Endangered and extinct

It is surprising the number of animal species indigenous or endemic to Jamaica that became extinct. Others are now on the endangered list.

Extinction in Jamaica goes way back and included mammals, birds, reptiles and insects.

Gary Morgan of the Florida Museum of Natural History claimed, “Jamaica has three extinct species of monkey.” Ross MacPhee and Clare Flemming said the Jamaican monkey disappeared sometime “after AD 1500, possibly after AD 1700” and seemed to have lived primarily in or near caves. These included “Long Mile Cave near Windsor, Trelawney Parish; Somerset Cave, Skeleton Cave, Lloyd’s Cave and ‘the new cave,’ all near Jackson’s Bay, Clarendon Parish.”

Fossil records were uncovered in 1919 by Harold Anthony in the Long Mile Cave in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country. Anthony reported:

January 17 – Spent all day digging in the long mile cave and secured some good bones. The most important find was the lower jaw and femur of a small monkey, found in the yellow limestone detritus. It was not associated with the human remains but not so far from them that the animal must not be strongly suspected as an introduced species.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), “the reasons for the extinction of this species in Jamaica are not known.”

The Daily Mail newspaper speculated, “Jamaican monkey bone fragments suggests that humans killed off the species after they settled on the creature’s island home.” The United Kingdom paper asserted that “the monkeys lived alongside humans around 1,200 years ago” and that “the monkey may be the world’s most recent primate species to become extinct.”

In the March 1966 Quarterly Journal of the Florida Academy of Sciences, Richard Etheridge wrote of the extinction of the northern curly-tailed lizard from Jamaica. As he did with the now extinct monkey, the fossil deposits were discovered by Harold Anthony, this time in Dairy Cave close to Discovery Bay on Jamaica’s north coast.

The Jamaica giant galliwasp is believed to be extinct as the last recorded citing was in 1840. “It is thought that the introduction of predatory species (primarily mongoose) to Jamaica, and the extensive conversion of woody swamp habitat, resulted in the extinction,” IUCN noted. If the giant galliwasp exists, it “is likely to be restricted to a very small area likely at risk from habitat degradation and continued impacts of mongoose predation. As such this species is listed as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).”

Farming and ganja cultivation played a role in the demise of the galliwasp. IUCN elaborated:

The conversion of woody swamps for logging, subsistence agriculture, and residential development has been extensive through the species’ presumed range over the last two centuries. Extensive cannabis cultivation in the area of the Black River Morass, from which the species was historically recorded, has constrained survey efforts in this region and it is hoped that a subpopulation may consequently have survived here undetected. If so, it will undoubtedly be very small and localized, and it is unknown what impact habitat degradation for cannabis cultivation is likely to have on this lizard.

An article in the October 20, 2016 issue of Plos One journal reported that “the Jamaican Sunset moth, often regarded as one of the most beautiful of all moths, became extinct just 116 years after its description. Endemic to Jamaica, it inhabited low-elevation tropical rainforest.” Officially designated Urania sloanus, the moth “was named by Dutch entomologist Pieter Cramer in honor of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), an English naturalist and collector who explored Jamaica from 1687 to 1689, recording and illustrating the species for the first time in his travel diaries published in 1725.”

Susan Koenig, a wildlife ecologist, said “at least one of Jamaica’s 21 endemic frogs, a species which was restricted to streams in the Blue Mountains, is already thought extinct and a second species, the Jamaican Bromeliad Frog, may also be near extinction.”

Another extinct species is the Jamaican rice rat. Three specimens were collected in the 19th century. According to Angela Han, “the Jamaican rice rat is an extinct rodent from Jamaica. This rat was thought to have dispersed into Jamaica during the last glacial period and is known via three specimens that were collected live during the 19th century.”

Two parrots, the Jamaican Red Macaw and the Jamaican Green and Yellow Macaw, are believed to be extinct. Two others, the Yellow-billed Amazon and the Black-billed Amazon, are deemed vulnerable. Though only regarded as “critically endangered,” the Jamaican Blue Mountain duck was last cited in 1879 or 1880.

Destructive mongoose
The mongoose is the most destructive animal species in Jamaica. Introduced from India into Jamaica in the 1870s to rid sugarcane plantations of rats, it is blamed for killing off other animals as well, not just in Jamaica but elsewhere:

The IUCN lists the small Indian mongoose as one of the top 100 world’s worst invaders. Most endemic island species are naturally vulnerable, occurring in small isolated populations and ranging over small areas. Based on the public health damages, killing of poultry, extinctions of amphibians, reptiles, and destruction of native birds, it is estimated that this mongoose is causing $50 million in damages each year in Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands alone.

In the Popular Science Monthly of November 1898, C.W. Willis wrote:

About fifteen or twenty years ago the mongoose (Herpestes griseus) was imported from India by the colonial government and introduced into the island of Jamaica, in the West Indies, for the ostensible purpose of destroying the large, gray, white-bellied rat which played havoc with the growing cane on the sugar plantations.

The animal is excessively prolific.  “The mongoose breeds six times a year, and each time there are from five to ten young ones.” It began posing serious problems of its own:

In its native habitat it devours snakes, rats, lizards, and other creatures not in favor with humanity…. That the little animal has fairly achieved the object for which it was imported cannot be gainsaid, but that it would ever become the universal pest which it is at the present day, and has been for several years, was never anticipated. So long as it kept to the cane growing plantations, and ate the planter’s poultry and all young and available animal life, all went well; but with its rapid and prolific powers of reproduction and its vagabond and roaming disposition, in a very short time it was found to be in every part of the island, from the seashore to the tops of the loftiest mountains, the highest peak of which is seventy-three hundred feet above the sea level.

Willis grew almost poetic in describing the mongoose’s profligacy and destructive power:

Though it has not exterminated the cane rats, it has lessened their numbers, and saved the sugar planters a vast sum of money. But it has nearly exterminated the ground laying and feeding birds. It devours poultry and eggs of all kinds, on the ground and in trees, including those of the land turtle, so that the latter, once very numerous and highly esteemed as an article of food by the native epicures, is now seldom found. Here may be mentioned an interesting fact, that the mongoose, in no way a tree-climbing animal in its native India, has become such in Jamaica, as its voracious appetite lessened the numbers of ground feeding and laying birds, and compelled it to take to the trees in order to enlarge its food supply.

The mongoose kills young pigs that roam, half wild, over the island; also lambs and kids. It eats fruits of all kinds, fish, wild fowl, snakes, lizards, and crabs; and the once plentiful edible lizards and land crabs are now rarely seen. All young and tender life, both animal and vegetable, is included in its daily menu. When the mongoose has cleared off all the animal life, it turns its attention to the “ground provisions,” and here it shows the varieties of its tastes and the strength of its jaws. It will grovel with its paws until yams, cocos, sweet potatoes, cassava both bitter and sweet, and other ground food tubers are laid bare.

The mongoose contributed to the proliferation of tricks, disease carrying parasites, killing off the birds that feed on these blood sucking arachnids.

Iguana rescue

The Jamaica Iguana, thought to be extinct until the 1970s when a fresh carcass was found.  The first live iguana was discovered in the Hellshire Hills in 1990. A few hundred now survive due to preservation efforts. (Photo courtesy of Hope Zoo)

The news is not all bad. It was thought the Jamaican iguana had long died out until Edwin Duffus, a pig hunter, discovered a fresh iguana carcass in the Hellshire Hills of St. Catherine in the 1970s.  He found a live iguana in 1990 and informed the Hope Zoo in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. Since then, conservation efforts have had some successes.

“The Jamaican iguana (Cyclura collei) is one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories,” said Charles Knapp, vice president of Conservation and Research of the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States:

In the 19th and 20th centuries the Jamaican iguana began vanishing from its island home as habitat loss, hunting, and introduced dogs, cats, and mongooses (to control Jamaica’s rat population in cane fields) took their toll. By the late 1940s, the iguana was believed to be extinct.

But even with such success, there are grave concerns. “Recent developments in Jamaica may rock the iguana back toward a path to extinction,” Knapp bemoaned.  Adam Andrus cited scientists who worry that “a new plan to build a massive port in the iguana’s habitat could push the species back to the edge of extinction.” Deutsche Welle, a German international broadcaster, claimed “the illegal charcoal burning industry in Jamaica destroys its last remaining habitat.”

The Natural Museum of Jamaica lists other animal species that are vulnerable or are endangered. “The Giant Swallowtail is the largest butterfly in this hemisphere and is the largest swallowtail in the world. They are found only in inaccessible regions of the John Crow Mountains and the Cockpit Country. Their habitat is threatened by destruction.”

The coney is “found in remote mountain forests…. Apart from the rat bats, they are Jamaica’s only surviving native land mammals.”

The Hawksbill, the Loggerhead, the Olive-Ridley and the Green turtles “are hunted for their shells and meat and are faced with the loss of their nesting beaches. Accordingly, their numbers are falling.”

For many animals, extinction is still a portentous reality.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Stealing national treasures

Underwater ruins at Port Royal, Jamaica, where theft of artifacts used to be rampant

Western nations are well known for appropriating the treasures of other lands for their own use. Sheer greed is at the heart of such theft. Some claim to do it in the name of science. The latter relates primarily to artifacts that were “discovered” or “rescued” for human posterity.

They, of course, would not term what they do as theft, but thievery it is. It is not often that such chicanery is brought to judgment. Among the rarest was one of the most recent. The Museum of the Bible opened last November, making it the newest national museum in Washington, DC., the American capital. Hobby Lobby, the main company behind the effort, was fined US$3 million for illegal imports of artifacts from Iraq. Allegations were that more than 3,000 items were illegally obtained and imported into the US.

Earlier this century, I came across what appeared to be blatant theft of Jamaican artifacts. I visited a cave near Duncans Bay in Trelawny on Jamaica’s north coast, where it is believed enslaved persons hid William Knibb, the British Baptist missionary. White retaliation against the Sam Sharpe Rebellion – also called the Baptist War and which occurred December 1831 to May 1832 – was at its most lethal and most destructive. More than 500 enslaved, including Sharpe, were executed and hundreds of churches and other buildings destroyed.

It is believed Knibb, possibly the most well-known Baptist in the colony, was kept hidden by the enslaved who moved him from location to location to spare his life. Local lore is that the cave near Duncans Bay was one such hiding place.

There was a water well in the cave and what looked like altars. There were what could have been tombs. These suggest the cave was more than a hideaway location.

It was alleged that a few years prior to my visit to the cave, students from a university in Florida in the United States had been to the cave, dug up human remains, and transported them out of the country without respect or regard for the laws of the country or respect for the country’s heritage.

Britain, with its far flung erstwhile empire that covered the Americas, Asia and Africa, is possibly the worst culprit in stealing and holding onto valuable artifacts.  These include the Rosetta Stone, inscribed with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Greek script. More than 2,000 years old, it originated in Memphis, Egypt, and lies in the British Museum, ending up there after it was “discovered” in 1799. The Koh-i-Noor Diamond from out of India is part of the crown worn by the English monarch. The 4,600-year-old Egyptian sphinx head and China’s imperial treasures are being held  by the British as well.

A few stolen treasures have been repatriated. In 2003, a German museum handed back to Zimbabwe a soapstone carved bird, an emblem of the country that appears on its currency and national flag, after holding on to it for about 100 years; in 2005, Italy returned a 1,700-year-old stone obelisk to Ethiopia after stealing it 70 years earlier; and in 2011, Yale University from out of the US gave back 40,000 artifacts to Peru.

Jamaican artifacts formed the basis for the founding of the British Museum. In 1753, the museum opened its doors with the collection of Hans Sloane, who had willed his vast collection to Britain. A medical doctor who had spent time in Jamaica in the late 1600s, Sloane may have treated the infamous pirate and Jamaican Governor, Henry Morgan. Back in England he served as physician to King George I, Queen Anne, King George II and other prominent Britons. [It is this same Sloane who was credited with creating the first chocolate drink while he was in Jamaica.]

Sloane married a wealthy widow who owned a large plantation in Jamaica and thus became one of the island’s largest enslavers. “It is an unhappy fact that a considerable proportion of the money Sloane used to amass his collection was derived from slavery,” writes Peter Parker in his review of the 2017 book, Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane by James Delbourgo.

Throughout his lifetime, he collected tens of thousands of artifacts, much of it from the island. Among Sloane’s collection were macabre items such as skulls and skin specimens of enslaved persons. “Every object taken by Sloane was a part of the system of slavery,” writes Josephine Livingstone, culture staff writer at The New Republic, an American magazine.

Also in the British Museum are Zemi figures from Vere, Clarendon, created by Jamaican Taino Indians in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. For six weeks in 2007, from May 3 to June 17, the British Museum put on display “three objects discovered together in 1792 in a cave in Canoe Valley deep in the mountainous interior of Jamaica, including an impressive and powerful male figure, a likely centrepiece in Taíno ceremonies.”

Perhaps the place experiencing the greatest theft was Port Royal on the tip of Jamaica’s southeast shore. Severely damaged by an earthquake in 1692, the once “richest and wickedest city in the world” lies in ruins, much of it under the sea. Suzie Thomas of the University of Helsinki in Finland indicates that shortly after the quake, “looters began targeting the submerged sections, many of whom were ‘wrackers’ (professional treasure hunters) from Bermuda. Much of this salvage and looting continued intermittently for years.”

Some of these treasure hunters looted Port Royal’s relics under the guise of conducting legitimate exploration activities. Americans became particularly interested and active in the 1950s. Robert Marx, who explored the underwater ruins, alleged that a major theft occurred at the Port Royal Museum in 1971 and was deliberately kept quiet by Jamaican authorities.

There have been attempts to redress some of the theft of artifacts by Western countries. Jamaicans being Jamaicans, some took matters into their own hands. Davina Morris recounts the story of Ras Seymour Mclean, London Chaplain of the Ethiopian World Federation Inc.:

Jamaican-born, London-based Mclean was jailed in the 1980s for the theft of over 2000 Ethiopian manuscripts from British libraries, which he intended to return to Ethiopia. His story was later turned into a Channel 4 film called The Book Liberator.

The following episode was the cause of his ire:

The British Museum, the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum are just a few of the British institutes that hold items that were looted during the invasion of Magdala in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1868 by a British punitive expedition army. In short, the British won the battle and then proceeded to loot countless items from the defeated ruler’s palace and from churches. In fact, it has been widely reported that it required a staggering 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry the loot, which included treasures and religious manuscripts.

More countries are becoming aware of the theft of their treasured past and are realizing their value. Jamaica, slower out of the blocks than others, has much to claim from Britain and elsewhere.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Mosquito warriors and fighters

Of the many ethnicities in Jamaica, there’s one group few Jamaicans are aware of. It is highly likely there are descendants of Indians from Central America on the island, largely due to the Miskito, corruptively referred to as Mosquitoes.

The Miskito are mostly from the “Mosquito Coast” or “Mosquito Shore” in what is now Nicaragua. They were among the few groups not conquered by the Spanish. Richard Brookes wrote in 1812, “The Mosquito Indians are so situated between morasses and inaccessible mountains, and a coast full of rocks and shoals, that no attempts against them by the Spaniards, could ever succeed.”

British alliance

“Miskito Indian girls at wooden mortar,” part of a series of postcards from Nicaragua entitled “Memories of Bluefields,” issued 1900-1910 (courtesy of www.historyfiles.co.uk)

The Miskito forged mutually beneficial alliances with the English, both wanting to thwart the Spanish. Jamaica, the most important British possession in the Caribbean, played a central role. David Brooks, writing in the Marine Corps Gazette in 1996, stated:

Unlike other Central American Indian groups, the Miskito successfully resisted Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Later, in the 1600s they made common cause with British buccaneers who found them useful allies in raids against the Spanish for their canoeing and maritime skills. This de facto Indian-English alliance would receive official expression in 1687 when British naval officers in Jamaica crowned the Miskitos’ most prominent chief, Jeremy I. King of the Mosquito.

In 1828, the Papers Related to the Slave Trade, noted:

[T]he first establishment of the British on the Mosquito Shore…appears to have taken place at an early period, first by the buccaneers, and afterwards men employed in the contraband trade carried on between Jamaica and the Spanish Main. Afterwards the Mosquito Indians asserting that they were never conquered by the Spanish, made, under the Duke of Albemarle’s government over Jamaica, a formal cession of their territory to the King of England.

Richard Brookes recounted in 1812:

[T]he Duke of Albemarle was governor of Jamaica, and the king of the Mosquitoes received a commission from his grace, under the seal of that island…. When the king died, the male heir went to Jamaica, to certify that he was next in blood, and received a commission in form from the governor of Jamaica, to be king of the Mosquitoes; till which, he could not be acknowledged as such by his countrymen.

The Miskito ran an active slave trade between the Mosquito Shore to Jamaica and elsewhere. A 1741 Jamaican law referenced “Indian slaves.” The 1828 Papers Related to the Slave Trade suggested this referred to prisoners of war sold into slavery by the Miskito:

Wars, it appears, frequently appears between those (Miskito) Indians, and between the various neighbouring tribes of Indians; and the prisoners made in those wars were frequently sold to the English; and it seems a considerable number of Indians, either from this (Mosquito) coast, or from some other quarter, must have been sent to Jamaica for sale in that island.

Starting in the 1740s, the British, through Jamaica, established a more permanent foothold in Central America by appointing a superintendent over the Mosquito Coast who reported to the governor of Jamaica.

In the 1770s, there were attempts to register the number of Central American Indians in Jamaica by age, sex, and ownership, etc. Several pieces of legislation – August and December 1776, and February 1777 – were passed by Jamaican authorities penalizing those who trafficked Indians from Central America.

Though enforcement of these laws was difficult, it appeared there was success in curbing the trafficking of Indians into slavery. In May 1777, the superintended of the Mosquito Shore wrote to Jamaica, “The infamous practice of selling the Indians of the neighboring nations as slaves is now entirely at an end, but there still remains a number of slaves among the Mosquito men, who were in their possession previous to the late regulations.”

In 1787, The British evacuated the Mosquito Coast after surrendering it by treaty to the Spanish the previous year. While Indians enslaved by the British were freed, it appears some were still held illegally under bondage. This was the subject of an 1821 investigation and subsequent adjudications by Jamaica’s attorney general.

Maroon War

Maroons in New Nanny Town, Jamaica,  1908-1909 . The original Nanny Town was sacked by British and Miskito forces in 1734 (photo by Harry Johnston; courtesy of Royal Geographical Society).

Richard Brookes said, “the Mosquito men being excellent marksmen, the English employ them in striking the maratee (sic) fish, etc., and many of the Mosquito Indians come to Jamaica, and sail with the English in their voyages.”

With their marksmanship, experience in fighting wars in difficult terrain and tracking skills, Miskito fighters assisted the English in the ongoing Maroon War in Jamaica. The bulk of the Maroons were descendants of formerly enslaved Africans who escaped into the Jamaican hills when the British took the island by force from Spain in 1655. They were regularly joined by Africans who escaped enslavement under the British. There were long running battles between the British and the Maroons.

The Miskito were first utilized in tracking enslaved Africans who had escaped British bondage. The World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, noted that “in 1720 the British signed a treaty with the King of the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua to provide 50 able-bodied men to assist the Jamaican plantation owners in their struggle against runaway slaves.”

As the Maroon menace continued, colonial Jamaica grew more desperate. Miskito Indians helped the British reach Nanny Town, Portland, in 1734, sacking and leveling the settlement high up in the Blue Mountain range.

According to a December 17, 1865 article in The New York Times, 200 Miskito Indians were recruited in a final, desperate attempt to defeat the Maroons in other parts of the island:

Resort was then had to the Mosquito Indians, who, it was thought, would be more than a match for the Maroons in bush-fighting. Two hundred of those people were accordingly imported into Jamaica, and employed against the dreaded enemy. But the Maroons baffled the Indians, and continued to bid defiance to the colonists, who, in their extremity, were compelled to advise Governor Trelawney, in 1738, to propose overtures of peace to the chiefs. These overtures were accepted; articles of pacification were signed; and certain lands in the island, amounting in the whole to several thousand acres, were assigned to the Maroons in perpetuity.

The Jamaican war against the maroons was not only long, it proved expensive, costing at least £240,000 or more than £14 million in today’s money, the equivalent nearly US$20 million.

The Miskito received compensation for their failed efforts against the Maroons. Thomas Southey in the 1827 edition of Volume 2 of Chronological History of the West Indies, said, “The Mosquito Indians were well rewarded for the conduct, and sent back to their country.” Other sources, however, suggest that some Miskito remained in Jamaica and settled in the southern part of the parish of St. Elizabeth.

It is likely there are persons in that region of the country, as well as those descended from other Central American Indians sold into slavery in Jamaica by the Miskito, who are unaware of that part of their heritage.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Jamaica in Nicaragua

On a recent trip to the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, we met a couple who look and speak like any Jamaican. It is as if they are from Westmoreland or St. Ann or Portland or any other parish on the island.

They live in Bluefields, capital of the South Caribbean Autonomous Region in Nicaragua. The city, which lies on the Caribbean Sea coast of the Central American country, has had a long and interesting history.

An early photo of Bluefields on the Caribbean coast in Nicaragua

It was once a playground of pirates who were hostile to Spain. The first known Africans arrived there when a Portuguese ship carrying enslaved persons was wrecked off the coast in 1641. British subjects started arriving there in the 1630s and by the mid-1660s had a significant presence. Eventually an alliance was formed between the British and one of the indigenous groups in the area, the Miskito. Sometime in the 1740s the area fell under the administration of Jamaica’s colonial authorities.

The first set of Jamaican blacks known to live in what became Nicaragua were enslaved persons whose masters moved to the area. In 1796 the British recognized Spain’s sovereignty over the region, known as the Mosquito Coast. It became an alternative destination for Jamaicans who escaped enslavement on the island.

Kayomi Wada of the University of Washington in the United States notes that “Nicaragua has the largest population of African descent in Central America and approximately two-thirds of that group resides in and around Bluefields.”

The area has had an uneasy and sometimes troubled relationship with Nicaragua. “As history unfolded, Bluefields became a forgotten city, cut off from the rest of the country by a vast jungle and different culture,” an NPR report states.

“Historically Bluefields has been politically isolated from the rest of Nicaragua,” Wada writes. “It was originally part of the British Protectorate of Mosquitia and ruled by the British-supported Miskitu Indians until 1894.”

Wada says “English-speaking Creoles, as the persons of African descent now called themselves, had established an English language educational system distinct from Nicaragua’s Spanish language schooling.”

There was a tit for tat tussle among these English-speaking Creoles and the Mestizos for control of Bluefields and surrounding areas. While it was under British protection and influence, blacks in Nicaragua gained relatively high levels of influence in the region.

“In 1893, the Mosquito Coast was incorporated into the Nicaraguan state,” writes Carole Boyce Davies in Volume 1 of Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture. “Mestizos ousted Creoles from government and administration, Spanish replaced English as the region’s official language, and teaching in other languages was forbidden.”

Some 100 years later, “Bluefields would regain some of its historic autonomy from Nicaragua,” while remaining part of the country.

Bluefields became capital of the South Atlantic Autonomous Region in May 1990. “In this new role as a regional capital some of Bluefields’ Creoles have again risen to positions of economic and political prominence,” declares Wada.

For lovers of cricket and baseball, Peter Bjarkman provides an interesting aside. “Nicaragua owns a proud baseball tradition,” he writes in Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball. “The game came to the country late in the nineteenth century (1889), when an American businessman, Albert Adlesberg, was horrified to see the British tradition of cricket putting down roots in the coastal city of Bluefields.”

Corn Islands
The Mosquito Coast (there are various spellings of the area) is closely related to the Corn Islands, also part of Nicaraguan territory. The two islands, Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island, about 70 kilometers or 40 miles from the Nicaraguan mainland, are also part of the Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. Like Bluefields, the Corn Islands were part of the British protectorate from 1655 to 1860.

