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

Back to Africa

The most well-known movement for Africans in the diaspora to return to the continent was led and inspired by Jamaican National Hero and Pan Africanist, Marcus Garvey. Though his own plans to organize such a mass movement in the first two and a half decades of the 20th century largely failed, his message and philosophy inspired millions of blacks in North America, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Garvey and others who preached a return to Africa held to a philosophy that Africa is the home of black people. Most of those living outside the continent were descendants of those forcibly removed by white slavers who enriched themselves and their countries by raiding Africa of its people and resources. The message to return to Africa gained urgency because the Americas were inhospitable due, mostly, to deliberate policies on the part of white slavers and imperialists to make life miserable for the African.

Sierra Leone and Liberia
The movement back to the motherland started more than a century before Garvey began his back to Africa movement. Two countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia, were carved out of West Africa to receive those previously enslaved in the Americas to return to the continent. The Europeans in Europe and North America, who had by then planted themselves in Africa, played a hand in the creation of these two countries.

The first group settled in what is now Granville Town in Sierra Leone in 1787 when the British sought to get rid of a “problem” resulting from a court decision. In Somerset v Stewart (1772) the presiding judge, Lord Mansfield, issued a judgment that reads in part:

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political…. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it…. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

The court’s decision mandated the freedom of blacks, but colonialists chose to apply the law only to those physically present in England. The few hundred newly freed blacks in England were now a problem requiring a solution. Having free blacks on English soil was apparently intolerable to the British. Hence, according to an article in The Baptist Quarterly:

The Colony (Sierra Leone) was founded on April 8th, 1787, with 460 African destitute ex-slaves brought to England as house and personal servants, and abandoned by their masters after the Mansfield Judgment of 1772 that slaves setting foot on British soil became free men.

Not only did the British create Sierra Leone to deal with their “free black people problem” on home soil, they used the opportunity to get rid of another irritant, so-called “disreputable women.” Along with the freed Africans, “62 white women [were] taken off the streets of London, Portsmouth and Bristol and put aboard the transport Venus in the stupor of intoxication.”

The group did not fare well. In Sierra Leone, they suffered devastation from diseases and war with indigenous inhabitants, who resisted the encroachment.

cotton tree - Freetown , Sierra Leone
The famous cotton tree in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the roughly 1,200 African Americans rested in 1792  to give thanks to God for safe passage across the Atlantic

They were followed by a second and larger group, mainly freed African Americans who, after taking the side of the British in the American war for independence, had initially settled in Nova Scotia, Canada. Harsh climate, failed promises by the British and racism in Canada took their toll and 1,200 made the trek to Sierra Leone, arriving in March 1792. This second set of arrivals formed the core group that founded Freetown, which eventually became capital of the West African country.

A third group, comprising some 500-600 maroons from Jamaica, arrived in Freetown in September 1800. These Trelawny Maroons, most from modern day Flagstaff in St. James in the Cockpit Country in western Jamaica, were deported from the island by the British colonialists into Nova Scotia in July 1796, after they lost the most recent in a series of Maroon uprisings against the British. Like their African American counterparts, these Jamaican maroons found life in Nova Scotia inhospitable, and like the African Americans, headed to Freetown in Sierra Leone.

Freetown, eventually, became a kind of catchment area. After the British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the 1830s, British naval forces would take Africans found aboard American and European ships violating the new laws, dispatch them to Freetown, and leave them there.

In Sierra Leone, the settlers from the United States and the Caribbean (via Nova Scotia) and those liberated from ships violating the slave trade ban, became collectively known as Creole or Krio, as distinct from indigenous Africans already living in the area.

Beginning in January 1822, blacks from the United States and the Caribbean sailed to what has become Liberia to escape racism and slavery. An estimated 15,000 free and freed Americans took the trip over a 40-year period, up until the start of the American Civil War in the 1860s.

Among the more than 3,000 people from the Caribbean who settled in Liberia during that same period was John Brown Russwurm from Port Antonio in eastern Jamaica, who entered the territory by way of the United States. He helped found Freedom’s Journal in New York, the first African American owned and operated newspaper published in the US. Russwurm became governor of a territory named Maryland that was annexed to Liberia in 1857.

Religion played a leading role in the return of blacks to Africa and the founding of new settlements. The 1792 group that founded Freetown included Baptists, Methodists and adherents of the Countess of Huntingdon Connexion, a Calvinist group.

Earlier this month (June 2017), I participated in a brief ceremony under the large cotton tree in the heart of Freetown where the group of newly arrived settlers gathered in 1792 to give thanks for safe passage across the Atlantic. While in Sierra Leone, I spoke at the 225th anniversary worship service of Regent Road Baptist Church, the oldest Baptist church on the African continent, which counts its beginning to the year of the settlers’ arrival.

st johns maroon methodist church - sierra leone
St. John’s Maroon Methodist Church in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Built by Jamaican maroons in 1822, it is  the oldest  standing religious structure in the West African country.

Within walking distance of the large cotton tree in Freetown is St. John’s Maroon Methodist Church, built in 1822 by the maroons of Jamaica. The original building, which still stands, is the oldest standing religious structure in Sierra Leone and is a protected heritage site.

Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, is the second oldest Baptist congregation on the African continent.  Founded in January 1822, it was where the country’s declaration of independence was signed in July 1847. Notable numbers of its members and leaders as well as Baptists from other congregations, served in the Liberian senate and held the offices of president, vice president and ministers of government.

Providence’s William Tolbert was simultaneously vice president of Liberia and president of the Baptist World Alliance, the international umbrella organization for Baptists, from 1965-1970. He was Liberian president from 1971 until he was overthrown and assassinated in a military coup in 1980, the year Liberia started on a downward spiral of war, conflict and poverty.

The coup grew partly out of longstanding resentments between indigenous groups and descendants of settlers, which were never fully resolved despite nearly two centuries of co-existence.

Rastafari, inspired by Marcus Garvey whom it regards as a prophet, explicitly advocates repatriation, or the return to Africa, the Promised Land. As a fulfillment of this basic tenet, a small community of about 600-800 Rastafarians live in Ethiopia, most in Shashemane, about 150 miles or so outside Addis Ababa, the country’s capital. Shashemane was part of an original gift of land granted by Emperor Haile Selassie to diaspora Africans in the Caribbean who wished to settle in his country.

The West African country of Ghana leads the way in encouraging members of the African diaspora to settle there. The nation’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah, worked closely with members of the African diaspora during the movement for Ghanaian independence. Among his eminent coterie was W. E. B. DuBois, the leading African American intellectual, who moved to Ghana in his last years, died, and was buried there.

As of the year 2000, Ghana’s “Right of Abode” program allows people of African descent to gain permanent residency. Rita Marley, widow of reggae superstar Bob Marley and herself a notable musical performer, lives in Ghana under this program.

Two operative slogans sought to capture the correct posture persons in the African diaspora should take toward Africa. Garvey’s “Africa for the Africans” emphasized physical return and claiming of territory. An alternative Pan Africanist retort, “Africans for Africa,” placed emphasis on Africans in Africa and the diaspora working toward better solutions for Africa, rather than on migration/return to the homeland. It is yet unclear which slogan best captures the mood of and resonates with the children of Africa who live outside the continent.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

An ass of a story

Of all animals, the donkey is perhaps the most important in rural Jamaica, certainly for small farmers in the interior for whom the donkey is an indispensable means of transport to and from their small plots in the hills and mountains.

I first realized how significant the lowly donkey is when I lived and served in hilly, rural Clarendon in the late 1980s into the early 1990s. On the weekend, two dozen or more donkeys would be “parked” in the Rock River town square as the farmers descend from the hills to make purchases at Mr. Alty’s shop and other outlets, and to enjoy some good Jamaican “whites” at the bars.

Evan Jones’ poem, Banana Man, captures well the importance of the donkey to the Jamaican rural farmer:

Banana day is my special day,
I cut my stems an I’m on m’way,
Load up de donkey, leave de lan
Head down de hill to banana stan

Donkey and owners - Kingston -1900 - Library of Congress Online Catalog
A donkey and its owners in Jamaica, 1900. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Online Catalog

The Christian Work and the Evangelist: Volume 76, published in January 1904, made declarations steeped in the prejudices of the times, but depicted accurately, how important the donkey was:

…in the beautiful island of Jamaica, the donkey is the chosen companion of the black and colored people, for it is nearly four hundred years since his first asinine ancestor was introduced there, a short period in advance of the African himself. Without the ass, indeed, the black man in the tropics would feel himself lost, unable perhaps to transact the humble business which fills the measure of his days. Living in the hills and mountains, far distant from the markets of town and city, he could not so well transport the products of his gardens and provision grounds as he now does with the assistance of his four-footed friend.

The same January 1904 issue of The Christian Work and the Evangelist noted:

One of the most interesting sights in Kingston, the capital of the island of Jamaica, is that of the long procession of black and colored women coming in from the country districts with the donkey-loads of charcoal, bananas and sweet potatoes…. They live far distant, in some valley of the Blue Mountain range, usually at least ten hours’ travel out on the northern coast; but they start at midnight, or even at dusk of the day previous to market-day, and always reach the city just as the sun begins to come up from the sea.

The donkey is so deeply etched in the psyche in rural Jamaica that donkey folktales are not that uncommon. There is, for instance, the Anansi story of The Donkey, the Cat and the Lion’s Head as well as The Race Between Toad and Donkey, which begins thus, “One day, Master King decided to have a race and he would give a big prize to whoever won. Both Toad and Donkey decided to enter, but Toad got Donkey angry with all his boasting about how he’d win…”

In common parlance, in Jamaica and elsewhere, the donkey stands for both stubbornness and stupidity, and is referred to or seen as “the beast of burden.” These ideas are reflected in some Jamaican proverbs and sayings, which use the donkey to convey words of wisdom and advice: Donkey bray say dis world no level; Every day yu goad donkey, some day he will kick yu; Every donkey hab im sankey; Every jackass t’ink im pickney a racehorse; Every man no dribe dem donkey same way; Every time donkey bray im member something; When yu go a donkey house don’t talk about ears; Patient man ride donkey; Mek wan jackass bray; No mek wan donkey choke you; Donkey gallop soon over.

While Jamaica city and towns people think, know or care little about the donkey, there appears to be a mini-crisis as there is a scarcity of donkeys on the island. “It’s the hardest things these days to get donkeys,” one person told the Jamaica Star in August 2016. The donkey shortage is affecting rural small farmers.

The plight of the donkey seems to be global. “Some are ill-treated through the ignorance of their owners, some are mistreated through cruelty, and others are simply ignored and forgotten about,” notes Robin Marshall, writing for Horse Talk out of New Zealand.

There is a Donkey Sanctuary in the United Kingdom to rescue these animals as well as the International Donkey Protection Trust (IDT), which estimates some 57 million donkeys worldwide. The IDT, founded in 1976, seeks “to transform the quality of life for donkeys, mules and people worldwide through greater understanding, collaboration and support, and by promoting lasting, mutually life-enhancing relationships.”

Among other things, IDT works “to reduce the suffering of sick and injured donkeys and mules” and to provide “welfare and care” for donkeys. It built a clinic for donkeys in Ethiopia. “One of the worst problems in the country are saddle sores, and donkeys dropping from exhaustion at the markets,” Marshall of Horse Talk states. Mobile units for donkeys have been set up in Mexico, India and Kenya.

Donkeys are useful animals in various ways. Marshall writes:

Farmers have found that having a donkey among a herd of stroppy bulls settles the bovines down. Donkeys tend to “rule the roost” when they run with young bulls.

Donkeys also make kind and gentle pets for children – and adults — and have been many a horse rider’s first mount.

Many children have had their first experience of farm animals while taking a donkey ride on seaside visits in England.

Donkey race in Negril, 2013. Photo courtesy of

In Jamaica, donkeys are sometimes used for comic relief on a sports or fun day, such as the annual Negril Rotary Donkey Races in Westmoreland and the Donkey Races Festival in Top Hill, St. Catherine. At the Jamaica Zoo in Lacovia, St. Elizabeth, visitors can take donkey rides.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

The trains no longer run

Jamaican railway has had a long and troubled history. Launched in 1845, it was the “first railroad outside of Europe and North America,” making it one of the oldest in the world.

Neither government nor private operators have found the formula to make the Jamaica rail system economically viable. Throughout its roughly 150-year history, railway operations in Jamaica changed hands several times and underwent other changes until, finally, everybody just gave up. Except for bauxite companies that began running their own private rail service to transport ore, trains in Jamaica ceased operating in 1992.

There are those who claim that politics is at the heart of Jamaica’s railway problems. That some of those placed in charge of Jamaica’s transportation sector have no incentive to see a vibrant and healthy rail system in the country. It is alleged that some at the highest levels owned haulage contracting companies and viewed trains, which move cargo as well as passengers, as unwelcome competition.

Comparisons are made with the argument used to disband the Jamaica Omnibus Service (JOS), the main transportation system in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and nearby towns. Both JOS and the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC), it is claimed, were a strain and a drain on government resources. Thus, JOS buses were removed from off the roads in 1983. It is alleged that those who presided over the death of the JOS were owners of private passenger buses eager to replace the JOS, resulting in a chaotic transportation sector.

It is stated that the same people, some of whom owned fleets of tractor trailers, wanted the demise of the railway, and so they killed the railroad system. The JRC essentially became a holder of the assets of the defunct system, overseeing the upkeep and maintenance (of sorts) of lands and the lines and the buildings and stations, all mostly disused, that still belonged to the corporation.

Several attempts have been made to revive the Jamaica railway. Someone who was in a position to know told me that the deal struck with an Indian company in the early years of the 21st century to resume rail operations was a good one. Too good in fact, and so those who feared the competition killed the deal after they regained charge of the system.

It is heartening to see that another attempt is being made to restart rail operations in Jamaica, this time with American investors. The government-run Jamaica Information Service announced in December 2016 that “a sum of US$250 million will be invested in the resuscitation of the country’s cargo and passenger rail service by the Government and several investors, including United States (US) company Herzog International.”

We wait to see if those who have much to lose will allow it to see the light of day.

While some of its history is checkered, railroads were a vital part of the Jamaican landscape, especially to the interior of the island. It was the most efficient means of moving cargo and people over longer distances and it had relatively limited impact on the environment. After the rails closed, increasing numbers of giant 18-wheelers started traversing Jamaica’s narrow, hilly roads. Who has not encountered an 18-wheel monster jackknifing on Mount Rosser, blocking traffic going both ways? Or causing chaos on the Junction Road?

When the railroads were closed in 1992, inland (as against coastal) towns such as Balaclava in St. Elizabeth, Porus in Manchester and Bog Walk in St. Catherine, were never the same again. The railway brought life and vitality to these and other towns in terms of trade and commerce but they experienced marked decline after rail operations ceased.

Railway launch
Jamaica was among the first places to get a railroad when, in 1843, “The Assembly of Jamaica approves a 12-mile track between Kingston and Spanish Town and a 2½ mile branch line to a sugar estate in Angels.”

Construction on the track, stations and other facilities ended in November 1845. “The completion of a line of Railway from Kingston to Spanish Town, in Jamaica, is a most gratifying instance of colonial enterprise,” The Illustrated London News reported on January 31, 1846.

The opening took place on Friday, the 21st of November last. The event had been long and anxiously anticipated; and, in order to invest it with the just degree of importance, his Excellency the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the several heads of departments civil and military, the hon. Members of the Council and Assembly, and a large number of the more wealthy and influential members of the community, were invited to attend the ceremony; and a most propitious day rendered this attendance very general and numerous. An enormous crowd of spectators was collected all around the stations, and several very extensive booths were filled with well-dressed females.

Led by the governor, a large retinue took their first ride in a celebratory atmosphere. According to The Illustrated London News, “the train, consisting of some eight or ten well filled carriages, started on the first railway excursion in the British West Indies; the excellent band of the 1st West India Regiment taking its stand in the last, third class, carriage, and playing lively airs.”

It drew curious onlookers who “were densely thronged on both sides with crowds of wondering citizens, who loudly cheered the novel exhibition as it passed before them. These crowds were more or less to be seen along the whole line of railway.”

Economic importance
Economic factors drove railway expansion on the island. Sugar, mainstay of the Jamaican economy, was no longer king. At least two developments led to increase in the cost of and hence decline in sugar exports. The British government raised duties on imports of sugar from its colonies, including Jamaica, in 1846, and the end of enslavement in 1838 raised labor costs. With costs rising and income decreasing, the railway became the least expensive form of transporting goods and produce on the island.

Recognizing the importance of rail to the Jamaican economy, the colonial government nationalized the company in 1879, buying out the interests of its private investors and owners. Almost 200,000 British pound sterling were spent on both purchase (just under £94,000) and upgrade (about £100,000). This amounts to approximately £18 million or just about US$24 million in today’s money.

jamaica railway - Porus opening -1896
Launch of the railway station and line in Porus, Manchester, in 1896

In the first half of the 1880s, increased investments in and improved markets for sugar and banana led to the expansion of the railway from Old Harbour in St. Catherine to Porus in Manchester, and from Spanish Town, the capital of St. Catherine, to Ewarton and Bog Walk in the same parish. By the end of the 1880s, work began on the lines to Montego Bay, St. James, in the west, completed in 1894, and Port Antonio in the parish of Portland in the east, finished in 1896.

By this time, banana had overtaken sugar as Jamaica’s major export crop. Railway expansion benefited entities such as the American corporation, United Fruit Company, which had its biggest footprint in the parish of Portland, the hub of Jamaica’s banana production and export.

In the 1950s, another boost to Jamaican rail occurred with the mining of bauxite ore in the interior of the island. Transporting bauxite ore became the railway’s biggest cargo business up until the time of its demise.

There have been many setbacks along the way. The West India Improvement Company, which bought the government’s stake in 1890, went bankrupt by the end of the decade and the government had to step back in to retake control 10 years later, in 1900. Hurricanes in 1951 (Hurricane Charlie) and 1988 (Hurricane Gilbert) caused extensive damage.

In some sense, Jamaican independence in 1962 was a mixed blessing for the railway corporation. As several entities with failing economic health came under the control of the young nation, funds earmarked for rail maintenance were diverted to help keep these other entities alive. By 1974 the May Pen to Frankfield line, and in 1975 the Bog Walk to Port Antonio line, were closed due to lack of maintenance.

Scene at the railway crash on September 1, 1957, in Kendal, Manchester. One of the deadliest rail crashes in the world up to that time, it claimed the lives of almost 200 and injured upwards of 700 more.

By far the biggest tragedy to affect the railway was the crash at Kendal in the parish of Manchester on September 1, 1957. The Jamaica National Heritage Trust said:

The worst railway disaster in Jamaica’s history, happened close to this spot on September 1, 1957. At around 11:30 p.m. a train carrying some 1,600 passengers derailed its tracks. Close to 200 persons lost their lives. Varying accounts indicate that between 400 and 700 persons sustained injuries in what was described as the worst transportation system tragedy in Jamaica’s history, and the second worst rail disaster in the world at the time.

Eight of the 12 wooden cars were wrecked. There were:

Dead and injured inside, underneath and on top, and bodies and body parts strewn over a wide area. Some persons died on impact, many died from being spiked by splinters from the wooden coaches, and various other injuries. Many of the dead were buried in a mass grave behind the crash site.

The tragedy led to the replacement of “all wooden coaches with metal coaches, and the Jamaica Government Railways, was reconstituted and renamed the Jamaica Railway Corporation.”

The long-term troubles of attaining economic viability in the face of tragedy, competition and political ineptitude and interference, led to what some regard as its inevitable demise. However, some argue not only the importance of Jamaica having a rail service, but that Jamaica’s success may depend on having a well-run railway transportation system for passengers and cargo. In a study conducted on the Jamaica railway and published in 1985, John Due, professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in the United States, wrote:

The railroad has consistently operated at a deficit. But it makes substantial contribution to the bauxite industry, and its passenger service is much cheaper and satisfactory than the mini-bus type otherwise available. Externalities in terms of road congestion and costs of road improvement and encouragement to economic development warrant continuation of and improvement to the railway.

While more than 30 years have passed, the conclusions of that study may still be valid.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

How two families, one black, one white, built a town

One of the side effects (hazards?) of being an amateur historian (I’m neither an academic nor professional historian but I have a deep love for history) is that one becomes interested in one’s own heritage. No less in my case. I’m still in the course of discovery and have come across information that frankly, startled me. There was a time, going back 150 years or more, when for one small town in Jamaica, my paternal ancestors were a big deal.

A jerk center in Walkerswood

Walkerswood in St. Ann in northern Jamaica, not far from Ocho Rios, is most famous for its jerk sauce. As someone declared, “Walkerswood is the Jamaican Jerk sauce by which all others are measured.”

Walkerswood Caribbean Foods grew out of a community cooperative that took shape in the 1970s. Residents in the town and a few from surrounding communities began creating craft and other items.

Christine, my mom, became a member of the cooperative. She would take raw wool home and deputize the children in the house to help her to wash, dry and then weave the wool. She would dye the yarn and knitted these into hats, sweaters, table mats and other items. The cooperative diversified into food items. Mama would take home large quantities of crude cornflakes, oftentimes more than we could consume. It was nowhere close to the quality of imported brands sold in supermarkets. The first forays into jerk sauce occurred in about 1976.

From those humble beginnings, Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, with about 80 employees, is now an important niche exporter of about 20 varieties of spices and associated products such as pepper sauce, curry paste, barbecue sauce and various iterations of jerk seasoning. Its products are sold in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Teetering on bankruptcy several times, it was eventually bought and was transformed from the cooperative to a corporate model. It is a lesson in how community-based businesses struggle to remain true to their identity while trying to be profitable. The community link remains through the Walkerswood Co-operative Pepper Farmers Association, one of the company’s chief suppliers.

The town, Walkerswood, owes its existence and relative affluence to two families – the Pringles/Simsons and the Harveys/Henrys.

The Harvey/Henry story is not well known and it is something I knew nothing about while growing up. My older siblings were not familiar with it. Much of what follows is due to information gleaned by a brother by way of a much older cousin, in addition to further digging on my part. It is a story that needs further research.

The Harveys, a black family, came into hundreds of acres of land sometime in the 1800s. As to how and exactly when they did so is not yet clear. What is undisputed is that they owned the land before the 1880s. It was not common for black Jamaicans to own that much land at that time in Jamaica’s history so soon after the end of enslavement in 1838. While it is conjecture at this point, it seems that the Harveys may have come into the land as early as the 1840s or 1850s, and likely by the 1860s.

In March 1882, one of the Harvey girls, Matilda, 24, married Thomas Henry, 26. They are my great-grandparents. In March 1881, exactly a year earlier, Thomas’ older brother, Richard, 37, had married Elizabeth, 31, a widow who seemed to have previously been married to a Harvey. It was the second marriage as well for Richard, a widower.

Most of the land appeared to have fallen under Thomas and Matilda’s control. For reasons not yet clear to us, my great-grandparents sold off most of the land while giving some of it away. The schools, community center and several churches, such as the old Baptist church (that I attended as a child) , the newer Baptist church, and the Methodist church, were all built on Harvey land, likely given freely to the community and churches. Some of the land was later acquired by Reynolds, a bauxite mining company. Most were bought by residents who built their homes. One guess is that more than 50 percent of Walkerswood residential homes are built on land once owned by Harvey/Henry.

An uncle, Alton Henry, whose family and ours traveled to church together while I was a child, played a role in the early movement that was the precursor to the 1970s Walkerswood cooperative. This is the official story as told by Walkerswood Caribbean Foods:

The initiative that launched Walkerswood Caribbean Foods is rooted in the rich history of community action, which has characterized Walkerswood village from the 1930s.

Following the nationwide riots of 1938 for better working conditions, a partnership emerged between Alton Henry, Peter Hinds and other village farm workers, Thom and Rita Girvan, engaged in the Government’s Social Welfare programme and Minnie and Fiona Simson of the Bromley Great House. Together they formed the “Pioneer Club” in 1940 on three acres of land. Out of this grew the Lucky Hill Co-operative Farm, the first registered co-operative farm in Jamaica.

Martin Henry (no relation to us) passed on the story as told to him by Norman Girvan, a leading university professor and researcher in Jamaica and the son of Thom and Rita Girvan. Minnie Simson and her daughter, Fiona, owners of Bromley estate

had come in contact with moral rearmament (MRA) out of England. Bromley became a centre for MRA meetings, for development activism and for devotion…. There were these two men from the village, Peter Hinds and Alton Henry…[who] used to come to Mrs. Simson’s every Sunday morning for prayers, and right after prayers Thom [Girvan] would start talking to them and asking them what were their greatest needs. Out of that he formed the Walkerswood Pioneer Club with the two men as leaders.

Though the club was founded in Walkerswood in St. Ann, the decision was made to establish the first cooperative farm in Lucky Hill in the parish of St. Mary, less than ten miles away. Alton, my father’s oldest brother, moved to New Pen in Lucky Hill and oversaw the cooperative farm there.

Uncle Alton inherited much of the land not sold off or given away that were still in Henry hands in Walkerswood. He was “head cook” and “bottle washer” in the Baptist church of my childhood – organist, choirmaster, church secretary and deacon. Little did I know that he was scion of large tracts of land near to the church and on which the church was built, and in the Cottage area of Walkerswood.

The Pringles were an unusual Jamaican white family, possibly the wealthiest family on the island. A Scottish doctor, John Pringle, moved to Jamaica in the 1870s, married into wealth and privilege on the island, and gradually took ownership of several large properties, including Roaring River, Laughing Waters and Bromley, all in St. Ann, as well as Manor Park in St. Andrew.

bromley great house 2
Bromley Great House, Walkerswood

According to Martin Henry, “John Pringle brought with him to Jamaica, from his own experiences on the fringes of British society in the Outer Hebrides, a working social conscience which members of his family inherited.”

Toward the end of his life, Pringle was instrumental in the formation of the Jamaica Banana Producers’ Association (JBPA) in 1927, a cooperative and a forerunner to what has since become one of the country’s largest groups of companies, Jamaica Producers Group. Martin Henry said “the JBPA was a cooperative of big and small private banana farmers, formed to challenge the unfair dominance of the banana trade by the banana companies, particularly the American United Fruit Company and the British Elders and Fyffes.”

The Pringles, close friends of Norman Manley, one of the country’s political fathers, were involved in Manley’s creation of Jamaica Welfare, which has evolved into the Social Development Commission, one of the government’s most vital social agencies. They were, apparently, strong supporters and backers of black nationalist, pan Africanist and Jamaica National Hero, Marcus Garvey.

[Another John Pringle, grandson of the original John Pringle, quite possibly played the most decisive role in the development of Jamaica’s tourism industry. He was the island’s first director of tourism and laid the foundation to make it the country’s most important economic engine.]

Minnie Simson inherited the Bromley property from her father, the elder John Pringle and, along with her daughter, Fiona, was instrumental in the formation of the Pioneer Club in Walkerswood and the cooperative farm at New Pen in Lucky Hill.

The Simsons also helped to form the Walkerswood Community Council. Among the initiatives of the council was the creation of Cottage Industries, which later grew into what is now Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, currently located on land that was previously part of the Bromley property.

It appears Walkerswood would not be what it is today without the generosity of these two families, one black, one white, who acted independently of each other but whose lives also converged in unexpected ways to make Walkerswood a growing, thriving and prosperous community.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Disappearing fireflies

As a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the night was dense darkness. When the moon doesn’t shine and stars seem absent, you cannot see the hand in front of your face. Light pollution be damned.

But this intense darkness would occasionally be broken by a small swarm of peeny wallies, Jamaican fireflies. They would go up and down, sometimes around, and the beauty of it was electrifying. To capture this artistry, we would grab jars or bottles, catch as many peeny wallies as we could, and admired the glow.

peeny wally2
Peeny wallies flying around in the Cockpit Country in Jamaica. Courtesy of

Peeny wallies, (also called click beetles as they give off a clicking sound with their head when you hold them in your hand) and their smaller cousins, the “blinkies,” whose lights go on and off, have virtually disappeared from the Jamaican landscape. No one explanation satisfies. Among the more common is the erosion of their habitats through deforestation, human residence and farming. Some blame it on pesticides, particularly aerial spraying of banana plantations that kill peeny wallies and blinkies, in addition to targeted insects and “pests.”

The disappearance of these creatures is not unique to Jamaica. A 2014 New York Times article notes, “Scientists have for years been warning that the world’s estimated 2,000 species of fireflies are dwindling, partly because expanding cities are altering water flow patterns and yielding more light pollution, which researchers say can hamper the mating rituals of the insects.”

Changing water flow and artificial light, such as street lights and motor vehicle headlights, are to be blamed, these scientists speculate.

There is such a thing as the International Firefly Symposium. Its 2017 gathering is April 24-27 in Taipei, Taiwan.  At its 2010 meeting in Selangor, Malaysia, the symposium declared:

Fireflies are indicators of the health of the environment and are declining across the world as a result of degradation and loss of suitable habitat, pollution of river systems, increased use of pesticides in agro-ecosystems and increased light pollution in areas of human habitation. The decline of fireflies is a cause for concern and reflects the global trend of increasing biodiversity loss.

In other words, as far as ecology and the environment go, fireflies, including peeny wallies and blinkies, are like the proverbial canary in a coal mine. A dead canary means those in the mine will all likelihood be dead soon if they don’t get out. As the 2010 symposium announced:

The habitats of fireflies are a refuge for many forms of wildlife including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and numerous species of invertebrates. Conservation of these habitats, therefore, has the potential to conserve a wide range of fauna.

Does the almost complete disappearance of peeny wallies in Jamaica mean the island is in mortal environmental danger?

Scientific study
Clemson University in South Carolina in the United States runs a Vanishing Firefly Project, which includes a mobile app where persons may submit research data. There should be enough data on the species in Jamaica to be part of this or any other metadata project.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, have done extensive research on fireflies in Jamaica. They discovered some 200 species in Jamaica and Maryland alone. Other researches claim Jamaica has some 50 species of fireflies.

John Buck, part of the first Johns Hopkins team to Jamaica in 1936, found “ample firefly species” that led to “the first photoelectrically measured emission spectra from fireflies.” The field of his study, photoemission spectroscopy, was important to various applications, including x-ray technology, and the humble peeny wally and blinky made their own contribution to this field.

peeny wally
Peeny Wally, Jamaica firefly

Buck wrote that “the members of the Seventh Botanical Expedition of the Johns Hopkins University witnessed displays of firefly activity in the British West Indies as spectacular in their way as any reported from the Orient.”

Another Johns Hopkins researcher, Howard Seliger, a biochemist:

Helped other scientists harness bioluminescent molecules to identify key sections of DNA for genetic studies. And he used such fluorescent molecules to probe carcinogenic compounds in cigarette smoke. He also was able to see which potentially carcinogenic compounds became most dangerous by measuring the low-intensity light produced as the compounds react with enzymes inside cells.

The fireflies they studied were mostly at the base of the John Crow Mountains in the Blue Mountain range in eastern Jamaica, at just about 750 feet up. They said:

It is possible in Jamaica, in a relatively small area at the same altitude, to collect numbers of more than a dozen different species of firefly, which is a distinct advantage for the types of comparisons in which we are interested.

Firefly dresses and jewels
Jamaicans apparently put peeny wallies to some unusual uses. Bessie Pullen-Burry, writing in 1905, said “a strange historian,” whose name was Peter Martyn, “declared that the aborigines used to hunt the Indian conies by the light of fireflies fastened to their toes!”

Pullen-Burry recounted what she called “a more curious story.”  In 1903, some “Creole belle,” she said, “appeared in a dress covered with the beautiful insects alive and sparkling.” How was this done? “They had been carefully and separately fastened on to a net, and the effect was probably as beautiful as it was original.”

Harry Pariser in Jamaica: A Visitor’s Guide, claimed “fireflies are so huge that they were once captured and worn as living jewels by planters’ wives when attending elegant balls held on the sugar plantations.”

Visitors to Jamaica were fascinated by the peeny wallies. Albert Goodwin, spending a month on the island in 1902, was enthralled “by the phenomenon of fireflies lighting up the tropical foliage in the West Indies.” His diary of March 26, 1902, recorded the following during his stay at Montpelier, St. James, in western Jamaica:

Was woken up in the night by a sound like someone playing the piano; heard the bass of it and wondered who the nocturnal player could be. Then suddenly a light flared on ceiling and I realised the bass was the hum of a big firefly and the candle its light. Watched it flying about till sleep brought oblivion.

Some Chinese have recognized the value of fireflies. Josh Lew, writing for Mother Nature Network in December 2015, reports that “entrepreneurs are trying to revive the population of bioluminescent insects in special firefly parks.” One such park was opened in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in 2015. “Visitors can walk directly through a firefly habitat and observe the beetles from afar.” Activities are included as “the park hosts camping events, guided hikes and children’s nature activities.”

Can… would… Jamaica become as creative? One doubts it. But who is to know? Perhaps some enterprising person out there may take on this challenge. There’s nothing like a swarm of Jamaican peeny wallies in all their glory.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel


Having Cuba as a friend

Cuba is Jamaica’s nearest neighbor, at just about 90 miles or 140 kilometers at the closest point between both islands. Each is the largest and third largest island, respectively, in the Caribbean.

Despite the discordant intervention of the Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries, Jamaica and Cuba have maintained, for much of the two islands’ histories, cordial relationships. The arrival of the Europeans negatively affected this bond, but it has not been undone, despite their and the United States’ best efforts.

maypole dancing in Cuba
Jamaican descendants do maypole dancing in Cuba

To maintain relations, Jamaicans and Cubans have had to defy international politics. As colonies of erstwhile rival powers England and Spain in the 16th century, and with the Tainos displaced, replaced and finally, wiped out, there have been deep fissures, compounded by differences in language and culture. As Cold War politics determined international alliances for much of the second half of the 20th century, pressure was put on Jamaica to sever its relationship with its Spanish-speaking neighbor.

But, as both islands have had such strong historical links, beginning with the Tainos and perhaps with whoever came before, Jamaica and Cuba found ways to communicate with and be in touch with each other, in the same way close friends with rival patrons defy their patrons to maintain a relationship, to the extent they can.

The two island nations were especially close in the 1970s, with formal diplomatic relations established in 1972, at the height of the Cold War. In that decade, Cuba gifted Jamaica three high schools and a college that trains teachers in physical education, as well as a few health clinics in rural areas. The college has played a significant role in Jamaica’s current dominance in regional track and field, netball and other sports.  There were also Cuban technical, economic, and medical personnel in Jamaica while Jamaicans studied medicine, science and engineering in Cuba.

Initial migration to Cuba
Jamaican migration to Cuba seemed to have begun in earnest early in the 20th century. Tracey Graham, in a 2013 doctoral dissertation for the University of Chicago, wrote that before turning to Cuba, Jamaicans had previously sought opportunities in Central America:

Increasing population pressure on the land, a series of natural disasters, few economic opportunities, and ineligibility for political participation prompted Jamaicans to look outside of their homeland for socioeconomic improvement by the late 1800s. Travelers emigrated in significant numbers to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

Graham pointed out that “as work on the Panama Canal ended by the 1910s, Jamaicans turned their sights back to the Caribbean,” including Cuba:

The seasonal sugar cane harvest attracted foreign workers from Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean seeking better wages than what they could find at home; between 1912 and 1920, thousands of British West Indians traveled to Cuba to labor in the agricultural industry or to occupy niches in the service industry.

The first set of Jamaican workers, about 300 skilled in various trades, were hired in 1907 by the United Fruit Company to work in sugar production and in the construction of railroads, aqueducts and other facilities in Cuba. Many of these workers were already in the employ of the company, which had sugar and banana plantations in Jamaica.

Kofi Boukman Barima of the University of Tennessee, writing in The Journal of Pan African Studies in 2013, said “Afro-Jamaicans typically went to Cuba in search of employment in a number of U.S. enterprises ranging from cane cutters to tobacco workers, others worked as carpenters, independent shop keepers, and farmers.”

José Eloy Richards, Jamaican descendant and a journalist with the Cuban Television Information System, asserted that the United Fruit Company reneged on its promise that, “as soon as the Jamaicans should fulfill their commitments in the future sugar production crop and its requirements, they were to be sent back to their country.” This did not happen as “that agreement was violated time and time again. … There was a constant movement of Jamaican workers (illegally) between the two islands, due to their proximity.”

Between 1912 and 1925, more than 110,000 Jamaicans left the island to work on United Fruit Company plantations. Barima reported that the Commission on Cuban Affairs put “the estimated number of Jamaicans that arrived legally into Cuba between 1921 and 1933 … at 38,856.” A University of the West Indies investigation suggests that 150,000 English-speaking Caribbean islanders had traveled to Cuba around this era.

The Jamaicans tried to make life normal. Labor leader, William Stoute, who did advocacy work among English speaking Caribbean workers in Panama as well, helped to form the Social Club to, among other things, promote cultural activities and to put in place formal educational programs for the English-speaking immigrants.

The Jamaicans established places of worship. For example, in one of the areas they settled, a Salvation Army church as well as a Christian Mission congregation were founded in 1917, an Episcopal in 1921, a Pentecostal in 1923 and a Seventh Day Adventist in 1932.

Graham noted that the Jamaicans who went to Cuba did not fare well:

However, Cubans scrutinized and discriminated against them for being black, for being foreign, for driving down wages, or some combination thereof. Though Cubans claimed to live in a color-blind society, racial discrimination persisted and the white elite supported a policy of “whitening” the island through selective immigration from Spain and miscegenation; these racial and cultural prejudices were particularly divisive given that a significant percentage of Cubans were of African descent. Furthermore, the general population was frustrated by the lack of Cuban sovereignty and saw foreign workers as complicit in the US intervention. As a result, calls for nationalism tended to veer into xenophobia and racism during economic downturns in the early 1920s and 1930s.

Graham’s explanation helps me understand a hazy fact in my own family history. My maternal grandfather, Robert Brown, migrated to Cuba in the 1920s and was never heard from again.

Most Jamaicans eventually returned home. Repatriation of Jamaicans began and accelerated during the depression era in the 1930s when United Fruit Company’s sugar output and export from Cuba experienced steep decline.

Well known and accomplished Jamaicans such as Rita Marley (Bob Marley’s widow) and author and dramatist, Sylvia Wynter, were born in Cuba.

The remaining Jamaican community in Cuba is estimated to be some 5,000. Very few, if any, are first generation as those who went to Cuba from Jamaica have largely died out. The Jamaican and other English-speaking descendants live in places such as Pueblo Nuevo in La Guira, Las Tunas in the east, Guantanamo, right on the very eastern tip, and Baragua, on the central south coast of the island. The Jamaican Quarter in Baragua also includes descendants from the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Grenada, Antigua, Saint Vincent and Nevis.

A 2012 BBC report states that cricket is commonly played in these towns and is a passion of younger English-Caribbean-descendant residents. Maypole dancing, brought over by their ancestors, is also practiced.

Celebrations were held on August 1 to mark Jamaican emancipation. Christmastime was very special with Jamaican Good Night running from noon on December 25, Christmas Day, until dawn the next.

In more recent times, attempts by Jamaican descendants to organize themselves have been thwarted. One such effort began in 1998 but did not last, allegedly due to government action.

Cubans in Jamaica

Cuban teachers in Jamaica - 2016
Cuban teachers in Jamaica in 2016

There’s also a Cuban community in Jamaica. “Cultural differences…have not prevented Cubans from regularly migrating to Jamaica and managing to establish themselves,” wrote Maria Sanchez and Iris Mútiz of Jamaica’s Northern Caribbean University.

Cubans fled to Jamaica during the island’s three Wars for Independence, the first from 1868-1878, the second from 1879-1880 and the third from 1895-1898. The first known ship arrived in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, from Santiago de Cuba, on November 5, 1868, with some 100 passengers onboard fleeing disturbances on the island.

Even though most returned to Cuba after 1898, one of the legacies of these exiles, says Howard Johnson in a 2011 paper, was the Cubans’ role in the modernization of the Jamaica sugar industry and establishing tobacco as a viable export crop. Among the families that remained prominent in Jamaica’s tobacco industry for decades were the Palomino, the Machado and Chacon families.

“The regular publication of advertisements indicates that several companies established by Cuban nationals were conducting business in Kingston, Jamaica,” said Sanchez and Mútiz. Jean Stubbs, in a 1995 Cuban Studies journal article, suggested that Cuban exiles in Jamaica who established economic enterprises provided financial support to the Cuban independence movement.

A few Cubans went to Jamaica in the wake of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Some may have fled the communist takeover, but others migrated simply to work, as there was concord between the then self-governing government of the Peoples National Party (PNP) in Jamaica and the new Cuban revolutionary government.

Travel between the two continues into the 21st century. Jamaican immigration authorities reported that more than 400 Cuban immigrants and their descendants sought Jamaican citizenship in 2016, the third highest of all immigrant groups. More than 230 Cuban nationals, including some 150 health workers, about 32 of them doctors, as well as several dozen school teachers, worked in the country in that year. This is the continuation of a longstanding arrangement between both countries.

There is the Association of Cuban Residents in Jamaica, aimed at “preserving the culture, values and national identity” of Cubans living in Jamaica so that “its members may project a better image in the eyes of Jamaican society.” Among the association’s initiatives is a partnership with the José Martí Technical School, one of the schools built by Cubans in the 1970s and named after one of Cuba’s national heroes.

Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the state of relationship between both Jamaica and Cuba depended much on which Jamaican political party was in power. The Peoples National Party has been on far friendlier terms while the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) oscillated between hostility and testiness. There were periods of closeness and times of estrangement.

The height of the relationship between the neighboring islands was in the 1970s when the PNP was in power. When the JLP (which was strongly pro-American at the time) won the 1980 General Elections, it immediately declared Cuba’s ambassador, Ulises Estrada, persona non grata, expelling him without ceremony and cutting off ties with the communist country. Frosty relations continued until the PNP returned to power in 1989.

Another less well known, sometimes forgotten issue that tested relations occurred in 1996 when about 60 Cubans sought asylum upon arriving in Jamaica. The issue divided the country and exercised much public debate. The PNP government, based on the recommendation of a committee it established to examine the matter, made the controversial decision to return 57 of the Cubans to their country.

In more recent times, things have calmed down somewhat, and even the JLP, which now governs the country, has been less strident in its rhetoric and posture.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel


Overcoming the stigma of marriage

The marital rate has always been low among Jamaicans. Most of those who marry either hold membership in some religious institution, usually a Christian congregation, or are part of the middle class.

The latter obtains because marriage is tied to respectability in Jamaican society, or it once was. Therefore, if one belonged to the professional classes such as a teacher or a nurse or a doctor, one would be expected to marry. A female teacher or nurse who got pregnant outside of legal marriage were liable to lose her job, and this obtained even into the 1980s. A professional male was expected to live and behave responsibility, although he could escape punishment for a variety of reasons, none less than greater strictures placed on the behavior of females, and biases in favor of men.

rates of marriage and divorce -jamaicaFor most Jamaicans, though, legal marriage is not the common thing, never hitting 10 per 1,000 in the population. Since 2001, the highest rate of 9.94 per 1,000 occurred in 2013. The highest absolute number of marriages was just under 26,000 in 2005.

Debates have raged as to why the marriage rate is so low. Most point to enslavement as the root cause, but a variety of reasons are offered as to why enslavement is to be blamed.

One very plausible reason was that little or no provision was made for the marriage of enslaved persons. As property, they were not expected to enjoy normal human institutions such as marriage and family. A reason why, for instance, families were separated with children and a partner, even a married partner, often sold off. This was very common in the United States and was the most painful and egregious injury that a slaver could inflict on the enslaved.

After more than 150 years of British colonization, laws allowing the enslaved in Jamaica to marry were not passed until 1826. And this came after some 40 years of lobbying by various groups, such as the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions.

Despite the success of having the law passed in 1826, the abolitionist society was deeply dissatisfied. In a scathing response published in 1828, the critics declared that “no security… has been provided against the unreasonable refusal of the owner’s consent.”

The act was riddled with “many restrictions, and difficulties, and defects, with which even that ungracious recognition has been clogged, and rendered almost wholly inefficient to any useful purpose.” For instance, “the new act would have left him (the enslaved) in the same helpless and unprotected state as to all essential rights of property, in which he was before it was framed.”

Furthermore, “the slave indeed has no rights of self-defense (their emphasis). He dare not raise his hand to or toward a white or free person, even if his property were forcibly taken from him, or his marriage-bed violated, or his own life assailed.”

Only clergy belonging to the Church of England could administer marriage vows, thereby excluding large numbers of enslaved persons who were Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians and Roman Catholics; or of no Christian tradition.

The 1826 law thus restricted marriage to only those persons who were baptized in Church of England congregations, refusing marriage even to those couples with established long term relationships with children. In bitter language, the abolitionists pointed out that “the laws of India sanction Mussulman and Hindoo (sic) marriages. Why should persons, merely because not baptized, be forced to live in a state of illicit concubinage?”

But even in instances where enslaved persons could marry, such marriages may not become part of the official records. “The act does not require any registry of the marriage of slaves, or even any periodical returns of such marriages.”

With so many legal barriers and institutional obstacles put in the pathways of enslaved persons, it is easy to see why they and their descendants have had such little regard and respect for legal marriage.

There are those who attribute the low marriage rate in Jamaica to practices coming out of Africa. In his 2012 doctoral thesis, Bridgelal M. Seenath of Trinidad and Tobago drew a comparison between enslaved persons in Trinidad and Jamaica. He claimed most enslaved persons in Trinidad “came predominantly from the Yoruba tribe in which no form of illegal unions existed” prior to their arrival in the Caribbean. A source he quoted asserted, “To the Yoruba, the primary purpose of marriage is sustaining the Yoruba race through legitimate and responsible procreation. In earliest times great importance was attached to virginity.”

Seenath deduced that “from this form of African heritage, it could be readily assumed that a greater percentage of marriage was practiced in the Trinidadian society among the African descended groups.”

Jamaica was different. “The Ashanti and Akan tribes of West Africa were the dominant groups,” Seenath claimed. In Ashanti and Akan cultures, the “couple cohabited for several years before marriage in an attempt to prove the marriage.” These “cohabitation practices were transferred” to Jamaica. Seenath concluded that “from these linkages it can be seen that cohabitational relationships was indeed an adaption from the African heritage.”

GBMH 5/24:  A country wedding in Jamaica, c1890s.
A Jamaica wedding in the 1890s

The church and common law unions
The church has had a complicated relationship with those who cohabit and are not legally married. Because of the restrictions imposed on enslaved persons in Jamaican law and practice, including reserving the “power” to preside at marriage ceremonies to Anglican clergy, much of the rest of Jamaican Christianity felt obliged to compromise. Enslaved persons were indeed allowed to hold membership, and even leadership in the church, though not legally married. Vivian Panton in his book, The Church and Common-Law Union, said this changed after full emancipation in 1838. Much of the church began to require legal marriage if persons were to be admitted into membership, not to mention leadership, reversing their previous positions.

Panton, a Baptist pastor who became the chaplain for the Jamaica Constabulary Force, suggested that the church in modern Jamaica need to revisit its position on common law unions, the term used to describe persons in long term relationships who are not married. In instances where a partner in a common law union requests baptism and church membership, Panton said the church should bless the union, and baptize and receive such persons on the profession of their faith.

The matter of church membership while living in common law unions is a vexing one. Most times it is the female in the relationship who seeks church membership, and usually it is the male who rejects or postpones legal marriage. Such couples may be cohabiting for years, sometimes decades, bearing and rearing children, acquiring property, etc. But because persons who live together must be legally married if they are to be received into the church, the women get denied. They are left in no man’s land, trapped between the men in their lives who withhold legal marriage, and rejected by the church who says they must have that status to receive or participate in its rites.

Panton said the situation is untenable:

Common-law union should not be viewed as an immoral and irresponsible family pattern as it is generally conceived by the church in Jamaica. It was not produced, it did not develop, and it is not being sustained in a vacuum. Instead, it may be thought of as a social institution, which is rooted in, and has developed from, concrete historical realities.

He asserted that compelling reasons still exist that drive people to live together without being legally married:

At present, it is being sustained by contemporary factors, which are no less real than the historical ones. These factors, themselves, are the result of motives, emotions, and values that are institutionalized in the present culture. Common-law union, therefore, as an integral component of the Jamaican culture, must be viewed as representing the Jamaican peasants equivalence of marriage, except that it has been denied the legal protection, which is provided in a Legal Union.

Eron Henry is author of  Reverend Mother, a novel

Sleeping their way to freedom

Sex trafficking has become an issue of global concern. Even in western countries such as the United States, young girls and even grown women are being kidnapped or lured into a life of forced prostitution. For women of African descent in the Americas – North, Central and South America and the Caribbean – violent and forced sexual exploitation is centuries old. Chattel slavery was nothing if not that.

Prostitution is as old as human society, the oldest profession they say. Prostitution in Jamaica is no different. While much is not known on what transpired during the time of Spanish colonization, prostitution on the island took off in a big way in the 17th century with the founding of Port Royal.

Port Royal – hive of prostitution
“Port Royal prospered on the back of its pirate economy, and by the 1660s its streets were lined with taverns and brothels eager to cater to the whims of young buccaneers flush with Spanish loot,” noted Evan Andrews. There was the “seamy harbor overrun with gambling, prostitution and drink, where hard-living mariners often squandered thousands of Spanish reals in a single night.”

John Appleby said:

By 1670 it (Port Royal) was identified by godly observers as a latter-day Sodom, sustained by pirate booty, with an unruly culture of taverns, punch houses and brothels. …Some men were willing to pay exorbitant sums of money merely to see a woman naked.

A.L. Bancroft, writing in 1883, described the behavior of pirates in Port Royal after one of their seafaring exploits:

Proceeding thence to Jamaica, they squandered in riot and gross dissipation the wealth that others had accumulated by years of toil and self-denial. A few days of swinish debauchery among the wine-shops and brothels of Port Royal left the majority of the gang without means or credit, and clamorous for some new expedition.

A depiction of Port Royal during its glory days in the 1600s. One sees what appears to be female prostitutes on the left trying to catch the attention of pirates as they parade down the street.

These pirates were doing in Jamaica what they did in their home country, Britain. They simply transferred to the colony what occurred in the motherland, perhaps on a grander scale, fueled by ill-gotten gain. In The Secret History of Georgian London, Dan Cruickshank asserted:

As many as one in five young women were prostitutes in 18th-century London. The Covent Garden that tourists frequent today was the centre of a vast sex trade strewn across hundreds of brothels and so-called coffee houses. Fornication in public was common and even children were routinely treated for venereal disease.

Cruickshank said further:

English society expected, even encouraged, men to pay for sex. Prejudice barred women from all but menial jobs. Prostitution at least offered financial independence: a typical harlot could earn in a month what a tradesman or clerk would earn in a year. For a few beautiful and savvy women, the gamble paid off. Lavinia Fenton, a child prostitute, married a duke. But most prostitutes were destined for disease, despair and early death.

It continued apace in the 19th century. Ronald Hyam said, “at mid-century there were almost certainly more brothels in London than there were schools and charities put together.” Estimates were that London alone had about 80,000 prostitutes during the 1860s, some West Indians among them.

Prostitution was a way of life in venerable London.

Widely practiced prostitution in the United Kingdom led to epidemics in sexually transmitted diseases; serious enough that the British parliament passed the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864 with subsequent reenactments, alterations and new editions in 1866 and 1869. The acts were aimed at combating STDs in the British armed forces.  The legislation empowered the police to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes at the various harbors and ports and have them checked for STD infection.

By the 1880s, the Contagious Diseases Acts were extended to cover British colonies, including Jamaica. “The Contagious Diseases Acts were in force in Jamaica, Trinidad, Hong Kong, Fiji, Gibraltar, Malta, India, Burma, Ceylon, the Australian colonies, Malaya, and the Cape (reenacted there in 1885), and in Cairo,” noted Philip Howell of the University of Cambridge in the UK.

This suggests that prostitution continued in Jamaica and did not end with the demise of Port Royal after it was leveled by the massive earthquake in 1692 and almost wiped out by the great fire of 1703. Prostitution followed newer cities and towns, especially those with harbors. Ships, harbors and ports were major draws. The port towns of Kingston, Montego Bay and Falmouth were hotbeds of prostitution.

Slavery and prostitution
In slave societies, Jamaica included, one sees the intertwining of enslavement and the purveying of sex for sale. One of the most intriguing characters in James McBride’s historical novel, The Good Lord Bird, is Pie, a prostitute. The novel centers on the tragic figure of the abolitionist, John Brown, who sought a violent overthrow of American slavery. It took me awhile to realize that Pie was enslaved because she commanded and insulted and cursed her clients, all white men. She held them in the palm of her hand and she could do or say almost anything to them, for she was the prized prostitute in the tavern/saloon that doubled as a brothel. It was only her mistress, who owned her, and the saloon’s enforcer, to whom she showed any respect.

That image of Pie may reflect the reality of some enslaved women in Jamaica and elsewhere. For the most part, black enslaved women were raped, sexually exploited and dominated by white men. But those who knew the power of what they had could be like a Pie. Again, not unlike the young, teen aged Kitty, the mistress and partner of the overseer in Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. Again, the beautiful Dulcimina in Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women comes to mind. Though not a prostitute, Dulcimina’s beauty and her wit gave her a sort of power other enslaved women did not have.

How much power did sexually attractive, savvy and witty enslaved women wield? The evidence strongly suggests that, like Pie in The Good Lord Bird, owners hired out enslaved women to offer sexual favors. This is an aspect of slavery one rarely reads about. In an article in the Journal of Caribbean History, Brian Moore and Michele Johnson cited sources that said “prostitution in the British Caribbean dates back to the days of slavery when female slaves were hired out to provide sexual services” and “that prostitution did exist in the urban centres of the Caribbean during the period of slavery.”

Moore and Johnson said further:

After emancipation women formed a large part of the migration from the rural areas to the towns, and as employment opportunities in domestic service, seamstressing, washing and other “female occupations” declined in relation to the supply of labour, some women were probably obliged to sell sexual services to survive.

In addition:

Girls, even as young as twelve years of age, were also recruited into prostitution by persons, usually women, who provided them with shelter and sustenance. But there may have been an element of choice as well, for as the Jamaica Times noted, some women who started out as domestic servants, dressmakers and the like eventually gave up those jobs to become prostitutes.

Dawn Michelle Miles, in her 2010 Ohio State University master’s thesis on the experience of female enslavement in the Caribbean, wrote:

Black women in the late 1700s-mid 1800s regularly utilized prostitution, and their sexuality more generally, as a means to gaining their freedom. When prostitution became widespread in 1802, the manumission rates among black women began to steadily increase. Black women prostitutes asserted their agency by choosing to use their sexual exploitation they faced at the hands of Europeans as a means to gain their freedom.

The conclusion is controversial and contentious but was apparently true. Many black women were sexually exploited, but some used their sexuality to empower themselves.

A more venerable form of prostitution, if there is such a thing, was practiced, or allowed, by operators of lodging houses. In the Caribbean, Jamaica included, most of these lodging houses were operated by mulatto or mixed race women. Some were reportedly the mistresses of white men who, in addition to providing lodging to travelers, offered sexual favors as well, whether they did it themselves, or allowed others to offer such services on their premises.

The old Bog Walk Hotel in St. Catherine, photographed in 1907 by Alfred Leader, essentially one of several lodging houses across the island before and during that time

These lodging houses were not brothels, not in the usual sense of the word, but places where visitors stayed who arrived by ships in port towns such as Kingston, Falmouth and Montego Bay. In an article titled Victims or Strategists? Female Lodging House Keepers in Jamaica, Paulette Kerr named 18 such lodging houses that existed in 1878 in what is now Downtown Kingston, almost all operated by mulatto or mixed raced women. The lodging houses existed along with more traditional brothels, which Kerr claimed were operated mainly by free black women.

Inland lodging houses catered mainly to government workers, military officers, merchants and others who traveled from one part of the island to another. The more well-known inland lodging houses were in places such as Bog Walk in St. Catherine and Moneague in St. Ann, where travelers overnighted on their way to or from Kingston and the north coast.

Kerr found that in one year, 1847, such female lodging housekeepers earned about £150, a princely sum for that time, more than that earned by clerks, retailers and master mariners. Operators of these lodging houses had a level of freedom and financial independence that few other women of their ethnicity and status had.

Prostitution today
In modern Jamaica, prostitution is widely practiced in Kingston and other major towns, especially the tourism centers of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril. Night clubs, especially the go-go variety, and assorted massage parlors, peddle sexual services. While many females in these establishments and elsewhere may do so voluntarily, Jamaica is not immune from the modern slave trade that induces mainly young women and girls into prostitution.

The US Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor alleged that in Jamaica “trafficking in women for prostitution continued to be a problem” and that “child prostitution and trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation were problems.” The same report claimed that Panamanians were being trafficked into the country. I’ve heard tales of Cubans as well.

No country has been able to eliminate prostitution. Highly conservative countries and cultures that impose severe restrictions on women’s freedoms rarely succeed as it institutionalizes the power of men over women and girls to an extreme degree, leading to widespread sexual exploitation. Countries such as the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic with laissez faire policies toward prostitution have not seen reductions in sexual exploitation and the sex trade.

Prostitution is as intractable as any other vice. So long as there is demand, there will be supply.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel