The Jamaica-Irish connection

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Famous Jamaicans Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay were all of African-Irish descent

It is said that, next to persons of African descent, the largest racial/ethnic group in Jamaica are those of Irish descent. This was a surprise to me as I thought the next largest group were East Indians.

Of course, it is doubtful whether many persons in Jamaica are of any single racial or ethnic background as it is long known there have been much mixing along racial lines since the Europeans came in the late 15th century. As this is so, it is likely the count of any particular racial or ethnic group is grossly under estimated. Unlike other countries, such as the United States, Jamaica does not pay keen attention to race and ethnicity and certainly, one is not expected to provide one’s racial background or heritage in any official document. One is either Jamaican or isn’t.

My own maternal grandmother, who was born in the 1880s and died in the 1990s at well over 100 years old, said her grandfather was a “Scotsman,” a Jamaican term that can refer to any white Jamaican regardless of ethnic background. It is easy to believe, for Granny and all her children, including my mother, were light skinned. Whether my great-great-grandfather was English, Irish or actually a Scot is not really known.

Irish slaves
What is not well known is that Irish slaves were brought to the Caribbean by the British. According to Herbert Byrd Jr. in his book, Proclamation 1625: America’s Enslavement of the Irish, Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the British king Charles I, “placed tens of thousands of Irish in slavery and transported some to the mainland (North America) plantations; others were shipped to plantations in the West Indies.”

It appears enslaved Irish were part of the force used to wrest Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. Byrd said the expedition that took Jamaica “included many Irish slaves” from Barbados and St. Kitts (St. Christopher at the time). After the British took full control of Jamaica, “Cromwell, with his new island, had Irish slaves sent from Barbados and St. Christopher to work the new land.”

Others were brought directly from Ireland. As early as 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2,000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers. Apart from these, Elliott O’Donnell in The Irish Abroad, said “that 6,000 boys and girls were transported as slaves from Ireland to Jamaica, and that the total number transported there and to Virginia amounted to 10,000.”

Byrd mentioned an early British practice in the North American colonies, where “slave owners bred the African males with the Irish women and girls.” One reason was that African-Irish enslaved persons fetched a higher sale price than those who were purely African or Irish.

Ray Cavanaugh in his article, “Sláinte Mon – The Irish of Jamaica,” claimed this was also practiced in Jamaica for a similar but slightly different reason. “Rather than spending money on new slaves, the Jamaican plantation owners began mating Irish females with African men to create a new breed of slave that, in the Caribbean climate, was a more apt labourer, and thus commanded a higher value than full-blooded ‘Irish livestock.’”

Jamaica-Irish solidarity
Irish oppression under the English gave rise to feelings of affinity between Irish and persons of African descent. Irishman Richard Robert Madden, “who left his profitable career as a doctor in London…was appointed a Special Magistrate in Jamaica where he oversaw the abolition of slavery in 1834,” wrote librarian and historian, Liam Hogan. “He was hated by the planters there (now former slaveowners) as he doggedly defended the emancipated slaves new rights by making site inspections and ensuring that they were treated as equals in his court. After much intimidation, threats and eventually a violent assault in the street, he had to resign his position.”

Madden, in fact, discovered he had black enslaved relatives in Jamaica who, based on his own account, had very close family resemblances, which confirmed to him the information they gave of their ancestral heritage. “Undoubtedly, the unforeseen encounter with his Jamaican relatives had a profound impact on Madden, infusing him with an even greater desire to eradicate slavery in all its forms,” said Hogan.

The Madden name is well known in Jamaica as a branch of the family owns and runs one of the oldest and largest funeral businesses in the country.

One very important personality to be so affected by the similarities in Irish and Jamaican colonial history was Marcus Garvey who, it is believed, also had Irish ancestry. The Irish Rising of 1916, in particular, seemed to have had a profound impact on, and influenced Garvey, who had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica in August 1914.

The Rising, occurring on Easter in April 1916, is one of the pivotal events in Irish history. This event, the 100th anniversary of which is marked this year, led to the partition of Ireland, the creation of the independent Irish republic, the continued colonization of the rest of the island and the long struggle for independence and reunification by those who live in what became Northern Ireland.

Brian Dooley in Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland & Black America, said “Garvey was one of several black nationalists who studied and admired the Irish Republican approach. Garvey’s Irish influences had begun as early as 1910, when he was assistant secretary of the National Club of Jamaica, whose founder, S.A.G. Cox, had admired the Sinn Fein movement while studying in the early years of the century.”

Dooley contended that “Garvey based many of his black nationalist ideas on the Irish model.” Noted Garvey scholar Robert Hill said as much in The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. “Far more than any other nationalist struggle, the Irish revolutionary struggle assisted in focusing Garvey’s political perspective.” Hill indicated that “even the slogan made famous by Garvey, ‘Africa for the Africans at home and abroad,’ echoed the oft-repeated Irish slogan, ‘the Irish race at home and abroad.’”

Irish influences
Irish last names are common in Jamaica – Burke, Clarke, Collins, Lynch, Murphy, Walsh, and any name with the prefixes “Mc” – McKenzie, McDonald, McCall, Morris, McMillan, etc.; and “O’” – O’Brien, O’Connor, O’Hara, O’Meally, etc.

Other than Garvey, another famous Jamaican of Irish extract is Bob Marley, whose father was white and his mother black, both Jamaicans. Jamaica’s first prime minister, Alexander Bustamante, who changed his last name from Clarke, was of Irish ancestry. So was the island’s most famous poet of the early 20th century, Claude McKay, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in New York during the 1920s.

The strong Irish influence is seen in place names. Irish Town and Dublin Castle in St. Andrew; Irish Pen and Sligoville in St. Catherine; Athenry and Bangor Ridge in Portland; Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary; Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas; and Ulster Spring in Trelawny.

At least one major Jamaican institution, the Jamaica Constabulary Force, formed in 1866, is said to have been modeled off the Irish force, down to the “red seam” that runs down the side of the trousers.

Jamaican and other Caribbean citizens as well as Irish with a keen ear have noted similarities in accents and words. As one Irish noted, “Jamaicans always sound like they’re from Cork to me!” Cork is a university city in southwest Ireland. The United Kingdom comedian and actor, Lenny Henry, who has Jamaican parents, is said to have described Ireland as “Jamaica in the cold.”

And it is strongly suggested that the Irish gave Jamaicans their most favorite and highly colorful curse words, those of the different “cloth” varieties. If true, this is indeed an enduring legacy bequeathed by the Emerald Isle to Jamaica. The Irish, it appears, taught Jamaicans how to curse.


The mysterious cotton tree

cotton tree
The cotton tree that stood where the clock tower in Half Way Tree in St. Andrew now stands. The shade of the tree was a resting place for travelers from the hills of St. Andrew to markets in Kingston.

Everyone kept clear of the cotton trees where I grew up. On the front common – a large open area of flat grass where we loved to frequent – a large cotton tree stood to the east, and in it were birds we would have loved to shoot. But would we go there? Nah.

The cotton tree is the largest tree in Jamaica, and the largest of the largest is said to be in Westmoreland, a humongous giant. It is “one of the largest and most visually spectacular of indigenous trees,” says the National Gallery of Jamaica Blog. “The silk cotton tree takes more than a century to reach its typical size – up to 40 meters high and with the diameter of its trunk up to three meters – and to develop its dramatic buttress roots.”

The reason we Jamaicans kept away from cotton trees was the belief they were the haunts of spirits and duppies (ghosts). Amber Wilson took note of this in her book, Jamaica: The culture. “People used to leave a last meal for the spirit under a silk-cotton tree so the spirit knew it was time to go to heaven.”

One does not know for sure where this belief that the tree was the haunt of spirits and ghosts came from. The Florida Museum of Natural History claims “the Tainos believed that the forest was inhabited by spirits called opías…the spirits of the dead…. They were supposed to come out of the forest at night.” The museum suggests that this Taino belief was adopted by enslaved West Africans, or were fused with West African supernatural beliefs, with regard to the cotton tree. One should note that the cotton tree was important to the Tainos, as its trunk was used to make canoes.

The same general fear/reverence/awe of the cotton tree existed in other parts of the Caribbean as well, such as in Guyana, Trinidad and Surinam, and in parts of West Africa. Silver Torch, a Guyanese based website, reported that in “some Caribbean countries, the silk cotton tree is called the ‘god tree’ or the ‘devil tree.’ In Guyana, it has been called the ‘jumbie tree.’ The tree has been regarded by some as having a soul or a resident spirit. But it was most often… considered to be associated with the souls of the dead, living possibly in its roots and branches.”

The website observes that “in some areas no one would dare cut down a silk cotton tree. In others, before cutting down a silk cotton tree village folk would pour a libation on its roots or ceremonially make an offering of corn, or sacrifice a chicken.”

The Uncommon Caribbean blog reported the following story:

Tales of folks refusing to cut down silk cotton trees for fear of releasing the spirits inside are not uncommon across the Caribbean. One of the more notable ones I’ve heard concerns the construction of the East Coast Highway in Guyana some years ago. Near the village of Mahaicony, there apparently once grew a rather large silk cotton tree right smack dab in the middle of the route where the new highway was planned. Naturally, highway planners sought to cut it down. Bad idea. It’s said that engineers who dared try remove the tree were struck dead! Eventually, the highway was completed. However, at Mahaicony, it was split into two lanes, allowing the silk cotton to continue growing (and providing shelter to its spirits) in peace, in the middle of the road.

It would be interesting to know what the current attitude is to the cotton tree. Do Jamaicans still hold it in fear as in times past?

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.