The French connection

Shotover, in the parish of Portland, is believed to be a corruption of the French, Chateau Vert

“The Road to France” or simply, “France 98,” is indelibly etched in Jamaica’s collective memory. The Reggae Boyz, the country’s senior football (soccer) team, became the first English speaking Caribbean nation to play in the prestigious FIFA World Cup tournament. Held every four years, Jamaica participated in the 1998 edition in France. From then on, every Jamaican football team has been measured against the performance of the squad that went through a series of qualifying stages to appear in the 32-nation showcase event.

Outside of the 1998 FIFA World Cup, little is known of any contact or association between the European country that some regard as the epitome of class, sophistication and style, and the Caribbean island, reputed as one of the most beautiful and culturally attractive and mesmerizing places on earth.

To the extent there’s European influence on Jamaica, it is mostly British, what with both islands’ joint colonial past. There are vestiges of Spanish influence in Jamaica as well, also because of an earlier colonial past. It is only here and there we find tidbits of French influence. But it is there nonetheless.

With Jamaica being England’s largest, and at one point, its most important possession in the Caribbean, France sought to hurt the British by hurting Jamaica. “France would displace Spain as England’s primary enemy,” wrote Stephen Luscombe. “This was felt on the island of Jamaica in 1694 when the French landed men on the North and East coastlines of Jamaica intending to hurt the economic capabilities of England to wage war.”

As many as 1,500 French troops landed at Carlisle Bay in the parish of Clarendon in the south of Jamaica. The French attacked plantations and seized enslaved Africans. “The local militia was called out to meet the raiding force and, together with slaves, helped repulse the French who fled in their ships.”

The French, though, did not leave empty handed, taking some 2,000 enslaved persons with them after having sacked more than four dozen plantations and estates. These were troubling times. Jamaica was still recovering from the devastating earthquake that almost wiped out Port Royal, the capital, two years before the French invasion, in 1692.

Jamaica was profoundly affected by the revolution in St. Domingue (Haiti), the French-occupied territory, which is just about 200 miles or 320 kilometers away. “When the slaves and free coloureds of Saint Domingue rebelled in the autumn of 1791, Jamaican society faced the greatest challenge of its history,” wrote David Geggus. In Geggus’ view, the impact of the Haitian Revolution on Jamaica was potentially more devastating than the earthquake and the French invasion a century earlier.  “To the Jamaican planters, the garish images of revolt that filtered through that autumn from Cap Francias (in northern Haiti) must have seemed an enactment of their very worst nightmares.” As a precaution, “the island militia was immediately called out.”

It was to Jamaica that the commander of the French forces in Haiti fled after the French were defeated by the revolutionary fighters led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an army general who was formerly enslaved and who became president of the newly independent Haiti.

European countries fought over the island of Hispaniola, which includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They were at constant loggerheads – The French, controlling Haiti in the west, the Spanish, who ruled the Dominican Republic in the eastern portion of the island, as well as the English, who jealously guarded Jamaica.

In 1809, the Spanish, the English and the Haitians, the latter having won the revolution against France and declared independence in 1804, combined efforts to expel the French from Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, after the French laid siege to the city. After they surrendered, more than 1,000 French soldiers and civilians were transported to Louisiana or France via Jamaica. As told by Elena Chardon Adolphsen, “on 8 July 1809 the soldiers of the Legion Du Cap, as well as all of the evacuees from Santo Domingo, left the fort and boarded ships that were to transport them to Jamaica.”

In a previous blog post, I noted that the hundreds of exiles (some say thousands) who fled the Haitian Revolution to Jamaica led to the revival of the Roman Catholic Church, which lay dormant on the island for some 100 years. Haitian immigrants played a role in the growth of several industries, such as custom brokerage, distillery and coffee cultivation. The Desnoes name of Red Stripe beer fame are likely descendants of Haitian exiles to Jamaica.

Jamaica was a refuge for others. Jews, for instance, fled discrimination and persecution from France and elsewhere. “Jews flocked to Jamaica from throughout the Old and New Worlds, arriving from France and Britain, as well as Spanish and Portuguese colonies,” said Yvette Alt Miller.

Vestiges of French influence can be found in some place names. The strangely named Save Rent in Westmoreland in western Jamaica is believed to be a corruption of M. Saverent, a French colonist who once lived there. Similarly, Shotover in Portland, in the east, is said to be a corruption of the French, Château Vert, which means Castle Green or Green Castle. Lawrence Tavern in rural St. Andrew, was previously named Oberlin Station, in honor of French pastor, John Frederic Oberlin, who died in 1826. Oberlin High School in the town retains his name.

It is possible that Alexandria in St. Ann was named to celebrate the victory of British forces over those of the French in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1801, where the British took possession of the famed Rosetta Stone. Rosetta, also in St. Ann, was named to commemorate that victory. The Rosetta Stone, housed in the British Museum, helps in the understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

There is room for growth in the collaboration between both Jamaica and France. Not many Jamaicans are known to be there, just about 200 or so.  Jaminfrance, the Association of Jamaican Nationals in France, provides opportunities for Jamaicans in the Western European country to meet and greet, observe special occasions such as Jamaica’s independence, and engage in various activities.

With Jamaica being a major vacation destination, not many French visit there, just a little more than 5,200 in 2016. This was way behind the United Kingdom with more than 200,000, and less than other European countries such as Germany with roughly 20,000, Italy at just under 13,000, Sweden with 10,600 and Netherlands at 6,600.

The potential is there for the two countries to become closer. Reggae music has taken root in France. French performers and groups such as Billy Ze Kick, The Jouby’s and Raggasonic include reggae in their repertoire. An exhibition on the history and impact of Jamaican music was held in Paris in April this year. Artists such as Danny Coxson, Alecia McKenzie, Hanniffa Patterson and Constance Wood have exhibited their works in Paris.

Alliance Française de la Jamaïque, the Jamaican branch of a France-based nonprofit, promotes the teaching of French, French and Francophone cultures, and the reinforcing of ties between Jamaica and France.

Wigton Wind Farm in Manchester, Jamaica
Wigton Wind Farm in Manchester in southern Jamaica utilizes French technology

French companies have won major contracts in Jamaica. In a transaction worth €600 million, one of the largest in the Caribbean, the French shipping company CMA CGM signed a 30-year concession agreement in April 2015 with the Port Authority of Jamaica to operate the container terminal at the Port of Kingston. This arrangement makes Kingston a major regional hub. The French company, Bouygues, built major infrastructures such as highways and toll roads, VINCI was engaged in water processing, and Vergnet provides wind turbines for the Jamaica Public Service, the island’s major electricity supplier.

Language, culture, size and distance are deterrents, but Jamaica and France have had contacts over the centuries that provide room for further development and nurture.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Island frenemies

Jamaica and Haiti are about 200 miles apart. This in a region where islands run a long swath, from as far north as Bermuda, lying just off the coast of North Carolina in the United States and going way south to Trinidad, just a few miles from Venezuela in South America.

Though neighbors in the northern Caribbean, Jamaica and Haiti have never been cordially close. While there has never been the outbreak of open hostilities, there have been tensions.

Language, culture and history make relations difficult. Haiti is a former French colony while Jamaica was owned and ruled by the British. The British and French are forever at loggerheads. As the French are as different from the British, Haitians are as different from Jamaicans. Haiti has in fact been a constant source of worry to its smaller neighbor just further west.


After it launched a revolution for independence from France in 1791, Haiti, known at the time as St. Domingue, became an international inconvenience and threat to Jamaica’s British overlords and other European powers with colonies in the Caribbean. The constant fear, which never died, was that Haiti would inspire revolutionary and insurrectionist ideas in Caribbean colonies. This gained urgency when Haiti won the revolution and attained actual independence in 1804.

In policy, Jamaican colonial authorities exhibited ambivalence toward the Haitian Revolution and those who fled to its shores. While some Jamaica government actions embraced white Haitian emigres, other efforts sought to limit their numbers or even to deport Haitians. Writing to the Earl of Balcarres in May 1795, Marquis Cadusch expressed gratitude for Jamaican hospitality and assistance:

I have the honor to lay before your lordship an [account of] the unfortunate French Families who are now existing in Kingston and who would have perished thro’ misery had it not been for the generosity of the Government which has condescended to tender to them its assistance both kind and gracious.

Yet Haitians – black, mulatto and even white – were deported from Jamaica and immigration restrictions were imposed as part of a broader effort to prevent Jamaica and other Caribbean colonies from following Haiti’s example. The French Revolution, which coincided with the Haitian Revolution, was also at issue. “Several French planters, French free coloured and slaves were sent away from Jamaica,” Patrick Bryan wrote in The Haitian Revolution and its Effects. Bryan continued:

While the greatest danger seemed to arise from the presence of gens de couleur (mulattoes) and blacks from Saint-Domingue, the white emigres were also suspected of being bearers of French revolutionary ideas. In the fevered imagination of the Jamaican planters, the French slaves from Saint-Domingue would rouse the creole slaves to rebellion, while the radical gens de couleur would strengthen the struggle of the Jamaican mulattoes for civil rights and equality with the whites.

The British adopted a series of measures to block or minimize Haiti’s influence and that of its revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture. The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported:

In 1793, fearful that L’Ouverture’s revolt would spread to the neighbouring British slave colony of Jamaica, and hoping to add the island to his own Caribbean possessions, King George III sent 27,000 troops to Haiti. The ensuing occupation turned out to be one of the greatest (if still least known) catastrophes of British imperial history.

This tactic having failed disastrously, the British tried another approach. The Encyclopedia Britannica indicated that “the British offered to recognize him (L’Ouverture) as king of an independent Haiti.” This failed as well. “Scornful of pompous titles and distrustful of the British because they maintained slavery, he refused.”

Finally, in 1798 into 1799, they negotiated with L’Ouverture to not invade Jamaica or the American south. He was induced to sign “a secret treaty which lifted the British blockade on Saint-Domingue in exchange for a promise that Toussaint would not export the black revolution to Jamaica.”

The British, Spanish and other colonialists had good reasons to be fearful. “In 1795, revolts broke out in Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Dominica and Jamaica,” the February 1988 issue of Workers Vanguard noted. The Workers Vanguard gave an extensive account as to what transpired:

The first big rebellion was that led by the mulatto French planter Julien Fédon in Grenada. The mulattos, chafing under British colonial discrimination, sent delegates to Hugues in Guadeloupe who supplied them with arms and ammunition. They gathered an army of several thousand slaves which defeated successive British reinforcements. By the beginning of 1796, Grenada was effectively a black republic with the British hanging on only in the capital of St. George’s.

Simultaneously Black Caribs in St. Vincent rose up together with French-speaking mulattos and likewise had bottled the British up in that island’s capital. Meanwhile, the largest British Caribbean possession, Jamaica, was racked by the last of several maroon wars. As a result of the revolt in Trelawney Town in July 1795, the British were forced to withdraw to Jamaica troops just dispatched to bolster the expeditionary force in Saint-Domingue being pounded by Toussaint’s black army. Even then, it took eight months to force the surrender of the last of the several hundred Jamaican insurgents led by Leonard Parkinson.

While L’Ouverture led the St. Domingue Revolution, its real instigator was said to be a Jamaican obeah man (voodoo priest).  Kona Shen at Brown University in the United States reported that on either August 14 or 22, 1791, a voodoo ceremony took “place in a thickly wooded area where the slaves solemnize their pact in a voodoo ritual. The ceremony is officiated by Boukman, a maroon leader and voodoo priest from Jamaica, and a voodoo high priestess.”

Boukman led the first revolutionary onslaught. On the night of August 22:

The slaves launch their insurrection in the North. That night Boukman and his forces march throughout the region, taking prisoners and killing whites. By midnight, plantations are in flames and the revolt has begun. Armed with torches, guns, sabers, and makeshift weapons the rebels continue their devastation as they go from plantation to plantation. By six the next morning, only a few slaves in the area have yet to join Boukman, and scores of plantations and their owners are destroyed.

In addition to the secret treaty with the British, a split in the ranks of the Haitian revolutionaries played a part in L’Ouverture helping to squelch the export of revolutionary ideology and fervor from Haiti to Jamaica. Tom Holmberg wrote, “When Philippe Roume, a French Republican commissioner in Saint-Domingue, planned to bring about a slave revolt in Jamaica, L’Ouverture secretly warned the British in exchange for British support against André Rigaud, a rival for power.”

After Haiti won its independence in 1804, it pledged, constitutionally, not to export revolution. Its 1805 constitution promised not to “disturb the peace and the interior administration of foreign colonies.” Samuel Farber indicated that Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s president at the time, “acting in the interests of the Haitian state, proclaimed that anti-slavery would remain a solely domestic policy.” At the same time, however, article 44 of the constitution granted freedom and citizenship to any enslaved persons who landed on Haiti’s shores.

Haiti’s impact on Jamaica
The Haitian revolution had an impact on Jamaica in various ways. In the 1790s, Jamaica benefitted from the fallout in Haitian production and exports as its goods and produce were in greater demand. “The destruction of Saint-Domingue proved a boon to Jamaica, which profited from the economic vacuum created by the Haitian Revolution,” observed Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus in The Plantation Machine.

The island, along with Cuba and Louisiana in the US, received the bulk of Haitian exiles and refugees fleeing the fighting and the birth of the young republic ruled by blacks. Some notable family names in Jamaica, such as Desnoes, Duquesnay, Espeut and Malabre, comprise descendants of Haitian exiles and refugees from that era. They engaged in merchandising, distillery, coffee cultivation, custom brokerage and other businesses. Perhaps the most well-known gift these Haitians have given to Jamaica is Red Strip Beer, a product of the Desnoes and Geddes company that is widely exported and distributed.

The Haitian immigrants, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, contributed to a revival of the Catholic faith in predominantly Protestant Jamaica. According to the Jamaican family search website, “When more refugees arrived in 1792, a Roman Catholic Chapel was opened in Kingston, for the first time in about 100 years. The refugees became the main core of that church, which also included Spaniards, Irish and English congregants.”

Peter Espeut, a newspaper columnist, Roman Catholic deacon and quite likely a scion of the Espeut family that escaped Haiti to Jamaica in the 1790s, wrote:

In 1791, Spanish Catholics resident in Jamaica asked the government to allow a priest to come to Jamaica to minister to their spiritual needs. At the same time in 1791, slaves in what today is called Haiti rose up in a successful rebellion against their masters. Almost immediately there was an exodus of French planters and their families – almost exclusively Catholics – to Kingston; some brought their loyal slaves with them. The Catholic church officially returned to Jamaica in 1792 when the first Catholic priest was sent to Jamaica from London; other priests came as refugees from Haiti.

Fabre Nicholas Geffrard
Fabre Nicholas Geffrard, president of Haiti from 1859-1867, died in exile in Kingston, Jamaica, on December 31, 1878

Strikingly, since it gained independence, Haitian leaders lived as exiles in Jamaica as the nation lurched through turmoil after political turmoil. “In the period 1818-1902, Haiti had fifteen heads of state, eleven of whom spent time in Jamaica as exiles,” said Matthew Smith in Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora. Two of these presidents died in Jamaican exile. Fabre Nicholas Geffrard, president of Haiti from 1859-1867, died in Kingston on December 31, 1878; and Michele Domingue, president for less than three months, December 27, 1869 to March 16, 1870, died in Kingston on March 24, 1877.

The tradition of housing Haitian leaders in exile continued into the 21st century. Former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide lived for several months in Jamaica after he was overthrown in a coup in 2004, before settling in South Africa. He has since returned to Haiti.

Jamaica, then, has been both a reservoir and a conduit for Haitians fleeing instability in their country. These Haitians have been grudgingly admitted into the island paradise. In the more recent political upheavals in the 1980s into the 21st century, a series of Haitian landings occurred on Jamaica’s shores.

Jamaican ambivalence toward Haitians continue much as it did more than 200 years earlier. “Many studies have brought forward the fact that the Jamaican government has appeared to be favorable toward Haitian refugees but their policies have left much to be desired,” Sharon Clarke wrote in Refugee Rights in the Caribbean. “Research…has revealed that refugee policies have been dominated by two contradictory forces. One refers to international legal instruments meant for protecting refugees and the other refers to legal instruments aimed at getting rid of them.”

In 2004, nearly 150 unwanted Haitians were housed in a former military training camp at Montpelier in St. James in Western Jamaica. Jamaica marshaled government and private agencies to offer help, but Haitians suffered much from the ordeal. Aristide supporters and opponents shared space in the camp and engaged in frequent fights, resulting in serious injuries. Significant numbers became psychiatric patients needing mental health services.  My wife, a government-employed psychiatric social worker at the time, had Haitian clients housed at Montpelier on her roster and visited the camp several times.  Some were admitted to the psychiatric ward at the Cornwall Regional Hospital in Montego Bay. Few attempts were made to integrate these displaced Haitians into the Jamaican community, including having the children attend schools.

Efforts to attain refugee status were not granted. “None of the Haitian applicants for refugee status in Jamaica meets the criteria, and accordingly their applications for the granting of refugee status have been denied,” the government announced. Unemployment, mental illness, stress and frustration marked their daily lives until their removal from the country back to Haiti.

As the first black republic, wresting itself from European domination, some historians regard Haiti as a historical beacon that its Caribbean neighbors refuse to properly acknowledge. From Napoleon Bonaparte onwards, obstacles were created to prevent it becoming an inspiration.

“Haiti’s current economic crisis and political turmoil have their roots in the ‘odious debt’ of 150 million gold francs (later reduced to 90 million) which France imposed on the newborn republic with gunboats in 1825,” wrote Kim Ives. “The sum was supposed to compensate French planters for their losses of slaves and property during Haiti’s 1791-1804 revolution…. It took Haiti 122 years, until 1947, to pay off both the original ransom to France and the tens of millions more in interest payments borrowed from French banks to meet the deadlines.”

Haiti’s travails never seem to end. Other than political turmoil and economic ruin, it has faced devastating natural disasters, including multiple hurricanes. The massive 7.0 earthquake on January 12, 2010, killed more than 160,000 and leveled parts of the capital, Port au Prince, and other towns. The extent of the widespread devastation was still evident when I visited Port Au Prince, Delmas, Saint-Marc, Cap-Haïtien and other towns in 2011. Despite massive aid rebuilding efforts were minimal due, in part, to a weak and flailing central government, poor coordination, and competition among relief agencies.

Trinidadian musical artiste, David Rudder, captures the apology historians believe Jamaicans and others owe the Haitian people, when he sang:

Haiti, I’m sorry
We misunderstood you
But one day we’ll turn our heads
And look inside you
Haiti, I’m sorry. Haiti, I’m sorry
One day we’ll turn our heads
Restore your glory.



Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel