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

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