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

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