Aerial photo of Big Corn Island, overlooking the airport runway

The two islands, little in size and small in population, have never been fully integrated into Nicaraguan life, culture and politics, partly because of their geographic remoteness from the Nicaraguan mainland, their history and culture.

“British settlers from Jamaica began moving to the Corn Islands in the 18th century, bringing their African slaves with them,” writes Diane Wedner of the Los Angeles Times. “Most of the islanders today are descendants of those settlers and speak English.”

Greg Henry says the Corn Islands have “a totally separate experience from mainland Nicaragua” and “have more in common with Jamaica than Nicaragua.” Rather than Spanish, “English is the primary language and the native people are of African descent.”

For the better part of 100 years, beginning in 1894, the Corn Islands, though remaining part of Nicaragua, were leased to the United States, which lost the lease in 1970.

In The History of English: An Introduction, Stephan Gramley, writes, “Jamaican influence can still be seen along the coast of Central America, where laborers (were) moved to exploit natural resources such as wood in Bluefields, the Corn Islands and Belize. These people, who were speakers of Jamaican Creole were often slaves in the early period, but were later free laborers.”

A Jamaican, W.B. Morgan, opened a school in the Corn Islands in about 1880, the first such school to be recognized by the government, though another school had previously existed for roughly 30 years.

Hard times
Bluefields is currently facing hard times. Unemployment is high. It is at the epicenter of the drug trade between South America, especially Colombia, and North America. The Corn Islands remain largely undeveloped, though Little Corn Island has seen some tourism activity. Electricity and Internet services on the islands are in short supply, spotty and expensive.

A horrendous fire did much damage to Bluefields in 1970. The agricultural base of Bluefields and the Corn Islands were devastated by various storms, especially Hurricane Joan in 1988, which, at category four, was the most powerful in Nicaragua history up to that time. The L.A. Times reported that Joan “razed the Corn Islands and slammed ashore in the Caribbean port of Bluefields with 135-m.p.h. winds.” Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Otto in November 2016 caused further devastation.

While in Nicaragua a few weeks ago, we were told of a sliver of hope for Bluefields residents. The Nicaraguan economy is strong, the country is relatively peaceful, and it is attracting investments. BPO (Business process outsourcing) companies, more commonly known as call centers, are opening operations in Managua, the capital.

Because the demand for English speaking workers is high, hundreds of young people are being recruited from Bluefields to go work in Managua at above average wages for the country. There is even talk of opening call centers in the city.

Eron Henry’s article, Broadening the mind, freeing the spirit, is under consideration for the 2017 NUHA Foundation Blogging Prize. He is author of Reverend Mother, a novel.

The “Natives” and the English

George Liele, first Baptist missionary

As a Baptist Christian, I am intrigued to discover the African roots of my faith tradition.

Baptist work in Jamaica started in 1783 with the arrival of George Leile from Savannah, Georgia, in the United States. This made Leile the first Baptist missionary, not William Carey, an Englishman, as is the conventional claim.

Noel Erskine, professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, said that “with his migration to Jamaica in 1783, Leile became America’s first missionary, 33 years before Adoniram Judson sailed for Burma and 10 years before William Carey of England sailed for India.”

Leile was enslaved but was freed during the American Revolution. Facing the threat of re-enslavement after the revolutionary war, he moved with his family to Jamaica.

Prior to leaving the US, Leile was ordained in 1775, making him the first black person in the US to be ordained a Baptist pastor, and was likely the first ordained black Baptist pastor in the world. He planted churches in Savannah, Georgia.

His ministry in the US influenced others who went on to do significant Baptist work, including David George, baptized by Leile and who left Savannah for the Canadian Province of Nova Scotia and then later to Sierra Leone in Africa.

David George planted Baptist churches in both Canada and Sierra Leone. He founded the first Baptist church on the African continent, Regent Road Baptist Church in Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital, which celebrates its 225th anniversary this year.  I spoke at a special anniversary event at the church in early June.

Others who came out of Leile’s ministry included Andrew Bryan in Savannah, Jesse Peters in South Carolina, and Hannah Williams in England.

Upon arriving in Jamaica, Leile essentially continued where he left off in the US. He planted churches and developed local Baptist leadership.

An artist’s impression of Dona Beatriz (Beatrice) Kimpa Vita, leader of the Antonian Christian Movement in Kongo in present-day Angola, Africa

Stephen Jennings, Jamaica Baptist pastor and former president of the Jamaica Baptist Union, numbered Leile among descendants of the Antonian Christian Movement, led by Dona Beatriz (Beatrice) Kimpa Vita. Jennings contends that this movement was “present within Kongolese territorial space in 1684-1706.”

The Kongo (spelt with a K) is in what is now Angola, and should not be confused with either the Republic of Congo or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Jennings, whose doctoral dissertation examined the impact of the Antonian Christian Movement in the Americas, said, “Though it did not survive as an organized movement within Kongo, it (Antonian Christian Movement) continued in pockets across the region and across the Atlantic.” He elaborated:

Kongolese people and people from the entire Western Central African region, including Antonian Christians, were exported to Iberian Brazil, the eastern seaboard of the United States – from Maryland to Georgia – Louisiana, and the entire Caribbean – specifically through the British, French and Spanish regions, including Jamaica.

Jennings declared:

Dona Vita’s movement was incarnated by those Kongolese Christians who were scattered all over the so-called “New World.” There is evidence of such persons leading an uprising in British South Carolina in 1739. There are also clear linkages between the Antonian movement and the Haitian revolution, as a number of Haitians who participated in this revolt came from the Kongo as followers of Dona Vita. Enslaved Kongolose Antonians were also sent to Jamaica, but underwent a name change over time. … It can be seen that Kongolese Christians were among those who came to the British Protestant country of Jamaica, carrying their faith and more precisely, their theological, cultural, and political outlook.

According to Jennings, when Leile went to Jamaica in 1783, he encountered people like him who were descendants of the Antonian Christian Movement.

He claimed that:

African Americans who went as preachers and missionaries to Jamaica in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries were probably first and second generation Antonians who were seeking to escape racist hardships that were increasingly present in the revolutionary North American British colonies. As Kongolese Antonians, they would have also joined the struggle for self-determination of their fellow Kongolese Antonian Christians in Jamaica.

Jennings said Leile named his congregations “The Ethiopian Baptist Churches of Jamaica,” reflecting their ties to the African motherland.

Native Baptists

This explains a debate among Jamaican Baptist historians about a group referred to as Native Baptists in the historical records but whose identity remains uncertain.

According to Devon Dick, Jamaica Baptist pastor and current president of the Jamaica Baptist Union, the Native Baptists named in the historical records was distinct from the English Baptists. Perhaps these were the same Ethiopian Baptists mentioned by Jennings and others.

in his book, The Cross and the Machete, Dick indicated that the British referred to Leile’s movement as Native Baptists. However, Dick differentiated between Leile’s group that was nicknamed Native Baptists by the British, and the group that officially bore the name Native Baptists. As one can imagine, this creates confusion concerning the literature:

With the arrival of the English Baptists in 1814, the nineteenth century writings, in attempting to make a distinction between the European Baptists and Leile, started to retroactively refer to him as a Native Baptist, perhaps meaning nothing more than to claim that Leile was a non-European Baptist.

Horace Russell, a retired professor of historical theology at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and former president of the United Theological College of the West Indies in Jamaica, made the same distinction.

in Foundations and Anticipations, Russell referred to “the Native (Black) Baptists who were not organizationally attached to the Jamaica Baptist Union.”

Russell differed from Dick in claiming that the Native Baptists had grown into a parallel organization in 1860, several decades later than Dick’s own dating. Dick, in fact, suggests that Native Baptists were in perennial decline by that time.

Even if Dick is correct, some records suggest that Native Baptists continued to have presence, at least in the capital city, Kingston.  The May Pen Cemetery, Jamaica’s main cemetery in Kingston, was founded in 1851 and was divided into different burial grounds by an 1874 law. That law made a distinction between the burial ground for the Native Baptists and that for Baptists led by the British.

Dick asserted that Native Baptists even formed their own mission sending body, citing an 1841 report of the Jamaica Native Baptist Missionary Society.

What is not clear is how the Native Baptists came about. The sensible assumption is that churches founded under Leile’s movement and that of his disciple, Moses Baker, whose work concentrated in the west of the island while Leile focused on the east, formed the genesis of the Native Baptist movement. Some of these churches became identified with the English Baptists while others remained Native Baptist.

Arrival of the British

It is important to know how or why the British Baptists went to Jamaica. Baptist work on the island grew so rapidly that Leile appealed to the British for help. The first British missionary, John Rowe, arrived in Jamaica in 1814.  From then on, a series of Baptist missionaries from out of the UK arrived in the island.

Bethany Baptist Church in St. Ann is believed to be a successor to an earlier Native Baptist Church in the area

What is implied is that there was tension between Native Baptists on the one hand, and the British missionaries on the other.  Dick said “congregations became part of JNBMS (Jamaica Native Baptist Missionary Society) because of perceived maltreatment by the English Baptists” and “to redress the sidelining of male persons of African descent who could have augmented the pastoral ministry.” He said “these Africans also perceived educational snobbery towards them and took umbrage.”

After the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 that implicated some Baptists, Horace Russell said that “in reaction the white missionary began to distance himself even more from the worship forms and patterns of the black (Native) pastors.”

English missionaries who went to Jamaica never made peace with the “Africanness” of their African-descended congregants, even though when they arrived, Baptist witness was already flourishing among the enslaved in the colony.

Native Baptists and their influences were sidelined, and the British understanding and practices of ministry prevailed. This is so whether by Native Baptist we mean a separate, distinct group or simply a phenomenon within the English-led churches. Since then, Baptist worship, polity and organization has a distinctly British look and feel to it.

According to Dick, there were 38 Native Baptist congregations in 1841, but only about five in Kingston in 1859. He  suggested there were not many other “native” congregations on the island. The English-led Baptist churches, on the other hand, grew from 46 in 1841 to 69 in 1859.


Dick suggests that several Native Baptist churches became English Baptist congregations. I’m familiar with a significant number of the churches Dick named as originally Native Baptists that are now part of the Jamaica Baptist Union.

Could this explain why indigenization happened so early in Jamaica? That, though Native Baptists as a movement waned, their influence never died.

Calabar College, the first theological training institution for black Baptist pastors anywhere in the globe, opened in Jamaica in 1843. Its name, Calabar, derived from a region in Nigeria, a nod to the African heritage of its student body. Though its education and training were distinctly British, it could be that the genesis of Baptist work as an African movement in the island had some residual effect in the founding of the college.

Indigenization of Baptist work in Jamaica happened early compared to other countries. Not only were there highly trained Baptist pastors of African descent, they emerged into leadership of the Jamaica Baptist Union not very long after the JBU was formed in 1849.

And if Stephen Jennings is to be believed, some of these congregations emerged out of a longstanding African tradition that preceded the Baptist mission. 

Eron Henry’s article, Broadening the mind, freeing the spirit, is under consideration for the 2017 NUHA Foundation Blogging Prize. He is author of Reverend Mother, a novel.

Islam in Jamaica

Though Islam has never taken deep roots in Jamaica, it has had a long-standing presence on the island.

With thousands of enslaved persons from Africa brought to Jamaica for more than three centuries, some, perhaps many, must have been Muslims.  Islam had had an early presence in West Africa, from where most enslaved persons in the Americas originated.

Estimates are that as many as 16 percent of indentured workers from India who came to Jamaica after full emancipation in 1838 were Muslims. It is possible too that, while most Lebanese who came here in the latter half of the 19th century were Christians, some of these Arabs may have been Muslims.

Muslim Hussay Festival in Westmoreland, Jamaica (Photo courtesy of the National Library of Jamaica)

While the evidence is not conclusive, there are traces suggesting Islamic presence in Jamaica from the time of the Spanish occupation of the island, which began in 1494 and ended in 1655 when the British took the island by force from Spanish control.

Jamaica’s official website for visitors states confidently:

Islam has been practiced in Jamaica since the 1500s, when African slaves brought the religion during the African Slave Trade. The religion was practiced more widely however after the abolition of slavery in 1834 with the arrival of Indian laborers.

In 2000, Sultana Afroz, a Muslim from Bangladesh and a lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, implied that at least some Jamaican maroons were Muslims. “‘As-Salamu-’alaikum,’ the Islamic greeting in Arabic, meaning ‘peace be upon you,’ continued to be the official greeting among the Maroon Council members in Mooretown, Portland, Jamaica.”

In 2001, Afroz wrote that “[c]ontemporaneous to the autonomous Muslim Maroon ummah, hundreds of thousands of Mu’minun (the Believers of the Islamic faith) of African descent worked as slaves on the plantations in Jamaica.”

She made the remarkable claim that Sam Sharpe was Muslim and the Rebellion he led was Islamic jihad:

Jihad became the religious and political ideology of these crypto-Muslims, who became members of the various denominational nonconformist churches since being sprinkled with the water by the rectors of the parishes. Despite the experience of the most cruel servitude and the likelihood of a swift and ruthless suppression of the rebellion, the spiritually inspired Mu’minun collectively responded to the call for an island-wide jihad in 1832. Commonly known as the Baptist Rebellion, the Jihad of 1832 wrought havoc of irreparable dimension to the plantation system and hastened the Emancipation Act of 1833.

She said, “the dhikir, ‘Allahu Akbar,’ declaring the Greatness of Allah, still throbbed in the hearts of many of the former Muslim slaves when the Indian indentured Muslims first landed in Jamaica in 1845.” She made reference to “the many freed African Muslim slaves in the midst of great social, economic and political uncertainties following emancipation.”

Afroz further asserted that “with the arrival of the indentured Muslims from India, the peaceful revival of Islam in Jamaica began.”

Gordon Mullings said Afroz’s claims rest on a “shaky historical and cultural foundation.” Furthermore:

[T]he overwhelming historical and anthropological evidence is that our “crypto-Muslim” African ancestors were in fact predominantly and very actively animistic, and that Islam first gained a significant institutionalized presence in the region with the settlement of Indian indentured laborers in the mid-nineteenth century.  As for the concept that the Maroons were Moorish/Islamic to the point of constituting an Islamic community under Islamic law (i.e. an ummah), one should start by considering the fact that they have been famous, from Spanish times, for Jerk Pork — a major Islamic no-no.

Maureen Warner-Lewis, a UWI professor, said Afroz was engaging in a revisionism of Jamaica’s history. Her assertions were bedeviled by “inaccuracies of data and faults of argumentation.” In addition:

There are glaring disjunctures between the sweeping claims advanced and the paucity of the evidence proffered, while logic is defied by extravagance of assertion, leaps in assumptions, and glib transitions from probability to dogmatism.

She said Afroz employed “doubtful logic to the production of questionable historiography.” Among other things, she inflates “the number of enslaved Muslims in Jamaica” and she “distorts comments made by some nineteenth-century commentators.”

Warner-Lewis did not dispute early or longstanding Muslim presence on the island. Rather, she accused Afroz of overstating the case and for misreading history.

Some of these enslaved Muslims were literate. Warner-Lewis declared:

The religious ideas of these Muslims as well as the writing skills in Arabic which several of them possessed had in fact caught the attention of European planters, among them Jamaican-based Bryan Edwards (1819). In fact their numeracy and writing skills allowed them to secure jobs as storekeepers and tally clerks on estates.

Furthermore, “Magistrate R. R. Madden of Jamaica alerted anti-slavery and Africa colonisation interests in London to the Arabic autobiography (1830s) of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, otherwise called Edward Donlan in Jamaica.”

Writing in 1922, Martha Warren Beckwith and Helen Heffron Roberts reported that descendants of Indian indentured workers in Jamaica observed the Hussay festival, which commemorates the martyrdom of Hasan and Hussain, sons of Ali. On the final day of this festival, a procession of mourners carried a tomb made from bamboo and colored paper:

As most Jamaica Indians are from Bombay (Mumbai), the Hussay follows closely the form of celebration described from that locality. It is regularly celebrated at different times in different parts of the island, the north side holding its Hussay in January or February, Vere in July or early August.

The two writers noted that the Jamaican government forbade Hussay processions in both Kingston and Savannah La Mar.

Mosque in Kingston, Jamaica

Currently, only about 5,000 Muslims are in Jamaica out of a population of 2.7 million. There are five mosques in Kingston, Spanish Town, Albany and Port Maria in St. Mary, and Three Miles in Westmoreland. Other places of worship (masjids) are at Santa Cruz, Morant Bay and Negril. They have two basic schools.

Several factors have been put forward as to why the presence of Islam on the Caribbean island is negligible, despite its long history there. In Islam Outside the Arab World, Ingvar Svanberg and David Westerlund asserted:

After the abolition of slavery, Muslims either converted to Christianity, or went back to Africa or to other places in Latin America where there were Muslims, or hid the fact that they were Muslims. Until the last quarter of the present [20th] century, Islam was almost unknown in Jamaica outside the small indentured East Indian Muslim community.

The Islamic Council of Jamaica, formed in 1981, seeks to unite Jamaican Muslims, comprising mainly persons of African and Indian ancestry, and some Arabs.

Among the more well-known Jamaican Muslims are musical artistes Jimmy Cliff and the late Prince Buster, who died in 2016.

Eron Henry’s article, Broadening the mind, freeing the spirit, is under consideration for the 2017 NUHA Foundation Blogging Prize. He is author of Reverend Mother, a novel.

Changing antiquated laws

In the 1980s, Morris Cargill, the late newspaper columnist in Jamaica, tells of his attempt to pay a traffic fine issued to him for a parking violation in Downtown Kingston, the island’s capital. Not being clear what to do, he went to a police station to inquire and possibly, to pay. The police officers, he said, laughed in his face, humorously mocking him for wasting his time and theirs in trying to settle the $4 ticket.

With that story by Morris Cargill in the back of my head, I too was issued a parking violation ticket in the Parade Area of Downton Kingston not very long after. The female officer told me I could avoid being ticketed if I gave her $20 for lunch. Averse to bribes, and knowing that this was far more than a traffic ticket that I may not even have to pay, I refused. Becoming highly irate, she wrote me up, threw the ticket at me, and, with a few choice, colorful Jamaican words, walked off in a huff.

In less than a decade, the government belatedly recognized what a goldmine traffic violations are and responded with a vengeance. The fines can be steep for certain traffic offences in Jamaica today, worse if it goes to court. The pretense that traffic fines are anything but a money-making scheme was exemplified by a police corporal in Water Square, Falmouth, some years ago. “I’m tryin’ to earn the government some money,” he shouted to a friend who had hailed him from a passing car, holding aloft the book of traffic tickets in his hand.

Up to when the government realized it was missing out on millions due to antiquated traffic fines, laws concerning road traffic violations had not changed much, if any, since Jamaica’s independence in 1962. Other antiquated laws remain on the books, while others were only changed in recent years.

For instance, some laws against flogging and whipping convicted persons were repealed or amended only in March 2013. Among the offences that no longer call for flogging and whipping are obeah (voodoo), larceny and “an offence against a female or a child.”

The 1898 Obeah Laws state that anyone found guilty of the practice of obeah “shall be liable to imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding 12 months, and in addition thereto, or in lieu thereof, to whipping.” The 2013 change, while not legalizing or decriminalizing obeah, amended the Obeah Act to abolish whipping.

The 2013 Act to Amend the Larceny Act abolished “whipping as a penalty for certain criminal offences; and for connected matters.”

The infamous cat-o-nine-tails used on errant soldiers, seamen and convicted civilians

The Crime (Prevention Of) Act of 1942 distinguished between flogging and whipping. “‘Flogging’ means corporal punishment administered with a cat-o’-nine-tails,” while “‘whipping’ means corporal punishment administered with a tamarind switch.”

The “cat,” a plaited rope with nine strands or thongs, was used in the British navy and army to flog errant seamen and soldiers and became standard punishment for civilians who violated criminal or even civil law in British colonies. It was applied to the back. The tamarind (tambran) switch comprised three strands from the tamarind tree, and the whipping was applied to the naked behind.

Though flogging and whipping were still on the books, it appears they had long gone out of practice as judges did not pass such sentences, which were originally reserved for male offenders. The clause referred specifically to “any male person who, on or after the date of the coming into operation of this Act, is convicted before any court.”

Among the laws getting attention now are those related to ganja (marijuana). While Rastafarians and others have long lobbied for these laws to be repealed, it is the decisions of the Barack Obama Administration in the United States that, more than anything else, spurred action on the subject. The US Federal government under Obama made a formal decision to turn a blind eye to states that legalized the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. Enterprising Jamaicans are seeking to capitalize and the Jamaican government is following suit.

In March 2015, An Act to Amend the Dangerous Drugs Act was signed into law:

so as to provide for, among other things, the modification of penalties for the possession of ganja in specified small quantities and the smoking of ganja in specified circumstances, and for a scheme of licences, permits and other authorizations for medical, therapeutic or scientific purposes.

This changed a 1913 law making the cultivation, use or possession of ganja illegal. Persons caught with even a small quantity faced a lengthy prison sentence. Rastas may now utilize ganja in worship as the 2015 law allows its use for “religious purposes as a sacrament in adherence to the Rastafarian faith.” Its use is allowed for “medical or therapeutic purposes” and for “the purposes of scientific research.”

Ganja may even be grown “on lands designated by the Minister” and can be imported “from any jurisdiction where the exportation of such plant or part thereof to Jamaica is lawful under the laws of that jurisdiction.”

There are complaints that Jamaica needs to update, amend or repeal laws on obeah, rape, abortion, prostitution, rights of gays and lesbians, blasphemy, defamation, and land tenureship and ownership, among many others.

As an example, it is difficult for a man to be charged for marital rape if the following do not apply: they are separated, are undergoing divorce proceedings, a court injunction is held against him, or if he has a known sexual disease. If the law is interpreted strictly as written, he cannot be charged for rape if he forces himself on her otherwise. Leanne Levers echoes the law’s critics. “This reinforces the archaic, sexist view of women as the property of men and promulgates the acceptance of normalization of violence against women.”

Usually, government amends or changes laws only when its hands are forced, or when it sees opportunities to increase revenue. Otherwise, most laws, no matter how antiquated, outdated or irrelevant, may remain on the books. It is the responsibility of civil society to know what the laws are and to agitate for change.

Eron Henry’s article, Broadening the mind, freeing the spirit, is under consideration for the 2017 NUHA Foundation Blogging Prize. He is author of Reverend Mother, a novel.

Jamaica at war

The British Royal Navy Ship, HMS Jamaica, at anchor in 1943

Like they did during World War I, Jamaica and Jamaicans were full participants in the Second World War, including making significant monetary contributions. By 1941, the British colony had raised enough money from public donations to buy 12 light bomber aircrafts. One Royal Navy Ship was named after the island, the HMS Jamaica.

Britain agreed for the United States to establish two military bases on the island, Vernamfield Air Base in the parish of Clarendon and Goat Island Naval Base near Hellshire, St. Catherine. These two bases accommodated about 10,000 American troops.

Saba Igbe asserted that at both Vernamfield and Goat Island, there were “British, Canadian, and local forces—all mingling with European refugees, celebrities, and perhaps even a German spy or two.”

Indications are that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of American President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, and entertainers Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., traveled to Jamaica to encourage and entertain the American troops.

Igbe said “German U-boats were active in the Caribbean, hunting ships crossing the Panama Canal.” She claimed, “there were a few instances of U-boat crews slipping onto the island for a bit of fun at Kingston’s famed nightspot, the Glass Bucket Club.”

What is now the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) served as a refugee camp for Europeans from Gibraltar. Igbe, who attended classes at Mona years later, said:

In 1940, Britain feared that Spain would take over Gibraltar and decided to evacuate the entire civilian population. Most evacuees ended up in England; those destined for Jamaica began arriving in Kingston in October 1940. By the war’s end, Kingston’s Gibraltar Camp held nearly 2,000 civilians, including some refugees from Poland, Lithuania, and other parts of Europe. The evacuees were housed in wooden buildings that are still intact and functional. Today these buildings, contrasting starkly with the contemporary lecture rooms and offices, are exam rooms for students. I had taken tests in them myself, not knowing why a relatively new university maintained wooden structures from a bygone era.

Jews were also sent to Jamaica. David Regev discovered “the unknown rescue story of 260 Jews who were rescued from bleeding Europe in 1942, in the middle of World War II, and sent to a camp in Jamaica. They spent three years there.”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) in January 1942 suggested that 180 of the 260 were Polish Jews stranded in Portugal. Their situation was dire. “By 1941 it was clear that, among the refugees, it was Jews who were exposed to the most severe danger, and yet no country outside of Europe was willing to issue visas to them and even Britain refused entry,” wrote Tomasz Potworowski.

JTA said their Jamaican rescue was “made possible through the collaboration of the Joint Distribution Committee with the British and Polish governments.” If Jamaica had not been accommodating, they “would have remained stranded if the JDC had not come to their help because all previous efforts to secure overseas visas for them had failed.”

Regev said that “at the end of the war the camp was dismantled, and its refugees were scattered all over…. Testimonies and documents found later on reveal that most of them immigrated to South American and to the United States and a small number of them reached Europe.”

In addition to the refugee camp up at Mona and elsewhere, there were internment camps as well. German Prisoners of War were held at what is now Independence Park – Jamaica’s National Stadium and National Arena – as well as at military bases at UP Park Camp in St. Andrew and Newcastle in the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

There is an interesting anecdote reported on Jamaican Family Search of one prisoner at Up Park Camp. “Amongst those prisoners was a Jewish doctor who was captured in North Africa. He was able to convince the authorities that he was not a Nazi and was allowed to practice medicine at the Kingston Public Hospital.”

One uncertain piece of evidence suggests there may have been an internment camp for women. Thomas Foster reports:

The evidence presented by one letter from Jamaica to the U.S.A., where it was received on June 19th, 1941, suggests that a camp existed but its whereabouts cannot be traced and servicemen in the island at that time have no recollection of its existence. The letter is inscribed on the reverse with a return address at the “Women’s Internment Camp” and carries a strike of the postal censor hand-stamp type M-PC2 in violet ink.

jamaican women- WWII
Jamaican women who served in the Second World War

Thousands of Jamaicans served directly as servicemen and women during the war (at least 100 Jamaican women), many fighting in Europe and the Middle East while others provided support services. Jamaicans were linked to the No. 139 Royal Air Force Squadron and provided the bulk of the 16,000 West Indians who volunteered to serve directly under the British, while upwards of 40,000 West Indians helped the war effort in the United States. According to the Memorial Gates Trust, these persons from the British Caribbean served in a variety of roles:

Around 6,000 West Indians served with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, in roles from fighter pilots to bomb aimers, air gunners to ground staff and administration. Thousands of West Indian seamen made their contributions in one of the Second World War’s most dangerous services, the Merchant Navy – one-third of all merchant seamen were to die during the war. One thousand volunteers for army service were formed into the Caribbean Regiment, which went overseas in 1944 and saw service in the Middle East and Italy. In addition, West Indians served in the Royal Engineers as highly skilled technicians. Upwards of 40,000 West Indians opted to join the various branches of the civilian war effort in the United States.

Compared to the First World War, the Second was less traumatic in loss of life and injury. About 15,600 from the Caribbean joined the armed forces during WWI and a similar number, about 16,000, enlisted in the Second. Roughly 1,200 were reportedly killed in WWI while 236 were reported killed or missing in Two. About 2,500 were wounded in the First and 265 in the Second. At the end of WWI, the British government refused recognition to those who fought; 103 received decorations after WWII.

Yet, consistent with the experiences of Jamaicans who served during WWI, there was dissatisfaction with the treatment received during and after the Second World War. “They fought against Hitler and helped rebuild Britain – yet the contributions of thousands of men and women from Caribbean colonies during World War Two have been largely forgotten,” wrote Claire Brennan of BBC News. Those who stayed in Britain after the war “struggled to adapt to Britain’s cold climate and had to fend off racial prejudice… Despite their countless sacrifices, some veterans feel their war time experiences have been forgotten and have spent their lifetimes fighting for equality.”

Soldiers who returned to the Caribbean added to the fervor for self-government and self-determination, adding to the fuel already lit by older military veterans resentful of their treatment after WWI ended.

Among those radicalized upon returning to Jamaica was Rhodes Scholar, Dudley Thompson, an RAF pilot during the war who became a lawyer, minister of government and ambassador. These military veterans found their way into the  fledgling labor movement and the nascent political parties where their experiences proved useful and their resentment spilled over into policies and actions.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Jamaica’s great war

West India Regiment
The West India Regiment at the outbreak of World War I. Photo courtesy of the West India Committee

Jamaica, like other British colonies, could not escape the effects of war whenever the English, as was their wont, got caught up in conflicts.

Not only did Jamaicans provide support and served during World War I, referred to as the Great War and which raged 1914-1918, there was a prisoner of war camp on the island as well. British historian, Jeffrey Green, alleged that German officers captured during the war “were shipped to Jamaica where, with German and Austrian businessmen who had settled on the island, they were interned at the army camp at Up Park Camp near Kingston.”

Green recounted the following related directly to him by Leslie Thompson, a junior bandsman in the British West India Regiment stationed at Up Park Camp barracks, about German and Austrian prisoners of war on the island:

He recalled that there were eight or nine officers there, and they had a piano and a violin. One named Straumann was “a fine violinist” and he helped the Jamaican musicians. “Time was nothing to him.” One or two of the others helped too, surely only too pleased to spend time constructively.

Jamaicans made direct and indirect contributions to the war effort. “A sum of £10,000 was voted for defence purposes and a gift of 1,300 tons or £50,000 worth of sugar was shipped to England in 1915. Jamaica also supplied England with cash to purchase airplanes and motor ambulances,” wrote Dalea Bean of the University of the West Indies. “Through the work of Jamaican women, gifts of cash and kind were shipped to England throughout the war, including more than £80,000 in cash, walking sticks, cigarettes, cases of homemade woollen clothing and bedding and non-perishable food items.”

Thousands of Jamaicans served in the BWIR. Chris Baker indicated that “a total of 397 officers and 15,204 men, representing all Caribbean colonies, served in the BWIR. Of the total, 10,280 (66%) came from Jamaica.” They served both in the Middle East and in Europe.

These soldiers experienced deep racism. In Tracing Your Caribbean Ancestors: A National Archives Guide, Guy Grannum recounted:

Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 many West Indians left the colonies to enlist in the army in the UK and were recruited into British regiments. However, the War Office was concerned with the number of black soldiers in the army and tried to prevent any people from the West Indies enlisting. Indeed, the War Office threatened to repatriate any who arrived. Eventually, after much discussion between the Colonial Office and the War Office, and the intervention of King George V, approval to raise a West Indian contingent was given on 19 May 1915. On 26 October 1915 the British West Indies Regiment was established.

According to Andreas Persson, there was great discontent among British forces as the war wore on. “Mutiny was widespread during the final years of the war as the conflict dragged on and then as demobilisation was sluggishly executed.”

Members of the BWIR mutinied as well. Persson said “the war for the Caribbean lasted for three years, and while the home front was sheltered from the worst effects of the conflict, the men on the ground in Europe and the Middle East experienced hardship and injustice. In 1918 the soldiers of the BWIR mutinied.”

James Ferguson, writing in Caribbean Beat, explained that an incident in Italy was pivotal. “Resentment came to a head in a mutiny after Armistice Day in 1918, when eight BWIR battalions in Taranto, Italy, were ordered to unload ships and perform other heavy work. When they refused, fighting broke out, and sixty men were eventually tried for mutiny, with one shot by firing squad.”

Persson said BWIR service men received harsher treatment than white soldiers who also mutinied:

The great difference between the BWIR mutiny and others rest with the repercussions, the actions of the government were drastic. The authorities decided that as an extra punishment, the men would be excluded from the Victory Parade in London and were not allowed to be publicly welcomed on their return to the Colonies. No commemorations at home or abroad, they were to return to the West Indies and back to colonial life.

West India Regiment 2
Jamaican members of the West India Regiment. Photo courtesy of the West India Committee

Caribbean soldiers had paid a heavy price fighting in the war and they felt they did not receive the respect, and more, that they deserved. “Although precise figures are hard to come by, it is thought that about one thousand men from the Caribbean died in the war, with a further three thousand wounded,” Ferguson said.

It was especially galling because Jamaican and other Caribbean young men signed on to serve with great enthusiasm. Simon Rogers asserted that “enthusiasm for the battle was widespread across the Caribbean. While some declared it a white man’s war, leaders and thinkers such as the Jamaican Marcus Garvey said young men from the islands should fight in order to prove their loyalty and to be treated as equals.”

Persson implied that the treatment meted out to Jamaicans and their peers from the Caribbean laid the groundwork for Caribbean struggle for self-determination:

Such a harsh psychological chastisement was indeed severe but so was the resentment that grew in reaction. The mutiny was the culmination of years of mismanagement and mistreatment, but was also the beginning of Caribbean anti-colonial sentiment. The authorities were fearful of the potential destabilisation that emboldened soldiers could bring to the status quo in the region. It was an act of preservation: the stability of the British Empire was paramount.

Ferguson agreed with Persson’s assertion on the longer-term consequences of mistreatment of Caribbean soldiers during the war. “Many returned to the Caribbean, disillusioned and sometimes wounded, thwarted in their attempt to start a new life and escape poverty. This sense of injustice would be a major factor in the growing radicalisation that eventually led to self-rule and independence.”

After expending much blood and sweat, Caribbean soldiers who returned after the war were left stranded with no means of support. Glenford Howe said:

In Jamaica the men were usually given a few shillings, a cheap suit of clothes and free railway transport to their home, but because of transportation problems some had to remain in Kingston for several days. This exhausted their money even before they actually left for home. The situation created major dissatisfaction because many had no other form of support. Having relinquished their jobs to fight for King and Country these men were left to experience destitution and poverty.

The treatment of Caribbean soldiers who fought on the behalf of and in the name of Britain is testament to what neglect does. Not for the first or last time, such neglect and abuse led to resentment, which in turn led to revolution, planting the seed for throwing off imperialistic dominance.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Ganja, banks and partner plans

Depiction  of an early family in Sligoville, St. Catherine, the first Free Village established in Jamaica in 1835.

One eminent Jamaican intellectual, long since deceased, made the case as to why the growing and exporting of ganja (marijuana) took off in Jamaica in the 1970s. While the greed of growers and exporters was an obvious factor, the incestuous relationship between Jamaican banks (most of them local operations of foreign corporations) and local business elites was also a driving force.

According to this university professor, the same people who formed and led Jamaican large companies and conglomerates were the same ones who sat on the boards of local banks. Their self-interest was a deterrent to new entrants not only in the markets they operated, but into other, highly lucrative areas as well.

Stories circulated of branch bank managers turning down business loan applications because they knew managing directors and general managers at headquarters, who must answer to their boards, would not approve. Accusations were thrown about that after denying business loan applications, the bank managers and leaders themselves, or their cohorts, established businesses based on the very proposals they denied.

Having been shut out of the formal credit sector, enterprising Jamaican businessmen (and a few women) looked elsewhere. Ganja became the source of choice to obtain funding for business. It is alleged that several respectable companies in Jamaica today, big and small, were started with ganja money.

To the extent the above account is true, it demonstrates the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Jamaicans to “beat the system” and get ahead. Indeed, beating the system became a Jamaican virtue, for the system was seen as both corrupt and oppressive against those who were of the “lower classes” who had no “connections” and no wealth.

Most Jamaicans would not walk into a commercial bank to ask for a loan. Some fear debt, but for others, it was a perception that formal credit from the commercial banking sector was not meant for them, that their requests or applications would not be taken seriously and would ultimately be denied.

The government of the 1970s began to make it easier for ordinary Jamaicans to access loans. It established the Workers Savings and Loan Bank in 1973. British-operated Barclays Bank was nationalized and became National Commercial Bank in 1977. National Housing Trust was founded in 1976 specifically for house and land purchase.

Before then, it was left to enterprising individuals, groups and churches to enable Jamaicans to obtain credit. Among the first to establish the semblance of a credit system were the churches in the wake of full emancipation in 1838. Led by the Baptists and the Moravians, Free Villages were established in rural Jamaica. Pastors and churches bought estates and portions thereof, cut these into smaller lots, and sold them at heavily discounted rates to the newly released slaves. Towns and communities such as Sligoville and Kitson Town in St. Catherine, Albert Town, Granville and Refuge in Trelawny, Goodwill, Mount Carey and Salters Hill in St. James, and Buxton, Clarksonville and Sturge Town in St. Ann, all began as Free Villages.

Devon Dick in his book, Rebellion to Riot, points out that “The Reverend W.G. Gardner founded the first building society, Kingston Benefit Building Society, in 1834.” According to the 1875 Jamaica Almanac, the society was formed “to provide freehold houses for its members and improved dwellings for the working classes.” Similarly, the Almanac reported that the Westmoreland Building Society was established in January 1874 at the instigation of the Rev. Henry Clarke “for the purpose of Providing, Repairing, or Improving freehold houses for its members.” Building societies were formed in other parishes including St. James, Trelawny and St. Ann. Most have since been folded into what is now the Jamaica National Building Society, the largest of its kind on the island.

Peoples cooperative banks, among other things, provided loans and credit to the agricultural sector.  According to a paper for the Bank of Jamaica by Gail Lue Lim, “the first People’s Cooperative bank was established in Christiana, Manchester (rural Jamaica) on 19 April 1905.”

barclays bank note - Jamaica
A ten pound bank note, issued by Barclays Bank in Jamaica in 1937.

About a century after the formation of the first building society, the credit union movement began in Jamaica in 1941. According to Devon Dick, credit unions helped “ensure financial security for workers, and provide a source from which they might borrow money at a low interest rate.” As in the case of Free Villages and building societies, the church pioneered the founding of credit unions in Jamaica. Inspired by Father John Peter Sullivan, the Jamaica Cooperative Credit Union League was created in July 1942 and by 1944, “the Roman Catholics had 178 Credit Union Study Groups and Savings Unions in Jamaica.”

Perhaps the most ingenious initiative by Jamaicans to obtain credit is the “partner,” following on an ancient West African tradition known as Susu that has various iterations elsewhere in the Caribbean such as in Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana. Based on a system of trust, participants, which may be family members, friends or coworkers, “throw a hand” on a regular basis – weekly, biweekly or even monthly. On each rotation, one member gets to “draw a hand.” Through this means, Jamaicans have bought furniture and other household items, pay school fees and tuition, and have even purchased land and property or conducted house construction and repairs.

Because the partner (pardna) system is deeply cultural, several financial institutions, banks and credit unions among them, have tried to mimic these informal arrangements. The National People’s Co-operative Bank of Jamaica’s Partner Account “allows you to throw daily, fortnightly, weekly, monthly” and to “earn bonus on your draw.”

The Community and Workers of Jamaica Cooperative Credit Union has a Partner Savings Plan for members. First Heritage Cooperative Credit Union operates Hand to Hand Partner Plans, stating explicitly it is “a savings account boasting features of the traditional Partner Plan.” Instead of interest, it pays to the saver one eighth of a hand after 16 weeks, quarter of a hand after 24 weeks, two thirds of a hand after 36 weeks, and a full hand after 48 weeks.

When times are hard and funds are scarce, Jamaicans use their ingenuity by forging alliances of cooperation. Such initiatives include ways to finance household needs and business ventures. Those values helped to keep families afloat and communities going.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel