour parties also gave the country “political unionism,” that is, a system characterized by the direct involvement of trade unions in politics and government. Jamaican society thus evolved into two great political “tribes,” and it has become an ongoing tradition of the political culture that no “political tribe” should enjoy the fruits of office for more than two consecutive terms. Jamaicans, moreover, have tended to take their politics seriously, as attested by the remarkably high voter turnout (77 to 87 percent) in general elections since the late 1960s.

Unfortunately taking their politics seriously also engendered the kinds of violence unknown anywhere else in the Caribbean or in some parts of the world.

Jamaican migrants to Canada, therefore, have been accustomed to a democratic system with vigorously competitive and highly partisan politics that operate within the formal framework of a bicameral parliamentary system consisting of an elected house of representatives and an appointed senate and headed by a prime minister. The period between 1944- 1962 saw Jamaica move from a monocrop export economy, to seeing the economy became diversified around the export of sugar, bananas and other agricultural commodities, the export of bauxite and alumina, and the tourist industry.

These in turn, stimulated a vibrant construction industry, and an import substituting manufacturing sector. The USA displaced the UK as Jamaica‘s principal trading partner. There was also a tremendous migration of labor to the UK and the USA which needed labor for the post-war reconstruction and expansion of their economies.



In 1958 the British government established the West Indies Federation, a self-governing union of five Caribbean countries, including Jamaica. Three years later, however, Jamaica voted to withdraw and after further negotiations with Great Britain, declared its independence in August 1962 when political independence was granted. Jamaica was given a Westminister (Colonialist) style constitution, with a Governor-general as the representative of the British Crown, and a bicameral Parliament.

There is a House of Representatives consisting of elected representatives and a Senate appointed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The government is headed by a Prime Minister, who is required to consult with the Governor General and the Leader of the Opposition on certain matters. The first two governments were formed by the JLP, which had opposed membership in the Federation.The post-war boom in the economy continued through the 60’s, though it gradually slowed down, with the completion of the investment cycle of the bauxite/alumina industry.

 By the end of the decade, there were well established mining, tourism, manufacturing, and construction sectors, alongside the traditional agricultural and distribution sectors. Between 1972 and 1980, the PNP, the other major political party, held political office and initiated a shift in major economic policies. Most notable was the imposition of the Bauxite Levy in 1974, in order to increase Jamaica‘s share of the income in that industry. The government positioned the state in the leadership role within the process of economic development, with a view to attenuating and rectifying the inherited economic inequalities.

The international economy was quite unfavorable for a number of reasons. The main ones were the weakness of the aluminum market, and hence, the bauxite industry, the inflation of oil and food prices, and the decline and reversal of capital inflows for private investment. All of this contributed to the decline in the economy, with the attendant problems of unemployment, inflation, and growing external indebtedness. By the end of the decade, the government sought assistance from the IMF and the World Bank, and since then these two institutions, along with the USAID, have determined the policy framework of the government.

From 1980 to 1989, the JLP held political office. They were committed to the same free market development policies as the IMF, the World Bank, and the USAID. Because of their special political subservient relationship with the Reagan administration, the JLP run Jamaica benefited from generous USA assistance in the first half of the decade. The economy was substantially deregulated, the currency was devalued, and many public enterprises were divested in the process of adjustment, which has now been on-going for some 14 years.

The eighties saw the development of Free Zone manufacturing especially of garments for export to the USA, the gradual recovery of bauxite/alumina production, and the rapid growth of tourism from North America. In the process, the traditional international economic relations, particularly with the USA, were strengthened at the expense of regional relations, such as Caricom trade.The eighties also saw large volumes of emigrants, primarily to the USA, swelling the ranks of established overseas Jamaican communities, and creating new ones.

Jamaicans are contributing in every sphere of human activity, and distinguishing themselves in cultural activities, such as music, and sports. In addition, Jamaicans have been accumulating significant quantities of wealth in assets in the USA and other countries.      


One thought on “Jamaica- another revolution deferred, part 2

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